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July 16, 2019 • read
The weird symptoms of hypothyroidism you might be missing
By the time Jackie went to see her doctor, she hadn’t been feeling well for quite a while.
“For the longest time I was finding it more and more difficult to get enough sleep. It didn’t matter how long I slept, I was chronically tired and just dragging myself around. I was having increasing difficulty waking up and I was very depressed. One day I remember sitting in my bedroom when everyone was out of the house and just crying. I couldn’t figure out why.”
Jackie went to see her doctor who performed a blood test as part of her workup.
“My doctor looked at the results and said, “Well, you have a slightly under-active thyroid. It’s not huge, but I’m going to give you a small dose of Thyroxine. And within three days of taking it, I couldn’t believe the difference. It was day and night. My husband noticed it right away. He said, “You’re bounding out of bed in the morning, just like the old you!”
What is hypothyroidism?
Jackie has hypothyroidism. Also known as under-active thyroid, hypothyroidism is when your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones to regulate your bodily functions. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck which produces hormones that control virtually every cell in our body by regulating our metabolism. This means that when our thyroid is off, it derails our other bodily processes.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism
The symptoms of hypothyroidism are often subtle and gradual, making it difficult to detect. They’re also non-specific, so it’s easy to mistake them for many different things (including ageing). Like many women, this was the case for Jackie:
“In terms of other symptoms, I had gained a little bit of weight, but not a lot. And my skin’s always been on the dry side. I did notice that I had hair loss, but I wasn’t really focused on those symptoms, I was focused on the profound lack of energy.”
Signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism
The symptoms of under-active thyroid are varied but can include:
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Changes to menstrual cycle
- Dry skin
- “Brain fog,” forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating
- Increased sensitivity to cold
Getting a diagnosis of hypothyroidism
The upside is that both the test for hypothyroidism and its treatment are quite straightforward. A simple blood test measures your thyroid stimulating hormone or TSH levels, to diagnose hypothyroidism. Medication is prescribed if your levels of TSH are found to be above a certain threshold — our bodies produce more to try and stimulate the thyroid into doing its job. Levels below a certain threshold, in contrast, signal hyperthyroidism, which is an over-active thyroid.
Causes of hypothyroidism
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis which can have a genetic basis. In Jackie’s case, she discovered from a cousin that many of the women in her family have under-active thyroid. Hypothyroidism can often accompany ageing, and some women can develop postpartum thyroiditis in the year following a pregnancy. Symptoms of this thyroid dysfunction are often subtle, and may begin with hyperthyroidism before turning into hypothyroidism.
In other cases, external factors cause the dysfunction. Certain viruses can affect the functioning of the thyroid, as can radiation to the head and neck area. In more remote parts of the world, a lack of iodine causes hypothyroidism, since iodine is necessary for proper thyroid function.
Hypothyroidism in women vs. men
Women are five to eight times more likely to develop thyroid issues than men, and research suggests that up to 20 percent of women over the age of 50 are affected by hypothyroidism. Despite the differences in prevalence, symptoms of an under-active thyroid manifest in much the same way in both genders.
Hypothyroidism in children
Congenital hypothyroidism arises when a child is born with an under-active thyroid, or without one altogether. Because the gland is necessary for normal brain development and growth, doctors test the thyroid function of every child born in Canada. Children whose thyroid is under-active may need to take hormones for the rest of their lives, while others will recover proper thyroid function after a time. In both cases, these children will develop and function normally.
Despite the debilitating nature of an under-active thyroid, treatment is usually quite straightforward. Once diagnosed, patients are treated with synthetic versions of the thyroid hormones. They should have their hormone levels tested regularly to ensure they continue to maintain appropriate dosing level and will likely be referred to an endocrinologist. Endocrinologists specialize in the body’s hormones, so they’re go-tos for thyroid conditions.
While there is no “hypothyroidism diet” for patients to follow, some foods may block medications from being absorbed properly. Calcium and soy, for example, can interfere and should therefore not be taken at the same time as medication. For further information, patients can speak to their doctor.
For women like Jackie who have received a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, there is a happy ending: “I’m now taking double the dose of Thyroxine I was originally, but that’s over a twenty year period. My doctor tests my levels every year, but I haven’t increased my dose for over a decade. It’s shocking that a small amount of medication makes such a vast difference in my life.”
If you think you may have symptoms of hypothyroidism, get in touch with us. Our doctors can order the blood tests you need to find out in minutes. In Ontario, we can also connect you with an endocrinologist who specializes in thyroid treatments.