Hypothyroidism is proof that size doesn’t matter. The small thyroid gland can cause big health problems when it isn’t working correctly. The thyroid gland affects every system in the body, and thyroid hormones are needed for the body to stay healthy and function properly.
What is hypothyroidism? When the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones to maintain a healthy body, the result is a condition called hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid.
Thyroid conditions are common in the United States. The American Thyroid Association estimates that more than 12% of the U.S. population will develop some kind of thyroid condition in their lifetime. If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to serious health concerns. Luckily, this common condition has become fairly easy to treat and manage. Let’s learn about signs of hypothyroidism, as well as hypothyroidism causes, symptoms, and treatments.
Understanding the Thyroid
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits near the bottom of the neck, below the voice box. The thyroid produces hormones called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones help regulate multiple bodily functions including heartbeat, breathing, body temperature, metabolism, cholesterol levels, and women’s menstrual cycles. If the thyroid starts producing too much or too little of its hormones, serious health complications may arise.
Sometimes a physician will be able to identify the specific cause of hypothyroidism, such as previous radiation treatment or a thyroidectomy. But other times, such as in the case of an autoimmune disease, the exact cause will remain unknown.
Hashimoto’s disease, or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is what happens when the body’s immune system mistakes healthy cells, in this case thyroid cells, for dangerous invaders. The immune system creates and sends out antibodies against the thyroid cells. The antibodies attack and destroy the thyroid cells. When this happens, there are not enough thyroid cells left to create an adequate amount of thyroid hormones. The lack of thyroid hormones results in hypothyroidism. No one knows exactly why an autoimmune response happens in the body, but genetics are thought to play a role.
Those who have suffered from previous thyroid issues including hyperthyroidism, nodules on the thyroid, or thyroid cancer, may have had their thyroid surgically removed. When the thyroid has been partly removed there is sometimes not enough gland left behind to produce the thyroid cells needed to keep the body healthy, resulting in hypothyroidism. If the thyroid has been completely removed, then the patient will have hypothyroidism for the rest of his or her life.
Patients who have been treated for hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine treatment may experience hypothyroidism as a result of the treatment. When the thyroid overproduces, sometimes radioactive iodine is used to correct the issue. The thyroid cells will take up any form of iodine in the bloodstream. So when radioactive iodine is given to the patient, the thyroid cells take up the radioactive iodine and the iodine destroys the thyroid cells. Sometimes, too many cells can be destroyed, and the thyroid goes from over-producing to under-producing.
Additionally, patients who have had cancerous thyroid nodules or other forms of head or neck cancer may have undergone radiation therapy. The radiation therapy may kill thyroid cells, leaving the patient with a hypothyroid condition.
Thyroid cells need iodine to produce thyroid hormones. If too much or too little iodine is in the bloodstream, it can lead to hypothyroidism. If one already has hypothyroidism, then an excess amount of iodine can make hypothyroidism symptoms worse.
Sometimes, hypothyroidism may be present since birth. This happens when a baby is born without a properly formed thyroid or without a thyroid at all.
Thyroiditis means inflammation of the thyroid gland. It is caused by an autoimmune response, such as Hashimoto’s disease, or it may be caused by a viral infection. Thyroiditis is the most common form of hypothyroidism, and Hashimoto’s disease is the most common form of thyroiditis.
Pituitary Gland Abnormality
The thyroid gland takes its cues from the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland relays to the thyroid the state of the body and the level of thyroid hormones needed. If the pituitary gland is damaged, for example by a tumor, then it may no longer be able to send clear messages to the thyroid. Without clear instructions on the amount of thyroid hormones that are needed, the thyroid may underproduce.
Signs of Hypothyroidism
It can be easy to dismiss symptoms of hypothyroidism—such as fatigue and a lack of concentration and memory—as not getting enough rest, too much stress, or just part of aging. But symptoms should never be ignored, especially if they persist or become worse. Whatever the cause of abnormal thyroid function, hypothyroidism symptoms can manifest in many forms. Not everyone will have the symptoms.
Common Hypothyroidism Symptoms:
- Chronic fatigue
- Cold intolerance
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle aches and stiffness
- Stiff and achy joints
- Swelling of the joints
- Increase in blood cholesterol level
- Heavier menstrual cycles in women
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Memory difficulties
- Goiter, or enlarged thyroid
If a doctor suspects a patient has hypothyroidism, he or she will conduct a physical exam, looking specifically for a goiter, or enlarged thyroid, and other symptoms such as dry skin, tremors, or slow heart rate.
When diagnosing hypothyroidism, blood tests are essential. The thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test is the most common blood test used to diagnose hypothyroidism. This test measures the amount of thyroid hormones that the thyroid is being told to make. If the number is unusually high, it may mean a diagnosis of hypothyroidism. Additional tests may be given to check the levels of T3 and T4 in the blood.
Thyroid Hormone Medication
There is no cure for hypothyroidism, but it is easily treatable with a thyroid hormone supplement. Since the thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormone, patients take the additional thyroid hormone needed in supplement form. It is usually taken once a day as an oral medication and is similar to taking a vitamin each morning. Once a patient starts thyroid hormone medication, their blood levels will be monitored to determine the proper dose. The patient will likely be on the medication for life, with annual blood work monitoring the dose to ensure it remains adequate.
Some hypothyroidism patients may find relief through amino acid supplements. Amino acids play a critical role in building and maintain a healthy body. In addition to helping the body make protein and chemicals needed for proper organ function, it’s possible that amino acids also play a role in thyroid health and aid hypothyroidism treatment.
According to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, the amino acid tyrosine works with iodine to make the thyroid hormone. So it is possible that taking tyrosine may increase thyroid hormone production, providing symptom relief for those with underactive thyroids. Even though tyrosine may be beneficial for those dealing with hypothyroidism, it is best to take a balanced mixture of all essential amino acids to make sure that the blood concentration of amino acids is optimal. It’s also important that patients with any kind of thyroid issues discuss alternative treatments or supplements with their physician prior to starting them.