Our thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland. It is located at the bottom of the front of the neck. The hormones it produces are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). The latter has a tremendous impact on our health and all aspects of our metabolism. This hormone also affects the control of vital functions such as body temperature and heart rate. Hypothyroidism (hypo = insufficient) is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones. When this occurs, the balance of chemical reactions in the body can be disturbed. In the early stages, it does not cause noticeable symptoms, eventually, however, untreated hypothyroidism can lead to a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility, and heart disease.
Causes of malfunction can be numerous, including autoimmune disease, response to hyperthyroidism treatment, radiotherapy, thyroid surgery, or response to certain medications. The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease, also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Autoimmune diseases occur when our immune system produces antibodies that attack our own tissues. Scientists are not sure why this happens, but it is probably a combination of factors like our genes and the triggers from the environment. As a result, these antibodies can affect the thyroid gland and its ability to produce hormones.
People at higher risk include:
- Over 60 years of age
- Family history of thyroid disease
- People with an autoimmune disease such as type 1 diabetes or celiac disease
- People treated with radioactive iodine or thyroid medications
- People who have received radiation to the neck or upper chest
- People who have had thyroid surgery (partial thyroidectomy)
- Women who have been pregnant or have given birth in the last six months
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism are various. They depend on the level of hormone deficiency. Problems usually develop slowly, often over several years. At first, the symptoms may be barely noticeable, as among the first to occur are fatigue and weight gain, which can be easily connected to the ageing process. However, as our metabolism continues to slow down, more obvious problems may occur. They include fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, dry skin, weight gain, swollen face, hoarseness, muscle weakness, high blood cholesterol, pain, tenderness or stiffness in the muscles, stiffness or swelling in the joints, heavier or irregular menstruation, thinning hair, slowed heart rate, depression, poor memory, or an enlarged thyroid gland (see Image 1 for summary).
WHEN TO VISIT A DOCTOR
If you feel tired for no reason or have any of the other signs or symptoms of hypothyroidism (such as dry skin, pale, scaly face, constipation, or hoarse voice…), consult your doctor.
If you are receiving hormone therapy, plan further visits as often as your doctor recommends. In the beginning, it is important to make sure you are receiving the right dose of the medicine and over time, the dose you need may change.
Vita Jeraj, kinesiologist