Your thyroid gland is responsible for secreting hormones that play an essential role in many of your body’s functions. From breathing to metabolism, to your mood, your thyroid has its hands in a lot of your body’s functions. However, you may not even be aware of what your thyroid gland is. Furthermore, how can you tell if your thyroid gland is functioning properly? In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about hypothyroidism; one of the most common thyroid disorders. Let’s first start by answering the question: “What is hypothyroidism?”
What Is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a chronic condition that occurs when your body’s thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones. Your thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits just in front of your windpipe. It releases hormones that help your body regulate and use energy.
The hormones released by your thyroid gland are responsible for several major functions in your body. These include controlling how your heart beats and how your digestive system works, which is why one of the main symptoms of an underactive thyroid is weight gain.
Without the right amount of thyroid hormones, your body’s natural processes can begin to slow down. While hypothyroidism can affect anyone, it is most commonly observed in people over the age of 60 and appears to be more common in women than in men. It is most often diagnosed through a blood test or by an examination with your doctor after symptoms begin. If diagnosed early, or if your symptoms are mild, you may receive a diagnosis of subclinical hypothyroidism.
If you’ve received a hypothyroidism diagnosis, it’s important to note that while there isn’t a definitive cure, treatment for hypothyroidism is very safe, simple, and most importantly: effective.
How Is Hypothyroidism Different From Hyperthyroidism?
Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are two completely different conditions that have opposite effects on your body. The difference lies in the names of the two: hypo vs. hyper. Hypo comes from the Greek word for ‘under,’ while hyper stems from the Greek word for ‘over’ or ‘beyond.’ Put simply, hypothyroidism refers to an under-active thyroid gland, whereas hyperthyroidism refers to an overactive thyroid gland.
The more thyroid hormones you have in your body, hyperthyroidism, can cause some of your body’s functions to speed up, such as your heart rate. Other functions that may speed up include your metabolism, which explains why people with hyperthyroidism experience weight loss.
Compared to hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism is much less common. Only about 1 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 60 have hyperthyroidism in the United States. Similar to hypothyroidism, however, it does appear to affect women more than men.
So, if hyperthyroidism isn’t common, how common is hypothyroidism? Let’s take a look.
Is Hypothyroidism Common?
In the U.S., hypothyroidism is a fairly common condition. It affects about 5 percent of people 12 years and older, and as previously mentioned appears to affect women more than men. The condition also appears to be more prevalent in older populations, with people of the age of 60 reporting the most cases of hypothyroidism.
While age and gender appear to play a role in your risk, it’s important to also understand the other potential causes, as it can help you further understand your risk.
Causes and Risk Factors of Hypothyroidism
There are several common causes of hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism can occur if your thyroid gland fails to produce enough thyroid hormones, or if the gland itself isn’t stimulated properly by your brain.
By and large, the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the U.S. is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, also known as chronic lymphatic thyroiditis or autoimmune thyroiditis.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease, which means that it causes your immune system to attack your body’s cells and organs. In this case, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis causes your immune system to attack your thyroid gland, leading to chronic inflammation and interfering with its ability to produce thyroid hormones.
Other common causes of hypothyroidism include:
- Radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism
- Radiation therapy
- Thyroid surgery
- Certain medications
- Iodine deficiency
While less common, it can be caused by certain congenital conditions, pituitary disorders, and complications during pregnancy.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
Your thyroid plays a key role in several of your body’s major functions. Because of this, the symptoms of hypothyroidism are wide-ranging and diverse. Functions such as breathing, heart and nervous system regulation, body temperature, metabolism, and cholesterol levels can all be affected by low thyroid hormone levels.
While they can be different for each individual, common symptoms of hypothyroidism include, but are not limited to:
- Weight gain
- Joint and muscle pain
- High cholesterol
- Dry skin
- Slowed heart rate, movements, and speech
- Heavy periods, or menorrhagia
If left untreated, hypothyroidism can cause more serious problems and symptoms. These may include:
- Puffy, sensitive face
- Hearing loss
In very rare instances, severe cases of hypothyroidism may result in myxedema coma, a life-threatening condition that requires immediate emergency care. This condition does not involve being in a coma, however, you may experience:
- Extreme fatigue
- Low heart rate
- Low blood pressure
Treatment for hypothyroidism depends on several factors, including what symptoms you are experiencing and how well your thyroid gland is functioning. Most treatments rely on supplementing your low hormone levels with artificial hormones. This can help replace hormones that your body isn’t producing, and in doing so guide your body functions back to normal.
Treatment for Hypothyroidism
Treating hypothyroidism typically focuses on supplementing your missing thyroid hormones. Presently, there is no cure for hypothyroidism, however, through medication, most cases are easy to control.
A common first step doctors take when treating hypothyroidism is prescribing a medication known as synthetic thyroxine. Synthetic thyroxine is a medication that is identical to one of the common thyroid hormones: T4. Typically, doctors may recommend taking this in the morning before eating each day.
The amount of synthetic thyroxine you need depends on your symptoms, patient history, and thyroid hormone levels. Your doctor will likely want to monitor you closely, through blood samples, to determine if the dosage of synthetic T4 needs to be adjusted.
Another method of treatment is monitoring your iodine levels and practicing proper nutrition. Iodine is an essential mineral for thyroid function. Iodine deficiency is one of the most common causes of goiter development or abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland.
By maintaining proper iodine levels, especially if you have hypothyroidism. With that said, people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can be particularly sensitive to iodine, meaning it could make their symptoms worse.
Before making any changes to your diet, you should always talk with your doctor to make sure that you are getting an adequate amount of iodine.
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