Epidemiological studies estimate that over 200 million people have been diagnosed with an active thyroid disorder of which 80 per cent are middle-aged women. Have you got yourself checked yet?
Though the thyroid gland can be host to a variety of diseases, the most commonly seen conditions in women are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Now before I confuse you with more medical terminology, let’s start with the basics.
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine organ that is located on the anterior part of the neck and is one of the many glands that produce hormones into the body. The main ones produced by the thyroid are known as T3 and T4. These are responsible for a variety of bodily functions, mainly regulating the body’s metabolism.
In simple words, this is the rate at which the body uses energy to regulate the normal functions of the body. And ladies, the bad news is that any alteration in the body’s metabolism, as seen with thyroid disorders, can affect your sleep, skin, hair, waistline and mood.
What is hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism (or an under active thyroid) is a condition wherein the thyroid is sluggish and doesn’t produce enough hormones to maintain bodily functions. It is most commonly due to an autoimmune condition known as Hashimoto’s disease.
The term autoimmune means our body’s immune cells accidentally attack our own cells and in this case our thyroid. There isn’t a specific reason as to why this occurs but researchers suggest that genetics and recurrent viral infections can play a part Other causes include exposure to radiation, iodine deficiency, certain drugs, thyroid surgery, treatment for hyperthyroidism and it’s sometimes seen with pregnancy. Researchers argue that stress and environmental toxins contribute to hormonal dysfunction.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism:
• fatigue, lethargy and weight gain
• dry skin and scalp with associated hair loss
• cold intolerance
• decreased appetite
• muscle pain, joint pain, weakness in the extremities
• depression and mood swings
• menstrual abnormalities
The good news is that hypothyroidism is a manageable condition and requires lifelong replacement of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine for most people. However, if it is left untreated, symptoms may progress and can ultimately lead to serious complications including coma. Hence, it’s imperative to schedule a doctor’s appointment and get tested if you experience any of the above
What is hyperthyroidism?
Hyperthyroidism (or an over active thyroid) refers to a condition that occurs when the thyroid produces excess amounts of hormones and leads the body into a state of metabolic overdrive. It is most commonly caused due to an autoimmune disorder known as Graves’ disease.
Our body’s own immune system attacks the thyroid cells and stimulate it to produce more thyroid hormones. Other causes include thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid, post infection or pregnancy), non-cancerous lumps of the thyroid (known as toxic or multi-nodular goitre) and excessive intake of thyroid hormone.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism:
• weight loss with increased appetite
• heat intolerance, excessive sweating
• anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating
• rapid heart rate
• increased frequency of bowel movements
• tremor of hand
• menstrual abnormalities
• bulging of the eyes
• skin thinning along with hair loss
• fatigue and insomnia
It is a condition that is very well controllable with a wide range of medications and in some cases surgery. Left untreated, it can lead to many complications such as heart problems, osteoporosis and a condition known as thyrotoxicosis (or thyroid storm), which is a sudden intensification of symptoms that can lead to potentially fatal outcomes.
Thyroid disorders are a global phenomenon these days; more and more women are being diagnosed every day. Dr Saeed Khalaf, consultant endocrinologist at the Salmaniya Medical Hospital, helps us understand the risks of these common disorders.
“Even till this day too many thyroid related issues go unnoticed. Symptoms are overlooked or misinterpreted as pure signs of stress or depression. Thyroid disorders have always been common. It’s just that people are more aware and there are better screening and diagnostic methods today,” Dr Khalaf explains.
The risk factors:
• gender and age
• family history
• surgery or radioactive iodine exposure to the thyroid
• iodine deficiency, excess iodine supplementation
• various drugs and medications
• over consumption of soy products
• raw goitrogenic foods like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and turnips
• highly stressful life events
• nutritional deficiencies
• use of artificial sweeteners
Environmental factors, diet and stress contribute to thyroid disease. However, women can overcome this.
“Some of the risk factors are avoidable, reversible and manageable. Women should be proactive and be more aware. Controlling stress, diet and environmental factors are beneficial to the overall health of women,” he states.
According to the expert, the potential complications of untreated hypo hyperthyroidism are numerous. Hypothyroidism can lead to goitre, increased cholesterol levels, heart problems, mental health issues, impair fertility, cause birth defects in children and lead to a severe but rare complication known as myxedema coma, which requires immediate medical attention.
Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, can lead to heart problems, osteoporosis, eye problems, red swollen skin and a severe complication called thyrotoxicosis, which is a sudden intensification of symptoms, leading to a fever, a rapid pulse and even delirium. Immediate medical care is necessary in this case as well.
“In order to maintain a healthy thyroid gland, you can avoid preventable risk factors and screen for thyroid disease when it is indicated that it is necessary. Regular follow up and compliance with medication once diagnosed is also important,” the doctor advises.
Once diagnosed and treatment has commenced, there are a number of things women need to watch out for. You need to be able to recognise the symptoms in case of recurrence. Medications may have side effects, so care is recommended, especially in case of pregnancy when dosage needs to be adjusted. Regular visits to the doctor are highly advised in addition to frequent tests of thyroid functions.
“Women are generally worried about external symptoms like weight gain and hair loss. It is vital that the patient understands that most symptoms are reversible, while some may persist. Regular visits to a healthcare provider are thus important,” Dr Khalaf says.
“The treatment period varies depending on the condition. For example primary hypothyroidism would require lifelong treatment whereas transient thyroiditis requires brief treatment,” he adds.
The final word
Thyroid diseases in women are not a death sentence of any kind. It’s just a set of treatable diseases with controllable and manageable symptoms if diagnosed and treated promptly. Regular health checks are important as the nature of symptoms can vary from person to person and can easily be missed or ignored.
Take charge of your life, eat well, exercise, eliminate stressors and do not ignore even the mildest symptom, especially if you have any of the above mentioned risk factors. Besides even celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Kelly Osbourne and fitness expert Jillian Michaels have dealt with and managed thyroid disorders. If they can, then so can you!