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Last week, actress Jenny Mollen shared a naked photo of herself on Instagram that quickly went viral. Mollen's post isn’t popular because she’s baring it all, but because it shows off her protruding ribs with a warning that unexpected weight loss can be a sign of a serious illness.
“Not anorexia, it’s a thyroid issue ... My doc thinks it’s Graves’,” she wrote, stressing that she is still waiting on blood work for confirmation.
Mollen, 38, is referring to Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that occurs because of an over-active thyroid gland. It’s the most common cause of hyperthyroidism in the U.S. that causes people to lose weight even when they may be eating more.
“The weight loss is pretty dramatic, and it is usually unintentional,” Dr. Mayumi Endo, an assistant professor of endocrinology at The Ohio State University, told TODAY.
Mollen, who had her second baby with husband Jason Biggs six months ago, went to the doctor because she noticed a bulge on her neck. The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped organ nestled in the front of the neck, sometimes becomes swollen in those with Graves’ disease.
Symptoms of Graves' disease
Mollen shared her dramatic photo to encourage others to pay attention to changes in their bodies.
“If you just had a baby and have lost an inordinate amount of weight ... are suddenly heat intolerant, can’t stop losing hair, and think your husband is being a d--k it might just be your thyroid!! Get checked ASAP,” Mollen wrote.
According to the American Thyroid Association, common signs of hyperthyroidism include:
- Muscle weakness and pain
- Bulging eyes
- Racing heart or palpitations
- Hand tremors
- Nervousness or anxiety
- Oily skin
- Changes in bowel movements
- Difficulty sleeping
Doctors often see women develop thyroid problems after giving birth. While some patients experience postpartum thyroiditis — a short-term form of hyperthyroidism that resolves itself — others experience overactive thyroids because of Graves' disease.
“Graves’ disease is commonly diagnosed in the postpartum period,” said Dr. Elise Brett, an associate clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “The immune system is quiet in the pregnancy and then can rev up again after delivery.”
While it's unclear whether pregnancy can trigger Graves’ disease, Brett stresses that men and women of all ages can develop the condition, though it's more common in women.
Treatment is necessary
While some forms of hyperthyroidism resolve on their own, Graves' disease does not. “This type of overactive thyroid needs to be treated,” Brett said. Left untreated, Graves' disease can lead to irregular heartbeat and stroke.
Doctors often prescribe antithyroid drugs (like methimazole) for 12 to 18 months to regulate the thyroid. In about 30 percent of cases, Graves’ goes into remission. Another treatment option is a radioactive iodine drink that “knocks out” the thyroid disease. In some cases, surgical removal of their thyroid is necessary. These latter two options cause hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, which requires patients take synthetic thyroid hormones.
Experts agree that patients should consult a doctor immediately if they have any signs of hyperthyroidism.
“Graves' disease can be very serious," said Brett.