January is thyroid awareness month, which highlights thyroid disease including overactive or underactive thryoid glands that may affect an estimated 20 million people in the U.S., according to the American Thyroid Association.
After a demanding week of work, Corris Little often found herself exhausted on Friday evenings beyond the normal tiredness. “Some weekends, I couldn’t even get out of bed,” said Little.
Beyond the unrelenting fatigue that went on for months, Little, a journalist from New York's Suffolk County, also put on weight and watched as her hair thinned out and her eyebrows grew sparse. While she attributed these changes to her busy, on-the-go lifestyle and the normal aging process, a friend suggested her symptoms might mean something else: an underactive thyroid.
At her friend’s insistence, Little visited a Manhattan-based endocrinologist, who ran some blood tests at her first appointment. Soon after, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition that occurs when the butterfly shaped thyroid gland at the base of the neck fails to produce enough of the hormone that influences every cell, tissue and organ in the body, and controls everything from one’s heart rate to body temperature to metabolism.
While more common in women over 50, thyroid disorders can occur in younger women, too.
Model Gigi Hadid revealed on Twitter that she has an autoimmune disorder, Hashimoto's disease, which is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. It can cause fatigue, unexplained weight gain and depression — and, like other autoimmune disorders, is more common in women than men.
The main symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- elevated cholesterol
- dry skin
- brittle nails
- fuzzy thinking
“Thyroid disorders are actually more common than heart disease or diabetes,” said Dr. Ruchi Gaba, an endocrinologist and assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, about 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid disorder in their lifetime.
It's not just stress
Thyroid disorders can be mistaken for side effects of stressful, hectic lives — and that could delay the diagnosis for a condition that is treatable. The majority of these cases are women, who are up to eight times as likely as men to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism — or with hyperthyroidism, in which the body makes too much thyroid hormone. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- a racing heart
- weight loss
- bulging eyes
Autoimmune conditions that target the thyroid include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which affects 10 million Americans and Graves’ disease, the leading cause of hyperthyroidism.
Symptoms and causes can vary
Thyroid disorders can be hereditary. They can be caused by an environmental iodine deficiency, post-surgical thyroid slowdown, or the development of postpartum thyroiditis after pregnancy.
Postpartum thyroiditis affects up to 5 percent of postpartum women and is something women should be aware of, “although in many cases, thyroid levels are so subtlety abnormal that they spontaneously resolve on their own," said Dr. Ryan Hungerford, an endocrinologist who practices in Medford, Oregon.
Thyroid disorders can often have non-specific symptoms that can vary in each person and point to other conditions, like depression or sleep disorders. The only way to confirm a diagnosis is to have a blood test called TSH, which measures the amount of thyroid-stimulating hormone, produced by the pituitary gland, in the bloodstream.
A high TSH
Means the pituitary gland is telling the thyroid to produce more hormones, and fast.
A low TSH
Means that there’s an abundance of those thyroid hormones, known as thyroxine, or T4, and triiodothyronine, or T3, in the system, and that the thyroid can back off.
After a decade of living with hypothyroidism, Little takes a daily thyroid medication and feels strong and healthy. She's eats a plant-based diet, makes time for meditation and yoga and has switched to a less stressful career. The changes have helped manage her symptoms.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to regain my well-being,” she said, “and find a sense of calm that I never had before.”