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HEALTH MATTERS

Learn why your thyroid could be the cause of mystery fatigue and weight gain


HEALTH MATTERS
Learn why your thyroid could be the cause of mystery fatigue and weight gain
The thyroid has always been the Ugly Betty of the body. While other parts play the role of the media darling—grabbing headlines with showy statistics and deadly diseases—the humble thyroid gland goes unnoticed, unappreciated, the wallflower of anatomy. But it’s a key gland when it comes to regulating our bodies, and there’s now a healthy debate about whether young women—especially those who are attempting to get pregnant or are pregnant already—should have routine thyroid screening.

“It’s a simple blood test,” says Dr. Stuart Kreisman, assistant clinical professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “That’s all it takes to diagnose an over- or under-active thyroid.”

Here’s what you need to know: this butterfly-shaped organ, nestled over the windpipe, just below the larynx, absorbs iodine from food sources and combines it with the amino acid tyrosine to manufacture two different types of thyroid hormones (thyroxine and triiodothyronine). Then, together, these two hormones kick-start metabolism (the conversion of oxygen and calories into energy).

Think of the thyroid gland as the furnace, and the brain’s pituitary gland as the thermostat. The pituitary gland senses when levels of thyroid hormones drop, then, in a subtle feedback loop, it turns up the heat on the thyroid, which responds by turning up metabolic-hormone production. The pituitary leads and the thyroid follows in a graceful, physiological waltz. Problems arise when that delicate dance is disturbed and the thyroid gland releases either too much of its hormones (resulting in hyperthyroidism) or too little (hypothyroidism); in both cases, a faulty immune system can most often be blamed.

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“We’re not sure exactly why, but for some reason, the immune system decides it doesn’t like your thyroid,” explains Dr. Drucker, a staff physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. In a classic autoimmune response, the body attacks its own gland, causing inflammation that impairs normal thyroid function. That impairment shows up in a common set of symptoms, including fatigue, constipation, dry skin and hair, depression and weight changes—all symptoms that can easily be explained away by a host of benign causes (that time of the month, climate, stress at work). “These are extremely common symptoms,” says Dr. Kreisman, “which is why most people don’t think they could have a thyroid problem. [And it is] very possible to have these symptoms and not have a thyroid problem.”

But if you do have a problem thyroid, it’s particularly dangerous if you are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant. Why? Not only does hypothyroidism make it difficult to become pregnant but insufficient levels of thyroid hormone can also impair neurological development, potentially leading to a low IQ for your baby. There’s another reason to be watchful, too: like the lung, the heart and the breast, the thyroid can also develop cancer. The good news is only about 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and there is an impressively high survival rate (96 percent in women).

According to Dr. Drucker, the likelihood that women, not men, will be afflicted by other thyroid conditions is “several-fold greater.” Of those other conditions, hypothyroidism is the most common, with approximately five percent of women suffering from the condition. More good news, though: not only are hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism and nodules (benign bumps that are the most common thyroid condition in young women) easy to detect, says Dr. Drucker, but they are all easily fixed. “One of the wonderful things about the thyroid,” he says, “is that the vast majority of its disorders can be repaired.”

Liza Finlay

 

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