About two years ago, at the ripe old age of 21, I was stuck in a constant state of sluggishness.
I was so physically run-down after a day of college classes that I would drive home, drag myself upstairs, lay down on the couch — often shivering, clutching my hot-water bottle — and watch television. Preferably talk shows.
My eyes would stay propped open until right after dinner, when I sank onto the couch, defeated. There, sometime before the 6 o’clock news finished, I would fall asleep under my favorite afghan.
The next morning, I’d wake up and go to school, only to come home thoroughly exhausted once again. I tried to fight it: struggling with homework, reading, or, if I felt really ambitious, going for a walk or jog. But nothing short of an intravenous supply of caffeine would work. Right when other “normal” 21-year-olds would start their nights, partying until the early morning hours, I would slip into slumberland.
At the time, I didn’t know that my sluggishness and sensitivity to cold were symptoms of a common medical problem — and not because of common laziness.
My mother, who was worried about my lack of energy, brought me to see my doctor. The culprit, we soon found out, was my thyroid — a nifty, butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck. This seemingly innocent gland works together with the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in the brain to release hormones. The hormones, in turn, regulate many bodily functions, including cell growth, metabolism, sleep, thirst, hunger and body temperature.
If the gland is not producing enough hormones, the body’s functions slow down, causing hypothyroidism. If the gland is overproducing hormones, the body’s functions speed up, causing hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism, the more common of the two disorders, has been called a “hidden” health problem. The vague symptoms — fatigue, intolerance to cold, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, constipation and depression — are often misinterpreted. Statistics show that only half of the 7 million Americans who have hypothyroidism will be diagnosed early enough to avoid complications, according to Knoll Pharmaceutical Co., producer of Synthroid, a commonly prescribed thyroid replacement medicine.
Individuals who aren’t diagnosed, or are diagnosed in the disorder’s later stages, may suffer from damaged organs, including the heart and the brain.
Hypothyroidism that occurs suddenly is commonly caused by Hashimoto’s disease, a condition in which the immune system interferes with normal thyroid gland function. But the disorder also can be caused by overtreatment for hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid gland.
As you would suspect, symptoms of hyperthyroidism are just the opposite of hypothyroidism. The oversecretion of thyroid hormones essentially pumps the body into overdrive. Individuals with an overactive thyroid may feel “jittery,” irritable or anxious all the time. They may lose weight, have diarrhea or sweat more than usual.
There are three main causes for hyperthyroidism: thyroid nodules or lumps; overreplacement of thyroid hormones for hypothyroid patients; and a condition called Graves’ disease, in which the immune system causes too many hormones to be released into the blood.
Treatment for both disorders is usually quick and painless — the main goal is to balance the production of the thyroid hormones. Typically, it consists of taking a tiny white pill once or twice a day for the rest of the patient’s life. For hypothyroid patients, the pill is a synthetic or animal replacement hormone. For hyperthyroid patients, the pill may be an anti-thyroid agent that makes it harder for the thyroid to produce hormones.
In some cases, the doctor may suggest surgery or other therapies.
January is Thyroid Awareness Month. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists set aside January for thyroid disease awareness in 1995 after recognizing a need for better detection and diagnosis.
If you are experiencing any of the above-mentioned symptoms, have relatives with either one of the conditions, or are a woman over the age of 40, I recommend you make a doctor’s appointment to have a thyroid-simulating hormone (TSH) test. It only takes a few minutes.
Just think, this simple blood test could be the key to a happier, healthier you.
As for me, I no longer need a double espresso to stay awake past the evening news. I’ve freed myself from the hot-water bottle. And I do feel a lot better.