Hypothyroidism in a Nutshell
You look in the bathroom mirror one morning and you see your Grandma Ida’s puffy face, framed with thinning hair, staring back at you. At bedtime, your husband is in the mood; but, honestly, you’d rather be cleaning the oven. You want to scream at your thirteen-year old son (for the third time in less than an hour) because he still hasn’t started his homework. You really shouldn’t yell though, Lately, you have been just about as motivated as he is. Your hoarse throat stops your scream cold. “I’m always cold”, you say to yourself as you bend over to scratch your itchy calves with a tingling hand. Walking down the hall to the kitchen to fix lunch (which is salad, because you need the fiber), you feel as though you’ve finished a 10K run. The inconvenient and increasingly alarming symptoms are starting to eat away at your sanity.
What does this list of annoying symptoms mean? Your family doctor orders the general practitioner’s usual array of blood tests. When these tests return with normal results the doctor’s verdict is very often-you guessed it!-stress. He says you’re depressed or you have severe PMS. Because antidepressants have been the order of the day for some time now in the medical world, patients with a wide range of complaints and symptoms are thought to be worry warts or hypochondriacs who simply need a nerve pill. Your doctor slaps you with a prescription and sends you back to your spiraling world of debilitating symptoms. You feel like the stuff on the bottom of someone’s shoe.
Are you losing your mind? Don’t assume that the doctor is right and that you are depressed. Your well-being and the well-being of those around you are at stake. Before you let the pharmacist fill that script for Paxil or Prozac, ask your doctor for one more test – a TSH. A thyroid-stimulating hormone blood test could provide the answer. You might be hypothyroid.
Hypothyroidism is the condition that results when the thyroid gland ceases to operate at maximum efficiency. Because of a faulty autoimmune reaction or a hormonal malfunction in the thyroid after pregnancy, levels of thyroid hormones (T4 and T3) drop and the thyroid gland delivers little or no thyroid hormone into the bloodstream, causing the laundry list of symptoms listed earlier- including constipation, tingling hands, mood swings, and feeling cold. Think of the thyroid as your body’s thermostat; but, you can’t go down the hall and turn this one down.
The TSH test measures the amount of thyrotropin present in the bloodstream. Thyrotropin, known as thyroid-stimulating hormone, is made in the hypothalamus and sent to the pituitary gland. When levels of T3 and T4 fall below normal, the pituitary gland sends out thyrotropin in an attempt to stimulate the thyroid gland to make more of these hormones. The higher the level of TSH in the blood, the more likely the person is hypothyroid. The body may ‘dump’ large amounts of thyroid hormone, T4, into the bloodstream in an attempt to resuscitate the thyroid. Symptoms such as palpitations or tachycardia as well as profuse sweating and nervousness can occur as a result. TSH is essentially working overtime trying to revive an ailing thyroid gland.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ near the bottom of the throat, just below the voice box (larynx). When the thyroid is working properly, it produces T4 (thyroxin) and T3 (triiodothyronine-the purest form of thyroid hormone). The correct levels of these two hormones allow all of the organs to receive the necessary oxygen to function properly. The thyroid gland affects every cell in the body. A prolonged lack of thyroid hormone can lead to heart and kidney failure and possibly myedema coma, a life-threatening condition.
Sometimes a as a result of thyroid underactivity, a goiter grows on the gland. Though they’re usually painless, they can make swallowing difficult and cause hoarseness and a choking sensation. Discovery of a nodule on the thyroid gland is often the first clue to a thyroid problem. Any nodule should be checked for cancer, but, for the most part, these bumps shrink considerably with the proper thyroid hormone replacement.
Another symptom that often occurs with hypothyroidism is high blood pressure. The lack of T3 and T4 can tax the heart causing pressure to rise. It can also increase from weight gain and the stress of feeling chronically ill. Blood pressure usually returns to normal or at least drops to a safer number when thyroid hormone is replaced.
Thyroid hormone replacement therapy consists of either synthetic or natural thyroxine. Although the majority of the endocrinology community prefers to prescribe just synthetic T4, such as Levothyroxine and Synthroid, a growing number of alternative and holistic physicians believe that drugs such as Thyrolar and Armour which are combinations of T3 and T4 help their patients more quickly regain proper thyroid levels. Thyrolar is the synthetic version while Armour is the natural form, made from desiccated pig thyroid. There is still much debate among medical professionals as to the value of these combination therapies.
You should have your thyroid blood levels checked regularly to ensure that they remain in the normal range. If your doctor says he’ll see you in six months to a year, ask for more frequent tests. Tweaking your dosage of hormone replacement ensures that you maintain adequate thyroid levels. Doctors are often satisfied when the TSH is within the ‘high normal’ range (.5 to .8), though many patients don’t feel relief from their uncomfortable symptoms unless their blood results are on the low side of normal (0 – .4) Maintaining a healthy weight and overall good health depends upon a close monitoring of your thyroid hormone levels.
Be aware of the times of the year when TSH levels fluctuate. Research has shown that levels often rise in the winter and drop in the summer. If you experience intense feelings of coldness in the winter, it may be more than just the weather- your body could be becoming more hypothyroid. Slight hypothermia (lowered basal body temperature between 95.5 and 97) is one of the hallmarks of hypothyroidism. One hundred years ago, physicians used this basal temperature as the primary test for an underactive thyroid.
Also let your doctor know of any other medical concerns that arise, since the thyroid is directly affected by other illnesses and conditions. Thyroid levels often drop when menopausal women take an estrogen replacement. Viral and bacterial infections may also adversely affect thyroid hormone levels. Some studies even suggest that hypothyroidism may be triggered by bacteria.
The thyroid is also susceptible to environmental elements -limit your exposure to household and cosmetic chemicals. The fluoride found in most drinking water, soy isoflavones in packaged foods, and various chemicals in cleansers and cosmetics have been identified as endocrine disruptors-they interfere with the sensitive balance of hormones in the endocrine system, which the thyroid gland is a part of.
You can drink bottled water or install a water purifier on your faucet to avoid the dangers of fluoride. Some studies now point to a thyroid epidemic in the United States after World War II and the mass introduction of fluoride in drinking water. Although soy is considered healthy for your heart and good for the hot flashes of menopause, it is best to avoid too much of it in a thyroid diet. Read packaged foods carefully. People with hypothyroidism can find many all natural household cleansers. Some are simple, such as vinegar and baking soda. There are also new products with vegetable and herbal bases.
When using cosmetics, keep them as natural and simple as possible. The skin is the body’s largest organ and the chemicals it absorbs can adversely affect your thyroid gland. Try substituting a pure glycerin soap herbal shampoos with less chemical makeup and vitamin, aloe and cocoa butter based lotions. If you wear makeup, try the hypoallergenic types which tend to have less potent chemicals.
The thyroid gland is especially sensitive to what you eat. You should limit foods like broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, peanuts, and kale because these foods are goitregens which aid in the formation of goiters. Also modify your diet to include more proteins and vegetables and less refined sugars. Protein is comprised of amino acids; amino acids are one of the building blocks of thyroid hormone. Eating less sugar encourages weight loss and discourages the development of insulin resistance. People who are hypothyroid are more prone than the general population to develop diabetes which is also an autoimmune disease. Thyroid sufferers may benefit, too, from a diet of potassium-rich foods( canteloupe,celery,skim milk,and nuts) if they have elevated blood pressure.
You should ask your doctor plenty of questions when you’re first diagnosed with hypothyroidism. His patient’s inquisitiveness may irritate him, but you’re the one with a medical problem that affects your life. You deserve any and all information necessary to make informed choices that lead to better health. Although in the realm of diseases hypothyroidism is easily treated, it does require major lifestyle changes and a lifetime commitment. If you wish to live as symptom-free a life as possible and keep your thyroid levels within the low-normal range, you have to be your own health advocate.