January is Thyroid Awareness Month

As we age, our metabolism tends to begin to slow down. But is it just aging, or is it something more? Perhaps a thyroid disease such as hypothyroidism is the underlying cause of your weight gain and fatigue.

Your thyroid is a small, butterfly shaped gland located in the front of your neck. Thyroid hormones control the way your body uses energy, and affects just about every organ in your body, including your heart beat. Without enough thyroid hormones, many of the body’s functions slow down.

About 5% of the U.S. population over the age of 12 has hypothyroidism, though women are more likely than men to have it and it’s more common in those over the age of 60.

Hypothyroidism has many symptoms that can vary from person to person. Because hypothyroidism develops slowly, many people don’t notice symptoms of the disease for months or even years. Some common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • fatigue
  • weight gain
  • a puffy face
  • trouble tolerating cold
  • joint and muscle pain
  • constipation
  • dry skin
  • dry, thinning hair
  • decreased sweating
  • heavy or irregular menstrual periods
  • fertility problems
  • depression
  • slowed heart rate
  • Goiter (enlarged thyroid)

Many of these symptoms, especially fatigue and weight gain, are common and don’t always mean that someone has a thyroid problem. It’s important to report any of these symptoms when you talk to your doctor. He or she will conduct a blood test to determine if you do have hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism can contribute to high cholesterol, so people with high cholesterol should be tested for hypothyroidism.

In rare, but severe cases, untreated hypothyroidism may lead to myxedema coma, an extreme form of hypothyroidism in which the body’s functions slow to the point that it becomes life threatening. Myxedema coma requires immediate medical treatment. These symptoms include weakness, confusion or non-responsiveness, feeling cold, low body temperature, swelling of the body, especially the face, tongue, and lower legs, and difficulty breathing.

Some medicines can interfere with thyroid hormone production and lead to hypothyroidism. If you are taking any of these, don’t stop taking them due to the risk of hypothyroidism:

  • amiodarone, a heart medicine
  • interferon alpha, a cancer medicine
  • lithium, a bipolar disorder medicine
  • interleukin-2, a kidney cancer medicine

So, how to you treat hypothyroidism? Hypothyroidism is treated by replacing the hormone that your own thyroid can no longer make. Your doctor will prescribe levothyroxine, a thyroid hormone medicine that is identical to a hormone the thyroid normally makes. Your doctor may recommend taking the medicine in the morning before eating.

Your doctor will give you a blood test about 6 to 8 weeks after you begin taking the thyroid hormone and adjust your dose if needed. Each time your dose is adjusted, you’ll have another blood test. Once you’ve reached a dose that’s working for you, your health care provider will probably repeat the blood test in 6 months and then once a year.

Your hypothyroidism most likely can be completely controlled with thyroid hormone medicine, as long as you take the recommended dose as instructed. Never stop taking your medicine without talking with your health care provider first.

So, pay attention to what your body is telling you. Are you simply tired and gaining weight because you aren’t getting enough sleep nor eating the right foods? Or is more going on with your body that’s causing these symptoms.