Thyroid Conditions: The Disease Your Doctor Might Miss
Silent Causes of Weight Gain
The more prevalent thyroid disorder is hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid gland secretes too little hormone. Almost nine million women suffer from this problem, including about 5 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 34. The usual age of onset is between 35 and 60. Though the best-known symptom is weight gain (others include sluggishness, enlarged thyroid, dry skin and hair, sensitivity to cold, heavy periods, muscle cramps and depression), it doesn't always accompany the condition. For example, Elizabeth Posoli, 29, hadn't been gaining weight when she was diagnosed six years ago. At a routine physical, the physician's assistant noticed that she had a slightly enlarged thyroid and looked pale. Elizabeth also had dry hair and a dry scalp and was unusually tired. Blood tests revealed that she had Hashimoto's thyroiditis (the most common cause of hypothyroidism), in which the immune system destroys thyroid cells, resulting in decreased hormone production.
Hypothyroidism can run in families but can also be caused by viruses, childbirth and some medications, including lithium and drugs taken to treat an irregular heartbeat. Severe cases of hypothyroidism can cause infertility, depression and cardiac problems. It is particularly important for women who are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant to be screened for this disorder; if left untreated, it can have serious consequences, including increased risk of miscarriage and a slightly lower IQ in babies carried to term. After giving birth, some women experience a period of hypothyroidism, though this usually corrects itself, says Geoffrey Redmond, M.D., a New York City endocrinologist specializing in female hormonal problems. But if psychological symptoms (such as depression) persist, a new mother should seek help, including getting tested for thyroid problems so she can receive appropriate treatment if necessary.Low-Energy Culprit
Graves' disease, the most common form of hyperthyroidism, is an autoimmune disorder in which the body produces antibodies that overstimulate the thyroid. Graves' (which Lenore suffered from) is often characterized by an obviously enlarged thyroid gland and/or bulging eyes, weight loss, excessive sweating, anxiety, fatigue and decreased muscle strength as the body wears itself out with excess activity. Many women also find that their periods become irregular or stop altogether. Untreated hyperthyroidism can cause heart dysfunction, bone loss and fertility problems.
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