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Thyroid disorders: separating fact from fiction

Thyroid disorders are thought to affect around 1 in 20 of us. However, as many of the symptoms overlap with other conditions, they can often go undetected. Increased thyroid awareness in recent years has also led to some myths mixing in with the truth. For these reasons, knowing the hard facts around thyroid disorders is helpful in addressing problems most effectively.

What is your thyroid gland?

A roughly two-inch long, butterfly-shaped organ located in the base of the neck, your thyroid is part of the endocrine system. It is responsible for controlling your metabolism. The hormones it releases help to regulate vital body functions including breathing, heart rate, body temperature, weight, menstrual cycles and more.

It creates two main hormones: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). It is important to keep the levels of both in balance – a job done by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.

What can go wrong with your thyroid?

Hypothyroidism

An underactive thyroid means your body is not getting enough T3 and T4. People commonly experience tiredness, weight gain and feelings of depression. Other symptoms include:

  • Cold sensitivity
  • Muscle aches
  • Hoarse voice
  • Constipation 
  • Heavy or irregular periods
  • Dry skin
  • Puffy face
  • Slow heart rate
  • Brittle hair
  • Thinning or partially missing eyebrows in later stages

Hypothyroidism is typically caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the gland and damaging it. This condition is known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and is partly linked to your family history.

As symptoms can be slow to develop and are similar to those of other conditions, people often go for years without a diagnosis. If you have these symptoms, ask your GP for a thyroid function test. This involves the taking of a blood sample to examine hormone levels and is the only accurate way to identify the condition.

How is it treated? 

While it cannot be prevented, typically an underactive thyroid will be successfully treated with daily hormone tablets. These will usually be a T4 replacement – the gland will then be able to convert it into T3.

While you will usually need to take them for the rest of your life, they will help ensure that life is a normal, healthy one. If untreated, it can lead to heart disease, pregnancy complications and a very rare but life-threatening condition called myxoedema coma.

Hyperthyroidism 

An overactive thyroid, on the other hand, sees too much T3 and T4 in your body. This can cause issues such as rapid heart rate and diarrhoea.

Other symptoms include:

  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Nervousness or hyperactivity
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sweating or heat sensitivity
  • Trembling or twitching
  • Hair loss
  • Weight loss
  • Light or missed menstrual periods

Roughly three in four cases are a result of Graves’ disease, where your immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid. Other causes include extra tissue on the thyroid and medications such as amiodarone (for an irregular heartbeat).

Symptoms typically appear between 20 and 40 years of age. Hyperthyroidism is 10 times more common in women.

How is it treated?

If these symptoms present, see your GP. They can arrange a blood test to assess your thyroid. Typically, medication is the main treatment to prevent your thyroid from overproducing.

If untreated, an overactive thyroid can lead to further problems, such as eye irritation and double vision. It can also cause pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia and premature birth.

Now, let’s dispel some myths…

#1 Only older women have thyroid disorders: While women are more likely to develop problems, they can affect anyone due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

#2 Steering clear of gluten is the solution: A gluten-free diet will not solve your thyroid disorder. Celiac disease is more common in people with autoimmune diseases like Graves’ and Hashimoto’s and, in this case, it makes sense to remove gluten from your diet. However, it will not impact your thyroid health specifically.

#3 Taking extra iodine improves thyroid health: Iodine is required for the thyroid to function properly but most of us have no deficiency. In fact, an excess of iodine can trigger thyroid issues.

#4 Eating soy causes problems: Soy has an effect on the thyroid, but taking it in moderation is generally permitted. When eaten often, it can make it harder for people with hypothyroidism to absorb their prescribed hormones. Follow your GP’s guidance.

#5 Your eyes will bulge: Graves’ disease can cause bulging eyes, but only around 25-30% of people experience eye-related issues. There is a general misconception that it is easy to tell when you have a thyroid disorder. As outlined above, the nature of symptoms can confuse the issue. The best course of action is to seek medical advice to ensure your thyroid is functioning correctly and, if necessary, get the best treatment possible.

For more on family health, visit the Vhi Health Hub.