Do you feel tired all time? Can you rarely muster up the energy to exercise? Are you gaining weight even though you’re eating less than usual? You may have hypothyroidism or an underactive thyroid.
It’s a common condition that occurs when your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of the hormones crucial to meet your body’s needs.
What is hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is the underproduction of the thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), said Deepika Reddy, MD, an endocrinologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center.
Thyroid hormones are the accelerators for every action in your body. A decrease in T3 and T4 causes your metabolism to slow down. According to the National Institutes of Health, hypothyroidism affects around 5% of the US population.
Anyone can develop hypothyroidism, but you may be at greater risk if you are a woman and older than age 60.
Common low thyroid symptoms
Symptoms of hypothyroidism vary and are connected to a slowing metabolism:
- Weight gain
- Inability to lose weight
- Cold intolerance—feeling cold all the time
- Menstrual irregularity
- Dry skin and hair
“You may also have a goiter, an enlarged thyroid gland, as it’s trying to entrap as much iodine as it can,” Dr. Reddy said. “Iodine molecules are needed to make thyroid hormone.”
Your doctor may run blood tests to confirm the diagnosis based on your symptoms. Among them is a TSH test.
“The TSH is a pituitary hormone that stimulates the thyroid gland,” Dr. Reddy said. “When thyroid hormone levels are low, you will have an increase in TSH, because your body is trying to stimulate the thyroid to make more thyroid hormone.”
Causes of hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism may be due to many factors, including an autoimmune problem. The most common primary cause is the autoimmune condition Hashimoto’s disease, where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid.
Other causes of hypothyroidism include:
- Radiation treatment
- Surgical removal of part or all of your thyroid
- Family history of thyroid disease
- Pregnancy within the last six months
- Inflammation of the thyroid
There is no cure for hypothyroidism, but the condition can be controlled entirely for most people by replacing the hormone your body no longer makes with the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine.
“The medication is identical to the human T4,” Dr. Reddy said. “It’s important we give just the right amount, which is dependent on many factors that can mess up dosing, including weight changes and whether you take it with food, vitamins or estrogen.”
Here are a few factors that can help make sure your medication is effective:
- Purchase the medication from the same pharmacy
- Avoid fluctuations in weight
- Take two to three hours before or after food
- Take your medicine at the same time every day
Dangers of untreated hypothyroidism
The symptoms of hypothyroidism—fatigue, weight gain, depression—often mimic those of other syndromes and diseases. If left untreated, hypothyroidism can progress and lead to serious complications, including:
- A gradual decrease in mental function
- Heart problems
- Respiratory difficulties
- Macroglossia—a significant thickening of the tongue
If symptoms persist without treatment, hypothyroidism can progress to its most severe form, called myxedema coma, Dr. Reddy said. This condition causes the body to slow down almost to the point of death. It requires immediate intensive care treatment.
“For patients with overt hypothyroidism, replacing thyroid hormone with levothyroxine makes a big difference in mood and quality of life,” Dr. Reddy said.
Need to have your thyroid checked? Find a physician here.
About the author
This content has been written or reviewed by a member of the Baylor Scott & White Health medical staff.