By Elizabeth Larsen, Experience Life
Lack of energy was never a concern for Heidi Raschke. As an undergraduate student, Raschke easily juggled a full course load with a part-time job and an internship. Then, in her senior year, her reserves started to run low. Normally an “A” student, Raschke couldn’t concentrate and her grades slipped. “I felt overwhelmed,” she remembers. “I was tired all the time.” Raschke’s mood wasn’t helped by the fact that she was suddenly carrying extra weight. “I’d run six miles several times a week and bike to school every day,” she says. “Nothing helped.”
At first Raschke assumed that depression was the root cause of her problems. A therapist prescribed Prozac, and both the medication and therapy seemed to help initially. But just over a year later, her physical symptoms returned with a vengeance. One night she slept for 19 hours straight. “That scared the hell out of me,” she says.
Raschke made an appointment with her doctor, who immediately ordered a blood test. The results confirmed she was suffering from Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that had damaged her thyroid gland. Raschke’s thyroid function was depressed – a condition, called hypothyroidism, that her doctor said was likely irreversible.
Until her diagnosis, Raschke had never even thought about her thyroid. Suddenly, it seemed to have control over every part of her life. This led Raschke to ponder a question that will likely be posed by a growing number of Americans in coming years: How can such a comparatively tiny gland have such a giant impact?
The Body’s Gas Pedal
A healthy thyroid is important to everyone’s well-being. A butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of the neck between the Adam’s apple and the collarbone, the thyroid produces several hormones, two of which – triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) – are vital to a person’s health. These hormones help oxygen get into cells and make your thyroid the master gland of your body’s metabolism.
“The thyroid is the gas pedal for distributing energy throughout the body,” says Richard L. Shames, MD, coauthor, with his wife, Karilee Halo Shames, RN, PhD, of Thyroid Power: 10 Steps to Total Health (HarperResource, 2002). “Thyroid hormone keeps the body working at the right speed.”
When an individual’s thyroid hormone levels decrease, explains Shames, the activity in his or her body’s cells decreases, too. As a result, the person may feel emotionally and physically drained and may also gain weight, even as his or her appetite wanes.
Hypothyroid disorders are extremely common. According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), one in 10 Americans – more than the number of Americans with diabetes and cancer combined – suffer from thyroid disease, more than half of them undiagnosed.
The most common cause of thyroid disease in the United States is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, a chronic autoimmune condition that results when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues. The thyroid can also produce elevated levels of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism), usually as the result of a less-common autoimmune condition known as Graves’ disease.
In the case of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, the immune cells that usually fight off infection and colds attack the thyroid instead. The damaged thyroid loses function, resulting in a variety of symptoms including fatigue, weight gain, forgetfulness, depression, constipation, dry skin, and cold hands and feet. Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to more serious health consequences, such as elevated cholesterol, heart disease, osteoporosis and infertility.
Hypothyroidism runs in families and is five to eight times more common in women than in men. The elderly are also at increased risk for the disease. The AACE estimates that by age 60, as many as 17 percent of women and 9 percent of men have an underactive thyroid.
“There is a huge population of people who are gaining weight and are depressed and exhausted, and they aren’t being treated properly,” says Mary Shomon, who was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 1995 and is today a patient advocate and the author of Living Well With Hypothyroidism: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Tell You That You Need to Know (HarperResource, 2000). Shomon and other advocates, including many doctors, want more attention paid to thyroid disorders, including treatment options for people with low, but not necessarily disease-level, thyroid function.
“Something doesn’t have to be at the level of a disease for it to be a problem,” says Laura Thompson, PhD, a naturopathic endocrinologist and director of the Southern California Institute of Clinical Nutrition. “There tend to be a lot of mysterious symptoms that people can’t explain that turn out to be subclinical thyroid imbalances. Inexplicable weight gain, depression, irregular menstrual cycles, severe PMS, menopause problems – all can be related to the thyroid.”
Recently, official hypothyroid diagnosis guidelines were adjusted downward (see “The Numbers Game” sidebar). The change, which received a great deal of media coverage, was designed to help doctors more accurately identify and treat the large number of hypothyroid sufferers whose conditions were previously considered “subclinical.”