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Little Gland, Big Trouble

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Little Gland, Big Trouble

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.”

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Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

73 comments

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10:59AM PST on Dec 11, 2011

thanks

1:55AM PST on Nov 27, 2010

thanks

8:49AM PST on Mar 8, 2010

Thyroid problems seem to be a Western problem. My former chiro came from Sweden and in all of his training and practice he only came across 1 woman with a thyroid problem. When he came to the UK he found that at least 1/4 of his patients had thyroid related problems.

If you think that you have problems with your doctor ask him/her to test for T4!

8:16PM PST on Mar 5, 2010

Hi Laura. You could click up a Notepad, copy & paste the text of each of the four pages onto the Notepad, and then click File > Print. No illustrations, no color, no waste.

I've read over this article and am very sympathetic regarding this condition. Best wishes to my friend who suffers from it.

3:20AM PST on Feb 28, 2010

When I hit the "print" function at the bottom of the article, I only get the view of the page that's showing, and not the entire article. This article is FOUR pages long. It will take at least 8 sheets of paper to print the entire article. I'll have to print 4 illustrations. There'll be inches of blank space at the bottom of each page. They'll need to be stapled or bound together in some manner. What a waste.

If this were anywhere else, I might expect the lack of foresight concerning this issue, but I'm reading this article on "care2", for heaven's sake. If the prudent use of resources isn't a concern HERE, how on earth can we ask anyone else to make it THEIR concern?

Is it possible to make a "printable view" on any and all multi-page articles in the future? I, for one, would really appreciate it. I doubt that I am alone.

10:49PM PST on Feb 13, 2010

Thank you for this article. Thyroid disease is a very frustrating disorder.....it is nice to get some new information.

10:34AM PST on Feb 10, 2010

As someone with hypothyroidism, I found this article very interesting...but a little disappointing in that it indicates once you've been on thyroxine medication, it is difficult to change to homeopathic methods for improving thyroid function since I was thinking of making a switch if possible...oh well, at least the medication is working for me

7:36PM PST on Feb 4, 2010

Thank-you a zillion times for this article.It helped me and I am sure a lot of others.So,Thanks again.

7:25AM PST on Feb 2, 2010

I WORK AT A RURAL HEALTH CARE CLINIC AND THYROID PROBLEMS IS ONE OF THE MOST COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS WE SEE

11:15AM PST on Jan 30, 2010

The advice to use iodized salt should betaken with a grain of salt: read the label. Iodized salt often has an aluminum-containing additive in it. I'd rather get my iodine from sea vegetables or some other more natural source.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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