Did you know that a small, butterfly-shaped gland in front of your neck holds the key to the healthy functioning of many of your body’s functions? Called the thyroid gland, its purpose is to release hormones that are responsible for providing energy to nearly every organ in the body. So, everything from how the heart beats to how the digestive system works and much more. If there’s a slowdown in the hormone production, the natural functions of the body also begin to get sluggish.
This condition in which the thyroid gland becomes underactive is called hypothyroidism. The symptoms vary from muscle weakness to elevated cholesterol levels, fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, thinning of hair, slowed heart rate, depression, stiffness in joints, heavier or irregular periods. In other words, the symptoms are so varied that they are hard to pin to just hypothyroidism. What’s more, in the initial stages hypothyroidism may not show any symptoms at all and vary greatly from person to person, depending on the severity of the hormone deficiency. Symptoms may take years to develop. This can result in sneaking up of more severe problems such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.
If you have any prolonged symptoms or are suffering from chronic fatigue, it’s a good idea to get your thyroid function test done. Thyroxine (T4) is one of the hormones directly produced by your thyroid. Typically, a low level of T4 along with a high level of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), is an indication of hypothyroidism. T4 and TSH tests together help evaluate thyroid function. If diagnosed with the condition, there are safe and effective medications that the doctor can prescribe. The most common of them is levothyroxine, which mimics the natural hormone that the body produces, thus stepping in to return adequate levels of thyroid hormone to the blood.
It is important to note that hypothyroidism is a lifelong condition. For many people, medication can help reduce or alleviate symptoms. Within a few weeks of taking the medication, a person suffering hypothyroidism symptoms may see relief. If not, the doctor will adjust the potency. While taking thyroid medication is a lifelong commitment, it is important to get regular tests done as an adjustment of dosage may be needed from time to time.
There can be several causes for hypothyroidism can be caused due to autoimmune disorders. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system which is designed to protect our body’s cells against invading bacteria and viruses by creating fighter cells, confuses normal, healthy cells for invading cells. In other words, it starts to fight the good guys instead of the bad guys it was meant to slay. This erroneous reaction is called an autoimmune response. Left unregulated or untreated, the immune system can attack healthy tissues causing serious medical conditions, including hypothyroidism. Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition, is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. This disease attacks the thyroid gland, causing chronic thyroid inflammation which in turn reduces hormone production. It can often run in families.
Sometimes surgery of the thyroid where the gland must be completely or partially removed can also be the cause of hypothyroidism. At times, low thyroid production can be a result of a side effect other medications such as ones used to treat psychological conditions, cancer and heart disease.
Although hypothyroidism is often associated with women, especially middle-aged and older women, anyone, even infants are known to develop this condition. A baby may be born without a thyroid gland or have one that is underactive. It is extremely important to treat hypothyroidism in infants as even mild cases can develop into severe physical and mental retardation. People over the age of 60 can also be affected by Hypothyroidism.
The treatment for hypothyroidism is relatively easy, but the key is to get a diagnosis in time. Keeping an eye on any abnormal symptoms and getting comprehensive health tests done annually can go a long way in keeping the butterfly gland healthy!