- The thyroid gland is one of the most vital organs in the body yet few people are aware of what the little butterfly gland located at the front of the neck does.
- However, it can malfunction and become either overactive or underactive.
- The thyroid is a little gland located just around the Adam’s apple and it is responsible for hormones that help determine how fast or slow your body works.
The thyroid gland is one of the most vital organs in the body yet few people are aware of what the little butterfly gland located at the front of the neck does. However, it can malfunction and become either overactive or underactive.
The thyroid is a little gland located just around the Adam’s apple and it is responsible for hormones that help determine how fast or slow your body works.
It has been known to over produce these hormones (hyperthyroidism) or under produce them (hypothyroidism). Both these states can be difficult to live with and each requires treatment.
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid?
Most people with an underperforming thyroid have very subtle symptoms. Generally, low levels of thyroid hormones leads to the slowing down of mental and physical function of the body. Common complaints include:
People with an underperforming thyroid are usually tired and lack energy even after they have had a decent night’s sleep.
Poor work performance
An underactive thyroid leads to poor concentration and memory deficits. Most people feel ‘mentally sluggish’. This, combined with the constant fatigue has been found to be associated with performance decline in the workplace.
Apart from the performance decline that occurs in hypothyroidism, most people develop a degree of depression. It is important to understand that one cannot ‘snap out of depression’ and it usually needs treatment.
‘Why is it so cold in here?’
A malfunctioning thyroid can lead to increased awareness of the cold. You feel cold even though the surrounding environment is warm.
‘What is happening to my skin and hair?’
Thyroid dysfunction affects the skin and hair as well. The skin becomes dry and coarse whilst the hair thins out and feels dry despite moisturisation.
An underactive thyroid leads to reduced metabolism, ultimately leading to weight gain. You could be eating the same type and volume of food as before but still gain weight.
‘Why can’t I conceive?’
Hypothyroidism has been associated with infertility. In some cases, you may have conceived previously, even multiple times but find yourself unable to conceive again. Thyroid dysfunction also leads to changes in the menstrual pattern. An underactive thyroid leads to heavier and longer periods.
An underactive thyroid leads to a decrease in libido in both men and women. This has nothing to do with what one feels for their partner — and often cannot be treated by sexual therapy alone (it requires correction of the thyroid problem).
The digestive system in a person with an underactive thyroid is sluggish and subsequently, one develops constipation. This is often not fully relieved by increase of intake of fibre.
Arm and leg issues
A dysfunctional thyroid can lead to muscle aches, weakness and cramps. The hands and fingers can also develop pins and needles (carpal tunnel syndrome).
An underactive thyroid can be associated with a hoarse or croaky voice. In infants, this is most evident when they cry.
An underactive thyroid can lead to slowing down of the heartbeat and changes in blood pressure. It has also been associated with an increase in bad cholesterol levels.
Are children exempt from thyroid problems?
No, and unfortunately, thyroid dysfunction is often diagnosed too late in children.
This can have catastrophic outcomes as an underactive thyroid causes stunted growth and severe mental or intellectual disability. Clues that your baby may be having an underactive thyroid include excessive sleepiness, constipation, poor feeding, bloating, cold hands and feet, swollen tongue and floppy limbs. If your child has several of these symptoms, see a paediatrician.
What causes hypothyroidism?
An underactive thyroid can be as a result of several issues. These include:
Thyroiditis: This is inflammation of the thyroid. This could be caused by a viral infection or because of an autoimmune attack. An autoimmune attack occurs when your immunity turns on itself and wrongfully attacks your body. The most common cause of autoimmune thyroiditis is known as Hashimoto’s disease.
Congenital: Some babies are born with an underactive thyroid.
Medication: Certain drugs used to treat mental health problems (lithium), heart problems and even cough syrup abuse has been associated with a dysfunctional thyroid. Radioactive iodine used to treat an overactive thyroid can sometimes lead to an underactivity of the gland.
Surgery to remove the thyroid: People with thyroid cancer or those with an overactive thyroid that is causing uncontrollable symptoms, may have to get the entire thyroid gland removed. (The body does not have a backup or replacement for thyroid hormones once the thyroid is removed).
Radiation to the neck: Treatment for certain cancers necessitates that one receives radiation to the neck. This often damages the thyroid gland causing it to malfunction.
Diet: The thyroid gland needs iodine to make hormones. Unfortunately, the body does not manufacture its own io—ine – you must obtain it from the diet. In Kenya, our salt has been iodised to help prevent iodine deficiency. Good sources of iodine include saltwater fish and seafood.
Brain issues: Problems with parts of the brain (pituitary gland and hypothalamus) can result in malfunctioning of the thyroid.
Pregnancy: Some women develop thyroid dysfunction during pregnancy or a few months after delivery.
Other risk factors: Although anyone can develop an underactive thyroid, it is more common in women over the age 50 years. It, sometimes, also runs in families. People with autoimmune conditions such as diabetes (type 1) and celiac dise e have an increased risk of developing thyroid malfunction.
If your doctor suspects that you may be having an underactive thyroid, diagnosis usually only involves a blood test. Treatment usually involves taking a tablet containing thyroid hormone replacement. If there are any other underlying issues, these need to be addressed.
If an underactive thyroid goes untreated, it causes several health issues develop.
Birth defects: Women with an underactive thyroid are at a higher risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects. Babies who live with a hypothyroidism often go on to develop mental/intellectual retardation
Thyroid enlargement: This is medically kgoitres ‘goiter’ and can lead to breathing and swallowing issues. The thyroid enlarges due to the constant stimulation in an attempt to produce sufficient hormones.
Heart problems: Changes in blood pressure and increase in unhealthy cholesterol levels have been associated with heart disease and heart failure in people with hypothyroidism.
Coma: This is a result of a rare, life-threatening condition that occurs in people with untreated hypothyroidism known as myxedema.