Are you fatigued, chilly, depressed; inexplicably gaining weight; or suffering from dry skin, thinning hair, brittle nails, constipation or assorted aches and pains? Having trouble getting—or staying—pregnant? You might have been told that your problems are “all in your head.” Or perhaps a doctor checked your thyroid levels and told you that they’re normal. In either case, you actually may be deficient in thyroid hormone, or hypothyroid.
Located in the front of your neck, your thyroid gland controls your metabolism and keeps your whole body functioning properly. More than 12 million American adults have been diagnosed with thyroid disease, and nearly 10 million of those are hypothyroid. Many experts believe the actual rates are considerably higher, and the numbers keep growing. The majority of people affected are women, with the risk increasing during pregnancy and with age.
The past 30 years have seen an epidemic of hypothyroidism, says David Brownstein, M.D., medical director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield, Mich., and author of Overcoming Thyroid Disorders (Alternative Medical Press). He attributes this growth to dietary deficiencies and toxins associated with our modern lifestyle, both of which also lead to obesity and chronic illnesses like type II diabetes, Brownstein says.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder, but many people simply have a thyroid gland that does not function optimally. They often go undiagnosed, however. “The symptoms of hypothyroidism are just part of what’s considered the ‘background noise’ of American life,” says Eric Gordon, M.D., an integrative physician in Santa Rosa, Calif.
If you think you might be hypothyroid, your first step is to get your hormone levels tested properly. The standard diagnostic test is to check your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) level. If it’s above the normal range, it indicates your thyroid gland is not producing enough thyroid hormone and the pituitary gland in your brain is sending messages to make more. If TSH is low, the reverse is true and you might be hyperthyroid. Many doctors make a diagnosis based on this test alone. But, “TSH levels don’t tell you what circulating thyroid hormones are doing in your body,” says Gordon. Additionally, although the parameters have been revised every few years, many experts believe the standard TSH test is still not sensitive enough to catch many cases of hypothyroidism. You need to ask your doctor for a full thyroid panel: TSH, free circulating T4, T3 and reverse T3. Equally important is finding a doctor who will take the time to listen to how you feel, even if your numbers are in the “normal” range. “Your numbers are a useful tool, but we’ve made them the final arbiter,” Gordon says. “If you have symptoms that are consistent with low thyroid, I would consider treatment regardless of your numbers.”