All About the Underactive Thyroid.

The 5 words that doctors (arguably) dread the most are “I’m tired all the time.”  There are so many causes of tiredness that this comment can be the start of long and often fruitless investigations.  One common cause of tiredness is hypothyroidism.

What is the thyroid?

All about the underactive thyroid.The thyroid is a small gland in the neck, which produces the hormone thyroxine.  Thyroxine regulates how fast or slow every cell in the body works and therefore modifies body temperature and metabolism.

A small gland in the brain (the pituitary) sends a stimulating hormone – called TSH – to the thyroid.  When there’s enough thyroxine circulating the pituitary stops and when levels drop then the cycle starts again.

An under active thyroid is more common in women (affecting 1 in 50) than men (1 in 1000) and treatment is simply with replacement of the hormone in tablets.  Regular blood tests make sure that you’re on the right dose.

Causes of thyroid disease.

The thyroid can produce too much (be over active – hyperthyroidism) or too little (be under active – hypothyroidism) thyroxine for a number of different reasons.

  • The commonest cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s (chronic) thyroiditis.  It’s an autoimmune disease, which means that the body doesn’t recognise its own organs andstarts to ‘attack’ them so they stop working.  It occurs most often in older ladies but can also affect any age and either sex, and can occur if you also have other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or some types of diabetes.
  • Secondary hypothyroidism is due to a deficiency of the stimulating hormone from the pituitary.
  • Some drugs can also cause hypothyroidism.
  • However often the doctor may not be able to identify a cause.

Symptoms of an underactive thyroid.

  • Being tired all the time is the most common symptom of thyroid disease and because the body doesn’t have enough thyroxine – one of its energy hormones – you feel short of energy.
  • You may feel colder than normal or colder than the people around you.
  • You may gain weight or find it difficult to lose weight– the average weight gain for someone with an underactive thyroid is about 7lbs.
  • If you’re a woman, your periods may become heavier.
  • You may find it difficult to concentrate or that your thought processes slow down.  Depression is not uncommon if the condition is not treated.
  • Constipation is common as the gut slows down.
  • Hair loss related to thyroid disease happens because the cell renewal process doesn’t happen as it should – so when a hair reaches the end of its life and is shed naturally, there isn’t another growing in the hair follicle to replace it.
  • A slow heart rate, even when you’re exercising.
  • Swelling in the neck, called a goitre.
  • A blood test may show high cholesterol.

Treatment for hypothyroidism.

When the doctor has made a diagnosis of hypothyroidism by a simple blood test, she will give you thyroxine tablets to take that simply replace the thyroxine that is missing.  You’ll need to take these once a day for the rest of your life.

You may start you on a low dose and increase slowly or the doctor may choose to start you on a typical dose and then test your blood again regularly to make sure that’s the right dose for you.

Also, because you’re taking only the amount that’s right for you, you shouldn’t experience any side effects.

Thyromine is a herbal medicine that its manufacturers, Pacific Naturals, claim help in weight reduction, improves mental alertness and boosts the body’s immunity and regulates cholesterol.

It’s always advisable to see a medical practitioner if you have any of the symptoms described above as they may not be caused by hypothyroidism.  In addition remember that ‘herbal’ doesn’t equal ‘harmless/good’ in the same way that ‘pharmaceutical’ doesn’t equal ‘harmful/bad’.

Underactive thyroid and diet.

If you have been diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, diet is important until you know that your thyroxine levels are back to normal.  A low fat diet will help lower your cholesterol levels and reduce weight/weight gain.  For a thyroid diet, watch your intake of red meat, dairy products (stick to low fat varieties), pastries, chips, fried food and cakes.  Increase the amount of fruit, vegetables, wholemeal grains and cereals you eat.

Fibre in oats, bran and wholegrain will also help the bowels become more regular until the right level of thyroxine in your blood means that the bowel action works normally again.

The underactive thyroid diet is a good diet for everyone to follow – whether they have thyroid disease or not.

A summary of symptoms for hypothyroid and hyperthyroid disease.  Some people may not have all of them.

Why am I always tired? Other possible causes of tiredness.

Elspeth Raisbeck

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