It’s so easy to blame your thyroid for those extra 10 or 15 pounds. An underactive thyroid, referred to medically as hypothyroidism, can lead to unexplained weight gain, fatigue, constipation, brittle nails, dry skin, joint and muscle pain, depression, memory loss and a puffy face.
Hypothyroidism is a condition that’s common in women, especially those over the age of 60. But it can strike young adults too. Kathryn Morgan, a 25-year-old ballerina, was forced to leave her promising career with the New York City Ballet in 2010 because of a thyroid illness. She gained 40 pounds, lost her hair, and suffered from “debilitating” migraines. Morgan opened up about her condition, which she treats with medication, in a recent interview with The New York Times.
“It was so horrible,” Morgan said. “I didn’t just gain weight, my neck was thick, and I had a stomach roll. I didn’t even recognize myself.”
So how can the thyroid — a two-inch, butterfly-shaped gland located in the base of the neck — have so much power? First, it helps the body use energy, and regulates metabolism by controlling how fast you burn calories. Second, it plays an important role in keeping the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and skin healthy. With hypothyroidism, the thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormones, therefore preventing one’s body from running normally.
Thyroids that are overactive (hyperthyroidism) can cause serious problems with the heart, bones, muscles, menstrual cycle and fertility; symptoms include weight loss, hand tremors, mood swings, rapid and irregular heartbeats, goiter (an enlarged thyroid), nervousness, and irritability.
At least 10 million people suffer from a thyroid dysfunction and about 4.6 percent of the U.S. population age 12 and older has hypothyroidism, according to the National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service (NEMDIS), a service of the National Institutes of Health. Young women between the ages of 18 to 34 have a 4 percent chance of being diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, compared to 12 percent for women 65 and up, according to endocrinologist Jeffrey Garber. He told Yahoo Health that weight gain is “just a piece” of hypothyroidism, and noted that sufferers tend to gain an average of 5 to 10 pounds.
Individuals may be referred to an endocrinologist for treatment and evaluation, and a simple blood test can confirm hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. According to the Mayo Clinic, individuals diagnosed with a thyroid condition are commonly prescribed levothyroxine, a low-cost synthetic thyroid hormone that is taken orally. Levothyroxine restores hormone levels, and reverses the symptoms of hypothyroidism, but it’s a lifelong treatment that can come with various side effects, including heart palpitations, insomnia, increased appetite, and shakiness.
One of the trickiest problems of a thyroid condition can be getting properly diagnosed in the first place. Symptoms among high-risk adults, such as weight gain and lethargy, can be attributed to aging.
“More than half of the country has symptoms of hypothyroidism,” Garber, author of the Harvard Medical School Guide to Overcoming Thyroid Problems, explained. “Screening is not universally endorsed and symptoms are not very specific.”