The thyroid is responsible for much more than we think, a defective one can be problematic
The thyroid gland produces the hormones that regulate our metabolism. With one in 20 people in the UK suffering from a thyroid disorder, women are 10 times more likely to suffer from thyroid disease than men.
The reasons for this are uncertain, although according to some experts oestrogen dominance (where oestrogen levels are high relative to those of progesterone) is a contributing factor.
Hypothyroidism, the most common thyroid disorder, is mostly seen in women aged 40 to 50, and as it often occurs during the menopausal years, symptoms tend to be ignored during the early stages by sufferers and the medical profession alike.
A simple blood test will diagnose many thyroid conditions, so if you have any concerns, ask your GP for a blood test to check for TSH levels (thyroid-stimulating hormone).
You may need a further tissue biopsy or imaging study to evaluate potential thyroid problems.
The thyroid is positioned at the front of our necks
The thyroid gland produces the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) that regulate our metabolism.
When the thyroid fails to make enough, it’s known as hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid. When there is too little thyroid hormone, the body’s metabolism slows down.
Symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, weight gain, dry skin and hair, constipation, weakened muscles, low mood and impaired concentration. If you’re a woman, you may notice changes to your menstrual cycle and both genders may experience a loss of libido.
Men may also experience erectile dysfunction. Hypothyroidism runs in families but what triggers it in genetically susceptible individuals is unknown.
So how can we avoid blaming symptoms on the changes of middle age and/or the stresses of life?
Consultant physician at Spire Edinburgh Hospitals Dr Anthony Toft, who specialises in thyroid disease, explains, “There are lots of non-specific causes of the symptoms, which include tiredness, fatigue, weight gain, constipation, low mood, feeling the cold, dry and lifeless skin and hair and itchy skin. But if you have several of them, it would suggest that you suffer from thyroid underactivity. In which case, get your doctor to give you a blood test, especially if there is a family history.”
If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism, your doctor will probably prescribe you a form of synthetic thyroid hormone called thyroxine (or levothyroxine) and in time, your thyroid hormone levels should return to normal. “But about 15 per cent of patients will not be restored to the wellbeing they anticipate,” adds Dr Toft.
“GPs follow guidelines that don’t apply to every patient and unfortunately, liothyronine, the additional hormone they need in order to feel well, costs £250 for two months’ supply in the UK. As a result, there are a lot of dissatisfied people out there.”
Until inflexible guidelines are changed, many sufferers are resorting to purchasing supplies of the drug in Italy or Greece where they cost just a few euros.
But buying medication in this way can be risky. As being referred to an NHS specialist is unlikely, the best course of action would be to see a private specialist if at all possible. For more information on this, go to thyroiduk.org.uk.
Thyroxine provides a synthetic boost to your thyroid that looks to overcome hyperthyroidism effects
Thyroid overactivity, hyperthyroidism is 10 times more common in women than men and initial symptoms begin between the ages of 20 to 40.
When there is too much thyroid hormone, the body’s metabolism speeds up. Symptoms include fatigue, sweating, heat intolerance, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, shaking, palpitations with a fast or irregular heartbeat and anxiety.
Patients may develop eye problems such as grittiness and soreness, protrusion of the eyeballs and, in some cases, problems with sight, such as double vision.
“Hyperthyroidism is most commonly due to a condition called Graves’ disease, which is often passed down genetically. But major stress can trigger it where there’s a genetic predisposition.
The best way to treat it is with antithyroid drug carbimazole. There are other treatments like radioactive iodine or thyroid surgery but these can leave you with an underactive thyroid, so I don’t recommend them,” says Dr Toft.
A goitre is an enlargement of the thyroid gland, appearing as a swelling on the front of the neck and can occur with either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, although many goitre patients have normal thyroid function. It can sometimes also result from cysts or nodules that develop within the thyroid gland.
“In the UK, a goitre is most commonly caused by a swollen thyroid with a few lumps. These are perfectly benign but they can go on to become overactive, making them a potential cause of a overactive thyroid. If you feel a lump in the neck, it’s essential to get it checked out as although it’s likely to be benign, it could be a sign of underlying thyroid cancer,” advises Dr Toft.
Try examining your neck in the area of the Adam’s apple while you swallow can sometimes enable you to detect if your thyroid is enlarged. Tip the head back while swallowing some water and examine your neck and the area above the collarbones.
If you see any lumps or bulges, make an appointment to see your GP. A goitre can compress the windpipe and can be unsightly, so it’s best to get it removed through surgery.