Health Advocate Susan Lorimor shares about her family's experience with hypothyroidism.
About ten years ago, my mom was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I remember her concern that no matter how well she ate or how much she exercised, she continued to gain weight while feeling fatigued all of the time. These symptoms persisted until finally, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism is when your thyroid hormone production drops which in turn causes your body processes to slow down and change. These hormones regulate your body's energy use in the form of blood pressure, blood temperature, and heart rate.
My mom's thyroid doctor worked closely with her to get her symptoms under control which improved her health & well-being. With that, she urged me also to be tested for hypothyroidism if I ever showed signs of the condition.
Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Dry skin
- Puffy face
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood cholesterol level
- Muscle aches, tenderness, and stiffness
- Pain, stiffness, or swelling in your joints
- Heavier or irregular menstrual periods
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Impaired memory
- Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)
While you might experience those symptoms for various reasons, it's a combination of them that could signal a thyroid condition. A good rule of thumb is to pay particular attention to a symptom if it is new or worsening. Keep in mind that everyone experiences symptoms of hypothyroidism differently.
Looking back, I had no idea what huge impact hypothyroidism had on my mom's body. It must have been confusing and frustrating for her—and she was right to be concerned about whether I might one day develop hypothyroidism.
Is hypothyroidism hereditary?
One study concludes that first-degree family members of patients with hypothyroidism due to Hashimoto's Thyroiditis have an increased risk of developing hypothyroidism.
Hashimoto's is the number one cause of hypothyroidism. It is an autoimmune disorder in which the body's antibodies attack and destroy the thyroid instead of fighting infection as they should.
This large study evaluated the families of 264 patients with hypothyroidism due to Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Nearly 900 first-degree relatives (such as parents, siblings, or children) of these patients underwent comprehensive thyroid evaluation.
Results showed that parents and siblings each had a six-fold higher risk of developing Hashimoto's disease than did members of the general population. In comparison, children had a three-fold higher risk of developing this condition.
Other causes of hypothyroidism
The most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States is Hashimoto's thyroiditis. However, there are other possible causes of hypothyroidism.
Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland. This attack causes damage to the thyroid's tissue, which impairs the thyroid's ability to produce thyroid hormones, resulting in hypothyroidism. Suppose you have another autoimmune disorder, such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, or Addison's disease, and have hypothyroidism symptoms. In that case, it may be helpful to test for the presence of thyroid antibodies, which may indicate Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
Treatment of hyperthyroidism
If you have your thyroid removed to treat hyperthyroidism, you'll develop hypothyroidism. Similarly, radioactive iodine therapy for thyroid cancer of hyperthyroidism also causes the destruction of the thyroid gland. In these cases, your doctor will start you on thyroid hormone replacement medication before you even begin to experience hypothyroid symptoms.
Congenital hypothyroidism is when a baby is born with a thyroid hormone deficiency. Most cases of congenital hypothyroidism are from thyroid dysgenesis—meaning that the thyroid gland itself is missing or severely underdeveloped.
Some medications may cause hypothyroidism, including:
- Amiodarone used to treat heart rhythm conditions
- Anti-thyroid drugs used to treat an overactive thyroid
- Interferon-alpha used for patients with certain malignant tumors, and hepatitis B and C
- Interleukin-2 (IL-2) used for some patients with some metastatic cancers and leukemia
- Lithium used to treat depression and bipolar disorder
Problems in the pituitary gland
The pituitary gland is a small gland in the brain. The pituitary is often referred to as the body's master gland because it controls the activity of most other hormone-secreting glands, including the thyroid. A problem in the pituitary gland may impact its ability to produce thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Without TSH, the thyroid won't produce and secrete thyroid hormones because it doesn't have the "signal" from the pituitary.
Iodine, a trace element, is required for the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones effectively. Iodine stimulates the production and release of thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Too little iodine can cause hypothyroidism.
In some cases, temporary thyroiditis can happen after pregnancy (postpartum thyroiditis) or a viral illness.
Testing for hypothyroidism
I was first tested for hypothyroidism a few years ago as part of an annual physical. While I do not have the condition, I am glad my primary care doctor suggested the test. I did not have signs of hypothyroidism. Still, the thyroid blood test gives me a baseline if I ever start to experience hypothyroidism signs or symptoms.
And, knowledge is power.
This genetic link is the same reason a friend of mine ensured her now-28-year-old daughter tested for hypothyroidism.
Like my mother, my friend struggled for years to learn the cause of her fatigue and weight gain until she took a thyroid blood test. Her doctor kept brushing her symptoms off as something else, like menopause. After receiving a hypothyroid diagnosis, she did not want her daughter to go through the same years-long struggle. Ensuring her daughter had the information she needs about her thyroid health is especially important to her since undiagnosed thyroid disease puts patients at risk for other ailments like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, or infertility.
A note from Paloma Health
If your family has a history of thyroid conditions, make sure to discuss with your doctor to assess your risk and determine the next steps.
Start by taking a thyroid blood test to understand your thyroid function. Many labs only look at thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Still, it's also helpful to measure free triiodothyronine (fT3), free thyroxine (fT4), and TPO antibodies. These four markers help you understand the big picture of what's happening with your thyroid function and where specifically to make improvements.
Should your results show that your thyroid is underactive, it is treatable with thyroid hormone replacement medication. When choosing thyroid medication with your thyroid doctor, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment.
Work with a trustworthy thyroid doctor who can assess your symptoms, history, and lab results to determine the best treatment plan for you.