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The thyroid is a small hormone-producing gland located at the nape of your neck. Despite its size, its effects on your body are mighty, as it is the powerhouse that helps regulate your metabolism. And, when something is off with your thyroid, it can have severe consequences on your overall health. Unfortunately, many people spend years figuring out what is causing frustrating symptoms like weight gain, fatigue, and brain fog. But, knowing your risk for thyroid disease ahead of time can help you stay in front of complications and encourage both you and your doctor to oversee your thyroid function carefully. Here is what we know about how genes impact your risk for hypothyroidism.
Genetic testing is on the rise and is more accessible than ever. Big DNA testing companies help gather more and more data to help researchers analyze how our genetics play into certain diseases.
We know genetics largely determine the concentrations of hormones in our body, including thyroid hormones and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Indeed, some studies suggest that genetics are the basis for 67% of circulating thyroid hormone and TSH concentrations. These stats mean that we may have a specific set point for each of these hormones.
There are thyroid-specific gene SNPs on your DNA profile that can give you insight into your genetic risks of thyroid disease. These SNPs (pronounced "snips"), or single nucleotide polymorphisms, are common genetic variations among people. Each SNP expresses a difference in a single DNA building block, called a nucleotide.
If you're interested in your genetic profile and genetic risks, information from a genetic test like 23 and Me provides a wealth of information. You can order a 23 and Me with DNA from Amazon.
While genes play a significant role in many thyroid diseases, including cancer, other players like your age, sex, and environmental factors also exist.
The primary cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. In this condition, the immune system mistakenly attacks a healthy thyroid gland, which causes chronic inflammation and eventual failure of this gland.
In general, autoimmune disorders tend to travel in families, suggesting there is a strong genetic link. Indeed, some genes associated with thyroid diseases like hypothyroidism are located in a region of the genome that codes for immune function. What is more, most families that have autoimmune conditions don't have just one but have multiple. For example, some families may have Hashimoto's, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. Of course, not all individuals will have every condition, but it is common to have more than one condition in the same person.
Other factors may determine your risk for autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto's as well. For example, some studies show that approximately 20% of Hashimoto's cases link to environmental factors, including:
- Exposure to environmental radiation (not related to medical treatment)
- High iodine and selenium intake
- Viruses like herpes simplex, mumps, and Epstein-Barr
- Intestinal dysbiosis
- Low vitamin D levels
- Exposure to chemicals and heavy metals
Therefore, while heredity can significantly determine your risk for hypothyroidism and other thyroid conditions, it is not the only factor at play. And of course, some individuals who have a positive family history of thyroid problems may never develop any issues.
Often, we don't recognize a problem with our thyroid function until symptoms start to show up. Hypothyroidism is where the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone to sustain the metabolic demands on our body.
Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Cold intolerance
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Puffy face
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- Muscle aches, tenderness, stiffness
- Joint pain, stiffness, or swelling
- Heavy or irregular menstrual periods
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Mood swings
- Impaired memory
- Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)
If you have hypothyroidism, you will need to take medication to normalize thyroid hormone levels in your body. Finding the correct dose of thyroid medication can take some adjusting. Still, you usually can expect your symptoms to improve once you find the ideal type of medication and dosage for you.
Based on genetic studies alone, we cannot fully define a person's risk for developing a condition like hypothyroidism. Instead, we have to look at a person's family history and other risk factors and regularly assess thyroid function in at-risk individuals.
That means that we must make sure we get comprehensive thyroid testing as part of our health maintenance. Many doctors are not familiar or comfortable with ordering a complete thyroid function panel, making it challenging to get the whole picture of your thyroid health. Often, many doctors will only request a TSH test. Still, it is also essential to assess your free T4, free T3, and TPO antibodies, which can help determine autoimmune destruction of the thyroid gland.
To get a complete picture of your thyroid health, order a Paloma Health at-home thyroid test kit to understand your full thyroid function. And, if you struggle with thyroid symptoms or your thyroid function is not quite right, our thyroid doctors can help you create a personalized, integrative thyroid treatment plan.