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Thyroid at Root of Many Symptoms

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WebMD Health News

Gaining weight, losing weight, exhaustion, the blahs, anxiousness, insomnia, constipation, hair loss, dry skin, pounding heart, infertility -- just about any ailment that can plague a woman often can be traced back to a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the neck called the thyroid. More than 13 million Americans have thyroid problems, and half do not know it.

There is a laundry list of symptoms associated with both hypothyroidism (underactive) and hyperthyroidism (overactive). However, Elizabeth Lee Vliet, MD, an internist in Dallas and author of Screaming to be Heard: Hormone Connections Women Suspect, and Doctors Still Ignore and Women, Weight and Hormones, says none of this is as clear cut as many doctors think. For one thing, she says, the thyroid regulates every cell in the body, including the ovarian hormones, and the secondary effects of an imbalance in these hormones can exacerbate problems with the hormones secreted by the thyroid.

What Goes Wrong

Perhaps for this reason, women are five to seven times more likely than men to experience thyroid problems. As many as 10% develop a thyroid problem after giving birth. The most common single disorder is an autoimmune problem (in which the body "fights" itself) called Hashimoto's disease, which results in underactive thyroid. Women with other autoimmune disorders are at prime risk for some form of thyroid dysfunction. "There is also evidence," Vliet says, "that pollutants such as PCBs and dioxin can damage the thyroid gland [in the womb]." Other culprits are radiation to the neck area and certain medications.

Symptoms

Most women suffering from hypothyroidism, says Mary Shomon, author of Living Well With Hypothyroidism: What the Doctor Doesn't Tell You ... That You Need to Know, go to the doctor because they are fatigued. "You sleep 10 hours and then need a nap," she says. Other symptoms are weight gain or inability to lose weight, feeling cold, constipation, dry skin, dry hair, hair loss (eyebrows, too), high cholesterol that doesn't submit to drugs or diet, drastically reduced sex drive, and brain fog. Hypothyroidism can also prevent you from getting or staying pregnant and cause a full-feeling neck, swollen hands and feet, muscle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, or other tendinitis. In short, you may feel lousy.

In the case of an overabundance of thyroxin flooding through the system and supercharging every cell to an unhealthy degree, the result can be another autoimmune disorder called Grave's disease. Although late in the progression you may lose weight, Vliet says, at first you will be gaining just as with hypothyroidism. Other symptoms apart from the dry hair and skin and hair loss include a restlessness, inner tension, tossing and turning, and an agitated sort of depression. Despite the misdirected energy, fatigue is a symptom of an overactive thyroid, too. Having hyperthyroidism, Vliet says, is like sitting in park with your foot on the accelerator. Sometimes Grave's disease causes the eyes to bulge slightly. (Graves, Vliet says, is also related to postpartum psychosis in which the ovarian hormones join with the thyroid hormones to produce psychiatric symptoms.)

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