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Tired and putting on weight? It could be YOUR THYROID; Mood swings, dry skin, a fluctuating waistline and always feeling exhausted... just part of being a woman, right? We're used to putting up with all sorts of gripes without bothering a doctor, but for as many as 1 in 50, these could actually be the symptoms of a more serious problem.

The thyroid is a butterflyshaped gland in your neck that produces two hormones - thyroxine and triiodothyronine - which are vital for controlling your metabolism. And as Dr Mark Vanderpump, president of the British Thyroid Association, explains, 'When everything's running smoothly, we're not aware it's even there, but when something goes wrong, the gland can produce too much or too little hormone. While in some people this can cause minor symptoms, in others the effects can be devastating, requiring lifetime treatment,' says Mark. Here we help you spot the signs.

Underactive thyroid


Around 15 in every 10,000 women suffer with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). 'Sometimes your body picks a fight with its own organs, and produces an antibody that attacks your thyroid gland (autoimmune thyroiditis),' explains Mark. 'When this happens your gland doesn't produce enough thyroxin, which can have all sorts of effects.' Although autoimmune thyroiditis is the most common cause, treatment for an overactive thyroid can also bring it on.


A blood test will measure your hormone levels, and hormone-replacement tablets can be used to make up for short falls. 'It can take a few months for the benefits to be seen, although some sufferers say they feel the effects straight away. The dose may need to be altered over time and patients can be on them for life. Fortunately, there's no evidence of long-term side effects,' says Mark.


Feeling exhausted all the time? Tiredness is one of the main symptoms, which is why sufferers and doctors can often confuse it with something else. 'Thyroxin is important for all sorts of functions in the body, and when levels are depleted the symptoms can appear straight away or months later,' explains Mark. They include weight gain, depression, dry and scaly skin, brittle hair and nails, loss of libido and irregular or heavy periods. 'Some people may get all of these, some just one or two, and they tend to become more severe over time.'

'I was so tired I fell asleep at the wheel'

Diane Mitchell, 48, a foster carer from Blackpool, says

'I'd always been pretty slim, but after I had my two children I couldn't shift the baby weight. Then in the shower, my hair started falling out in clumps, I developed dry skin and cracked nails, and felt so tired I fell asleep at the wheel of my car. I woke up as it dangerously swerved into the pavement.

Doctors put it down to being a new mum at first, but luckily when the symptoms carried on, my GP checked my hormone levels. My thyroid was underactive and I was immediately prescribed thyroxin tablets. It took a few months for them to kick in, but once they did, I lost the weight and started to feel more energetic.

I'll need to be on medication for the rest of my life, and recently I've developed inflammatory arthritis - a common side effect of hypothyroidism. I've also become tired again, so I'm booked in to see a specialist and hope there's something they can do to rebalance the levels.'

Overactive thyroid


Sometimes your thyroid gland goes into overdrive and produces too much hormone (hyperthyroidism). In fact, this is so common it affects 1 in 50 women, but it can be more difficult to treat. 'An overactive thyroid can be caused by a number of conditions,' explains Mark. 'Often it's down to Graves' disease - an autoimmune condition where your body attacks itself - but it can also be caused by nodules on the gland, or as a reaction to supplements or medication. In very rare cases it can be down to thyroid cancer.'


Many of the symptoms mimic those of an underactive thyroid - talk about confusing! 'There are what we call the most common symptoms, such as feeling tired all the time, mood swings, weight gain, heart palpations, sweating and lighter periods,' says Mark. 'But there are also signs that are quite unique to an overactive thyroid condition. These can include bulging eyes and a swelling in the neck.'


After a blood test measures your hormone levels, further tests, including a thyroid scan, may be needed to work out exactly what's causing the problem. 'The most common treatment is tablets to stop your gland producing excess thyroxine or triiodothyronine,' says Mark. 'Radiotherapy may also be used to shrink the gland, so it doesn't overproduce. This is a one-off treatment that gives you the equivalent radiation of three X-rays, but it doesn't tackle the root cause, so symptoms can reappear at any time. A permanent solution is surgery to remove all or part of the gland, although this will make you permanently underactive and needing hormone-replacement tablets for life.'


Mark says: 'There isn't a lot you can do to prevent thyroid issues, but research has linked smoking to Graves' disease, in particular the bulgy eyes side effect, so stopping smoking can help.

'Also, watch your stress levels and keep your immune system as healthy as possible, with a vitamin-packed diet and exercise. Finally, avoid taking kelp, seaweed or iodine supplements unless prescribed by a doctor, as these can cause problems.'

'My overactive thyroid left me in A&E'

Hayley Ebdon, 46, a teaching assistant from Somerset, says...

'When I first developed symptoms, I put them down to the menopause. I was having hot flushes, feeling blue and occasionally it was like my heart was racing. Two years ago I had such bad palpitations I called an ambulance. In hospital, I was diagnosed with an overactive thyroid caused by Graves' disease. Doctors put me on drugs to control the levels, but I put on 2 stone and knew it wasn't the right solution.

Having read up on radiation therapy, I opted for surgery to remove my thyroid. The operation took four hours, with a two-week recovery time. Without the gland I'll be counted as suffering from an underactive thyroid for the rest of my life, but this is more easily controlled with thyroxin drugs. Although it was a serious procedure, I'm glad there's no risk of my symptoms returning.'


Did you know that 1 in 3,500 babies are born without a thyroid? Others struggle with a slightly under or overactive one. A heel pin-prick test done by the midwife at around five days old should pick up any problems, and medication (in liquid or tablet form) can be used to restore the balance.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Oct 19, 2014
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