Affecting 1 in 7 Australians, thyroid disease is widespread across the country. We’ll be diving into the variety of conditions that fall under this banner and the major signs and symptoms to look out for.
Before we talk about the symptoms of thyroid disease, it’s worth unpacking what it actually entails, from autoimmune disease to the most common thyroid disorder in Australia; hypothyroidism. These are just a few of the thyroid disorders afflicting people around the globe:
- Hypothyroidism: Affecting 1 in 33 Australians, hypothyroidism involves an underactive thyroid gland that doesn't produce enough thyroid hormones. This can be caused by autoimmune diseases, radiation therapy, surgical removal of the thyroid gland or iodine deficiency.
- Hyperthyroidism: This is an overactive thyroid gland that produces too much thyroid hormone. This can be caused by autoimmune diseases, such as Graves' disease, or the growth of non-cancerous tumours on the thyroid gland. It affects 1 in 250 Aussies, making it less common than its counterpart, hypothyroidism.
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis: This autoimmune disorder causes inflammation of the thyroid gland, leading to an underactive thyroid.
- Graves' disease: This autoimmune disorder leads to overactivity of the thyroid gland, leading to hyperthyroidism.
- Thyroid nodules: These are growths or lumps on the thyroid gland. Most nodules are benign, but some can be cancerous.
- Thyroid cancer: This is a rare type of cancer that affects the thyroid gland.
- Thyroid storm: This is a rare and life-threatening complication of hyperthyroidism that causes a sudden and severe increase in thyroid hormones.
Let’s take a look at some of the signs you could be dealing with thyroid disease – but remember, not all thyroid diseases have symptoms, and some symptoms may overlap between different types of thyroid disease. If you're experiencing any symptoms or have concerns about your thyroid health, it's important to talk to your doctor. They can perform tests to diagnose the type of thyroid disease you have and recommend appropriate treatment.
Fatigue and weakness
Feeling tired and sluggish, even after getting plenty of rest, is a common symptom of an underactive thyroid. This is because the thyroid hormones help regulate your body's energy levels, so when these hormones get thrown out of whack, we can end up with a whole host of knock-on effects with our sleep-wake cycle. After all, it’s all connected! From the gut to the brain to the skin, we can see the ripples in real time. An underactive thyroid is also known to cause muscle weakness, further contributing to fatigue and making it difficult to perform daily tasks.
Unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight despite a healthy diet and regular exercise could be a sign of an underactive thyroid. On the other hand, sudden weight loss can be a sign of an overactive thyroid. It’s worth noting that unexplained weight changes are usually a sign for concern and can indicate any manner of disease, so if this is hitting home, it’s worth getting checked out by your doctor.
Damaged hair and skin
An underactive thyroid can cause hair loss or dry, brittle hair, as well as dry, itchy skin. This is because thyroid hormones influence the hair growth cycle, including the growth phase, known as anagen, along with the resting phase, known as telogen, and the shedding phase, known as exogen. In hypothyroidism, the hair growth cycle can be disrupted, leading to premature shedding of hair and decreased hair density.
If you’re dealing with an overactive thyroid, you might notice thinning hair and a flushed, oily complexion.
Mood swings and poor mental health
Depression and anxiety can be symptoms of thyroid disease, as can irritability and nervousness. Research shows that hormones and neurotransmitters like somatostatin and serotonin play a major role in mental health, and hypothyroidism is known to throw them into chaos – it’s why undiagnosed and untreated patients with the disease have a higher risk for mental health disorders. Studies have found that hypothyroidism is one of the biggest causes of treatment-resistant depression, proving how deeply interwoven the two conditions are and why diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disease is so important. Women are especially at risk of thyroid-related depression, according to research.
Autoimmune thyroiditis is another condition that can raise your risk for depression, with some studies suggesting it’s the elevated thyroid-stimulating hormone, also known as TSH, that has been associated with depression. Like many conditions, thyroid disease is rarely isolated to just the thyroid, with its knock-on effects spreading throughout the body in physical and mental capacities.
Changes in menstrual cycle
Irregular periods, heavy bleeding, or a shorter or lighter menstrual cycle than usual can be a sign of thyroid disease. This is often due to elevated levels of the hormone prolactin, leading to the thinning of the uterine lining and may even stop periods entirely.
Feeling cold all the time or having difficulty tolerating cold temperatures can be a sign of an underactive thyroid, while feeling hot and sweating excessively can be a sign of an overactive thyroid.
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