Affecting around 1 in 200, Grave’s disease is an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid, and happens to be the leading cause of hyperthyroidism. Find out if you have any of the red-flag symptoms – plus, we bust 10 dangerous myths plaguing the condition.
Though we think the name is pretty apt, it’s worth noting that it actually owes itself to Irish doctor Robert James Graves, who was one of the first to describe the disease in 1835. Despite its prevalence – even here in Australia, we’ve got around 3 in 1000 affected – there are several misconceptions about this condition. For instance, people often mistakenly associate thyroid disorders with older people, but Graves' Disease can affect people of all ages, including children.
Understanding Graves' Disease
Graves' Disease is a complex autoimmune disorder where the immune system erroneously attacks the thyroid gland, leading to an overproduction of thyroid hormones. This hormonal imbalance can wreak havoc on the body, affecting various systems and causing a range of symptoms. The thyroid hormones influence almost every cell and tissue in the body, and when their levels are disrupted, it can result in a wide array of health issues.
Recognising the Symptoms
Graves' Disease manifests through a combination of physical and psychological symptoms, making it challenging to diagnose. Common symptoms include:
Hyperactivity: People with Graves' Disease often experience a significant increase in energy levels, accompanied by restlessness, irritability, and difficulty sleeping.
Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss despite an increased appetite is another classic symptom. The excess thyroid hormones can lead to a high metabolic rate.
Goitre: An enlarged thyroid gland, known as a goitre, may develop, causing visible swelling at the base of the neck.
Eye Problems: Graves' Disease can lead to eye complications, such as bulging eyes (also known as exophthalmos), sensitivity to light, and vision changes.
Skin and Hair Issues: Some individuals may notice changes in their skin and hair, such as increased perspiration, hair thinning, and even vitiligo.
Cardiovascular Symptoms: Rapid heart rate, palpitations, and high blood pressure can occur.
Emotional Changes: Mood swings, anxiety, and depression are not uncommon.
Muscle Weakness: Some people may experience muscle weakness and tremors.
What Causes Graves' Disease?
The exact cause of Graves' Disease remains unclear, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors is believed to play a role. A family history of autoimmune disorders, such as thyroid disease or type 1 diabetes, can increase the risk. Stress, infections, and pregnancy have also been associated with the onset of Graves' Disease.
Taking Control and Seeking Treatment
Graves' Disease is a manageable condition. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential for helping individuals regain control over their health. Treatment options vary, and they may include medications, radioactive iodine therapy, or, in some cases, surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland.
Understanding Graves' Disease, its symptoms, and the available treatment options is the first step towards managing this condition effectively. If you suspect you or a loved one may be dealing with Graves' Disease, seek medical attention promptly. By addressing the condition early, you can minimise its impact and take charge of your wellbeing.
The Interplay of Diet + Graves’ Disease
As we mentioned above, the development and progression of Graves' Disease can be influenced by lifestyle factors, from high-sugar diets to excess stress.
Stress: High stress levels can exacerbate Graves' Disease symptoms. Stress triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, which can affect the immune system and potentially worsen autoimmune conditions. Managing stress through techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises may be helpful.
Diet: While sugar itself doesn't directly cause Graves' Disease, dietary factors can impact thyroid health. Some individuals with Graves' Disease may experience hyperactivity and increased appetite. Consuming a diet high in refined sugars and processed foods can lead to unstable blood sugar levels, mood swings, and energy crashes, making it important to focus on a balanced diet.
Smoking: Smoking is a known risk factor for Graves' Disease and can worsen eye symptoms associated with the condition. It can also interfere with the effectiveness of certain medications used to manage Graves' Disease.
Iodine Intake: High iodine intake can exacerbate thyroid problems in people with Graves' Disease. Reducing the consumption of iodine-rich foods like seaweed, iodised salt, and iodine supplements can help manage the condition.
Selenium: Some research suggests that selenium supplementation may help reduce the severity of Graves' Disease symptoms, particularly in relation to eye problems. However, it's essential to consult with a healthcare provider before taking any supplements, as excessive selenium intake can be harmful.
Sleep: Sleep plays a crucial role in managing autoimmune conditions. Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can lead to increased inflammation and immune system dysfunction. Prioritising good sleep hygiene is important for overall health, especially for those with Graves' Disease.
Busting 10 Myths Around Graves’ Disease
Myth #1: Graves' Disease is Just a Thyroid Problem.
Reality: While Graves' disease primarily affects the thyroid, it is an autoimmune disorder that involves the entire immune system. The immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid, leading to hyperthyroidism, but Graves' can also impact other organs and systems in the body.
Myth #2: Only Older Adults Get Graves' Disease.
Reality: Graves' disease can affect individuals of any age, including children and adolescents. While it is more commonly diagnosed in women and those aged 30 to 50, it can occur at any stage of life.
Myth #3: Graves' Disease is Always Genetic.
Reality: While there is a genetic predisposition to autoimmune diseases, including Graves' disease, it doesn't mean everyone with a family history will develop the condition. Environmental factors also play a role in triggering autoimmune responses, and we’re actually seeing a growing number of non-genetic cases of the disease with a 2.5% increase in 2021 alone.
Myth #4: All Hyperthyroidism is Graves' Disease.
Reality: Hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid, can have various causes, and Graves' disease is just one of them. Other conditions, such as toxic nodular goitre or thyroiditis, can also lead to hyperthyroidism.
Myth #5: Graves' Disease is Just a Women's Issue.
Reality: While women are more commonly affected by Graves' disease, men can also develop the condition. The gender ratio is approximately 10 women to every 1 man with Graves' disease.
Myth #6: Weight Loss is Always a Symptom.
Reality: While weight loss is a common symptom of Graves' disease, not everyone with the condition experiences this. Some individuals may even gain weight due to increased appetite and other metabolic changes.
Myth #7: Graves' Disease Can Be Cured with Medication Alone.
Reality: Medications like antithyroid drugs can help manage symptoms, but they may not provide a cure. Radioactive iodine treatment or surgery may be considered for a more definitive treatment, but these also come with their own considerations and potential side effects.
Myth #8: Graves' Disease Always Causes Eye Problems:
Reality: While Graves' ophthalmopathy, which affects the eyes, is a common feature, not everyone with Graves' disease develops eye problems - so if you don't present with the typical image of bulging eyes, that doesn't mean you can't still have Graves' disease. Even when present, eye symptoms can vary in severity.
Myth #9: Stress Alone Causes Graves' Disease.
Reality: Stress may trigger autoimmune responses, but Graves' disease has multifactorial causes. Genetics, environmental factors, and an individual's immune system all play roles in the development of the condition.
Myth #10: Graves' Disease Means a Lifetime of Severe Symptoms.
Reality: With proper management and treatment, individuals with Graves' disease can lead healthy lives. Symptoms can be controlled, and many people successfully manage the condition with medications, radioiodine therapy, or surgery.
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