Are you tired all the time? Are you gaining weight even though you don’t overeat? Do you have brittle nails and dry skin? If you notice these things happening and you don’t know why, it could be that you have an underactive thyroid gland. A lot of women have this condition, especially older women, although it remains undiagnosed for most of them. Some men have it too, as do children and babies.
The medical term for an underactive thyroid gland is hypothyroidism (“hypo” is a prefix meaning “low” or “below normal”). It is estimated that about 2% of women and less than 0.5% of men in the United States have hypothyroidism. Babies and children can have it too, but it is more common among women aged 60 years and above. Up to one-tenth of all women in this age range have symptoms of this disease.
In hypothyroidism, the problem is an impaired thyroid gland that does not produce enough thyroid hormone. This affects how energy is processed and utilized by the body.
Let’s take a closer look at the root of this illness: the thyroid gland. This is a butterfly-shaped gland found in the lower front part of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple in men. It is the largest of all endocrine glands in the body. Like other glands, the thyroid gland secretes hormones. The main hormones it produces are called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), or simply thyroid hormones. As these hormones circulate through the bloodstream, they affect the whole body, including vital organs such as the heart and the brain and large areas like the skin and muscles. The greatest impact of the hormones is on the body’s metabolism. Hypothyroidism slows down metabolism, the body’s built-in mechanism to produce and utilize energy. With insufficient thyroid hormones, the body makes less energy, which explains why a person with this condition gets tired very easily. His body also has a harder time burning down calories, which is why he tends to gain weight quickly. The simple fact is that a sluggish metabolism affects practically all the processes that take place in our body. Heart rate, breathing, digestion, temperature regulation, mental processes and growth are all adversely affected by a slow metabolism.
The opposite of all this can happen in another health condition called hyperthyroidism (“hyper” means “over” or “above.”). Here, there is an overproduction of thyroid hormone, resulting in a faster-than-normal metabolism. Energy is quickly produced and also quickly used by the body, hence the person with hyperthyroidism appears hyperactive and needs to eat often to replenish his energy. But he does not gain weight despite eating a lot. Hypothyroidism is a more common ailment than this reverse condition called hyperthyroidism.