Women can experience a myriad of health problems, when the thyroid gland is not functioning properly. Thyroid is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland, that is located at the base of the neck, just below the Adam's apple. Thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) are the hormones produced by this gland, which are responsible for regulating almost all aspects of metabolism. The secretion of these hormones by the thyroid gland is controlled by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus first signals the pituitary gland to release the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH or thyrotropin), which in turn, induces the thyroid gland to release T3 and T4 hormones. An underactive thyroid gland cannot make enough of T3 and T4 hormones, which can have an adverse effect on metabolism. An underproduction of thyroid hormones can produce a wide range of symptoms in women. Women have a greater risk for developing hypothyroidism and it has been observed that, they are four times more likely to develop an underactive thyroid gland, as compared to men. Further, the risk increases with age. The incidence of hypothyroidism or an underactive thyroid gland, is more among women older than 50 years.
Symptoms of an Underactive Thyroid Gland
In the initial stage of hypothyroidism, women may not observe any symptom, or experience some vague symptoms, like tiredness and depression, which they may attribute to aging. The symptoms of hypothyroidism usually develop slowly over a period of time. Basically, the symptoms are produced by a slowdown in the rate of metabolism, due to a low level of thyroid hormones. A few of the most common underactive thyroid symptoms in women are discussed below.
Women with an underactive thyroid can put on weight, even after following a healthy and balanced diet. This happens due a slowdown in the rate of metabolism, as the thyroid gland is not producing enough thyroid hormones required to maintain the normal rate.
Changes in Heart Rate
Thyroid hormones are responsible for regulating heart rate and hence, a low level of thyroid hormones can make the heart to beat slowly.
Fatigue or tiredness is one of the most common complaints among women having hypothyroidism. A deficiency of thyroid hormones can lower the energy level, for which the affected individual can feel tired or sluggish, even after taking adequate rest. Constant tiredness may eventually affect mood and cause depression in some women.
Hair loss is the symptom, that one can experience with both hyper- and hypothyroidism. Women may experience hair loss on the scalp and the eyebrows, because of thyroid problems. However, hair can grow back, once the condition is treated.
An increased sensitivity to cold is often observed in women with hypothyroidism. The thyroid hormones help maintain a constant body temperature and so, a deficiency of these hormones can result in cold intolerance.
Both hyperthyroidism and an underactive thyroid gland can cause menstrual irregularities in women. Women with an underactive thyroid gland may experience heavier than normal menstrual periods, or frequent and longer periods.
An Enlarged Thyroid (Goiter)
Sometimes, the thyroid gland can enlarge, when there is an insufficient production of thyroid hormones. When the level of thyroid hormones are too low, the pituitary gland increases the production of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), so as to induce the thyroid gland to release T3 and T4 hormones. This constant stimulation can however, cause the gland to enlarge.
Hypothyroidism can slow down the entire process of digestion, which can cause constipation in some individuals. An underactive thyroid can slow down the movement of stool in the digestive tract. When stool remains in the colon for too long, more water is reabsorbed from it, causing it to harden and dry up.
Dry and Pale Skin
Hypothyroidism can cause skin dryness, which in turn, may raise the risk for developing dermatitis. Additionally, the skin can become cold and pale. The skin of the soles and palms can become extremely dry and thick, due to an underactive thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism can also cause carotenemia, where the skin can turn yellow due to a problem in vitamin A metabolism.
Edema or Fluid Retention
Hypothyroidism slows down many functions of the body, including the functions of the lymphatic system. Lymphatic system is concerned with the collection and transportation of fluid, from the intercellular spaces in the tissues to the bloodstream. When the lymphatic system is not working at its regular speed, fluid can accumulate inside the tissues and cause edema. This can become evident in swelling, especially in the hands, arms, ankles, and feet. Edema can also cause puffiness of the face.
Other Common Symptoms
Other common symptoms of an underactive thyroid in women are:
✦ Coarse and brittle hair
✦ Brittle nails
✦ Low blood pressure
✦ Muscle aches and weakness
✦ Muscle cramps
✦ Joint pain and stiffness
✦ Carpal tunnel syndrome
✦ Slow and sluggish reflexes
✦ Decreased sweating
✦ Loss of sex drive
If the condition remains untreated, then one can experience the following symptoms in the later stage.
✦ Hoarseness of the voice
✦ Slow speech
✦ Decreased taste and smell
✦ Thinning of the eyebrows
✦ Puffy face and hands
✦ Slurred speech
✦ Memory loss and confusion (in the elderly)
Women can sometimes develop hypothyroidism during or after pregnancy. The most commonly observed symptoms for this type of hypothyroidism are:
✦ Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
✦ An enlarged thyroid gland
✦ Problems with memory and concentration
Causes of Hypothyroidism
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is the autoimmune condition, known as, Hashimoto's disease. In this disease, the tissues of the thyroid gland are attacked and destroyed by the immune system, but what exactly triggers such an immune response is not known accurately. At times, radioactive iodine and other anti-thyroid medications, used for the treatment of hyperthyroidism, can lead to hypothyroidism.
Some other risk factors for an underactive thyroid gland are, receiving radiation therapy for treating cancer of the head and neck, thyroid surgery, a personal or family history of autoimmune diseases, Down syndrome, iodine deficiency, pituitary disorders, and the use of medications like lithium and amiodarone. Some women can develop hypothyroidism during pregnancy, while others can get it after delivery too.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The diagnosis typically involves physical examination of the thyroid gland and blood test, to determine the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine. Hypothyroidism is usually treated with the medicine, levothyroxine, which is a synthetic thyroid hormone. Physicians usually recommend a low dose of this thyroid replacement drug in the initial stage, and observe how well the patient responds. Blood tests are then carried out every 2-3 months, to check the level of TSH hormone, in order to determine the correct dose of levothyroxine.
Once the correct dose is ascertained, blood tests are carried out once in a year to find out whether the dosage needs to be changed. Levothyroxine usually does not cause any side effect, if administered in the correct doses. A low or high dose of levothyroxine can however, cause several side effects. If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to several complications, out of which, heart problems, infertility, goiter, and an increased risk for infections, are worth mentioning.
Women with an underactive thyroid gland are more likely to give birth to babies with birth defects. The risk of miscarriage is also more in such women. Early diagnosis and treatment can however, help avoid the complications associated with untreated hypothyroidism. Therefore, it is very important not to neglect the symptoms of an underactive thyroid gland. Symptoms like continuous fatigue, muscle and joint pain, excessively coarse or brittle hair and nails, should be properly evaluated with the help of a physician, in order to ensure prompt diagnosis and treatment of this condition.Disclaimer
: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be considered as a substitute for professional medical advice.