Thyroid Disease and the Rest of Your Body

As you know, the thyroid gland affects virtually every aspect of your well-being. So it should be no surprise that a sick thyroid can wreak havoc on many aspects of your health and put you at risk for other health problems. The ways in which thyroid disease can affect you are many and varied. Below is a partial list of some of the potentially major problems you might experience. Fortunately, most of these problems are resolved with prompt and proper treatment.

Eye Disease

The eyes are sensitive to the effects of thyroid hormone. Nowhere is that more apparent than in people who have hyperthyroidism. Almost everyone who has hyperthyroidism will develop a stare in which the eyes appear to have a wide-eyed, startled appearance.

People who have Graves' disease often develop a separate condition called thyroid eye disease, or infiltrative ophthalmology. A distinct bulging of the eyeball occurs as a result of swelling in the muscles around the eyes, which pushes the eyeball forward. Some people may have difficulty closing their eyes completely, which leads to redness and irritation of the eyeball.

In more severe cases, the eyes may not move in sync, and you may experience double vision. You may also notice that your eyes are more sensitive to light, and that they frequently feel gritty, dry, and irritated.

Cholesterol Levels

In people who have hypothyroidism, cholesterol levels may become elevated. In particular, an underactive thyroid raises levels of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that promotes heart disease.

Unless you have a blood test, you won't know that you have high cholesterol or that your LDL levels have gone up. But it's important to keep tabs on your cholesterol if you do have hypothyroidism. Cholesterol is the waxy fatlike substance that clogs arteries, and too much of it can lead to heart disease or even a heart attack.

Likewise, if blood tests show that you have high cholesterol, ask for a thyroid test as a follow-up. An underactive thyroid can make it hard for your body to metabolize. In fact, the average cholesterol level for someone with hypothyroidism is 250 mg/dL, well above the 200 mg/dL recommended for good health. Treating thyroid disease can lower your cholesterol.

Depression and Anxiety

The thyroid gland has a powerful effect on mood. Many people with thyroid disease may notice that they feel depressed. Depression is a serious mood disorder that frequently involves feelings of sadness, emptiness, helplessness, and hopelessness. You may withdraw from others and lose pleasure in activities you once enjoyed.

In people who have hyperthyroidism, the depression may coexist with major mood swings. Some people may experience bouts of mania and elation interspersed with erratic bouts of crying and sadness. The erratic moods may even cause bizarre behavior.

Some people with an overactive thyroid may experience anxiety, which can make you edgy, irritable, nervous, and fearful. Others may develop a panic disorder, which causes similar symptoms, such as heart palpitations, trouble catching your breath, numbness, and sweating or chills. In fact, some people may be diagnosed with panic disorder when the problem is really an overactive thyroid.

Heart Problems

A faulty thyroid gland can take a toll on the heart as well. A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people with even subclinical (mild) hypothyroidism had higher rates of heart disease. The risk for heart disease may be largely linked to higher cholesterol levels caused by even the slightest decrease in thyroid hormone levels.

Essential

Your pulse tells you how many times your heart beats in a minute. To take your pulse, place two fingers gently on the artery on the palm side of your wrist. Do not use your thumb, which has its own pulse. Count the number of beats in 30 seconds, and multiply it by two. A normal pulse is 50 to 100 beats per minute. To get your normal resting pulse, sit still for 10 minutes before taking your pulse.

In people with hyperthyroidism, the heart may beat too rapidly or erratically, causing palpitations. When the heart beats too fast and too strong for a long time, you may experience heart failure, a potentially fatal condition that causes shortness of breath, swelling, and fluid in your lungs.

In some cases, an overactive thyroid gland can lead to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm that raises your risk for spontaneous blood clots that could lead to a stroke. This condition is most common in people who already have a heart problem. It is quite serious and warrants attention from a cardiologist.

Weight Problems

For someone who always wanted to lose weight, an overactive thyroid might seem like a blessing at first. People with hyperthyroidism are prone to weight loss, even as their appetites surge. Sometimes, however, they may experience weight gain because they're eating so much to compensate for their body's demand for more energy. People who have hypothyroidism, on the other hand, tend to gain weight even as their appetite declines.

Other Problems

These are just a few of the more serious ways that a malfunctioning thyroid can affect your health. But thyroid disease can also affect many other aspects of your health, including your hair, skin, nails, digestive tract, and muscles. It can take a toll on your energy levels, your sleep habits, and your ability to concentrate. It can affect your fertility and make it difficult for you to get pregnant. If it goes untreated, it can eventually even affect your ability to function and perform your job.

In later chapters, you'll read about how the thyroid gland affects other parts of your body. But as you can see, the impact of the thyroid can affect your health in many ways. Again, the key to preventing problems from worsening is prompt diagnosis and treatment.

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