According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), 27 million Americans have thyroid disease, but more than half remain undiagnosed. The reason? Doctors often confuse thyroid symptoms with other diseases that carry similar symptoms, and testing processes can be antiquated and inaccurate (see “Simple Steps to Accurate Testing,”). Doctors also tend to overlook thyroid disease because, unlike heart disease or diabetes, thyroid problems rarely kill you, and symptoms are non-specific. Even thyroid cancer is one of the most survivable cancers because it grows so slowly. “Some people refer to it as the ‘good cancer,’ which drives thyroid patients crazy,” Shomon says.
But thyroid disease, which includes hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, goiters, and nodules, can cause serious health risks besides cancer. The tiny, butterfly-shaped thyroid gland at the base of your throat produces hormones that control every function in your body. “Thyroid hormone improves mood, skin, hair, nails, sex drive, heart function, cholesterol, infertility, and hormonal symptoms such as PMS and menopause. It influences muscle aches, joint pain, body temperature, and metabolism,” says Mark Hyman, MD, founder and director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and author of The Ultra Thyroid Solution.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reported that hypothyroidism, or under-functioning thyroid, not only contributes to 60 percent of heart attacks in women, but the condition is more of a risk factor for cardiovascular events than smoking, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Thyroid problems have also been linked to birth defects, and studies show that 6 percent of miscarriages are caused by hypothyroidism. What’s more, research has found that children born to hypothyroid mothers have an average IQ 7 points lower than kids born to mothers with normally functioning thyroids and are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade due to learning disabilities. In addition, hypothyroidism has been associated with fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, and depression, according to Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, medical director of the national Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) is just as problematic and can lead to congestive heart failure, osteoporosis, and prediabetes.
Do You Have Thyroid Disease?
- have thick or brittle fingernails?
- have dry skin or frequently irritated eyes?
- have a hoarse voice?
- have thinning hair, hair loss, or coarse hair?
- have thinning of the outer third of your eyebrows?
- have cold hands and feet?
- sweat excessively?
- have excess fatigue?
- have irregularities in your menstral cycle?
- have a low sex drive?
- have severe menopausal or PMS symptoms?
- have frequently swollen hands and feet?
- have blood pressure or heart-rate problems?
- have high cholesterol?
- have trouble remembering or concentrating?
- have changes in weight for no apparent reason?
- have depression, moodiness, anxiety, or irritability?
- have muscle fatigue, pain, or weakness?
- have a diagnosed autoimmune disease?
- have a history of radiation treatments?
- have a history of exposure to toxins?
- have a family history of thyroid problems?
- If you answered “yes” to fewer than two questions, your thyroid is probably healthy.
- If you answered “yes” to 2 to 4 questions, you’re at mild risk for thyroid problems.
- If you answered “yes” to 4 or more questions, you have a significant risk of thyroid problems.
If you suspect a thyroid problem, the first thing your doctor will probably do is order a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) blood test. The higher your score, the more likely you are to be hypothyroid. But this test is a big reason why so many people with thyroid problems remain undiagnosed. Most doctors consider normal TSH levels to be from 0.5 to 5 mIU/L, but the American Academy of Clinical Endocrinologists believes this range doesn’t account for mild thyroid disorders and recommends levels between 0.3 and 3. Some alternative-medicine practitioners think any score higher than 2 indicates hypothyroidism.