By Jill Weinlien

Fatigue, mood swings, dry skin, weight gain:Annoyed with your Thyroid?

  |  Women's Health  

During my pregnancy, a routine blood test revealed that my cholesterol was above normal. A year after the birth of my daughter, I felt tired, my skin was dry and I couldn't lose the remaining five pounds over my pre-pregnancy weight. I attributed this to being in my mid-30s and recently having a baby. When my HMO plan changed, I had to find a new doctor. I chose a woman GP who specialized in endocrinology. She ordered a blood panel and included the supersensitive TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) test. When the results came back, my TSH was higher than normal. She wanted to retest in two weeks. Again, my TSH was high. What did this mean? Tucked below the Adam's apple area in the neck is the thyroid, a small H-shaped gland that secretes two hormones: thyroxine, known as T4; and triiodothyronine, known as T3. They help regulate metabolism, digestion, body temperature and heartbeat. These chemical messages keep the brain, heart, liver, kidney, skin and bones healthy. TSH is a product of the pituitary gland that stimulates the thyroid to produce its hormone. If your TSH level rises, it's because your thyroid gland is underactive. Some of the symptoms may include fatigue, memory loss, decreased concentration, mild depression, muscle cramps, dry skin, constipation, hair loss, and weight gain. Females are 5 to 10 times more likely than males to have a thyroid disorder. "By age 60, 17 percent of women have thyroid problems," according to Dr. Loren Wissner Greene, endocrinologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU. Researchers believe that it runs in families, and may lead to heart disease and high cholesterol. An elevation of cholesterol is one of the characteristics of an underactive thyroid gland. High cholesterol puts you at risk for hardening of the arteries and heart disease. The Thyroid Foundation estimates that millions of Americans walk around with an underactive thyroid. It is an autoimmune disease that may be triggered by physical stress, emotional trauma, or it may be inherited. Many of us live with the symptoms of hypothyroidism but feel that fatigue is part of aging, menopause, or just plain overwork. Fortunately, a simple and inexpensive blood test can determine your TSH levels. In Mary J. Shomon's book, Living Well with Hypothyroidism, younger women experiencing irregular menstrual periods or having difficulty conceiving should have their TSH levels tested. Both are common among women with hypothyroidism. Pregnant women should insist on a TSH test during their first trimester. James Haddow of the Foundation for Blood Research found a direct link between thyroid deficiency in pregnant women and how well their children performed on language, intelligence and motor coordination tests. Researchers found that a fetus obtains thyroxine entirely from its mother until mid-gestation. Evidence indicates that a developing brain requires this thyroid hormone from the first trimester of gestation. Without proper levels, the child may have delayed psychomotor development. "During a normal pregnancy, women who are already on thyroid medication often have to increase their dose as estrogen levels rise in pregnancy," states Dr. Greene. After childbirth, the mother should have a TSH blood test to monitor her levels. "Postpartum thyroiditis occurs in 5-15 percent of all pregnancies." Some women develop postpartum thyroiditis three to six months after childbirth. It's an inflammation of the thyroid gland and may be a culprit to postpartum blues. Often women don't realize what is wrong with them, because the symptoms are mild. "If their TSH is higher than 5 MU/L, thyroid hormone should be given," believes Dr. Greene. The normal TSH level depends on the lab, but is generally between 0.1 and 5.5 MU/L. Doctors treat patients with a thyroxine (T4) product to be taken once a day, usually in the morning and before a meal. (Three of the brand name synthetic supplemental thyroid hormone products are Synthroid, Levothroid and Levoxyl. They normalize blood levels and usually help the patient feel better within one month). Most doctors will recheck TSH levels after the first six weeks on medication and then six months later until the proper dose is established. TSH levels should be measured annually, with yearly check-ups. A more natural option, called Armour Thyroid, is a desiccated thyroid preparation extracted from pigs. Once the most common form of thyroid therapy, today many doctors resist treating a patient with an animal product because there are variable levels of T4 and T3 depending on the levels in the pigs used in making the pills. Exercise should be incorporated in a treatment plan to improve circulation, tone the respiratory system, increase exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, stimulate endorphins in the brain, neutralize stress, enhance immune function, and create a feeling of well being. Acupuncture has helped some women stimulate thyroid function. New York City, acupuncturist Stefano Vitale treats hypothyroid patients with acupressure and herbs. "Acupressure at the site can bring down inflammation and balance the system," he says. Dr. Vitale believes specific herbs in tablet or capsule form can "increase energy, balance the thyroid and allow the body to neutralize." Dr. Vitale believes each patient is different and should be evaluated by a professional before they begin taking herb supplements. Dr. Peter J.D'Adamo, in his book, Eating Right For Your Type, believes "people with Type O blood typically suffer from hypothyroidism and should consume seafood as an excellent source of iodine which regulates thyroid function." If you suffer from fatigue, weight gain, high cholesterol, mood swings or dryness of the skin, insist on a TSH blood test at your next doctor's appointment. For free information, or a referral to a thyroid specialist, call the Thyroid Foundation of America at 1-800-832-8321.