"Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
- Mark Twain
While pregnant with my first daughter, a routine blood test revealed an elevated cholesterol level. Nine months after delivery I felt tired, my skin was dry, and I couldn't lose the remaining five pounds over my pre-pregnancy weight. My doctor ordered a blood panel and included the supersensitive TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) test for a thyroid deficiency. One week later, my results came back that my TSH was higher than normal. What did that mean?
Tucked below the Adam's apple area in the neck is your thyroid. It's a small butterfly-shaped gland that secretes two hormones: thyroxine, known as T4; and triiodothyronine, known as T3. Both 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. Fortunately, a simple and inexpensive blood test can determine your TSH levels to see if you have a thyroid deficiency.
The Thyroid Foundation estimates that 10 million Americans of all ages walk around with a thyroid deficiency and 8 million of us don't know we have it. It's an autoimmune disease that may be triggered by physical stress, emotional trauma, pregnancy, toxicity or may be inherited.
In Mary J. Shamon's book, Living Well with Hypothyroidism, females are 5 to 10 times more likely than males to have thyroid deficiency. 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 to check for thyroid deficiency. James Haddow of the Foundation for Blood Research found a direct link between thyroid deficiencies 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 midgestation. 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.
Some women develop postpartum thyroiditis, a short-lived Hashimoto's type of thyroiditis three to six months after childbirth. Postpartum thyroiditis may be the culprit to post-partum blues.
In older women, doctors see a general "failure" of the thyroid gland resulting in thyroid deficiency. An elevation of cholesterol can be one of the characteristics of an underactive thyroid gland. High cholesterol puts you at risk for hardening of the arteries and heart disease. Many women put on thyroid medication, notice their cholesterol levels decrease to healthy levels. My cholesterol level did lower to its normal range within six weeks after taking thyroid medication.
If a TSH is higher than 5 mU/L, most doctors will prescribe a thyroid hormone. The normal TSH level depends on the lab, but is generally between 0.1 and 5.5 mU/L. Many doctors treat patients with a thyroxine (T4) product to be taken once a day, usually in the morning and on an empty stomach. Three of the brand name synthetic supplemental thyroid hormone products are Synthroid, Levothroid, and Levoxyl to help those with thyroid deficiency. They normalize blood levels and help the patient feel better usually within one month. Most doctors will recheck TSH levels after the first 6 weeks on medication and then 6 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. This was once the most common form of thyroid therapy and has been around for over 100 years.
Beside medication, exercise should be incorporated in a treatment plan to improve circulation, tone the respiratory system, increase the 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 to improve their thyroid deficiency. Some Eastern medicine doctors believe acupressure at the thyroid site can bring down inflammation and balance the system.
Recently I became pregnant with our second child. I insisted my doctor order a TSH blood test at my first visit. Every three months, I had another test just to make sure my thyroid levels were normal. With daily thyroid medication, my thyroid and cholesterol levels never increased, and I delivered a healthy baby.
If you or a loved one suffers from fatigue, weight gain, high cholesterol, mood swings, or is preparing for pregnancy, request a TSH blood test at your next doctor's visit to check for thyroid deficiency. For more information, or a referral to a thyroid specialist, call the Thyroid Foundation of America at 1-800-832-8321.
The following books are about Thyroid disease and thyroid deficiency: Living Well with Hypothyroidism, by Mary Shamon; The Thyroid Solution, by Ridha Arem M.D.; The Thyroid Sourcebook for Women, by M. Sara Rosenthal