We all have days when we’d rather veg out on the couch – if you constantly feel lethargic, however, or have low energy for more than a few weeks, it could be related to a thyroid problem.
“Your thyroid produces hormones, which help turn food into energy, so if there’s an imbalance in these chemicals, it can wreak havoc on energy levels,” says Dr Kiernan Hughes from Northern Endocrine in Sydney.
“When there’s too much of these hormones, it results in a condition known as hyperthyroidism, whereas too little causes hypothyroidism. Both can leave you feeling sluggish, but it’s more common with hypothyroidism,” naturopath Karina Francois explains.
While the effects of thyroid disorders are decidedly unpleasant – unexplained weight gain, swollen legs and brittle nails to name a few – Karina says the majority of conditions can easily be treated with medication and dietary changes.
“At the end of the day, your body is like a machine. If you put the right fuel into it, it generally responds really well,” she says.
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Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones for your body’s needs.
Hyperthyroidism happens when it becomes overactive and makes too much. While symptoms of the conditions vary, both can cause extreme fatigue.
Hypothyroidism, also referred to as an underactive thyroid, is when the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone, which causes your metabolism to become sluggish.
It can also affect your body’s core temperature, your heart function and how well you burn fat.
Dr Hughes says about 10 per cent of post-menopausal women have thyroid issues, but most instances remain undiagnosed.
“One of the major problems in diagnosing hypothyroidism is that it tends to come on very slowly, over many years,” he says. “The symptoms are often misdiagnosed or associated with other age-related changes such as menopause.”
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition in which immune cells attack the thyroid gland.
“Other reasons why your thyroid may not be working well include not having enough iodine in your diet, but it can also be caused by a viral infection or certain medications,” Dr Hughes says.
Women are three times more likely to develop hypothyroidism than men, and your risk is higher if you have a close family member who has an autoimmune disorder.
Although the symptoms of hypothyroidism can be vague, they often include extreme tiredness, constipation, depression, dry hair and brittle nails, sensitivity to cold weather and facial puffiness.
There may be so many vague symptoms that, Karina says, it’s not uncommon for people with hypothyroidism to feel like a completely different person.
“Women often speak about not feeling like themselves,” she explains. “They complain about losing the ‘spark’ and struggling to find motivation in everyday life. They also report feeling unexplained pain, stress and anxiety.”
One of the biggest challenges of identifying an underactive thyroid is that many of the symptoms mimic other common conditions. If you have any concerns, Dr Hughes recommends you consult your GP to check them out.
“If you’re experiencing prolonged symptoms and think it could be related to your thyroid, your doctor can order blood tests to check your hormone levels,” he says. “The initial test checks for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which evaluates how well your thyroid is working.”
If your results are abnormal, your GP will then check what’s going on with specific thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) to see if you may have an autoimmune disease, such as Hashimoto’s. As a rule, lower than normal T4 levels usually mean you have hypothyroidism.
If you’re diagnosed with a thyroid condition, your doctor will most likely prescribe medication for you to take daily.
“The most recommended drug for hypothyroidism is a synthetic form of thyroid hormone,” Dr Hughes explains. This will need to be monitored by your GP and the dose reviewed.
In addition to taking medication, there are many natural ways to treat or preserve thyroid function, such as eating more iodine-rich foods (sushi with seaweed is ideal) and boosting your dietary intake of trace elements, such as selenium and copper (you’ll find them in seafood, shiitake mushrooms, nuts and seeds).
Karina says certain natural remedies can also play quite a significant role in improving thyroid function when used in conjunction with conventional medicine.
“With the help of herbal supplements, it’s possible to reset your thyroid and see an improvement in vitality in as little as a few months,” she says.
Just be sure that your doctor is aware of any prescribed medications, herbs or supplements you might be taking because some can interfere with how well your body absorbs your prescription medication.