thyroid problems

Good news! It’s not your thyroid – Dr Rachael Sutherland

Doctor Google, the arch enemy of any respectable GP, often blames thyroid problems for common poor health symptoms.

Your thyroid is an interesting little fellow. It’s the butterfly shaped gland in your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. The ‘wings’ of the thyroid wrap around your windpipe.

Thyroid location

Its job is to regulate your metabolism. It does this by releasing thyroid hormones that are carried to every cell in your body. Too much of any thyroid hormone speeds up your metabolism, known as hyperthyroidism. Too little slows down your metabolism, known as hypothyroidism.

The ‘dreaded’ symptoms

Both conditions cause symptoms identical to what a perfectly healthy person may occasionally experience.

Hyperthyroidism symptoms include:

  • weight loss
  • sensitivity to heat
  • heart palpitations
  • anxiety
  • tremors
  • insomnia.

Hypothyroidism symptoms include:

  • weight gain
  • sensitivity to the cold
  • fatigue
  • dry skin
  • constipation
  • depression.

Exhibiting these symptoms doesn’t mean you have either disease – contrary to what many wellness bloggers, Instagram health influencers and Doctor Google might have you believe. Unsurprisingly, their ‘diagnosis’ typically comes with the pushing of expensive detox formulations or herbal supplements. Some healing crystals perhaps? Um, no thanks.

More often than not, the above symptoms are caused by factors unrelated to your thyroid. Hypothyroidism, as an example, affects around 6-10% of women under 65 years old1. My guess is ten times this amount of women experience weight gain, dry skin or constipation throughout life.

I’m certainly not suggesting you ignore signs of poor health; far from it in fact. If you exhibit multiple indicators at the same time, or if your body is just telling you something is wrong, hotfoot it to your GP ASAP.

Diagnosis and treatment is pretty straightforward

Your GP will examine you thoroughly. They’ll discuss your health, family history and eliminate any obvious lifestyle factors that may be causing symptoms.

Too much or too little iodine can be the culprit. The thyroid uses iodine to make thyroid hormones.

If either disease is suspected, diagnosis and treatment are relatively easy.

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) is primarily diagnosed through blood tests that check for high levels of thyroid hormones.

We’ll also measure your thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. Secreted from the pituitary gland, TSH stimulates your thyroid to produce hormones. Low blood levels of TSH may suggest your thyroid is producing too much hormone by itself.

Treatment methods vary depending on the cause and severity of the disease. They include anti-thyroid drugs, radioactive iodine therapy (yes, it’s perfectly safe) or, in extreme cases, surgery.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism (an under active thyroid) can again be diagnosed through blood tests, as well as ultrasound or radioactive iodine scans.

I see many more cases in women than men, especially older ladies. It’s also very common in pregnant women.

Hypothyroidism is easily treated with hormone replacement tablets.

Sometimes the disease is caused by an iodine deficiency. A diet that includes fish, seaweed, eggs and dairy can help maintain healthy iodine levels.

Beware of the many thyroid supplements and iodine boosters on the market. The problem with these is that taking too much iodine can lead to hyperthyroidism.

Did you know?
Australian soils are so deficient in iodine that bakers are required to include iodised salt in their products? This aims to help maintain healthy iodine levels in the population. Organic bakers are exempt.

So, don’t panic if you exhibit symptoms like those listed above. Chances are it has absolutely nothing to do with a poorly functioning thyroid.

Like all good GPs, my door is always open to all concerns about your health, no matter how small or what the cause. A wonderful part of my job is reassuring patients they have nothing to worry about and will live to see another day.

And maybe give Doctor Google the flick. I reckon he should’ve been de-registered years ago.

1 https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/thyroid-hypothyroidism

Dr Rachael Sutherland is a senior GP at Doctors of South Melbourne. She has extensive experience in treating thyroid conditions and has a special interest in women’s health. You can book an appointment with Rachael here.