The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Mark Hyman, MD Headshot

Hypothyroidism: How Your Thyroid Can Make You Sick, Tired, And Overweight

Posted: Updated:

Are you one of the 30 million women and 15 million men who have a chronic medical problem that is both under-diagnosed and under-treated?

Are you suffering from vague symptoms that you think are normal parts of life, such as fatigue, feeling sluggish in the morning, and having trouble with your memory, concentration, or focus?

Do you have dry skin or fluid retention?

Is your sex drive not what it used to be?

Are your hands and feet cold all the time?

Is your hair thinning, your voice a little hoarse, your fingernails a little thick?

Is your cholesterol high?

Do you have trouble losing weight or have you gained weight recently?

Are you suffering from depression or anxiety?

Do you have really bad PMS or trouble getting pregnant?

Do you have muscle cramps and muscle pain or weakness?

Most of these symptoms aren't severe enough to send you to the emergency room, but they do significantly affect your quality of life.

And most of us accept them as a normal part of our lives without really questioning them.

If you do go to see your doctor, he or she probably shrugs it off.

Yes, doctors are experts in acute illness. But they often fail miserably when it comes to addressing subtle changes in your body that affect the quality of your life.

According to conventional medicine, low sex drive is not necessarily a disease. Neither is a little dry skin or constipation or being tired most of the day.

But for you, those problems are significant.

So what causes them?

Often, they're caused by a condition that goes undiagnosed in half of the 45 million people who have it.

It's called hypothyroidism.

What is Hypothyroidism?

When you have hypothyroidism your overall metabolic gas pedal slows down because the master gland that controls it, your thyroid gland, is not functioning at full speed.

If your thyroid slows down, every other organ and system in your body slows down, including your brain, heart, gut, and muscles.

The thyroid hormone is like a master switch that turns on the genes that keep every cell running.

This is one of those gray areas in medicine, but doctors tend to think in black and white -- you have it or you don't, sort of like being pregnant.

Well, you can't just be a little bit pregnant, but you can be just a little bit hypothyroid.

And it can have a dramatic effect on the quality of your life.

Yet most doctors don't view it that way.

This problem is further compounded by the conventional belief that you can diagnose hypothyroidism only through one blood test, called TSH, and that you only qualify for treatment if your blood level is over 5.0.

Unfortunately, this view ignores a whole group of people who have what we call subclinical hypothyroidism. It is called that because doctors have a hard time diagnosing it.

Subclinical hypothyroidism may trigger many low-grade symptoms, such as fatigue, trouble losing weight, mild depression, constipation, and more. Yet it causes just slight changes in your blood tests.
In fact, it often only shows up in tests that most doctors never perform.

Low thyroid function may seem subtle, but it can have serious consequences.

How Low Thyroid Function Affects Your Health?

Hypothyroidism doesn't just make you a little tired -- it can lead to more serious problems, including heart attacks and diabetes.

I see this all the time in my medical practice: Patients come in with vague complaints that alone may not seem too significant.

But when you put them all together, they tell an important story.

I remember the story of one patient who was 73 years old. This woman came to see me because she had been to her doctor with complaints of fatigue, sluggishness, poor memory, slight depression, dry skin, constipation, and mild fluid retention.

Her doctor's response?

"Well, what do you expect? You're 73, and this is what 73 is supposed to feel like."

But I just don't believe that is true.

I believe that most of the symptoms of aging that we see are really symptoms of abnormal aging or dysfunction that is related to imbalances in our core body systems.

I have to be a medical detective to find clues where no one else is looking and put together a story about why a person is suffering. This gets them the answers and tools they need to get well.

In this case, we tested my patient for a number of things and found that she had a sluggish thyroid. She did not quite meet all the criteria of conventional medicine for hypothyroidism, but she had an autoimmune reaction that caused her thyroid to function poorly.

By simply replacing her missing thyroid hormone, supporting her nutrition, and implementing some simple lifestyle changes, she went from feeling old to feeling alert, energetic, and youthful -- and all of her other symptoms cleared up.

I had another patient who was a 28-year-old woman who was chronically constipated. She thought it was normal to go to the bathroom every three or four days.

She also felt quite tired in the mornings and had trouble getting going. She needed coffee every morning. And at night she had trouble staying up and being with her friends and being an active 28-year-old woman.

She thought that this was just sort of a constitutional problem and that she was stuck living like that. No one had diagnosed her sluggish thyroid.

But as soon as we supported her nutrition and eliminated her food allergens (particularly gluten), which create inflammation and interfere with thyroid function, she felt better.

Her constipation resolved, she was energetic in the morning, did not need her coffee, and was able to stay up until 11:00 or 12:00 at night without any fatigue or limitations.

Who is Affected by Hypothyroidism?

This problem affects men and women of all ages.

And it is very common because of all the stressors in our environment, including toxins such as heavy metals and pesticides, nutritional deficiencies, and chronic stress, all of which interfere with our thyroid function.

It's critical to understand that your thyroid is not just linked to energy and other symptoms that I described here.

It is the master metabolism hormone that controls the function and activity of almost every organ and cell in your body -- so when it is sluggish or slow, everything slows down.

But there is good news ...

There are clear ways to diagnose the problem as well as to treat it, with a comprehensive functional medicine approach.

The first step is to find out if you have any of the chronic symptoms of hypothyroidism or any of the diseases associated with hypothyroidism. Ask yourself if you have any of the following symptoms:

• Sluggishness in the morning
• Poor concentration and memory
• Low-grade depression
• Dry skin
• Hoarse voice
• Thinning hair
• Coarse hair
• Being very sensitive to cold and having cold hands and feet
• Low body temperature
• Muscle pain
• Weakness or cramps
• Low sex drive
• Fluid retention
• High cholesterol

After I have asked my patients about all these symptoms, I do a physical examination for clues to a low-functioning thyroid.

I check for a low body temperature. Anything lower than 97.6 degrees F may be a sign of hypothyroidism.

I might also find fluid retention, a thick tongue, swollen feet, swollen eyelids, an enlarged thyroid gland, excessive earwax, a dry mouth, coarse skin, low blood pressure, or decreased ankle reflexes. I might even find that the outer third of the eyebrows is gone.

These are all physical signs that can be put together along with other symptoms to form a story of what is causing the problem.

Once I have done that, I perform specific blood tests that give me a full picture of thyroid problems.

Then I design a nutritional, lifestyle, and supplement regimen and hormone replacement plan as needed to help people regain their health.

That's all for today.

In my next blog, I will discuss the major preventable -- and mostly hidden -- factors that slow your thyroid down. And I'll tell you more about the special tests I use to diagnose thyroid problems, as well as how to specifically treat low thyroid function.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

Do you suffer from any of the signs and symptoms mentioned here?

Have you been told you have low thyroid function?

How has your doctor responded to your concerns?

Please let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

Mark Hyman, M.D. practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center is a pioneer in functional medicine. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on Youtube and become a fan on Facebook.

From Our Partners