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Health: Fatigue? Unexplained weight gain? It could be your thyroid

Allecia Vermillion

How much do you know about your thyroid? Dr. Dina Prus, an endocrinologist at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, N.J., sees many patients who assumed their fatigue, weight fluctuation and other symptoms were the result of “life circumstances” such as stress, aging or lifestyle – anything but their thyroids. Here is a primer on what this all-important gland does for the body, and what happens when it goes off balance.

What does the thyroid do?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. It produces several hormones that control virtually all of the body’s metabolic functions. This includes growth, body temperature and how quickly your body uses up fats and carbohydrates.

What can go wrong?

A variety of thyroid issues can stem from an imbalance in the body’s production of thyroid hormones. Because these hormones control the body’s metabolic processes, a malfunctioning thyroid can lead to seemingly inexplicable weight gain or loss, mood swings, exhaustion and other symptoms.

HYPERTHYROIDISM: Hyperthyroidism, or an overly active thyroid, can put the metabolism in overdrive, causing weight loss, rapid heartbeat, sweating and irritability.

HYPOTHYROIDISM: The opposite scenario, hypothyroidism, occurs when the thyroid produces insufficient amounts of hormone. This deficiency slows down the metabolism, causing weight gain that even constant exercise and vigilant dieting can’t budge, according to Prus.

However some patients experience atypical symptoms, such as hypothyroidism patients who lose weight rather than gain it.

Small lumps called nodules can also form within your thyroid, which can increase the chance of cancer. An entire thyroid gland that becomes enlarged is known as a goiter.

How can you treat thyroid problems?

Lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise don’t generally impact the thyroid, and the causes behind thyroid conditions are largely unknown, says Prus. An endocrinologist can prescribe medications that either block the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones or replace missing hormones.

Who is most susceptible?

Women are particularly susceptible to thyroid problems, according to Prus. Up to 40 percent of women will have some sort of thyroid disorder during their lives. Some autoimmune thyroid conditions, such as Hashimoto’s disease and Graves’ disease, can run in the family. People with a family history should have a doctor monitor their antibody levels closely, says Prus.

Additionally, some people develop thyroid conditions if they grow up in a region with little iodine in their diets, then emigrate to an iodine-rich area, such as Asian immigrants coming to the United States.