If you've really packed on the pounds lately and you haven't changed your diet or exercise routine, there is a chance your thyroid might not be functioning correctly. A condition known as hypothyroidism, in which your thyroid in effect slows or stops working, affects over 11 million Americans. Experts suspect millions more have it but don't know it. It's also likelier to occur in women over 50. But there are ways to know you're suffering from it, and it can be easily treated.
Symptoms include fatigue, dry and rough skin, especially dry and coarse hair, extreme sensitivity to cold, irregular or heavy periods, unexpected weight gain, puffy face, depression, muscle cramps, pain and tenderness, constipation.
If you're experiencing any one of these symptoms there's a simple way to discover whether your thyroid might be to blame. Check your neck: Take a sip of water and swallow. Tip your head back and hold a mirror so that you can see the lower half of your neck between your collarbone and your Adam's apple. If you notice any significant bulges when you swallow, see your doctor - but don't panic.
There are several reasons why a thyroid can turn sluggish. The gland may have become inflamed or damaged, causing it to under-produce some crucial hormones. Or another gland, the pituitary, may have slacked off and stopped making enough of its own hormone to stimulate the thyroid. Iodine deficiency could be causing thyroid issues, though this is fairly rare. Your doctor will have the answer. You might want to make an appointment with an endocrinologist, a specialist in this area.
The good news? If it is hypothyroidism, treating the condition is relatively easy. Often, you just need to take a medication that supplies the hormones your thyroid isn't making. And as your thyroid gets healthier, so will you.
Robin Westen is ThirdAge's medical reporter. Check for her daily updates. Her newest book, co-authored with Dr. Alyssa Dweck, is "V Is For Vagina." It will be published in February 2012.
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