A Tale of Two Thyroids
Women get Thyroid Disease More than Men.

Oprah Winfrey’s always making news, but the media mogul’s announcements about her thyroid disease have been extra intriguing for two Carolina Woman staffers who have hypothyroidism, which makes the gland sluggish.

In 2007, the talk-show host went public with the diagnosis of her disease. Yet in the last few months, she announced that she was off all medications except for aspirin.

For one Carolina Woman staffer, who handles her hypothyroidism with a daily iodine supplement, it confirmed that a prescription synthetic hormone isn’t necessary. For another, who continues to take prescription Synthroid, it seemed curious.

The official word from oprah.com is: “While Oprah’s thyroid problems seem to have stabilized and she has gone off her medications, most people with hypothyroidism face a lifetime of managing the gland. You’ll get a prescription for synthetic thyroxine, which does an excellent job of replacing the missing hormone. Once you and your doctor work out the proper dosage — and that can take some time — you will feel better.”

Here’s what the nonprofit Society for Women’s Health Research has to say about diseases of the thyroid.

More than 27 million Americans have thyroid conditions, which result when too little or too much thyroid hormone circulates in their bodies. More than half of the cases go undiagnosed and, what’s more, roughly 8 out of 10 people with thyroid disease are women.

Most people don’t pay much attention to the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck. But when a person experiences a problem with her thyroid, it’s virtually impossible to ignore. This little gland plays an important role in the regulation of many of the body’s organs, including the heart, liver, brain, kidneys and skin. If the gland is underactive, or does not produce enough hormone, referred to as hypothyroidism, a person may feel tired and gain weight.  If the gland is overactive or produces too much hormone, known as hyperthyroidism, a person may experience heart palpitations, tremors, irritability and weight loss.

If left untreated, thyroid disease can wreak havoc on the body and leave a person at risk for heart disease, infertility and osteoporosis. According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, there is a possible genetic tie between thyroid disorders and other autoimmune conditions including diabetes, lupus and certain forms of arthritis.

“As with other autoimmune diseases (in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues), it’s believed that female hormones play some role in thyroid diseases. Just how big a role is not known,” says Rita Baron Faust, a health educator and author of “The Autoimmune Connection.”

“Puberty, pregnancy and menopause all seem to affect the onset of thyroid diseases,” she notes.

Despite the large number of women suffering from thyroid conditions, millions walk around without a proper diagnosis. 

Women need to become aware of the signs of thyroid disease. Some of the common symptoms of hypothyroidism include: weight gain, fatigue, dry skin and hair, hoarse voice, constipation, heavy periods and mood swings. Pregnant women will sometimes notice swelling or tenderness in the neck region. For hyperthyroidism, some of the more common symptoms include: weight loss, heat intolerance and profuse sweating, frequent bowel movements, changes in appetite, sleep disturbances and tremors.

“Many of the symptoms of thyroid disease, as with other autoimmune diseases, are non-specific,” Faust says. “It’s a laundry list of so-called ‘female’ complaints. Any of these symptoms could be attributed and often are to other conditions.”

“The key is for women to know about these symptoms and to report them fully to their doctors or other health-care providers because, when viewed individually, doctors often dismiss them as isolated problems or examples of normal aging,” says Martha Nolan, vice president of public policy for the Society for Women’s Health Research, and a thyroid disease patient, who struggled to have her condition properly diagnosed. 

“Patients need to put the symptoms together, speak up. Doctors need to pay attention,” Nolan says.

The trick in managing thyroid disease is getting a proper diagnosis.  Too many women neglect their symptoms, attributing them to other causes. 

“Women who are gaining or losing weight without trying, experiencing depression or anxiety without some external trigger, and have symptoms such as palpitations, hair loss or joint pain, should not blame them on pregnancy or menopause,” says Faust. 

Thyroid disease can be easily diagnosed with a simple blood test. Treatment, which may require lifelong thyroid hormone replacement therapy, is usually successful.