While training for the Olympic Games, track star Gail Devers began to experience weight loss, muscle weakness, and fatigue. For 2 1/2 years, Devers suffered from these symptoms until she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 1991. Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, a condition in which the body produces too much thyroid hormone. Many teens, especially young girls, develop it.
After undergoing radioactive iodine therapy to disable her thyroid and being placed on thyroid hormone replacement therapy, Devers now has the disorder under control. She went on to win three Olympic gold medals.
What Is the Thyroid?
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck, at the spot where a bow tie would rest. It produces two hormones (thyroxine and triiodothyronine) that control your growth and metabolism. Everything from how quickly your body burns calories to your mood is controlled by your thyroid. As long as your thyroid is producing the right amount of hormones, your body will function normally.
Hypothyroidism vs. Hyperthyroidism
Do you ever feel tired even when you have had a good night’s sleep? Are you continuing to put on weight even when you watch your diet and exercise? You may be one of 21 million in the United States who suffer from thyroid disorders.
Hypothyroidism occurs when you have an underactive thyroid that is not producing enough hormones for your body to function normally.
These are some of the symptoms you may experience:
* weight gain
* always feeling cold
* poor memory
* dry skin
* slow heartbeat
* heavy menstrual period
Once diagnosed, hypothyroidism is easily treated by hormone therapy. Every day, you will need to take a pill to replace the hormones your thyroid is not producing.
Producing too much thyroid hormone, as Gail Devers did, is not good either. If this happens, your body will not function properly and you may develop hyperthyroidism. If this occurs, you may experience these symptoms:
* difficulty sleeping
* muscle weakness
* weight loss
* irregular menstrual cycle
* irregular heartbeat
* increased perspiration
To decrease the amount of hormones produced, possible treatments include medication, radioactive iodine, and even surgical removal of the thyroid.
According to the Thyroid Foundation of America, with either of these disorders, you need to see an endocrinologist regularly to have your thyroid function and hormone levels checked.
Lumps, Bumps, and Goiters
A common symptom of both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism is a goiter. A goiter develops when your thyroid becomes enlarged and swollen. While most goiters are harmless, you may experience difficulty swallowing food and breathing.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that more than half the entire population will develop a nodule, a lump, or bump in their thyroid. Nodules can be as small as a millimeter or as large as several inches. Since there is a slight chance that a lump in your thyroid may be cancerous, it needs to be checked out by a doctor.
Difficult to Diagnose
It took more than two years for doctors to diagnose Gail Devers’ thyroid condition because many of the symptoms she experienced could have been caused by so many other things. Know your body and be aware of any changes in how you feel. If you think you are experiencing several of the symptoms, talk with your doctor and ask to be tested for a thyroid disorder.
A doctor will diagnose a thyroid disorder by examining your thyroid to see if there are any nodules or goiters. Next, a sample of your blood is drawn. This is the best test to determine your thyroid hormone production. Don’t ignore the symptoms; if left untreated, thyroid disorders can lead to heart failure, osteoporosis, and severe depression.
Thyroid Disorders and Exercise
Exercise is important for maintaining good thyroid function. Gail Walsh, a yoga practitioner from New City, New York, says, “Yoga increases circulation to the thyroid. It also decreases stress, which can alleviate many of the symptoms.” The gentle stretching and emphasis on breathing make yoga a great exercise even for beginners. Exercise increases your energy level, flexibility, and reduces muscle and joint stiffness. Remember to speak with your doctor before you start any new exercise program.
People with a thyroid disorder can lead a normal life–and even win a gold medal or two.