Kristin Angelov was 26 when the exhaustion hit. Getting up in the morning was a superhuman effort, a struggle compounded by her suddenly dismal mood.
"I would be in meetings at work and feel so tired and dizzy, like I was going to pass out," she says. And though the once-energetic writer stuck to a healthy diet, she packed on five pounds in two weeks. What's more, whenever she stepped out into the cold, her fingernails and toes turned a faint shade of blue. She dragged herself to her primary-care doctor, who ran a series of tests. Kristin's big problems, her M.D. told her, stemmed from a small place--the thyroid gland in her neck.
Lodged between the voice box and the collarbone, and wrapped around the windpipe, the thyroid helps control your body's energy supply. The butterfly-shaped gland pumps out thyroid hormone, a powerful chemical that regulates metabolism and body temperature, says endocrinologist Jeffrey Powell, M.D., of Northern Westchester Hospital in New York. It also works with just about every system in your body to keep your brain sharp, your bowels moving, your periods regular, and your skin, nails, and hair healthy. Think of the thyroid like a car's gas and brake pedals rolled into one: It can speed up or slow down the rate at which your body burns through its fuel supply.
Of course, when one part of a car malfunctions, the whole system can stall. And of the 25 million Americans with thyroid disorders, the majority are female. It's estimated that women are as much as 12 times more likely to develop a problem than men are, possibly because they are also more prone to developing autoimmune diseases (such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis), which can mess with the thyroid, says Armand Krikorian, M.D., associate director of endocrinology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
Thyroid disorders--which are often genetic and typically involve the production of too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) or too much (hyperthyroidism)--can also temporarily or permanently spring up after pregnancy. And new research shows that a chemical used to make nonstick cookware and water-resistant coatings for carpets and couches can also heighten the risk for thyroid complications.
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Hypo-and hyperthyroidism can often have opposing suites of symptoms. The former, more prevalent ailment is what hit Kristin. In many cases, though, hypothyroidism signs are subtler and increase in intensity over time. Unexpected or sudden weight gain may occur, but since that can be due to a variety of factors, it's not enough to indicate hypothyroidism.
Some experts also look for the following symptoms: dry skin, hair loss, forgetfulness, fatigue, frequent chills, constipation, and irregular periods. Another red flag for hypothyroidism is feeling very weak during a workout you used to have no problem getting through.
"Thyroid hormone regulates how much energy reaches all cells, including muscle cells," notes endocrinologist Jeffrey R. Garber, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.