Hypothyroidism: Were There Earlier Clues I Should've Picked Up On?
I remember laughing out loud when my GP asked me, “Have you been especially tired lately?” I don’t usually react that way, but I was really amused. I was thinking to myself, “Well, let’s see, as a mom of a one-year-old, trying to work part-time as a partner with a major consulting firm including travel several days each week, what would anyone expect?” I was hoping to conceive our second child, so my GP had run a set of routine blood tests. No anemia, no high blood sugar, no other anomalies, except….slightly low readings that indicated hypothyroidism. She said to me, point blank, “this will age you before your time.” What a bucket of cold water in my face!
I knew I hadn’t been perfect about my fitness regimen for years, but I was doing pretty well. I had been exercising regularly, had a better than average BMI and strength for my age, and had adopted the best eating habits of my life when my husband and I decided to start a family. But, I was still trying to extend my low-sleep lifestyle from my college days and I was well into my late 30s. My mother had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism at maybe age 52, so I wasn’t thinking about this at all. By the time my first child was 5 months old, I was back at work full-time, had lost all of my baby weight, and was feeling great despite sleep deprivation. When we decided to try for a second child, I stuck to my healthy diet and became a stroller jockey. I also continued to breastfeed….but I still gained 10 pounds in two months. I was literally too busy to notice, but thankfully my doctor did.
After the diagnosis, she told me not to worry –just take a tiny pill every day and it will all be fixed. So I did, but the weight continued to pile on to a belly that had never been prone to this (but had now been compromised by a c-section.) She told me that once I adjusted to the medication, the weight would come off with a little effort (I was in my late 30s, after all). But, it didn’t. And my hormone levels continued to decline, so I kept increasing my Synthroid dosage until it stabilized at 125 mcg/day. She told me that was still a mild case of hypothyroidism, and signed me up for blood tests every 3-6 months (mostly to monitor the potentially negative effects of the medication on my internal organs).
I did some digging through clinical information on what this all meant. In learning that the thyroid regulates the performance of other hormones and in turn, wear and tear on the body’s tissues, including organs, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, I began to wonder: Should I have known about this sooner? Could this have been affecting me for years? Had I lost years off my life because I didn’t know about this sooner?
I also learned that hypothyroidism is considered an auto-immune disorder. Now, I’ve had immune system challenges all my life – I was born two months premature, and I have dealt with a series of minor health issues that indicate that my immune system is not quite perfect – respiratory allergies, small infections, days when my temperature spiked with no other symptoms following a particularly low-sleep push to make a deadline, and most notably, kidney stones two different times when I was 18. I knew my hormones were a little out of balance as well—I had my one and only gall bladder attack 3 weeks after my first child was born and had to have inpatient surgery to remove it at 7 weeks. I know that’s not all that uncommon, but I began to wonder – did it all stem from an underactive thyroid that could have been detected years before?
I started talking with friends, and discovered that many of us were being diagnosed with this in our 30s and 40s. And for every 10 women who shared their stories with me, I found one man who had been diagnosed with this after years of struggling with exhaustion, mood swings, and weight gain—their physicians just weren’t looking for this. At friends’ suggestion, I researched homeopathic, diet-based, and exercise-driven approaches to boosting my metabolism in the hope of boosting my energy levels. I didn’t want to be on the Synthroid forever if I could avoid it (just my preference, because I have found no evidence that there are long-term detrimental effects to that course of treatment). Talking with others made me feel a little better, but wasn’t solving my own concerns about the long-term impact.
So, I got moving – walking, biking, cross-training with weights at least 2x/week, but then had a major setback. After experiencing only minor but persistent pain at the back of my heels, I was diagnosed with two, partially torn Achilles tendons. A boot went on one leg, physical therapy followed, and I pared my diet substantially since I was basically unable to do any aerobic exercise during a 5-month period last year. I avoided surgery but gained 25 pounds, which my GP surmised was much higher than she would have expected because my hypothyroidism depresses my metabolism. In fact, my general weight gain over the years seemed to go hand in hand with an increase in fatigue, and may have helped cause my Achilles problems. Gaining much more weight with my “non-existent” metabolism only exacerbated my work to heal my Achilles.
Looking back, I wonder if lack of sleep tapped into my genetic predisposition to hypothyroidism. I wonder further if my history of auto-immune disorders should have tipped me, and my physicians, off to this possibility. I wonder is the condition caused me to experience the tendon and muscle issues that I seem to be experiencing a decade before most of my friends. And I wonder what I can do to reverse the effects of early aging that may have been going on for years. I, like my mother, started going gray in my early 30s…maybe that should have been a clue?
Looking forward, I am committed to get moving so I lose the weight and regain my fitness. It’s my only option – I can’t reverse the effects of aging that undiagnosed hypothyroidism may have caused, but I can take natural steps to boost my metabolism and preserve my energy levels for the things I love to do the most . My life, as a working mom of two amazing children and wife to a wonderful man, still makes it a challenge to get enough sleep and stick to a routine. But I’ll never let a friend who says she is dragging fail to ask her physician about checking out her thyroid levels. I’ll always encourage a colleague to put fitness into his work/life routine, knowing that being effective for more years is the right end game.
For my body, “burn out” is chemical, not just mental. We all deserve to understand how our work/life balance decisions in our 20s and 30s may precipitate aging in a real and measurable way, and to be aware that there are medical and fitness solutions worth pursuing if our bodies are telling us that we’re “out of balance.”
Barbara Deskey is the mother of two children and lives in Atlanta with her husband.
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