The thyroid gland is often called the master gland of the body. While your brain governs your thoughts and actions, your thyroid releases two hormones, or chemical messengers, that control critical body functions including breathing, temperature regulation, digestion, and metabolism. In children, proper thyroid function is also needed for normal growth and brain development.
The two hormones secreted by the thyroid gland are called triiodothyronine, or T3, and thyroxine, or T4. Since these thyroid hormones govern so many body systems and thyroid deficiencies often develop gradually, symptoms of hypothyroidism, or low thyroid levels, can vary wildly. A person with only slightly lower than normal thyroid levels may gain weight and feel tired. It’s easy to miss a mild hypothyroidism because such subtle symptoms are easily attributed to stress or getting older.
Typically, a mild thyroid deficiency turns into a more pronounced deficiency. When this happens, metabolism, digestion, temperature regulation, and breathing become increasingly compromised. Persons with reduced metabolism from low thyroid often gain weight, are fatigued, have a slower heart rate, lose some hair, and have dry skin. As digestion slows, constipation becomes more common. Persons with low thyroid often complain of feeling cold all the time because their body has difficulty maintaining its temperature. As breathing is affected, some individuals have trouble catching their breath. Due to the complex interplay of these body processes, there are many symptoms that result from a combination of low thyroid issues. Such symptoms include hoarse voice, muscular weakness, stiff, swelling, or painful joints, menstrual irregularities or heaviness, high cholesterol, depression, or forgetfulness.
If left untreated, a low thyroid condition can eventually become a life-threatening coma. This condition is called myxedema coma and can be fatal. Its symptoms reflect critically low levels of thyroid hormones and include decreased breathing, blood pressure, and temperature. Fortunately, this is a very rare condition because most individuals with low thyroid seek medical attention before symptoms become severe enough to cause myxedema coma.
Even though most cases of hypothyroidism are not life-threatening, it is important to realize that low thyroid levels often rob individuals of youth and vitality. Persons with low thyroid levels are, essentially, living in bodies that are, in some ways, prematurely aged and, in many more ways, compromised. Anecdotal reports abound of marriages, careers, and lives that were on the verge of collapse due to the physical and mental challenges resulting from hypothyroidism. Fortunately, symptoms of low thyroid begin to resolve with treatment and many individuals report feeling as if they’re body and mind are five, ten, or more years younger when they comply with the prescribed therapy.