Many people reading this might not be aware what the thyroid is. To commence, the thyroid is a gland in your neck. The thyroid gland produces two hormones which are secreted into the blood, called thyroxine, otherwise known as T4 and triiodothyronine, otherwise known as T3. In the cells of the body, the T4 hormone is converted into T3. It is the T3 which is biologically active and influences the activity and the metabolism of the body cells; it regulates the speed at which your body cells work.

Thyroid disorders occur when the incorrect amount of hormones are produced. If too much of the hormones from the thyroid gland are produced, you have an overactive thyroid, known as hyperthyroidism. On the other hand, if too little of the thyroid hormones are produced, you have an underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroidism. The thyroid gland is controlled by the pituitary gland which lies underneath your brain. The pituitary gland secretes a hormone known as TSH which is a thyroid stimulating hormone and activates your thyroid gland to produce more T4 and T3. Thyroid disorders are commonly caused by an autoimmune thyroid disease, which is a self-destructive process where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid cells. Thyroid disorders are diagnosed by a blood test.

As stated previously, when there are excess levels of thyroid hormones produced, it becomes overactive. This is known as hyperthyroidism. When too many thyroid hormones are produced, it can speed up the body’s metabolism. There are many symptoms of hyperthyroidism, including hyperactivity, insomnia, unexplained weight loss, very infrequent and light periods and anxiety. Some physical symptoms of hyperthyroidism include a swelling in your neck, an unusually fast heart rate and trembling, or shaking.

On the contrary, when not enough levels of thyroid hormones are produced, the thyroid becomes underactive. This is known as hypothyroidism. When not enough thyroid hormones are produced, it can slow down the body’s metabolism. An underactive thyroid cannot be prevented, which is different to hyperthyroidism, which can be treated and returned to normal. The symptoms of hypothyroidism include tiredness and fatigue, unexplained weight gain, slower movements and thoughts, muscle cramps, depression and irregular and heavy periods. Hypothyroidism is usually treated by taking a daily hormone-replacing tablet called levothyroxine. Hypothyroidism is a lifelong condition; therefore you will usually need to take levothyroxine for the rest of your life.

My story

I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in February 2014, although I’ve had a borderline underactive thyroid since 2010, therefore I’ve been having blood tests for a few years. The diagnosis came as something of a relief to me because I’d been experiencing many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism for a few months beforehand, especially the tiredness and exhaustion, irregular but heavy and painful periods, weight gain and depression. Being in my first year of university at the time, living in halls of residence a long way from home, the symptoms were extremely difficult for me to cope with. I was relieved when the doctor told me that I had an underactive thyroid because it meant that I could start the treatment and be on the long road to recovery.

I started taking levothyroxine in a relatively low dosage. There are a lot of side effects associated with taking levothyroxine, a lot of which I have experienced. These side effects include difficulty sleeping, hair loss, headaches, a faster and more irregular heart rate and a worsening of thyroid problems. The thyroid problem can get worse when treatment is first started because the body is getting used to the medication and sometimes you are put on an incorrect dose for the severity of your problem. If this is the case, it usually means that you’re on the wrong dose of levothyroxine which can quite simply be altered as and when it is required.

It can take a while for the levels of thyroid hormones to stabilise once you have started taking levothyroxine and you may still experience the symptoms of hypothyroidism as well as the side effects to levothyroxine for a long time into the treatment process. This has certainly been the case for me. The emotional side of the condition can be extremely tough too, such as the depression. Exhaustion is one of the most debilitating side effects and I have days where getting out of bed is the biggest challenge of the day. It’s also difficult that no matter how well or how much I sleep, I still feel very tired and achy all the time.

Despite my story, it is very important to say that everyone is different and will respond accordingly to any thyroid treatment. Some people notice an improvement not too long after starting medication whereas for others, like me, it can take a lot longer.

Thyroid disorders can often be mistaken for other less serious conditions which have similar symptoms, so I strongly believe that everyone should know a little bit more about them. It is necessary to be able to look after your own health and to understand what your symptoms might mean.