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How thyroid disease can slow you down

Bookmark and Share Helen Casey's* hairdresser was horrified to see clumps of her client's chestnut curls whisked away down the drain of her shampoo sink. This hair loss was anything but normal, and her stylist told her: "Helen, you need to see a doctor."

Casey, 52, immediately visited her family doctor who ordered a simple blood test to check her thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. The results were astounding.

Silent signs
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck located directly under the Adam's apple. It produces hormones that help regulate the body's functions. Jonathan Anolik, MD, chief of endocrinology at Virtua Memorial Hospital, says it's like a thermostat for the cells in your body.

"When the thyroid level gets too low, the pituitary gland, located beneath the brain, releases TSH. This tells the thyroid gland to release a hormone called thyroxine," says Dr. Anolik. "Thyroxine helps regulate the body's metabolism and, when it's too low or too high, it can lead to an under- or overactive thyroid."

An underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, means there is an insufficient level of thyroxine in the body. The brain recognizes the problem and sends more and more TSH to the thyroid to stimulate the release of thyroxine.

"When you develop hypothyroidism, you can equate the elevated TSH to raising the thermostat in a house with a broken heater," says Dr. Anolik. "That disconnect decreases the body's metabolism and, eventually, body functions come to a crawl resulting in visible symptoms such as fatigue, feeling cold all the time, constipation, dry skin, weight gain and, in Helen's case, hair loss."

Unlike hyperthyroidism, which can lead to an elevated heart rate, nervousness and weight loss, symptoms of hypothyroidism can often be mistaken for depression or menopause, or attributed to effects associated with a chaotic schedule.

Casey didn't see the symptoms that were warning her for months. "I was a new mom and working full-time," she says. "I was cold and tired all the time, but thought these were normal side effects of my hectic lifestyle."

Usually straightforward to treat, Dr. Anolik prescribed for Casey a chemically identical synthetic hormone called levothyroxine that supplemented the low levels of thyroxine her thyroid was having difficulty producing.

Today, thanks to her hairdresser's advice years ago, Casey has a full, healthy head of hair, is no longer cold all the time, and has the energy to maintain an active lifestyle at work and at home.

*name has been changed to protect privacy

Meet the Physician

Jonathan Anolik, MD, is chief of endocrinology at Virtua Memorial. A graduate of the Stritch Medical School of Loyola University in Chicago, he completed a residency at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and an endocrinology fellowship at George Washington University Medical Center. Dr. Anolik has an academic appointment at Jefferson Medical College. He has been named "Best Doc" in numerous magazines throughout the region.