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Subtle, Undiagnosed Symptoms Could Be Signs Of Subclinical Hypothyroidism

Mar 23, 2008
Do you have vague, uncomfortable symptoms with no obvious cause?

If so, you might be one of the 45 million people who have a chronic medical problem that is both under-diagnosed and under-treated.

Think about it...

Do you feel tired all the time and have trouble concentrating?

Is your skin dry? Do you retain fluid?

Has your sex drive gone downhill?

Are your hands and feet always cold?

Is your hair thinning, your voice a little hoarse, your fingernails a little thick?

Is your cholesterol high?

Do you have trouble losing weight or have you gained weight recently?

Are you depressed or anxious?

Do you have really bad PMS or trouble getting pregnant?

Do your muscles feel weak, crampy, and painful?

Most of these symptoms aren't severe enough to send you to the emergency room.

In fact, we usually accept them as a normal part of life -- and so do conventional doctors. They don't view these symptoms as serious.

But they certainly affect your quality of life. And they can lead to more serious problems, including heart attacks and diabetes.

So what causes these symptoms?

It's called hypothyroidism.

In this condition, your overall metabolic gas pedal has slowed down because the master gland that controls it, your thyroid gland, isn't functioning at full speed.

If your thyroid slows down, every other organ and system in your body slows down, including your brain, heart, gut, and muscles.

Thyroid function is really a gray area. But most doctors view it as black or white.

Conventional doctors tend to believe that you can diagnose hypothyroidism only through one blood test, called TSH, and that you only qualify for treatment if your blood level is over 5.0.

But this ignores a whole group of people who have what we call subclinical hypothyroidism. It is called that because doctors have a hard time diagnosing it.

Subclinical hypothyroidism may trigger many low-grade symptoms, like those described above. Yet it causes just slight changes in your blood tests.

In fact, it often only shows up in tests that most doctors never perform.

I see this all the time in my medical practice: Patients come in with vague complaints that alone may not seem too significant.

But when you put them all together, they tell an important story.

For example, take the 73-year-old woman who had fatigue, sluggishness, poor memory, slight depression, dry skin, constipation, and mild fluid retention.

Her doctor brushed her off.

But I believe that most of the symptoms of aging that we see are really symptoms of abnormal aging or dysfunction that is related to imbalances in our core body systems.

So I act as a medical detective to find clues where no one else is looking and put together a story about why a person feels sick. This gets them the answers and tools they need to get well.

In this case, we found that my patient had a sluggish thyroid. Although she didn't meet all the conventional criteria for hypothyroidism, she had an autoimmune reaction that caused her thyroid to function poorly.

So we replaced her missing thyroid hormone, supported her nutrition, and made some simple lifestyle changes. She soon felt alert, energetic, and youthful -- and all of her other symptoms cleared up.

Another patient was a 28-year-old chronically constipated woman.

She also felt tired in the mornings, always needed coffee, and had trouble staying up at night.

She thought this was normal. She didn't know she had a sluggish thyroid.

But as soon as we supported her nutrition and eliminated her food allergens (particularly gluten), which create inflammation and interfere with thyroid function, she improved.

Low thyroid function affects people of all ages.

It is very common because of our exposure to toxins such as heavy metals and pesticides, nutritional deficiencies, and chronic stress, all of which interfere with our thyroid function.

And your thyroid isn't just linked to the symptoms described here.

It is the master metabolism hormone that controls the function and activity of almost every organ and cell in your body -- so when it is sluggish or slow, everything slows down.

Fortunately, we can diagnose and treat problem, with a comprehensive functional medicine approach that uses the concepts of UltraWellness.

First, I determine if you have any of the chronic symptoms of hypothyroidism or diseases associated with it, such as:

* sluggishness in the morning
* poor concentration and memory
* low-grade depression
* dry skin
* hoarse voice
* thinning hair
* coarse hair
* being very sensitive to cold and having cold hands and feet
* low body temperature
* muscle pain
* weakness or cramps
* low sex drive
* fluid retention
* high cholesterol

Next, I do a physical examination for clues to a low-functioning thyroid.

I check for a low body temperature. Anything lower than 97.6 degrees F may be a sign of hypothyroidism.

I might also find fluid retention, a thick tongue, swollen feet, swollen eyelids, an enlarged thyroid gland, excessive earwax, a dry mouth, coarse skin, low blood pressure, or decreased ankle reflexes. I might even find that the outer third of the eyebrows is gone.

These are all physical signs that can be put together along with other symptoms to form a story of what is causing the problem.

Then I perform specific blood tests that give me a full picture of thyroid problems.

Finally, I design a nutrition, lifestyle, and supplement regimen and hormone replacement plan as needed to help people regain their health.

In my next article, I will discuss the major preventable -- and mostly hidden -- factors that slow your thyroid down. And I'll tell you more about the special tests I use to diagnose thyroid problems, as well as how to specifically treat low thyroid function.
About the Author
Mark Hyman, M.D. is a pioneer in functional medicine, practicing physician and best-selling author. A sneak preview of his book "The UltraSimple Diet" is available. See The UltraWellness Blog for more on Hypothyroidism
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