Feeling Depressed? It Could Be Your Thyroid
A hormonal dip could be behind your blues
When we’re feeling down, most of us naturally connect our mood to our brain. Depression is, after all, a mental health disorder caused by changes in our brain chemicals.
Except when it isn’t.
If you or a family member is feeling depressed or foggy the problem may actually originate in the neck. Hypothyroidism means that the thyroid gland can’t make enough thyroid hormone to keep the body running normally.
Thyroid problems are diagnosable with a blood test, and replacement with synthetic hormones is generally an effective treatment. Despite our ability to detect and treat hypothyroidism, many people go untreated.
Some people with untreated hypothyroidism just accept a lower quality of life, and many more don’t pursue treatment in part because the condition is not well known.
Endocrinologists specialize in understanding the body’s hormone-producing glands. Their goal is for more people to learn about endocrine disorders to help them get treated and live their fullest life.
What’s the thyroid?
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland that is normally located in the lower front of the neck. The thyroid’s job is to make thyroid hormones, which are secreted into the blood and then carried to every tissue in the body. The thyroid hormone helps the body use energy, stay warm, and keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should.
The hormones made by the thyroid affect your metabolism, which means they set how much energy your body burns. That affects everything from mood to energy level to appetite, so the symptoms of hypothyroidism can vary greatly, making it difficult to diagnose without a blood test.
How to spot a problem
When thyroid hormone levels are too low, the body’s cells can’t get enough thyroid hormone and the body’s processes start slowing down. As the body slows, you may notice that you feel colder, you tire more easily, your skin is getting drier, you’re becoming forgetful and depressed, and you’ve started getting constipated.
Because the symptoms are so variable and nonspecific, the only way to know for sure whether you have hypothyroidism is with a simple blood test for thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH.
Hypothyroidism is most common in women, and their symptoms can also include menstrual cycle changes.
What causes it?
Because the body needs iodine to make thyroid hormones, getting too much or too little iodine in one’s diet is the leading worldwide cause of thyroid disorders. Iodine comes into the body in food and travels through the blood to the thyroid. Keeping thyroid hormone production in balance requires the right amount of iodine.
That said, most Americans get enough iodine because it is found in a wide variety of foods, from ocean-caught seafood to dairy, and added to table salt.
The second-most common cause of hypothyroidism is called Hashimoto’s disease.
In some people’s bodies, the immune system that protects the body from invading infections can mistake thyroid gland cells and their enzymes for invaders and can attack them. Then there aren’t enough thyroid cells and enzymes left to make enough thyroid hormone. This is more common in women than men. Autoimmune thyroiditis can begin suddenly or it can develop slowly over years.
Identification of Hashimoto’s disease (especially if they test positive for anti-thyroid antibodies) is especially important in women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. This is most important if a history of abortion is identified.
Inflammation of the thyroid gland is common in women who have just given birth, and can show itself as a form of overactive thyroid disease followed by underactive thyroid disorder. However, the thyroid function often returns to normal within a year or two.
Other causes include disorders of the master gland (pituitary gland), radiation treatment to the neck area and medications that can affect thyroid function, such as amiodarone or lithium.
Treatment is effective
By replacing the hormone that your own thyroid can no longer make, you can bring your thyroid hormones back to normal levels. So, even if your thyroid gland isn’t working right, hormone replacement can restore your body’s function.
While only your doctor can diagnose you with a thyroid disorder, bringing your symptoms and the possible thyroid connection to your doctor’s attention can only help your chances for a timely diagnosis and effective treatment.
And be sure to tell your family members. Because thyroid disease runs in families, you should explain your hypothyroidism to your relatives and encourage them to get periodic TSH tests.