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Feeling Sluggish? You Might Have a Thyroid Disorder

older couple asleep in bed

If your get up and go has got up and gone, a sluggish thyroid may be the problem.

 At least 30 million Americans have a thyroid disorder, and half – 15 million – are silent sufferers who go undiagnosed, says the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck just below the Adam’s apple, and produces the vital hormones that control how the body’s cells use energy, says Daniel Fleksher, MD, an internal medicine specialist at UH Beachwood Internal Medicine Associates.

“The thyroid gland influences almost all of your body’s metabolic processes. Just about every cell in the body reacts to the presence of thyroid hormones.," he says.

The thyroid is part of an intricate network of glands called the endocrine system, controlled by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, Dr. Fleksher says.

“When your body has the right amount of these hormones, you feel energetic, healthy and balanced. When you have too little (known as hypothyroidism), the body gets sluggish," he says.

Risks for Thyroid Disorders and Hypothyroidism

Thyroid disorders and hypothyroidism risks increase if you are:

  • A woman over age 60
  • Have a family history of thyroid or autoimmune disease
  • Have received radiation to the neck or upper chest

“Seniors, in particular, should be alert to thyroid problems because there is a chance the diagnosis of dementia or depression can be symptoms of an undetected sluggish thyroid,” he says.

Thyroid symptoms in seniors include:

  • Anxiety and/or agitation
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight changes
  • Dry skin
  • Constipation
  • Apathy and depression
  • Fatigue and sleepiness
  • Muscle weakness or impaired mobility
  • Memory problems or decreased cognitive functioning
  • Dementia
  • Unexplained increases in cholesterol or triglyceride levels
  • Anemia
  • Joint and muscle pains
  • Fainting
  • Neuropathy

“When a senior has any of these symptoms, a complete thyroid evaluation should be ordered to see if a thyroid imbalance is the underlying problem,” Dr. Fleksher says

Treatment for Underactive Thyroid

The first step to diagnosis an underactive thyroid is the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test. Hypothyroidism is diagnosed when levels of thyroid hormones – known as T3 and T4 – are diminished.

“The good news is a sluggish thyroid can be well managed with medical treatment and is not life-threatening,” Dr. Fleksher says. “Standard treatment for hypothyroidism involves daily use of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine (Levothroid, Synthroid). This oral medication usually does the job in terms of restoring adequate hormone levels.”

When taking synthetic thyroid hormones, you should follow these four rules:

  1. Take your medication exactly as directed by your doctor daily and at the same time every day.
  2. Since absorption of this medication is increased on an empty stomach, take your thyroid medicine on an empty stomach 30 minutes to an hour before breakfast.
  3. Don’t stop taking the medication even if you feel better.
  4. After you start taking replacement therapy, if you have any adverse effects or concerns, you should immediately report them to your primary healthcare provider.

“Treatment of a sluggish thyroid with a synthetic hormone is usually lifelong, but because the dosage you need may change, your doctor is likely to check your TSH level regularly,” Dr. Fleksher says. “It’s important to remember that when your thyroid levels are out of balance, so are you.”