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Is Your Thyroid Making You Gain Weight?

A thyroid disorder can also make you tired, depressed or anxious

En Español l Something was not quite right — that much Maggie Kruger knew for sure.

In just six months, the then-40-year-old art gallery owner from Sarasota, Fla., had added 40 pounds to her tall, thin frame despite never wavering from her daily exercise and healthy eating habits. She also felt tired, her hair seemed to be thinning, her fingernails were dry and brittle, and her throat felt constricted.

Doctor examines woman's neck, 7 Myths about thyroid disease

Women over 50 are at greater risk for developing hyperthyroidism. — Istockphoto

But when she went to see her doctor, he told her she was just depressed and eating too much. He put her on an antidepressant.

"I had all the classic symptoms of thyroid disease, but he never tested for it," says Kruger, now 60.

Kruger's experience is all too common, according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), which has launched a new website, thyroidawareness.com, to help educate Americans about thyroid disorders. The association estimates that 30 million Americans suffer from thyroid conditions, and more than half remain undiagnosed.

In addition, women are seven to 10 times more likely than men to suffer from hypothyroidism, a condition where the thyroid gland is not producing enough hormone — which turned out to be Kruger's problem when she finally switched doctors a year later and was properly diagnosed. As she put it, "My thyroid just quit."

Unfortunately — as Kruger found — even after diagnoses, thyroid problems are not quite as simple to fix as some popular magazines and TV talk shows make it appear. And weight gain can't automatically be blamed on a faulty thyroid.

Overactive, underactive thyroids

Despite its tiny size, the butterfly-shaped thyroid gland nestled in the lower front of your neck has a huge effect on nearly every aspect of our health, from weight to mood to heart rate to energy level. When the gland's hormone output is out of whack, the consequences can be wide-ranging and medication needs to be finely tuned, and regularly monitored, to avoid taking too much or too little.

While the symptoms of an overactive thyroid, called hyperthyroidism, are clear-cut — typically weight loss despite normal eating, anxiety and accelerated or irregular heart rate — the symptoms of an underactive gland, or hypothyroidism, can be vague and slow to develop, says Francesco Celi, M.D., a thyroid specialist with the National Institutes of Health.

The risk of developing hypothyroidism is greatest for women over 50, and the risk increases with age. The most common form is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto's thyroiditis, in which the body's immune system attacks the thyroid. It's an inherited condition, according to the AACE, that affects more than 10 million Americans, mostly women, and can remain undiagnosed for years.

People with hypothyroidism may not realize their thyroid levels are low because the symptoms can mimic things we typically associate with aging, like hair and skin changes, forgetfulness, constipation, sore muscles and lack of energy. It can cause cognitive impairment and depression in older people, Celi says.

Next page: How do you treat an underactive thyroid? »

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