In 2015, 24-year-old Christa Hammond was embarking on what she called a “picture-perfect life.” The Erie, Colorado resident had recently finished graduate school and had a job in data analysis, her passion. “I’d just gotten married to Craig, the love of my life,” says Hammond, who is now 29. “Everything was going pretty much exactly as planned and you’d think I would have been overjoyed. But I wasn’t. I felt awful.”
Exhausted and overwhelmed
The normally cheerful, optimistic, hard-working Hammond had lost all drive: “I was knocked off my feet. It’s hard to describe exactly how it happened except that suddenly I just didn’t feel like myself anymore. I felt depressed and anxious, I was gaining weight (I put on 20 pounds in just a few months), and I was exhausted all the time. Things that had felt easy a few months earlier suddenly felt overwhelming and it was all I could do to just get through my day.”
“Am I just lazy?”
“I worried that my job performance would decline and my bosses would be upset. I worried that Craig would think I wasn’t the same girl he married. And I just kept thinking that it shouldn’t feel this hard, that I shouldn’t have to fight just to do ordinary things like chores and work and I should have plenty of energy to do what I loved. After all, I was just 25 years old and perfectly healthy.”
Hammond realized she needed answers. “At the beginning of 2016, my mom suggested I get my thyroid checked. She knew me and knew that this wasn’t normal for me.” Plus, Hammond’s mother had suffered from thyroid problems for years and recognized some of her daughter’s symptoms. “I made an appointment with my doctor who agreed that my chronic exhaustion sounded off and ran a bunch of tests.”
Finally, a diagnosis
Her test results detected Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. It hits about five people out of 100, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The condition is most common in women between the ages of 40 and 60 but can target younger women and men as well. Women are eight times more likely to get it and people who have weakened immune systems or other autoimmune disorders or who have a relative with Hashimoto’s are also at a higher risk for developing it.
“My immune system was attacking my thyroid, damaging it so it couldn’t make enough hormones,” says Hammond. The thyroid gland is responsible for controlling how the body uses energy and affects nearly every organ, so without enough thyroid hormones, many of Hammond’s normal body functions had slowed to a crawl. “That explained my sudden weight gain and exhaustion!” (These are the 18 things doctors want you to know about thyroid disorders.)
What are the symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease?
The most common symptoms of the illness are often mistaken for something else or are brushed off as “annoying but normal—like exhaustion,” says Constantine George, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, and founder of the healthcare service Epitomedical. “In addition to fatigue, the patient may have symptoms like dry skin, puffy face, weight gain, brittle or thinning hair, memory fog, painful joints, and muscle weakness,” he explains. The NIH lists other common symptoms, including trouble tolerating cold, constipation, heavy periods, trouble getting pregnant, depression, memory problems, and a slowed heart rate. Sound familiar? Here’s how to tell if you might have a “hidden” thyroid problem.
How is Hashimoto’s disease diagnosed?
“I have learned that my experience wasn’t uncommon,” says Hammond. “Hashimoto’s disease often flies under the radar for years, only causing mild symptoms, especially at first. It’s so easy for not just women but also their doctors, to ignore symptoms of a subclinical thyroid disorder or write them off like I did.”
Hashimoto’s and other thyroid disorders may sometimes first be detected during a manual exam where the doctor feels an abnormality on the front of the neck—one of the 13 thyroid facts everyone should know—but it takes a blood test to diagnose them, according to the American Thyroid Association.
Thyroid blood tests
A basic thyroid test should look for elevated levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and a high level of TSH is a sign of hypothyroidism, according to the ATA. The group recommends that serum TSH levels only be used as a screening test; if the levels are elevated, then further testing should be done to look at specific types of TSH—T4, and total T3, say the American Association for Clinical Chemistry. If your clinician or doctor suspects that an autoimmune disease is causing your thyroid problems, as is the case with Hashimoto’s disease, then they will also test for antibodies and may order a full panel test.
There are differences between lab tests and differences in how the results are interpreted, says Amy Myers, MD, a functional medicine physician and author of The Thyroid Connection. While some clinicians such as Dr. Myers believe that “normal” findings don’t always mean you’re well, others—like experts at Harvard Medical School—point out that research has yet to support further testing or treatment in people who have borderline numbers. Your best bet is to discuss your symptoms and options with your doctor. Even if you don’t have Hashimoto’s, these tests can also detect other, less common, types of thyroid disorders.
How is Hashimoto’s disease treated?
Hypothyroidism is usually treated by replacing the hormone that your own thyroid can no longer make with a synthetic version in a pill, Dr. George says, adding that at first, your doctor will want to see you every few weeks to monitor how your body is responding to make sure you’re on the right dosage for your body. “People are often amazed that the solution to so many different problems may be a simple thyroid pill,” he says. “That was definitely the case for me,” says Hammond. “I wasn’t back to normal but it didn’t take long before I started to feel better.”
“I’m making lifestyle changes to support my thyroid”
“Medication is only part of managing my disease,” says Hammond. “I also have had to learn to take better care of my body by cleaning up my diet, exercising regularly, and making sure to get enough rest. Now, after three years of treatment and patience, you’d never know I have a thyroid disorder. Since starting treatment I’ve been able to lose the weight I gained and regain my energy.” Make sure you’re following these 7 healthy habits for a happy thyroid.
“How I manage my chronic illness today”
“Hashimoto’s doesn’t get cured or go away on its own, although the symptoms can be well controlled, so I know I have to be consistent with the meds and my healthy lifestyle for the rest of my life,” says Hammond. “Dealing with it constantly can be discouraging sometimes but it’s worth it because I feel so much better now! Now I can look back and recognize how completely nonfunctional the disease had made me, so that really motivates me to stay on top of it. But perhaps my biggest motivation to take care of myself is my daughter Emma, who was born just last year. Going through pregnancy and having an infant while also having Hashimoto’s adds an extra layer of difficulty but I want to stay healthy to be the best mom I can be for her—like my mom has been for me.”