When I started this blog I said I started running in college to lose the freshman 15 (or 30) that I gained. That’s actually not entirely true. During the summer after my junior year of high school my two best friends and I joined a gym for the first time. I was 16 and my only goal was to go into my senior year of high school looking great. I wasn’t really overweight at the time, but I wasn’t in shape either. We were there every. single. day. I did a lot of different things at the gym but I mainly ran and walked on the treadmill. This was my first real experience with running. I would run 2 to 3 miles a day at a pretty slow speed, but still, I was running!
In addition to the running I started being more careful with what I ate. I thought my exercise routine and dietary changes would be a perfect recipe for feeling and looking better but it wasn’t happening. I also started feeling extremely tired all day and I was always freezing cold, even though it was the summer. I thought it was a result of exercising so much. I went to the doctor in late August for my yearly physical and I was shocked to see that I had gained 8 pounds over the summer despite how hard I had been working out!
The doctor noticed that I was surprised by the number on the scale and asked me about it. I told her how active I had been all summer and she seemed concerned. She started feeling my neck and then asked me if I had noticed any other new changes in how I was feeling this summer. I told her about the tiredness and how I was always cold, and she said she wanted to do a blood test to see what my thyroid hormone levels were. She noticed that I had a goiter (enlarged thyroid gland) in my neck, and the weight gain and other symptoms I was experiencing were characteristics of a disease called hypothyroidism.
(^ Two pictures from the end of the summer after my thyroid gave up on me)
I had no idea what a thyroid was or what ‘hypothyroidism’ meant, but the doctor explained that the thyroid is a gland in your lower neck that releases hormones into the blood. These hormones control many bodily functions including metabolism. People with hypothyroidism produce very low amounts of these hormones which causes metabolism to slow down. This leads to symptoms like weight gain, fatigue, and low body temperatures, to name a few (check, check, and check!)
Hypothyroidism can be caused by many things, but once my doctor reviewed my family history it became clear what my cause was. Apparently most of the women in my family have been diagnosed with the same thing (including my mom, aunt, and grandmother), which means my hypothyroidism is the result of a genetic auto-immune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, where your body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland and causes it to not work correctly. This is the most common cause of hypothyroidism and it tends to run in families. My sister was actually diagnosed with it three years later when she was 16 (the same age as I was).
After discovering this family history it was no surprise that my blood work came back showing that my thyroid hormone levels were off. And they weren’t just a little bit off, they were “off the chart” in terms of what is considered normal and abnormal. She immediately started me on medication (Synthroid- a synthetic thyroid hormone) to help regulate my levels. She also made me get an ultrasound of my neck to see if there were any nodules on my thyroid which is another symptom. The ultrasound tech did find a couple little benign ones, but she said they were nothing to worry about.
When I found out about my hypothyroidism I was relieved to know what was going on with my body and thankful that I was able to take steps to fix it before it got worse, because if left untreated it can be very bad for your health. The doctor told me that my thyroid levels were so underactive that if I hadn’t been exercising so much that summer I probably would have gained more than 20 pounds instead of just 8!
I noticed a difference in how I felt pretty soon after starting my medication. I had much more energy, my goiter (enlarged thyroid) went down, and my weight gain stopped. I didn’t lose the weight right away though after starting my medicine. I took a long time to get back to my normal weight. I had to go back to the doctor frequently for blood tests to make sure that my thyroid levels were at the right level. He had to adjust my dosage a few times to figure what was best for my body. He wanted me at a dosage that put me within normal limits but I am still on the very low end, despite my medication. It’s a delicate balance between having an underactive and an overactive thyroid, and having an overactive one (hyperthyroidism) is dangerous for many other reasons. So my doctor preferred to keep me at the low end of normal rather than risk it.
So what does this mean and how does it affect me now, eight years later? Well, for one, it is difficult for me to lose weight even when I am very active. And since my medicine brings my thyroid functioning up to an (almost) normal level, it’s difficult for me to even maintain my weight when I am not active. I gain weight very quickly when I cut back on running and exercise, even if my eating stays the same. This was hard for me when I was a teenager, because I was so used to being super thin without any effort until my thyroid basically stopped working. In fact, I was even made fun of sometimes for being skinny and lanky! But now it’s not a big deal. It’s just more motivation for me to stay active!
Also, I now have to take my medication on a daily basis for the rest of my life and get my levels checked every six months to make sure I don’t need to increase or decrease my dosage. It can be a pain sometimes, because I have to take it at the same time each day, on an empty stomach, and have to wait 30 minutes to an hour before eating anything after taking it. This means I have to wake up extra early on days that I run and need to eat something before I go. I am also not supposed to take my pill with anything containing soy, iron, or too much fiber because it affects absorption.
All of those things are not really a big deal to me anymore and have just become part of my routine. But I have been thinking about it more lately because of a recent symptom I have been experiencing. Recently I noticed that when I write, type, or use my right hand for a while my fingers will go numb and they are hard to move. Also, my whole right arm felt weaker than before. It got worse after I started taking Body Pump. I had to go to the doctor to get x-rays and do a nerve response test to see what was going on, and he told me that people will hypothyroidism can develop thick ligaments that trap and compress nerves. My right wrist ligament was swelling and getting thicker than my left one because I used it so much. This was pressing on the nerves that go down my arm and into my hand which was causing them to go numb. He recommended that I wear a wrist wrap when I am going to be using my hand a lot and when I’m sleeping to keep it stable. If it gets worse it could turn into carpal tunnel syndrome, which I may need surgery for. Crazy!!
While I was talking to my doctor about the finger numbness he told me I also need to think about the future since I will be getting married soon and starting a family sometime after that. He said I will need to monitor my thyroid levels monthly when I get pregnant because sharing thyroid hormones with a growing baby can make it even more underactive. An underactive thyroid during pregnancy is really dangerous and can lead to all kinds of birth defects. Since this runs in my family genetically, it’s likely that I may pass it on to one of my children.
Who knew a little gland could cause so many issues?
Again, none of these ‘problems’ are a huge deal to me and they are all very fixable. I just find it so interesting to see how the body works and how everything is connected inside, and how much of an impact your family genes have. I think if I had not become a teacher I would have to go into a profession that deals with the human body. I love learning about it!
For now, me and my thyroid will go on living together in medicated harmony! 🙂