By day 11 of the worst period I’ve ever had, I knew something was wrong.
I’ve always had the textbook definition of a normal period. Aunt Flo arrived every 28 days, I usually had mild cramps, but my periods always, ALWAYS lasted for exactly five days. Even on day seven of this hellish period, I could tell my body just felt “off.” Finally, on day 11, I booked an appointment with the only doctor available at the rural hospital in my tiny college town.
I’m still shocked (and grateful) that the nurse practitioner there thought to check my thyroid levels. Many women who suffer from thyroid disorders (and the associated symptoms) will wait months before their primary care physician takes a full panel of their thyroid levels.
Checking my thyroid levels during an otherwise unimportant day quite literally changed my life.
The Phone Call That Changed Everything
As I walked through the food hall that same evening, I received an urgent phone call from the doctor’s office.
“Do you feel okay right now?” she asked.
“About the same as I felt earlier today. I’m still bleeding though,” I replied.
“Your thyroid levels are barely negligible... I think we need to run more tests.”
Up until this point in my life, I didn’t even know what TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) or T4 (thyroxine) meant. Did we even learn about the thyroid gland in high school anatomy? What does my thyroid have to do with this never-ending period anyway?
In a nutshell, I learned that your thyroid gland is a signal center. Your pituitary gland, located in the brain, tells the thyroid gland (through TSH) to make more or less thyroid hormones (T3 and T4). Almost every cell in your body needs these hormones to survive; T3 and T4 are responsible for the regulation of your body temperature, your metabolism, and your menstrual cycle (just to name a few).
The Symptoms That Led to the Eruption of My Health
Looking back on my high school and early college years, I now know I had a lot of little symptoms related to my thyroid health that went unchecked.
Your thyroid gland is a signal center that regulates your body temperature, metabolism, and menstrual cycle.
Starting in middle school, I had terrible stomach problems (you mean it isn’t normal to go #2 five times per day?). I also had seasons of serious fatigue, had night sweats but was constantly cold, and often complained of debilitating headaches. During the fall of my freshman year at college, I gained 15 pounds before October – even though I was on the women’s soccer team and worked out more than once per day. My joints started aching, I almost never felt well-rested, my face looked puffy and swollen, and my emotions were all over the place. I felt so terrible that I was asleep more hours of the day than I was awake – and even that didn't seem to be enough.
Who knew that the little 3-inch butterfly gland in my neck could cause so much heartache?
What I’ve Learned about Women and Thyroid Health
More than 1 in 6 women will be diagnosed with a thyroid disease at some point in their lifetime, but nearly 60% of all thyroid cases will go undiagnosed for years or decades. Furthermore, thyroid problems disproportionately impact women; men are 10 times less likely than women to have thyroid conditions. Not only will thyroid problems cause weight gain and skin issues, but they can also negatively impact fertility, such as interfering with menstrual cycles, ovulation, and embryo implantation in women, and negatively impacting sperm motility and morphology in men.
These statistics are staggering, and it’s shocking to me that it’s not more commonplace to check thyroid panels during routine check-ups.
Be Your Own Advocate
Do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? The fatigue, pesky joint-pain, unexplained weight-gain, adult acne, fertility issues, or hair loss? Perhaps it’s time to advocate for yourself by asking your doctor to check all of your thyroid levels.
More than 1 in 6 women will be diagnosed with a thyroid disease at some point in their life.
It’s true, listening to your body really is great advice. Don’t let your doctor or your friends or your mom convince you that losing hair, gaining weight, or feeling depressed is normal. It isn’t normal, and we shouldn’t convince ourselves that we have to live with and ignore these life-changing symptoms.
Let me say it again, my friend: 1 in 6 women will have thyroid problems. One. In. SIX.
So You Checked Your Thyroid Labs. Now What?
If you find out that a malfunctioning thyroid gland is the culprit to many of your symptoms, there are steps you can take to support your thyroid health (and sanity).
Find an Endocrinologist Who Listens Well and Is Willing To Work with You
This might sound basic, but I went to four specialists before I found a doctor who was willing to try different variations of medication and work with my symptoms. You HAVE to be your own best advocate. If you don’t like the first doctor you visit, try another.
Consider Making Changes to Your Diet
Did you know that your thyroid hormone is mostly made of iodine, and that your body needs this compound to produce healthy hormones? Did you know many studies suggest that gluten is a common trigger for autoimmune disease and thyroid problems? Or that EVERYONE has different dietary needs? There are many different protocols and theories that link diet to thyroid health and may offer you solutions. Because my symptoms were so severe, I started following the AIP diet which helped me reverse most of my symptoms, but elimination diets are not necessary for everyone with a thyroid condition.
Many studies suggest that gluten is a common trigger for autoimmune disease and thyroid problems.
Consider Making Changes to Your Lifestyle
I know, I know… every corner of the internet offers different lifestyle hacks to make you a better person. But maybe some of those “hacks” hold some merit. After I checked my thyroid labs and found out that I had an autoimmune disease, I found ways to support my immune system by sleeping more and (believe it or not) working out less. Turns out that working out multiple times a day was aggravating my symptoms more than it was helping.
Build Your Team
Having a thyroid condition changed my life completely, and I needed help. Eventually, I took a semester off from school so that I could return home to rest, learn how to eat foods to support my illness, and surround myself with family and friends who could help me return to health. I had to learn how to ask for help – and sometimes it wasn’t pretty – but receiving love and support from others was an integral part of my healing journey.
The Rocky Road to Remission
After 32 days of uncertainty and about a million tampons, my period finally ended.
Even though I knew that I was having thyroid problems, I didn’t have a way of coping with my symptoms. I was told that there was nothing I could do; I just had to wait out the storm and hope my hormones would rebalance themselves… and if my thyroid gland did decide to quit on me (which it eventually did), I would have to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of forever. Nice.
Six months after the never-ending period, I woke up in the middle of the night with severe joint pain and couldn’t even walk down the hallway to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t open an already-opened water bottle because my hands were so swollen. I had a strange sore that made it incredibly painful to pee, couldn’t eat, and had hives all over my legs. After being accused of having an STD in urgent care (the results were negative, thank you very much), I saw an Ob/Gyn who also couldn’t diagnose my problems. In the span of a week, I went to urgent care on four separate occasions but still had no answers. I went from being a university athlete to the girl who couldn’t even walk down the hallway in a matter of months.
I went from being a university athlete to the girl who couldn’t even walk down the hallway in a matter of months.
Eventually, after a few rounds of prednisone, my symptoms started to fade and I was able to see two other specialists who confirmed that I probably had an underlying autoimmune disease. Finally, I had a name for my demons: Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
It has been almost four years since those urgent care visits and long nights of suffering. Life sure does look differently these days! I have been able to start running again, have figured out which foods trigger my thyroid problems, have been on the same thyroid medication for two years (hallelujah), and have built a team of people who support me when my sickness does inevitably flare up from time to time.
I’ve learned how to advocate for myself and others by raising awareness on thyroid disorders and autoimmune disease. I’m not ashamed of the story I’ve been given, but am learning to support my thyroid health by listening to my body, eating better, and resting more.
And the best part about the last four years? I’m healthy again.
Women have to be more proactive about their thyroid health. Statistics surrounding thyroid disorders are only rising, but there are steps we can all take to curb illness and protect our own health. Even baby steps move us forward.
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