A lot of articles and blog posts about thyroid dysfunction tend to focus on the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid. However, it’s estimated that between 3 and 10 million people actually suffer from an overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism.1 The most common form of hyperthyroidism is the autoimmune condition known as Graves’ disease.
I myself was diagnosed with Graves’ during my second year of medical school. In my book, The Autoimmune Solution, I share my personal experience with Graves’ disease and how conventional medicine failed me in that process. I never want anyone to go through what I had to go through to treat my Graves’ disease, so it is my mission to educate as many people as I can that there is a healthier and more natural way to recover from Graves’ and other forms of hyperthyroidism.
What is Graves’ Disease?
Your thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck, produces hormones to help regulate body temperature, heart rate, growth, energy production, and brain health. Hyperthyroidism is a condition that occurs when the thyroid is overactive and produces too much thyroid hormone. When thyroid hormones are too high, energy metabolism will speed up, causing the body to burn through nutrients too quickly. This can result in malnutrition and lead to a wide range of problems. I personally was eating everything in sight and went from a size 4 to a size 0 in a matter of months. Trust me when I tell you that it was not healthy!
There can be many reasons for the thyroid to be overactive, yet this most commonly occurs as a result of the autoimmune condition, Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease accounts for roughly 60-80% of all hyperthyroid cases.2 Normally, thyroid function is regulated by the pituitary gland, a tiny gland responsible for secreting TSH, which signals the thyroid to produce thyroid hormones T3 and T4. In Graves’ disease, an antibody known as thyrotropin receptor antibody (TRAb) can mimic pituitary hormones and completely override the system, causing an overactive thyroid. You can also develop Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO) antibodies or Antithyroglobulin antibodies. I personally did not have antibodies to TRAb, I only had antibodies to TPO. I see this very frequently in my clinic as well.
Two other forms of hyperthyroidism are non-autoimmune conditions known as toxic multinodular goiter and toxic adenoma. Toxic multinodular goiter involves the growth of independently functioning nodules on the thyroid gland itself. These nodules are able to stimulate the thyroid without the use of TSH, thereby overriding the system and causing an overactive thyroid.
Similarly, toxic adenoma is a benign tumor consisting of thyroid follicular cells, which produce excessive amounts of T3 and/or T4. The excess thyroid hormones produced by toxic adenomas can suppress the function of remaining healthy thyroid tissue, leading to hyperthyroidism.
Graves’ Disease Symptoms
- Hot flashes, sweating
- Unintentional weight loss
- Frequent stools, loose stool or diarrhea
- Difficulty sleeping and insomnia
- Anxiety, irritability, or constant fatigue
- Elevated heart rate
- Changes in menstrual cycles
- Reduced libido
- Bulging eyes
- Thick red skin on shins or feet
- Increased appetite
- Hand tremors
- Muscle weakness
How is Graves’ Disease Diagnosed?
Blood testing your thyroid hormone levels is the first step. In hyperthyroidism, the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) will be very low and the Free T4 and Free T3 will be elevated. In autoimmune conditions, you will see elevated levels of antibodies as well. To read more about optimal thyroid lab values.
Radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) is the next step in diagnosing a thyroid imbalance. An RAIU using a small dose of I-131 will determine how much iodine the thyroid takes up. A high iodine uptake is indicative of Graves’ disease. This test can be helpful in ruling out other possible causes of overactive thyroid.
Ultrasound (US) of the thyroid is helpful to look at nodules on the thyroid, and your doctor may request you have a fine needle biopsy to confirm that the nodules are not cancerous.