Ten percent of women and three percent of men will experience thyroid disease, which can affect every organ in the body.
Angela Dispenzieri was blessed with great health her whole life, until about five years ago when she started feeling anxious and overheated.
“I started noticing I had a fast heart rate, and feeling sweaty, dizzy,” she says. The problem was centered in a small butterfly-shaped gland in her throat — the thyroid.
“Thyroid hormone is important in the metabolism of basically every cell, every tissue, every organ in the body,” says Dispenzieri’s doctor, John Morris III, MD, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic.
If the thyroid is not producing enough hormone — a condition called hypothyroidism — metabolism slows. You may feel weak, sluggish, and cold. You may gain weight without overeating. This condition is especially serious in children because the thyroid is essential to growth and brain development.
If the thyroid is producing too much hormone — called hyperthyroidism — the symptoms are the opposite. You may feel nervous and hot, and you may lose weight while eating normally.
“It affects the heart and the nervous system,” says Dr. Morris. “It increases the metabolism so that patients need to eat more and more in order just to maintain their weight.”
Morris determined Dispenzieri’s hyperthyroidism was caused by an autoimmune condition called Graves’ disease. In Graves’ disease, the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland causing it to become overactive.
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In her case, the best solution was to shut down her overactive thyroid gland. That was done by giving her a radioactive iodine solution to drink. The thyroid absorbs iodine, so the radioactive material accumulated there and destroyed the gland.
Without a working thyroid gland, Dispenzieri must take a synthetic form of thyroid hormone every day as a pill. The drug she takes, levothyroxine, is the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States.
Dispenzieri is a medical doctor and a cancer researcher at Mayo Clinic, so she appreciates the work that went into developing the artificial hormone that now keeps her and millions of others alive.
Thyroid hormone was first purified by a researcher at the same hospital where Dispenzieri does her research — the Mayo Clinic. On Christmas Eve 1914, a young chemist named Edward Kendall became the first to successfully crystallize thyroid hormone in the laboratory.
“Discovery in medicine was amazing then,” Dispenzieri says. “It’s amazing now.”