By Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Society for Women's Health Research
First it was Oprah’s book club, then it was a campaign to build new schools to educate impoverished women and children around the globe. It seemed everywhere media mogul and American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey led, people would follow. Now, she’s shifting her attention to thyroid disease, after she decided to go public about her own recent diagnosis.
Oprah’s thyroid disease diagnosis may be the best thing that ever happened to the efforts to raise awareness of thyroid conditions, which often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Millions of people in the United States have a thyroid condition and the vast majority are women. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists estimates that more than eight out of 10 patients with thyroid disease are women.
Winfrey describes her battle with fatigue and weight gain in the October issue of O Magazine: “First hyperthyroidism, which sped up my metabolism and left me unable to sleep for days. (Most people lose weight. I didn’t.) Then hypothyroidism, which slowed down my metabolism and made me want to sleep all the time.”
“Although she has not officially revealed her exact diagnosis, it sounds like chronic autoimmune thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease,” explains Samara Ginzburg, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and endocrinology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “Hashimoto’s can start with a hyperthyroid phase, due to release of stored hormone from an inflamed gland, followed by a hypothyroid phase.”
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland in the neck which produces hormones and helps regulate the body’s metabolism. If the gland is underactive or does not produce enough hormone, referred to as hypothyroidism, a person may feel sluggish, fatigued and gain weight. If the gland is overactive or produces too much hormone, known as hyperthyroidism, a person may experience heart palpitations, tremors, irritability and weight loss.
“As with other autoimmune diseases (in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues), it’s believed that female hormones play some role in thyroid diseases.