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EXPLAINER: What is hypothyroidism, and what happens if it’s left untreated?

By Brooke Villanueva Published Apr 25, 2023 6:07 pm

Bea Alonzo made headlines over the weekend when she opened up about the reason for her weight gain, revealing that she has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. 

“Aside from having PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), I recently was diagnosed with hypothyroidism so that’s the reason behind my gaining weight,” she said in a YouTube vlog on Saturday, April 22, adding that she’s trying to address her weight gain through diet and exercise.

“So sa mga nagsasabi diyan, bakit ang taba na daw ni Bea, ‘yun po ‘yung reason. Pasensya na kayo,” she continued. 

Local stars Shaina Magdayao and Angel Locsin previously shared their struggles with hypothyroidism, with the latter saying that she and her husband Neil Arce have no plans of having a baby just yet due to her thyroid problem. Singer Moira Dela Torre also revealed she had the same condition, but said she has been cleared of it in March this year. 

What is hypothyroidism? 

According to Dr. Eunice Tan, an endocrinologist at St. Luke’s Medical Center, hypothyroidism—also known as underactive thyroid—is a thyroid condition or state “where the thyroid hormone production becomes inadequate.” 

There are many causes of the disease, with the most common ones being thyroid gland removal via surgery and the radioactive iodine given to patients with hyperthyroidism, when more thyroid hormones are being produced than how much one’s system requires.

“Another common cause is thyroid failure due to an autoimmune disease where there are autoantibodies attacking your own thyroid gland,” Dr. Tan said, referring to it as Hashimoto's Thyroiditis.

Other causes include subacute thyroiditis (an inflammatory condition of the thyroid) as well as drugs that are being used to treat heart arrhythmias and immunotherapy for cancer patients.

Dr. Tan said hypothyroidism comes with a “constellation of symptoms,” including weight gain, cold intolerance, constipation, sluggishness, lethargy, and recent heavier menstrual flow, among others. 

As it progresses, one could notice the following symptoms: puffy eyelids, muscle cramps (not only on the legs or calf muscles), and even depression. 

How serious is hypothyroidism?

As Dr. Tan put it, hypothyroidism is “very, very simple to treat.” 

“Thyroid hormone replacement is the treatment. TSH is monitored every quarter to determine the adequacy of replacement dosage,” she explained.

While it requires a simple and straightforward treatment, it could become dangerous when it’s left undetected or untreated, “or if thyroid hormone replacement is inadequate for a long period of time.” 

Such could lead to long-term complications, including hypertension, bradycardia (very slow heart rate) that can cause syncopal attack or fainting, as well as stroke and heart attack due to a remarkable increase in bad cholesterol.

It could also cause life-threatening conditions like heart failure and even pericardial effusion, which Dr. Tan described as the “development of fluid in the sac where the heart is contained.” 

Since it’s either hereditary or a result of surgery or radiofrequency ablation (radioactive treatment), there’s no known prevention for hypothyroidism. “Taking iodine does not prevent hypothyroidism since iodine deficiency is not endemic in our current urbanized society,” she noted. 

“Increased awareness for those with family history may provide early detection,” Dr. Tan said.