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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Lee Ann Beard, Bountiful, a mother of three, has Graves' disease.

The United States has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, but an increase in increased waistlines isn't completely due to fast-food diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Hypothyroidism is another disease on the rise in America, with more than 5 million people experiencing problems due to irregular levels in their thyroid glands.

Though the butterfly-shaped neck gland is only 12-15 millimeters in average length, the thyroid produces powerful metabolism-regulating hormones that, when lowered, can cause weight gain, depression, fatigue, memory loss, chronic pain, hair loss, brain fog and anxiety.

Particularly at risk of hypothyroidism are yo-yo dieters, people with high-stress lifestyles and women older than 30. Pregnancy and menopause also cause low thyroid levels.

Still, some doctors tell patients symptoms like weight gain and depression can be resolved with regular exercise and healthy eating habits — cures that are ineffective in the case of hypothyroidism.

So, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists designated January as Thyroid Awareness Month, hoping to increase public knowledge about the disease. Oprah Winfrey has also discussed hypothyroidism on her television show and in her magazine after her diagnosis with the ailment.

"An educated patient is the key [to proper thyroid diagnosis]," said Dr. Kent Holtorf, a leading endocrinologist who founded the National Academy of Hypothyroidism.

Poor-quality health care results in shorter doctor's appointments and fewer tests for hypothyroidism, and the single thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test usually conducted by doctors is an unreliable indication of thyroid levels, Holtorf said.

The Los Angeles-based doctor said environmental toxins like Bisphenol A (BPA) found in polycarbonate water bottles are potent thyroid receptor blockers and a normal TSH does not necessarily dictate the body's overall thyroid status.

Thus, anyone with continuing symptoms of hypothyroidism should find a doctor who is willing to take more time, conduct more tests, and clinically diagnose patients.

"Finding a doctor who is willing to analyze your symptoms and look at new test studies that are out — that's 90 percent of the battle," Holtorf said.

But Dr. E. Dale Abel, chief of endocrinology and metabolism at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said Holtorf's theories are controversial in the medical field.

The Endocrine Society and the American Thyroid Association both hold to the belief that a TSH test is an adequate initial screen for thyroid disease, based upon research supporting that the pituitary gland is a master regulator of other glands in the body.

Abel also said the safe level of BPA in plastic is still under investigation but agrees that the chemical, along with many other environmental toxins, can affect thyroid levels.

Whether patients are diagnosed with an initial TSH test or further testing, increasing awareness is still important, Abel said.

"I don't think thyroid disease is necessarily becoming more prevalent, but there is a possibility it is being underdiagnosed in some groups," he said. "So, increasing awareness is a good thing, giving people the information they need so they can get their thyroid tested."

Another benefit of Thyroid Awareness Month is spreading information about hyperthyroidism and thyroid tumors, Abel said.

Though less widespread than hypothyroidism, some patients may experience high thyroid levels, which conversely cause weight loss, restlessness, frequent bowel movements, irregular menstrual cycles in women, protruding eyes, palpitations and sleeping difficulty.

Additionally, cancerous thyroid tumors occur in people who have been exposed to radiation and are best treated with early diagnosis.

Once patients are properly diagnosed, thyroid cancer, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be cured with proper treatment.

Lee Ann Beard, a mother of three from Bountiful, had her thyroid removed in 2006 after experiencing symptoms of hyperthyroidism for more than a year.

She dismissed her symptoms of a racing heartbeat, irregular menstrual cycle, night sweats, weight loss and mood swings as the effects of stress and an imbalanced diet.

Now, she said, she recognizes her first episode of assumed food poisoning to be the beginning of her high thyroid levels.

She opted to have her thyroid removed by drinking radioactive iodine that slowly killed the gland. Now Beard takes Armour Thyroid hormone supplement and said that after a year and a half, she finally feels like she is back to her old self.

"I wish that they [TSH tests] were something the doctors did more, but I guess thyroid problems are still something very hard to diagnose," Beard said.

Beard said that TSH tests are more commonly performed now than before she had her thyroid removed, especially for women trying to get pregnant.

"I think people are becoming much more aware of the thyroid and its function," Beard said. "It can affect so many things in your body. … People tell me symptoms they have, and there have been several times when I tell them they should have it checked out."