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Depression is a symptom of hypothyroidism, and dealing with one can often help the other.

Hypothyroidism is a condition discovered in the 1850s that affects a small gland in front of your neck called the thyroid gland. It is characterized by the underproduction of the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine. As their names suggest, these hormones are the primary ones created by the thyroid gland, and they play roles in a surprising variety of bodily tasks — from metabolism, heart rate, and muscle control, all the way to brain development and bone upkeep. As you can imagine, a lack of these hormones can cause numerous internal and external issues.

Hypothyroidism is estimated to affect about three percent of Americans, but it is more common in females, as up to 10 percent of women have some sort of thyroid hormone deficiency. A significant number of people with hypothyroidism will also find themselves depressed. If you think you're one of them, what should you know?

What causes hypothyroidism?

The primary cause of hypothyroidism is a damaged thyroid gland that can no longer keep up with the demands of the body. This most commonly happens as a result of Hashimoto's thyroiditis, a disease that causes inflammation of the thyroid gland. Another reason could be that part of the thyroid was removed as a medical treatment for something like hyperthyroidism (the opposite problem, where the gland produces too much thyroxine) or thyroid cancer.

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

The thyroid gland is so essential, hypothyroidism is characterized by many different symptoms. In the beginning, the symptoms may be mild enough to attribute to your metabolism getting slower as you age, or just temporarily gaining weight. Some of the effects that might appear when you have hypothyroidism are:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Becoming more sensitive to cold temperatures
  • Gaining weight even when eating habits have not changed
  • A slower heart rate
  • Thinning hair and dry skin
  • Muscle and joint pain and stiffness
 Another symptom of hypothyroidism is depression, which comes with its own unique challenges.

Depression and hypothyroidism: What do you need to know?

A wealth of literature either establishes or tries to establish a connection between depression and hypotyhroidism. Though not all research comes to the same conclusion, there is a great deal that implies a correlation between the two, and most doctors agree that hypothyroidism brings another dimension to treating depression. The question, of course, is is — how do you treat a person suffering from both hypothyroidism and depression?

The first step for someone who believes they have hypothyroidism but wasn't yet diagnosed is always to talk to their doctor. People who already know they have hypotyhroidism but are now feeling depressed should also seek medical attention.

People who are newly diagnosed with hypothyroidism can be prescribed a range of conventional treatments:

  • The most common is something called levothyroxine, which is easier to remember as synthetic thyroxine. This is an artificial hormone to replace the natural one you currently do not have enough of. It works the same way as a natural hormone when introduced to the body.
  • Liothyronine is another option. It works like levothyroxine, but contributes triiodothyronine instead (the other thyroid hormone). It isn't used as often because triiodothyronine is removed from the system faster, but it can also help.
  • A third option is to take liotrix, which administers both hormones to the body at once. This can risk raising hormone levels excessively, but works better for some patients.

That sounds easy. "If I find out I have hypothyroidism, I can just take some of these pills and be done with it, right?" Not exactly. The doctor still has to prescribe the dose and brand based on several factors, because the main difference between the brands is the concentration of drug rather than quality. Several different things can affect how the doctor prescribes a treatment to you, such as:

  • How severe your hypothyroidism is
  • Your weight
  • Your age
  • Other medicines you are taking
  • Other medical conditions you suffer from.

For example, in older individuals, these drugs may have a dangerous effect on their heart rate, and other medication may have a negative impact when combined with the hypothyroidism treatment or become less effective.

OK, but how can I overcome depression if I have hypothyroidism?

"These sound like general hypothyroidism treatments, what does this have to do with depression?" Good question! The answer is even more interesting.

The fortunate thing about hypothyroidism treatments is that, if your depression is caused by hypothyroidism, it will go away with the other symptoms when you begin taking your medication.

Furthermore, thyroid treatments have a history of improving depression medication, even when the patient does not have thyroid problems. For example, liothyronine is sometimes recommended to supplement antidepressants, and common antidepressants like SSRIs increase the rate at which thyroid hormones can affect the brain.

If the depression continues after you have been taking thyroid treatments for a while, however, the depression will need to be addressed as a separate problem. Strategies that can help include:

  • Relaxation and meditation techniques
  • Regular physical exercise
  • Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy
  • Antidepressants, if your depression is severe enough.

Remember that talking to your doctor is very important and that if you think you may have depression unrelated to hypothyroidism, it is essential to tell them.

To conclude, if you believe that you have hypothyroidism, it's vital to talk to your doctor, especially if you have symptoms of depression as well. Treating your hypothyroidism may well help treat your depression as well. If it does not, it may be worth pursuing solutions that affect depression directly, like therapy and antidepressants.

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