Since her catapult into talk-show success in the mid-1980s, Oprah Winfrey, 53, has waged a very public struggle with her weight. So when she gained 20 pounds earlier this year, it didn't initially come as much of a surprise to viewers. But speculation grew that Winfrey might be suffering from something more serious after she took a monthlong break in July, citing exhaustion. Finally, in October, she revealed that she had a thyroid condition. In an episode of her show devoted to the topic, Winfrey told viewers, "I wanted so many other women who are going through the same thing to check yourself and recognize that ... it's an issue we all share in common."
Women aren't the only ones to suffer from thyroid problems, which result when too little or too much thyroid hormone circulates in the body. But they comprise up to 80 percent of the estimated 27 million Americans who have thyroid conditions, according to the Society for Women's Health Research.
Hypothyroidism, which Winfrey suffered from, results when the thyroid (a small butterfly-shaped gland located near the Adam's apple at the base of the throat) has stopped producing enough of the hormones that regulate the body's metabolism and normal body function. A range of symptoms may result, including: fatigue; weight gain; dry skin; brittle hair and nails; low blood pressure; irregular or painful menstrual cycles; depression; low sex drive; swelling or puffiness around the eyes, face, feet and hands; the appearance of a drooping eyelid; high cholesterol; hair loss, and a feeling of pressure in the neck. Conversely, hyperthyroidism results from an overproduction of thyroid hormone. Common symptoms include heart palpitations, nervousness, insomnia, breathlessness, trembling hands, weight loss (and in some cases weight gain due to increased appetite), hair loss, fatigue and light or absent menstrual periods. It is not uncommon for a hyperthyroid condition to eventually lead to a hypothyroid state, as it did with Winfrey.
Perhaps as a result of the number and range of symptoms, the disorders are often undiagnosed in both men and women. Winfrey said she went "from doctor to doctor trying to figure out what was wrong" until she finally discovered the problem was with her thyroid. A simple blood test can be performed during an annual physical exam but patients may have to request it, says Mary Shomon, a patient advocate and best-selling author of the 2005 book "Living Well With Hypothyroidism: What Your Doctor Doesn't tell You" (HarperCollins). Further tests can help discern whether a patient is suffering from hyper- or hypothyroid conditions and identify underlying causes. Often, treatment can be as easy as taking one hormone-replacement tablet daily; but it is important to discuss all options with a doctor.
For more information on thyroid diseases, check out the National Institutes of Health Web site.