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When hormones go haywire, life can be hell


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When hormones go haywire, life can be hell

By LUCY ELKINS - More by this author ? Last updated at 08:18am on 7th August 2007 commentIconSm.gif Comments (13)


"It's not me, it's my hormones" is not just a lame excuse - millions of apparently healthy Britons suffer from hormonal disorders that wreak havoc with their health. "We are seeing more people diagnosed with hormonal complaints than ever before," says John Monson, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Endocrinology St Bart's Hospital, London, and consultant physician at The London Clinic.


The rise in numbers is partly because diagnostic techniques have improved, but the stress of modern life and poor diet may be contributory factors. Most sufferers of glandular disorders are women, although it's not clear why.


The majority of our hormones are produced in the 11 glands dotted about the body. These regulate everything from sex drive to hair growth. The symptoms of glandular disorders are wide-ranging, which means the true cause of the patient's illness can often go undiagnosed. Here we offer a guide to the most common conditions, their causes and treatment:




LorraineBranch_228x338.jpgLorraine Branch suffered from polycystic ovary sundrome



POLYCYSTIC OVARY SYNDROME: SuddenlyI had a hairy stomach

SYMPTOMS: Irregular or absent periods, reduced fertility or recurrent miscarriage, excessive bodily and facial hair, thinning hair on the scalp, rapid weight gain and a difficulty in losing weight, depression, mood swings, oily skin and acne.


CAUSES: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects around 8 per cent of premenopausal women. It is caused by the ovaries producing irregular amounts of various hormones, including the follicle-stimulating hormone (too little prevents a woman from ovulating, causing infertility). Many women with this condition are also resistant to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar - and, as a result, they also have too much of the male hormones such as testosterone. Another problem is ovarian cysts.


TREATMENT: The drug metformin can improve the body's sensitivity to insulin and regulates periods. The contraceptive Pill can regulate periods and help with acne and excess hair. Sometimes surgery will be performed to reduce the number of ovarian cysts. Women who wish to have a family will be offered fertility treatment. Being overweight increases the symptoms, so exercise and a careful diet can also help.


MY STORY: Lorraine Branch, 34, a PR manager, is single and lives in Wimbledon, London. She says: I'd been on the Pill since 13 because I suffered from painful and heavy periods that lasted six weeks. Unfortunately, while the Pill helped with this, it also masked the symptoms of PCOS, and it wasn't until I was 20 and wanted to try for a baby with my then partner that the problem emerged. Within a couple of weeks of coming off the Pill, I had acne and hair had sprouted onmy stomach, feet, chin and upper lip.


After a year, I still had not conceived so I saw a gynaecologist, who diagnosed polycystic ovary syndrome. I was upset because I wanted a family, but I was also focused on getting rid of the hair and acne. I have been on different versions of the Pill ever since. One, Dianette, helped my acne and facial hair, but left me depressed and weepy.


Last year I changed to Yasmin, which minimises my symptoms without the side-effects. I also follow a strict diet - avoiding sweet food - and I exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight. ? www.verity-pcos.org.uk






elainesmith_228x398.jpgElaine Smith found her weight ballooning from a size 12 to a size 18



HYPOTHYROIDISM: I went from size 12 to size 18 in a year

SYMPTOMS: Weight gain, depression, inability to tolerate the cold, constipation, dry skin, thin hair, memory problems, croaky voice, hearing problems, raised blood pressure or, more rarely, unexplained swelling in the neck, and fertility problems.


CAUSE: Normally, the thyroid gland in the neck produces two hormones, thyroxin and triodothyronine, which regulate the speed at which cells and organs function. With hypothyroidism, the gland cannot produce enough to meet demand.


The main cause is the body's own immune cells attacking the thyroid gland. Surgery and certain medication, such as lithium taken for depression, can also be a cause; stress may play a part, too. Temporary hypothyroidism can occur after childbirth.


Untreated, hypothyroidism can raise the risk of heart disease, as the lack of thyroxin increases the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood. The disease largely affects women - one in 50, compared with just one in 1,000 men.


TREATMENT: A daily tablet of levothyroxin, a synthetic form of thyroxin, to make up for the shortfall. The condition can't be cured, so thyroxin has to be taken indefinitely, and the dosage may have to be increased.


MY STORY: Elaine Smith, 44, is an MP in the Scottish Parliament. She is married to Vann and they have a son of 11, also called Vann. She says: The first sign of a problem was when I went from a size 12 to a size 18 in less than a year. I was not eating any more than usual, but even dieting made no difference - I finally suspected something was wrong after going shopping one day. I was so exhausted that I had to spend the afternoon in bed.


My mother had hypothyroidism and had gone from being an incredibly active woman to having little energy, and I started to wonder if I had it, too. A blood test showed I was producing barely any thyroxin - I was quite upset by the news because I knew it was a life-long condition which could be very serious if not kept in check.


I also learned that a lot of my minor complaints - such as thinning hair - were a common sign of the disease. And I discovered that my condition was the reason why, despite trying for years, my husband and I had not managed to conceive.


The thyroxin took a few weeks to work but soon I felt reborn. My hair grew back and my depression lifted like a weight off my shoulders. I went on a diet and started to shift the weight. Best of all, within a year I was pregnant.


I was worried that taking thyroxin might be a danger to my baby or would prevent me breastfeeding, but I was assured that was not the case. ? British Thyroid Foundation www.btf-thyroid.org






YoulieGiovanovits_228x423.jpgYoulie Giovanovits suddenly found herself extremely thirsty



HYPOPITUITARISM: I couldn't control my thirst

SYMPTOMS: Exhaustion, headaches and a raging thirst; possibly also weight loss or weight gain and changes to appetite.


CAUSE: The pituitary gland is situated near the brain and produces many different hormones needed to stimulate the production of other hormones in the body. For example, it produces lutenising hormone, which stimulates the ovaries to produce other hormones. Sufferers of hypopituitarism don't produce enough of these 'trigger' hormones, often because of a (usually) benign tumour on the gland itself, although other causes include head trauma, brain surgery and stroke. About 70,000 to 80,000 men and women in the UK suffer from it.


TREATMENT: Initially the patient may need surgery to remove the tumour; thereafter they need daily hormone treatment to replace the 'trigger' hormones that are no longer produced. Even those who don't require surgery will still need to take replacement hormones.


MY STORY: Youlie Giovanovits, 34, is a web designer from Dawlish, Devon. She says: Until my diagnosis I would get up as many as ten times a night to go to the loo and I was always thirsty: I could drink a litre-and-a-half of water in one go. To me, it just became normal but then, when I was 19, my periods stopped and my mum insisted I see the GP.


A blood test revealed some of the levels of my hormones were out, and I was referred to an endocrinologist. An MRI scan showed I had a tumour around my pituitary gland, which was slowly destroying it.


A few weeks later I had the tumour and some of my pituitary gland removed. As a result, I will have to take hormones every day for the rest of my life. I take a nasal spray of hormones to act on the kidneys so that I do not produce too much urine, hydrocortisol to replace adrenaline, HRT to replace oestrogen, as well as desmopressin to control my thirst and urge to go to the loo. The most significant effect of my condition is that I am infertile. However, I have never wanted kids, but I do wonder if my lack of hormones is responsible for that, too. ? The Pituitary Foundation www.pituitary.org.uk




JillDewsbury_228x246.jpgChronic tiredness wrecked Jill Dewsbury's life



HYPOPARATHYROIDISM: Chronic tiredness wrecked my life

SYMPTOMS: Extreme tiredness, weakness, depression, constipation, increased thirst and nausea.


CAUSE: The pea-sized hyperparathyroid glands sit on top of the thyroid glands in the neck. The parathyroid glands, of which there are usually four, secrete parathyroid hormone (PTH), which regulates the amount of calcium in the blood.


In hyperparathyroidism, one or more of these glands becomes enlarged. Often the cause in unknown, although it is sometimes caused by kidney failure. As a result, too much PTH is produced; too much calcium is then absorbed from food and calcium is even leached from the bones. The excess calcium may lead to kidney stones and potentially fatal kidney damage. It can also lead to osteoporosis. The condition affects around 100,000 people in the UK, with around 15,000 new cases - mostly women over the age of 50 - diagnosed each year.


TREATMENT: Surgery to remove the enlarged gland is the most common treatment, and in the majority of cases this clears the condition for good. However, some patients can go on to become hypoparathyroid, where too little PTH is produced and so there is not enough calcium in the blood. This can be treated with vitamin D and calcium tablets.


MY STORY: Jill Dewsbury, 59, from Walcott, Norfolk, is married with two daughters. She says: For many years I felt extreme fatigue. I lost one of my daughters in 2001, and over the next five years my weight ballooned to 17st, so I put the tiredness down to the grief and being overweight.


But last summer, after losing 7st and still feeling no better, I began to think it was just me being lazy. Then I started to get really thirsty and needing to go to the loo far more than normal. My doctor ran tests for diabetes, which were negative, but showed extremely high calcium levels. I saw a specialist in Januaryand he found that one of my parathyroid glands was enlarged. He said removing it could help me feel better again, and reduce my risk of osteoporosis. I had surgery in June and hope I will soon be leaping about and feeling I can get on with life. ? Hypoparathyroidism UK: www.hpth.org.uk





HYPERTHYROIDISM: My hands wouldn't stop trembling

SYMPTOMS: Restlessness, persistent irritability, feeling highly strung or being "always on the go", difficulty sleeping, weight loss despite a good or increased appetite, palpitations, sweating, a dislike of heat, and diarrhoea; a goitre - a swelling in the neck as the thyroid gland becomes enlarged.


CAUSE: Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxin. This makes the cells and organs work too fast so, for example, the heart may start to race. The most common cause is Graves disease, where the body's own immune cells attack the gland, so it produces excess thyroxin. The reason this happens is unknown but there can be an inherited tendency.


Major stresses such as losing a loved one, moving home or having a baby can also cause occasional bouts of hyperthyroidism. The condition affects two in 100 women and two in 1,000 men.


TREATMENT: The drug carbimazole helps to reduce the amount of thyroxin produced-Surgery may also be used to reduce the size of the gland. Patients will then be given thyroxin to ensure regular levels.


Another option is radioactive iodine tablets. Iodine accumulates in the gland, killing off the part producing too much thyroxin without any ill effects.


MY STORY: Joanne Doll, 37, a nursery nurse, lives with her husband, Alan, a carpenter in Sidcup, Kent. They have a daughter, Millie, four. Joanne says:


For years I'd suffered from heart palpitations, sleeplessness and trembling hands, but my doctor blamed it on anxiety. Then, during a routine check when I was five months' pregnant, another doctor noticed a swelling in my neck. He said he thought I had a thyroid problem. A blood test showed I had an extremely over-active thyroid gland, and when he checked my heart rate, it was going at 200 beats a minute - it should have been about 100. The baby's heart was also racing and I was warned she might not make it.


I was rushed off for treatment, and I have never been so scared. I was given betablockers to get my heart rate down and Valium to counter the effects of the thyroxin. Within two days I felt better than I had in my whole life: I felt relaxed, and my palms weren't sweaty.


I sailed through the rest of my pregnancy and Millie was born healthy in August


2003. A few months later, though, I felt ill again. Doctors advised me that my thyroid gland was so erratic that it would be best to remove it. As a result, I have the opposite condition - hypothyroidism - and have to take thyroxin. But I feel a million times better than I used to. ? www.btf-thyroid.org

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Wow! Terrific article.

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