by Mary J. Shomon
These days, it seems that no sooner does a celebrity give birth than she’s slaving away at a diet and exercise program so that she can appear on television or a magazine cover just weeks later, looking as if she’d never gained even an ounce. This celebrity rush for the perfect postpartum body is putting a great deal of pressure on all new mothers. For many women, it’s not easy to shed the weight and get back into their pre-pregnancy jeans, especially without a team of personal trainers and private chefs to help!
For the rest of us, while delivery, breastfeeding, and a gradual return to exercise can help get the body back in shape after having a baby, a percentage of women find themselves frustrated and unable to lose the extra “baby weight.” You may be doing everything you can to shed the pounds, but the scale isn’t moving an ounce. Or, you may even find yourself gaining weight, despite a healthy diet and exercise.
What’s going on?
For many of you, the cause is a post-partum thyroid problem.
Actually, for as many as 10 percent or more of all new mothers, a condition known as postpartum thyroiditis may be the cause of weight struggles, along with other troublesome symptoms.
Post-partum thyroiditis occurs when the body starts producing antibodies during or after the pregnancy. These antibodies attack the thyroid gland, and can cause the gland to temporarily become imbalanced, usually shifting quickly into underactivity. This leaves you hypothyroid, with a slow metabolism, and an inability to produce enough thyroid hormone, the basic hormone of energy.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism after having a baby often include:
Weight gain, or inability to lose weight despite diet, exercise
Extreme fatigue, exhaustion
Depression or moodiness
Anxiety, heart palpitations
Memory and concentration problems
Hair loss from the head, and sometimes the outer edge of the eyebrow
Coarse, rough, and/or dry hair
Low sex drive
Slow pulse and/or unusually low blood pressure
Irritated eyes, dryness, sensitivity to light
Low, husky, and/or hoarse voice
Neck enlargement, discomfort, fullness, pressure, difficulty swallowing
Muscle and joint aches and pains
Puffiness and swelling, especially hands, feet, eyes and face
Sadly, you may complain to the doctor about these symptoms, only to be told that these are “normal” symptoms for a new mother. Or, you may be given medications for depression or anxiety that don’t address the underlying problem (and have the unfortunate side effect of preventing you from breastfeeding!)
Ultimately, if you have had a baby and are experiencing any of the above symptoms, you should have a thorough thyroid evaluation. This should include an examination by a physician, a check of your blood pressure, heart rate and reflexes, observation of any clinical signs such as eyebrow loss or facial swelling, and various blood tests as needed.
If hypothyroidism is detected or suspected, your doctor will usually treat you with one of the thyroid hormone replacement drugs, including levothyroxine (i.e., Synthroid, Levoxyl), or the natural desiccated thyroid drug Armour. Note: When properly prescribed by your physician, these drugs are quite safe to take while breastfeeding.
For some women, post-partum thyroid problems can be temporary, lasting anywhere from several months to as long as a year. It’s estimated, however, that as many as 30 percent of sufferers will remain hypothyroid for life, because the thyroid gland was too heavily damaged by the imbalance, or because the pregnancy activated an inherent case of autoimmune thyroid disease.
There’s no way to know at first, however, so your doctor should frequently evaluate your thyroid function and symptoms to gauge whether or not your postpartum problems are lessening. Watch out for a doctor who suggests that you be taken off your thyroid medication entirely, to retest you. This sort of abrupt change can send your health into a tailspin.
Even if you recover from postpartum thyroid disease and are able to stop treatment, keep in mind that after an episode of postpartum thyroid problems, you are more likely to develop a thyroid problem later during a period of stress, a subsequent pregnancy, or during menopause. So be sure to mention this to your physician, and periodically have your thyroid thoroughly evaluated throughout your life.
Mary Shomon is an internationally-known thyroid patient advocate, and is author of a number of best-selling health books, including Living Well With Hypothyroidism and The Thyroid Diet. Since 1997, she has run the Internet’s most popular thyroid patient sites: About.com Thyroid Site and Thyroid-Info.com.