Gigi Hadid is a famous sufferer of Hashimoto's disease. Gigi Hadid is a famous sufferer of Hashimoto's disease.
Life Wellbeing The little-known disease that affects millions of women Updated:

The little-known disease that affects millions of women

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Supermodel Gigi Hadid has been busy on Twitter setting the record straight about her apparent weight loss and her experience with a little-known autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease.

“For those of you so determined to come up with why my body has changed over the years, you may not know that when I started at 17 I was not yet diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, those of you who called me ‘too big for the industry’ were seeing inflammation and water retention due to that,” she tweeted in February.

Hadid is just one of several celebrities to go public in recent years about dealing with the disease. Actor Zoe Saldana, Lisa Rinna’s daughter Amelia Gray Hamlin, Golden Globe-winning Jane the Virgin actor Gina Rodriguez, Victoria Justice and, closer to home, the Australian author of I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson, are just some of the women who have spoken out about their battle with the condition.

Despite the recent upsurge in information and attention, Hashimoto’s disease is not exactly new or unknown to medical professionals.

It is named after Japanese doctor Hakaru Hashimoto, who first wrote about the condition in 1912, in a lengthy medical paper describing a new type of goiter. The paper was largely ignored until after Dr Hashimoto’s death in 1934, when medical and thyroid community recognised its significance.

Hashimoto's disease
The thyroid has an important role in regulating the body’s hormones.

The thyroid is a soft, butterfly-shaped gland in our throats. It secretes hormones that help regulate metabolism and control growth.

“The thyroid is a very important organ,” Australian Medical Association vice-president Dr Tony Bartone said. “You can’t survive without thyroid hormones.”

Hashimoto’s disease, or chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, is a common cause of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland). Untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to heart problems, mental health issues and even myxedema, where the body slows to such a state that it drops into a coma.

“If your thyroid hormone levels are significantly lowered, you need to have thyroid hormone replacement therapy, without which you could become severely ill,” Dr Bartone said.

Every year, about 60,000 Australians are diagnosed with conditions such as hyperthyroidism (including Graves’ disease) and Hashimoto’s disease. The exact number of those who have each condition is unknown; in the US, 14 million people have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Endocrinologist and Australian Thyroid Foundation medical adviser, Professor Creswell Eastman said Hashimoto’s thyroiditis occurred “10 times more often in females than in males”. It also runs in families.

“Relatives of patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis have a nine-fold increased risk of developing the disorder compared with the general population,” he said.

Other possible risk factors for Hashimoto’s include infection, stress, sex steroids, pregnancy, excessive iodine intake, selenium deficiency and radiation exposure, Professor Eastman said.

Hashimoto's disease
Women are far more likely than men to have Hashimoto’s disease. Photo: Getty

What the symptoms?

Symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease can overlap with many other medical conditions, Australian Thyroid Foundation chief executive Beverley Garside said.

“Some of the symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease include weight gain, thinning hair, weak nails, feeling abnormally cold and depression,” she said.

“It can also cause menstrual changes and fertility problems.”

Anyone who has an enlarged thyroid gland and tightening in their throat, trouble speaking or swallowing, a stubborn cough or who is constantly clearing their throat should ask their doctor for a thyroid ultrasound, she said.

Will supplements help?

Patients often ask what they can do to preserve their thyroid function and to avoid the need for replacement therapy, Professor Eastman said.

“Some choose to consult natural therapy practitioners, who may provide a range of non-evidence-based supplements,” he said.

“Some small studies have suggested that selenium may help reduce levels of thyroid auto-antibodies, but the clinical benefit is uncertain.”

Selenium is a trace element found in some foods, including Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, sardines and halibut.

May is Thyroid Awareness Month, with the theme “Be aware of your thyroid health”.

The Australian Thyroid Foundation recommends all women of childbearing age are aware of their thyroid function levels, family history and daily iodine intake. For more information, visit thyroidfoundation.org.au.