Sometimes Depression Results from an Underactive Thyroid, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter

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In some people, hypothyroidism—caused by an underactive thyroid gland—may be mistaken for depression.

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Nearly 10 million Americans suffer from hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland is underactive. In some people, hypothyroidism may be mistaken for depression. These individuals may be prescribed an antidepressant, rather than the thyroid medication that they really need.

The July 2011 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter explains how to distinguish hypothyroidism from depression and describes the treatment options for mood problems caused by an underactive thyroid.

The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped structure in the neck. Although it weighs less than an ounce, the thyroid exerts a powerful influence throughout the body. It does so by secreting hormones that control how fast and efficiently cells convert nutrients into energy (metabolism). By regulating metabolism, the thyroid indirectly affects every cell, tissue, and organ in the body—including the brain.

An underactive thyroid can cause symptoms similar to depression, such as low mood, fatigue, weight gain, reduced sexual desire, and trouble concentrating. But the problem is more likely to be hypothyroidism when people also experience chills, muscle cramps or stiffness, dry skin and hair, hoarseness, or a slowed heart rate.

Dr. Michael Miller, Editor in Chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, notes that treatment usually involves taking a medication once a day to restore thyroid hormone levels to normal. Once this happens, mood should return to normal as well.

Read the full-length article: “When depression starts in the neck”

Also in this issue:

  •     How addiction hijacks the brain
  •     Expressive writing for mental health
  •     Deep brain stimulation for depression
  •     Exercise aids the brain
  •     Food colorings don’t cause hyperactivity in most children

The Harvard Mental Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $59 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at Raquel_Schott(at)hms(dot)harvard(dot)edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.


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