Autoimmune disorders are extremely prevalent, with nearly 50 million Americans diagnosed with some type of disease that negatively impacts or impedes their immune systems, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. Television host Wendy Williams announced on Feb. 21 that she would be taking a three-week long hiatus from her show, after revealing she lives with Graves' Disease, a common autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid.
According to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), Graves’ disease is “an autoimmune disease that leads to a generalized overactivity of the entire thyroid gland,” that was first discovered over 150 years ago by Irish physician Robert Graves (hence, the name). It is considered the most common cause of hyperthyroidism (aka, an overactive thyroid) in the United States, affecting around one in two hundred Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. According to Health Center, women are over eight times more likely to develop Graves’ disease than men. The autoimmune disorder commonly impacts women between the ages of twenty and forty who have a family history of thyroid disorders, and is likely to be triggered following periods of stress. Though there are no statistics that estimate how many transgender and nonbinary people are affected by the disorder, some people have claimed hormone therapy can increase the risk of developing a thyroid disease like Graves’ disorder.
The thyroid is a two-inch long, butterfly-shaped gland that is nestled in the base of your neck. The gland’s main functions are to produce, store, and release hormones that control your metabolism, as well as your breathing, weight, menstrual cycles, body temperature, the central nervous system, and more. However, when you have a hyperthyroidism triggered by a disorder like Grave’s Disease, these normal functions can go into overdrive, and cause serious symptoms — including tremors, anxiety, irritability, sweating, trembling, diarrhea, and a racing heartbeat, according to the American Thyroid Association.
Moreover, people diagnosed with Graves’ disease can also develop Graves’ ophthalmopathy (GO), which the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK) report describes as a “condition that occurs when the immune system attacks the muscles and other tissues around the eyes.” Inflammation caused by GO can lead to retracted eyelids, bulging eyes, double vision, sensitivity to bright light, optical pain, and, in some cases, loss of vision. According to People, Williams had experienced similar symptoms, saying, “Graves’ disease squeezes the muscles behind the eyeballs."
Those diagnosed with Graves’ disease are at risk of developing osteoporosis, as well as heart problems. In rare cases, affecting about one percent of the people diagnosed Graves’ disease, people with the disorder will develop a persistent rash on their skin. Graves’ disease is a standalone disorder, but the NIDDK reported it is often link to other autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison's disease, type 1 diabetes, and vitiligo.
Luckily, there are multiple treatment methods to alleviate and manage the symptoms of Graves disease, returning your thyroid to a normal level of functioning. According to the ATA, antithyroid medications are the first line of treatment used for those diagnosed with Graves’ disease; though these drugs will not cure the disorder, they can lead to full remission form the disease. Another popular treatment option is Radioactive Iodine (RAI), which is used to destroy thyroid tissue cells. Thus, lessening the production of thyroid hormones. For those diagnosed with Graves’ disease that can’t manage the autoimmune disorder through medication or RAI, some people will undergo a thyroidectomy — an invasive procedure that removes all of part of you thyroid gland to control hormone production. Despite the fact thyroidectomies are the least common course of treatment for Graves’ disease in the United States, some studies suggest it may be the most effective way to treat the thyroid disorder.
Graves’ disease is a serious autoimmune disorder, and it is more common than you probably ever realized. Hopefully, Williams' decision to speak out about living with the disorder will encourage others to speak with their medical professionals, and seek help if they believe they are experiencing symptoms of Graves’ disease.