What Is Graves' Disease?
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition that causes your thyroid to become hyperactive -- work harder than it needs to. It is one of the most common thyroid problems and the leading cause of hyperthyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland produces too many hormones. It was named after the man who first described it in the early 19th century, Sir Robert Graves.
The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland that sits in the front of your neck and releases hormones that help regulate your metabolism. When you have Graves’ disease, your immune system attacks your thyroid, causing it to overproduce those hormones, which causes a number of problems in different parts of your body. It usually affects people between the ages of 30 and 50 and is more common in women.
Once the disorder has been correctly diagnosed, it is quite easy to treat. In some cases, Graves' disease goes into remission or disappears completely after several months or years. Left untreated, however, it can lead to serious complications -- even death.
Causes of Graves' Disease
Hormones secreted by the thyroid gland control metabolism, or the speed at which the body converts food into energy. Metabolism is directly linked to the amount of hormones that circulate in the bloodstream. If, for some reason, the thyroid gland secretes too much of these hormones, the body's metabolism kicks into high gear, causing a pounding heart, sweating, trembling, and weight loss.
Normally, the thyroid gets its production orders through another chemical called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), released by the pituitary gland in the brain. But in Graves' disease, a malfunction in the body's immune system releases abnormal antibodies that act like TSH. Spurred by these false signals to produce, the thyroid's hormone factories work overtime and overproduce.
Exactly why the immune system begins to produce these troublesome antibodies isn’t clear. Heredity and other characteristics seem to play a role. Studies show, for example, that if one identical twin contracts Graves' disease, there is a 20% likelihood that the other twin will get it too. Also, women are more likely than men to develop the disease. And smokers who develop Graves' disease are more prone to eye problems than nonsmokers with the disease. No single gene causes Graves’ disease. It is thought to be triggered by both genetics and environmental factors.