By Megan King |
I first discovered that I had an underactive thyroid in my first year of undergraduate when my doctor greeted me, “Hi, Megan! How are you do—uhh, why is your thyroid gland visibly protruding from your neck right now?” during a routine check-up. For months prior, I’d been feeling exhausted and my appetite had skyrocketed, but I chalked it up to too many late-night Guitar Hero battles with my roommate (2007, am I right?) and a daily waffle bar in the dining hall. As luck would have it, though, I not only inherited my mother’s flat feet, but also her thyroid condition. Fortunately, daily medication quickly minimized my lethargy and I smashed through the next four years.
The PhD process has rekindled some of my initial hypo symptoms, however, and while my doctor did increase my medication, I can’t seem to kick my sloth-level slowness. Some days, my biggest accomplishment is sitting in front of my computer for hours to persevere through a paragraph or two of my unedited chapter, as the words blur together before my eyes and in my head. Other days, it’s preparing a lesson despite the fact that my eyelids feel like they’re being physically pushed down. More often than not, though, my greatest sense of accomplishment comes from putting the pretzels back in the pantry before I devour the entire bag. Have the symptoms of hypothyroidism become more noticeable in recent months because I’m over thirty now? Because we’ve all been slogging through a year-long pandemic? Because the primary impacts of an underactive thyroid are eerily similar to those of completing a PhD: tiredness, weight gain, and depression?
Realistically, my physical and emotional exhaustion has probably come from a variety of these factors. I mean, no one needs an underactive thyroid to feel the brain fog, difficulty concentrating, irritability, fluctuations in appetite, and muscle aches caused by a year of COVID-related disruptions to ‘normal’ life. So, for me, the question as to why I’m feeling this way is less critical than the question of how I address these symptoms. After a bit of trial and error based on research from medical journals, blogs, and YouTube videos, I’ve made a few changes to help combat the impacts of hypothyroidism and the PhD. I still have days where I certainly don’t feel 100 percent, and on those days, I modify my plans, allow myself a bit of grace, and focus on the positive choices as opposed to the items I wasn’t able to cross off my to-do list. Bear in mind that what works for me may not work universally, and try to make healthy changes that suit your schedule, goals, and needs.
Exercise regularly (and ideally early).
Like many people, my exercise patterns can sometimes be boom or bust, and I often have to remind myself that hypothyroidism means I may have to work a bit harder than others to keep my metabolism at a healthy level. I know that aerobic activity increases excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, so I endeavor to workout first thing in the morning five days a week, with a blend of cardio and strength training to boost my body’s calorie-burning abilities throughout the day. Getting up and moving isn’t always feasible, but I find that if I set my exercise clothes and sneakers beside my bed, it’s easier! For me, it’s not so much about the numbers on the scale, but rather, it’s about giving my brain a break from all things PhD and giving my body what it needs to power me through the day.
Add posture preps to your work schedule.
To keep the brain fog and body aches at bay, I’ve literally started writing five-minute stretching breaks on my daily to-do list. I usually let my body decide when I need to step away from the computer, so I don’t always do my posture preps at the same time, but I make sure to get them done! I find that closing my eyes, counting, and breathing through some light stretches helps my body to recover from sitting at my desk for hours on end and my brain from getting overly fatigued.
Limit your gluten intake.
Gluten can send our digestive system into overdrive, even if we’re not intolerant or allergic. So, when I’m craving carbs, I opt for whole grain varieties of bread, pasta, rice, and crackers, which are high in fiber and other nutrients to maintain gut health.
Portion your meals and snacks.
Quarantine seemed to give me a sense of entitlement when it came to snacking and ordering takeout, and the endless stream of coffees, chocolates, burgers, and fries has left me with a few extra pounds, which have done nothing for my energy levels or my self-confidence. So, I’ve started pre-portioning my dinners and my snacks to make sure that I’m getting a solid variety of nutrients in an appropriate amount. At first, it seemed like a bit of a chore, but it’s now become a part of my routine. Having a set idea of what I’m having for snacks and main meals means I’m less likely to order takeout or mindlessly munch my afternoon away.
Power down before bed.
After a screen time report that showed I spent SEVEN hours on my phone in one day, I came to realize that maybe an excess of blue light was contributing to my fatigue. So, I try to make sure I’m putting my phone down at least an hour before going to sleep and occupying myself with a good old-fashioned bedtime story. I will say, this occasionally backfires because I wind up falling into the ‘one more page’ trap and staying up well past my bedtime, but typically, I find that I’m able to fall asleep quicker and enjoy a more restful night of sleep than I would had I wrapped up my evening by scrolling through social media.
Image 2: abc.net.au
Megan King is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent, studying the process of radicalization in pre-Revolutionary America, and she serves as the Pubs and Publications social media coordinator. You can find further ramblings from her on Twitter.