hCG and the thyroid gland

Thyroid tests First things first. The main job of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) hormone is to increase the synthesis of progesterone in early pregnancy. Without steadily increasing concentrations of progesterone, an early pregnancy will fail. hCG usually has nothing to do with the thyroid gland.

As a reminder, the thyroid gland, located in the neck in close proximity to the larynx (voice box), is basically responsible for controlling our body's metabolism. It is regulated by a different hormone: thyroid stimulating hormone or TSH.

So hCG maintains pregnancy and TSH regulates the thyroid gland. Sometimes, however, hCG can act like TSH and crank up the function of the thyroid gland. When the thyroid gland is in an over-active state the condition is called hyperthyroidism. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include weight loss, increased appetite, heat intolerance, hair loss, weakness and fatigue, irritability, and sweating. In extreme cases, hear palpitations, and shortness of breath can occur. How can hCG cause hyperthyroidism? The answer lies in the molecular structure of these two hormones.

As it turns out, hCG and TSH are rather similar to each other. Both are composed of two different protein subunits. One of those protein subunits is called "alpha" and the other "beta." The alpha subunits of hCG and TSH are identical but the beta subunits are a different; but not by much. The beta subunits of hCG and TSH are about 40 percent identical. When present a very high concentrations, hCG can actually stimulate the thyroid gland sending it a message to go into over-drive. In other words, hCG can sometimes act like TSH. Fortunately, this doesn't happen unless the amount of hCG in the blood gets to be very, very elevated.

How elevated? Well, that has been the subject of some recent investigations. Conventional wisdom was that hyperthyroidism could occur in women with an hCG concentration that was greater than 50,000 IU/L. While this hCG concentration may seem very elevated, it's actually quite normal in pregnant women who are in their first trimester. Because the vast majority of pregnant women in early pregnancy do not have symptoms of hyperthyroidism, the 50,000 IU/L threshold didn't seem accurate.

In one study (disclaimer: I participated in that study), an hCG threshold of 400,ooo IU/L was identified as the concentration above which actual symptoms of hyperthyroidism could occur. The lower hCG concentration of 200,000 IU/L was identified as the threshold above which a majority of women demonstrated biochemical signs of hyperthyroidism (i.e. decreased TSH) but they did not have actual symptoms of hyperthyroidism until the hCG increased to twice that amount.

Another study reported that women developed suppressed TSH and/or symptoms of hyperthyroidism only when the hCG concentration was greater than 100,000 IU/L.

A normal, singleton, intrauterine pregnancy doesn't usually produce such sustained elevations of hCG. This means that the vast majority of pregnant women will never have symptoms of hCG-induced hyperthyroidism. However, extreme elevations of hCG can be produced in women with gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD). These are a family of diseases that arise from an abnormal fertilization event so hCG is produced even in the absence of a viable fetus.

The bottom line is that extremely high hCG concentrations can cause biochemial and physical signs of hyperthyroidism but these are rarely the result of the hCG concentrations found in normal pregnancy.

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