What are some of the most common health complaints among your friends? If you’re like most women, fatigue and an inability to lose weight are probably near the top of the list. These can be signs that—like many women—you or your friend is over-scheduled and overstressed. However, they can also be signs of a thyroid condition.
You’ve probably heard of the thyroid, but might not understand exactly what it is. This small gland has a huge impact on your health, however, so learning about what it does and how to keep it functioning properly is very important. Because thyroid disease is common among American women, having an understanding of the thyroid and what can go wrong with it can help you get a proper diagnosis if you begin having health concerns.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about your thyroid and to get familiar with the most common thyroid problems you might encounter.
What is the thyroid?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is found in your neck right below your Adam’s apple. The gland is about two-inches long and is made of two lobes (think of them as the wings of a butterfly) connected by a thin piece of tissue. The lobes sit on either side of your windpipe.
The thyroid is responsible for producing, storing, and releasing two types of thyroid hormones: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones travel to every area of your body in order to control metabolism, the process by which your body converts the food you eat into fuel. Metabolism is the process that keeps your entire body functioning, and the hormones that control that process are essential to good health.
“The thyroid is so important because it produces thyroid hormones, which are needed by every organ in the body in order to maintain life,” says Jessica Kanwhen, doctor of pharmacy. “So this means your heart, liver, kidneys, muscles, skin, reproductive organs, etc. all need thyroid hormones to be able to do the processes that maintain your life.”
The thyroid is one of many hormone-producing glands in your body’s endocrine system. These glands work together to produce the hormones that your body needs to function properly.
What causes thyroid issues and are women more at risk?
Thyroid problems occur when the thyroid produces too many or too few hormones. These problems can affect both men and women. The American Thyroid Association estimates that 12 percent of Americans will develop a thyroid issue during their lives, but 60 percent will not know that they have the condition. Although thyroid conditions occur in men and women, females are six to eight times more likely to develop a thyroid condition, according to the association. In fact, about one in eight American women will develop a thyroid issue.
So, why are women affected more than men? There are a few reasons. First off, the female hormones can interfere with the thyroid or increase the chances that the body’s immune system will begin attacking the gland (more on that to come), according to Kanwhen. The normal hormonal fluctuations that many women go through over the course of their lives can also put a strain on the thyroid.
Pregnancy is another big risk factor for thyroid issues, explains Prudence Hall, MD, author of Radiant Again & Forever. Iodine is a critical mineral needed for the thyroid to function at a healthy level. However, in order to develop its own thyroid hormones, a developing fetus will draw iodine from the mother, often leaving her with too little of the mineral. This can cause the thyroid to be hypoactive.
Finally, and somewhat controversially, some believe that women use more beauty products that can disrupt the endocrine system. Certain ingredients in cosmetics and other beauty products contain parabens and other chemicals that have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system in large doses. Peer-reviewed research on the subject doesn’t clearly indicate how much of an impact this has on thyroid health, but some experts, including Kanwhen, believe the impact is significant.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these personal care products contain toxic ingredients that disrupt the body’s hormones,” she says. “These toxins can lead to poor thyroid function and the creation of thyroid issues.”
Kanwhen emphasizes that not all women will develop thyroid issues, but that they are common enough that all women should be informed about them.
“I hope you don’t feel doomed to have thyroid issues just because you’re a woman,” she says. “Being a woman doesn’t make you destined to have thyroid issues. Rather, being a woman should encourage you to be informed about what will and won’t work for the makeup of your gender.”
Finally, some people are simply more likely to develop to thyroid issues, although scientists aren’t yet sure why, says Melanie Goldfarb, MD, an endocrine surgeon and director of the Endocrine Tumor Program at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“Many people are also genetically predisposed (they have family members whose thyroids didn’t work properly),” she says. “We really don’t know the underlying cause of what causes many thyroid disorders.”
However, science has come a long way in understanding how the disorders operate and affect the body.
Here is a look at the most common types of thyroid disorders.
What is hypothyroidism and how can it be treated?
Hypothyroidism is the most common thyroid disorder. It occurs when the thyroid is underactive, producing too little T3 and T4 to keep the body running properly. In turn, many of the symptoms are things you would expect to experience when your system is operating too slowly, including an inability to lose weight, fatigue, intolerance to cold, forgetfulness, depression, and hair loss.
Most people with hypothyroidism are told to start treatment with more natural remedies. One way to control hypothyroidism to boost your intake of iodine, which is critical for thyroid health, says Hall. Selenium is another nutrient that is important for thyroid health. Increasing intake of these can help people with hypothyroidism avoid the need to take hormones.
Hall says that a common treatment is to take between three and 12 milligrams of iodine either in a pill or a tincture (which involves diluting it in alcohol). Eating seaweed is a good way to boost your iodine naturally, she says. Taking 200 micrograms of selenium or eating four Brazil nuts every day also promotes thyroid health. However, these measures don’t control hypothyroidism for everyone.
“When a hypothyroid condition is not corrected by iodine and selenium, thyroid hormones needs to be taken,” Hall says. She goes on to say that most people need to take both T3 and T4 to return to optimal health.
“A natural thyroid hormone combining T3 and T4 is best, as both are essential for the body’s optimal health,” she says, noting that the most commonly prescribed brand name thyroid supplements are Armour and Nature-Throid.
A Unique Kind of Hypothyroidism
Many people who have hypothyroidism are suffering from Hashimoto’s disease, an inflammatory condition of the thyroid gland caused by an autoimmune imbalance. In these cases, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland.
“In Hashimoto’s, our immune system incorrectly targets the thyroid gland as a foreign invader and begins to destroy it,” Hall says. The way the disease presents is a bit complicated. “It usually leads to low, hypothyroid conditions and symptoms, but as the gland is being progressively destroyed, can also cause intermittent hyperthyroid surges as well.”
In order to treat Hashimoto’s disease, a healthcare provider and patient must work together to find the underlying cause of the autoimmune response. This might be caused by gluten intolerance, iodine deficiency, digestive problems, or low estrogen, Hall says.
Hashimoto’s disease is very common, with about five percent of American’s suffering, according to The National Institutes of Health.
“Hashimoto’s may sound like some foreign, far off disease, but it’s not,” says Kanwhen.
People who have other autoimmune diseases—like celiac disease or lupus—are more likely to develop Hashimoto’s disease. Some of the symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease can be alleviated by taking supplemental thyroid hormones, but Kanwhen says that addressing the underlying autoimmune disorder through dietary changes, stress management, and other holistic approaches is also critical.
“Failure to address the autoimmunity will result in the patient requiring supplemental thyroid hormone replacement indefinitely,” she says.
What is Graves’ disease and how can it be treated?
While many women are familiar with the fact that there are adverse effects associated with the thyroid slowing down, having an overactive thyroid is also very dangerous. This condition is known as hyperthyroidism, which is commonly referred to as Graves’ disease.
Graves’ disease causes the thyroid to produce too many hormones. This can cause heart palpitations, difficulty sleeping, rapid weight loss, anxiety, irritability, bone loss, thinning hair, loose bowels, and muscle wasting, according to Hall.
Graves’ disease is also an autoimmune condition that involves antibodies attacking the thyroid. It can be a serious condition that is difficult to control.
“These conditions are harder to treat, with doctors frequently resorting to drugs, surgery, and radioactive iodine,” says Hall.
However, both surgery and radioactive iodine destroy the thyroid gland, meaning that the patient will need to take supplemental hormones for the rest of their life. Because of this, Hall recommends trying dietary changes to alleviate symptoms before more drastic measures are taken.
“Anti-inflammatory herbs like ginger, basil, and rosemary can help, and having a diet rich in green nutrients also is important,” she says. “Removing sugar, additives, and processed foods, as well as decreasing dairy can help.”
How can we promote thyroid health?
Thyroid issues can cause some pretty scary health effects. Because of this, it’s important to make healthy lifestyle choices that can discourage thyroid issues from developing.
“Thyroid conditions do not happen independently of our lifestyle and general health,” says Hall. “The thyroid gland is very sensitive to toxicity and stress, which needs to be managed. Dietary interventions definitely help keep it healthy.”
Hall recommends getting eight hours of sleep a night, eating iodine-rich foods like seaweed, and avoiding pesticides and refined sugars to keep your thyroid healthy.
If you’re concerned about your thyroid health, ask your doctor to run a full thyroid panel. One reason that thyroid disease is often underdiagnosed is because doctors only measure levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) rather than doing a more in-depth test that measures levels of T3 and T4 as well as other thyroid markers, says Kanwhen.
“Thyroid stimulating hormone is considered the ‘gold standard’ thyroid function test. Unfortunately, TSH alone does not give the full picture of thyroid function,” she says. “Most traditional doctors do not order a full thyroid panel and this is why so many thyroid issues are not being diagnosed. Because the right thyroid tests are not being ordered, people are going undiagnosed and their health and well-being are at stake.”
This can be incredibly frustrating for people who are suffering but feel that they are not being heard.
“It is this lack of appropriate thyroid testing that causes people with thyroid issues to feel like they are crazy. They’re told they are hypochondriacs or that their symptoms are all in their head,” Kanwhen says. “They are not crazy. They are actually sick and they need the detailed care of a health care professional who actually understands the thyroid gland and how to fix it.”
However, Goldfarb says that some people become fixated on a thyroid issue because the symptoms are relatively common.
“Many people blame their thyroid for many symptoms that are nonspecific and unrelated,” she says. “If you have some of the symptoms above but your labs look great, you don’t have a thyroid problem.”
Is there a cure for thyroid problems?
Goldfarb says that people with thyroid conditions should feel good knowing that they will likely get relief.
“Thyroid disorders are very [treatable] and 99 percent of people will feel normal once they are on the right dose of meds,” she says.
However, there is no way to permanently cure true thyroid conditions.
“Since we do not understand the etiology [that is, the underlying catalyst] behind the cause of many thyroid disorders, I would say that they are mostly ‘treated’ [rather than cured],” she says.
The good news is that it’s possible to live a full life with a properly treated thyroid condition. Although these conditions might seem scary, knowing what to look for, what tests to discuss with your doctor, and what lifestyle changes can promote a healthy thyroid gland can empower you to maintain your optimal health.