The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of your neck. It might be small but it plays an important role in your health. The thyroid governs a variety of hormones in your body so when it’s not functioning properly, you could experience symptoms ranging from dry skin, fatigue, weight gain, to infertility.
Thyroid hormones affect nearly every organ and process in the body. Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) which is released by the pituitary gland in the brain, tells the thyroid to produce and release thyroxine (T4). Your body changes T4 into a more usable form of the hormone known as T3, which is used in a number of processes throughout the body.
Thyroid problems can have a big impact on your overall well being, but they can be difficult to discover. It’s common for thyroid symptoms to mimic signs of depression, menopause, or other hormonal imbalances. More common in women, about one in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder at some point in her lifetime, yet up to 60% of people with thyroid disease don’t even realize they have it.
Part of the challenge is that opinions on thyroid diagnoses differ. Some experts believe that common thyroid blood panels don’t yield enough information to come to a definitive answer.
That’s why it’s important that all women know the warning signs. Here’s what you need to know to keep your thyroid healthy.
- Thyroid problems are more common in women
Some form of hypothyroidism, where the thyroid doesn’t make enough hormones to service the body’s needs occurs in about 10 percent of women.
While women are eight times more likely to have thyroid problems than men, women over 60 are at a higher risk of hypothyroidism. Another condition, where the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone, hyperthyroidism, is less common but does occur as well.
- Symptoms can be subtle
Symptoms like fatigue, low energy, feeling cold and weak, weight gain, brain fog, or a decrease in heart rate can be difficult to spot initially. Slight changes like these that progress over time are a sign that there’s something worth looking into. When the thyroid slows down, you slow down. Hypothyroidism comes with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and infertility. Take note of how you feel and track your symptoms. This is valuable information to share with your doctor if you’re noticing subtle but consistent symptoms over time.
- Changes in hormone levels can be confused with thyroid problems
Hypothyroidism symptoms are similar to those of perimenopause. Women in their 40’s can begin feeling hormonal changes that come with symptoms like unpredictable periods, weight gain, and fatigue. Since risk of thyroid issues increases with age, and hormonal changes follow the same pattern, it’s easy to confuse the two.
There are some clues that your symptoms might be more related to thyroid health than your hormones: A family history of thyroid disease or the presence of an autoimmune problem like type 1 diabetes or celiac disease. The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease known as Hashimoto’s,in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland.
- Doctor’s opinions on the same test results may differ
If you suspect that something’s up with your thyroid, the first step is to do a blood test to check your TSH level. If this test shows that your TSH is high or abnormal, it could mean your thyroid isn’t functioning well and your body is trying to release more TSH to stimulate your thyroid function.
It’s important to know that what’s considered “normal” for a TSH result is subjective. Some experts consider the normal range for TSH to be from 0.5 to 5 mIU/L, so if your test results are within this range, they might not suggest treatment. Functional medicine or holistic practitioners might consider treatment if your results are within the normal range (say, 2.5 to 4 mIU/L), but you’re having symptoms. They may also want to investigate further and test your T3 or T4 levels to get a more well-rounded picture of your thyroid health.
Find a doctor who’s views you align with and work together to thoroughly explore the full range of your thyroid health and address the cause of your symptoms.
- The thyroid can be blamed for other health problems
It’s important for doctors to look at each of your symptoms, test results and risk factors in context, rather than as singular issues. Symptoms like gaining weight, low energy and low sex drive can be wrongly attributed to the thyroid when there might not be an issue there at all.
Tracking your symptoms and keeping an eye on what’s common for your body will provide some insight into subtle symptoms. Start by talking to your family doctor who can run a blood test to see what’s happening with your thyroid levels. Your practitioner will be able to look for other symptoms that could be disguised as a thyroid issue. For example, feeling fatigue could be the result of a vitamin deficiency.
Know When to Get Tested
If you suspect that something isn’t right with your thyroid function it’s a good idea to get tested. It’s especially important if you’re pregnant or hoping to become pregnant soon because your hormones will be changing. You might also want to get tested if you have a family history of thyroid disease or a personal or family history of autoimmune conditions.
Your doctor should be your ally in decoding your symptoms. Speak to them about being tested if you have symptoms and ask about possible options to address your symptoms even if your tests come back within the normal range.
Thyroid treatments are very effective and have helped many women (and men) regain their health and energy levels after experiencing difficult symptoms for years. It’s important to be your own advocate and actively seek solutions for any symptoms you might experience.