Thyroid problems are more common than you might think, especially among women. Your thyroid gland is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including metabolism, energy levels, and body temperature. Therefore, when it's not functioning properly, it can lead to a variety of health problems. Today, we’ll break down everything you need to know about your thyroid and how to keep it healthy.
What is the thyroid and why is it important?
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck. It produces hormones that play a critical role in regulating bodily functions, such as your metabolism, energy levels, and body temperature. The two main hormones produced by the thyroid gland are thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which are responsible for controlling the rate at which the body burns calories and converts food into energy. You can think of your thyroid as a type of engine for your body as it controls all metabolic processes.
What happens if your thyroid is not functioning properly?
If the thyroid gland is not functioning properly, it can lead to a number of health problems.
The two most common are hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland produces too many thyroid hormones and is therefore overactive. This can cause weight loss, anxiety, and rapid heartbeat. While hypothyroidism occurs when the gland produces too little hormone and is underactive, causing fatigue, weight gain, and depression.
Hypothyroidism: The thyroid gland doesn't produce enough hormones (underactive), leading to weight loss, anxiety, and rapid heartbeat.
Hyperthyroidism: The thyroid gland produces too many hormones (overactive), leading to fatigue, weight gain, and depression.
What are the signs and symptoms of a thyroid issue?
There are several signs and symptoms that may indicate that something is out of balance with your thyroid. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of thyroid problems include:
- Fatigue or weakness: Feeling tired or weak, even after getting enough sleep, can be a sign of an underactive thyroid.
- Weight gain or difficulty losing weight: An underactive thyroid can cause weight gain or make it difficult to lose weight, while an overactive thyroid can cause weight loss.
- Sensitivity to cold or heat: Feeling cold all the time or having trouble tolerating heat may be a sign of thyroid dysfunction.
- Changes in heart rate: An overactive thyroid can cause a rapid heartbeat or palpitations, while an underactive thyroid can cause a slower heart rate.
- Changes in mood: Thyroid problems can affect mood and may lead to depression, anxiety, or irritability.
- Changes in bowel movements: An overactive thyroid can cause diarrhoea or more frequent bowel movements, while an underactive thyroid can cause constipation.
- Changes in menstrual cycle: Thyroid problems can affect menstrual cycles and may lead to heavier or lighter periods or irregular periods.
It's important to note that these symptoms can be caused by other health conditions. If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, it's important to talk to your doctor.
How common are thyroid conditions?
Thyroid conditions are quite common, especially among women. Research shows an underactive thyroid to be more common than an overactive thyroid. According to the British Thyroid Foundation, it is estimated that around 1 in 20 people in the UK have some form of thyroid disorder. And a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2012 suggested that as many as 60 percent of those in the UK with a thyroid condition may be undiagnosed.
How can you get a thyroid issue diagnosed?
If you believe that your thyroid is not functioning as it should the best thing you can do is to get it tested. Early detection and treatment of thyroid problems can help prevent complications and improve quality of life. To diagnose a thyroid problem, your doctor will likely perform a physical examination, and order blood tests to check your thyroid hormone levels. Asking for a full thyroid blood panel to ensure all thyroid hormones (TSH, T4 and T3) are tested for can be beneficial. Abnormal levels of these hormones can individuate a problem. They may also recommend imaging tests such as a thyroid ultrasound or scan that can help to visualise the structure of the thyroid gland and identify abnormalities. It’s worth noting that in some cases, thyroid conditions may not present with any symptoms, so it's also recommended to get regular check-ups and blood tests to monitor thyroid function.
So, how can you take care of your Thyroid?
As women, it's especially important to care for our thyroid because women are more likely than men to develop thyroid problems. While there is no surefire way to prevent thyroid problems, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. These include:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet: This includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. You should also be mindful of your intake of processed foods, sugar, and alcohol.
- Get enough iodine: Iodine is a mineral that's essential for thyroid function, and it's found in seafood, dairy products, and iodised salt. If you're not getting enough iodine in your diet, you may need to take a supplement. Other key nutrients to keep in mind are selenium and zinc.
- Maintain gut health: Good gut health supports the absorption of nutrients essential for thyroid health. Prioritise eating a diverse range of high-fibre foods, fermented foods and probiotics to support your gut microbiome.
- Exercise regularly: Exercise can help to boost your metabolism and help with weight management, which is important for thyroid health.
- Manage stress: Stress can negatively affect your thyroid function, so it's important to find ways to manage stress in your life, such as meditation, yoga, or other relaxation techniques that work for you.
- Get regular check-ups: Women should have regular check-ups with their healthcare provider to monitor their thyroid function and detect any problems early on.
Your thyroid plays a critical role in maintaining your health and well-being, so it's essential to be aware of the signs and symptoms of thyroid problems. Early detection and treatment can help prevent complications and improve quality of life. As women, we are more likely to develop thyroid problems, but there are steps we can take to reduce our risk. By eating a healthy diet, getting enough iodine, maintaining gut health, exercising regularly, managing stress, and getting regular check-ups with our healthcare provider, we can take control of our thyroid health and live a healthy, active life.
Written by Harriet Lidgard
Nutritionist (BSc) & Health Coach