8 Health Problems You Can Totally Blame on Your Thyroid
A thyroid that is overactive (hyperthyroidism), underactive (hypothyroidism), or has developed structural issues (a nodule or tumor) could be the culprit behind a surprising range of symptoms.
What does the thyroid do?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck, which has two side lobes. Even though it’s small, it controls many bodily functions. Since it produces hormones that regulate things like mood, digestion, and the body’s metabolic rate, among others, there are plenty of health issues linked to thyroid problems, too. Here are some health problems that might occur if your thyroid is not functioning properly.
Strange weight changes
Because the thyroid gland regulates metabolism, too much thyroid hormone causes the general “speeding up” of bodily functions, according to the American Thyroid Association (ATA). So it makes sense that if you’re experiencing unexpected weight loss, hyperthyroidism could be to blame. On the other end of the spectrum, if the number on your bathroom scale is going up, the increase could be caused by hypothyroidism, which causes the slowing of bodily processes. “Usually the weight gain isn’t a matter of obesity; it’s in the range of five to 15 pounds,” explains Leonard Wartofsky, MD, MACP, professor of medicine at Georgetown University and past president of the Endocrine Society, Washington, D.C. “So slow, progressive, modest weight gain could raise suspicions.” Here are the hidden dangers of a “normal” thyroid.
Feeling sluggish and sleepy
If you’ve been tired and “blah” despite adequate sleep, an underactive thyroid might be the reason, per Harvard Medical School. Dr. Wartofsky adds that patients with overactive thyroid experience a different kind of fatigue. “With hyperthyroidism, it’s a feeling of being worn out—of running on a hamster wheel and feeling exhausted.”
Freezing in August or sweating in February
“Feeling cold in the middle of summer—for example, needing a sweater these last few weeks—is a reason to get checked for hypothyroidism,” says Alan P. Farwell, MD, chief of the section of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition, and director of endocrine clinics at Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts. Conversely, if you spent last President’s Day weekend sweating through a t-shirt, it could be time to wonder about an overactive thyroid. For example, one of Dr. Farwell’s patients wore tank tops and shorts through a Vermont winter. Check out the best habits you should start to keep your thyroid healthy.
Problems with your period and pregnancy
In women, menstrual irregularities can be common with either an underactive or overactive thyroid gland. “In hypothyroid women, cycles tend to be longer and heavier,” says Dr. Farwell. “In hyperthyroidism, cycles tend to be shorter and scantier.” In addition, both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are causes of fertility issues, with hypothyroidism being more common. The reason? “Moderate to severe hypothyroidism can cause increases in the pituitary hormone prolactin that can directly block the other pituitary hormones that regulate ovulation and the menstrual cycle,” Dr. Farwell explains. In addition, he adds that hypothyroidism in pregnant women, even if mild, can affect the brain development of the baby. “It is critically important that any woman on thyroid hormone as well as those with a family history of thyroid problems or any symptoms of thyroid problems should get their thyroid levels checked early in any pregnancy.”
Freaking out or feeling down
As hyperthyroidism speeds up body functions, it could make you nervous or irritable, explains the ATA. “Symptoms of an overactive thyroid include feeling jumpy, jittery, or shaky,” says Dr. Farwell. Conversely, as body processes slow with hypothyroidism, feeling depressed or even becoming forgetful could be the result. “Depression is a common condition where a thyroid problem could be missed,” Dr. Farwell adds. These are the foods thyroid experts avoid—so you should, too.
Weirdness with skin and hair
“Dry skin in summer—as opposed to winter when dryness is more normal—would be suspicious,” says Dr. Wartofsky. This could be a symptom of hypothyroidism, in which a slowed metabolism could reduce sweating, therefore leaving your skin without enough moisture, according to research published in 2011 in the journal Dermato-Endocrinology. And other research in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism shows that hypothyroidism could also be to blame if hair is falling out. Low thyroid hormone levels interfere with the hair’s growth cycle, which could lead to hair loss.
A new lump in the neck
The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a lump or swelling in the neck, according to the Endocrine Society. While other signs include trouble swallowing, pain in the neck or throat, or a hoarse voice that doesn’t seem to go away, many cases of thyroid cancer don’t exhibit any symptoms at all. Check out the thyroid cancer symptoms you should never ignore.
Plus a bunch of other random issues
“The trouble is thyroid can cause almost any symptom under the sun: weight gain, weight loss, feeling fatigued, feeling stressed, a fight with your boyfriend—anything,” says Michael Tuttle, MD, clinical director of the endocrinology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Other symptoms of thyroid disease include constipation, elevated cholesterol, memory problems, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and more. Dr. Tuttle urges patients not to accept such varied problems as natural characteristics of aging or mood, but to use them as a reason to ask your doctor for a blood test to check your thyroid levels. “People should realize that any of these subtle symptoms could actually be early thyroid disease, which is very simple to test for,” he adds. “There’s no reason to sit around struggling with these problems when it could be something that’s so easy to treat.” These are silent signs of a thyroid problem.
- American Thyroid Association: "Thyroid Hormone Action, Metabolism, and Regulation Presentations at American Thyroid Association: 89th Annual Meeting"
- Leonard Wartofsky, MD, MACP, professor of medicine at Georgetown University and past president of the Endocrine Society, Washington, DC
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The lowdown on thyroid slowdown"
- Alan P. Farwell, MD, chief of the section of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition, and director of endocrine clinics at Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts
- Endocrine Society: "Thyroid Cancer"
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism: "Thyroid Hormones Directly Alter Human Hair Follicle Functions: Anagen Prolongation and Stimulation of Both Hair Matrix Keratinocyte Proliferation and Hair Pigmentation"
- Dermato-Endocrinology: "Thyroid hormone action on skin"
- Michael Tuttle, MD, clinical director of the endocrinology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York