Fast Facts: Everything You Need to Know About the Thyroid

Fast Facts: Everything You Need to Know About the Thyroid

Women are more likely to have problems with their thyroid than men. Here's what you need to know.

Your Health

January is National Thyroid Awareness Month.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Uzma M. Siddiqui.

In the United States, approximately 20 million people have thyroid disease, and women are five to eight times more likely to develop a problem than men. Up to 60% of people with a thyroid condition are unaware of their condition since the symptoms for thyroid disease are often mild, and problems are hard to detect without blood tests. That's why it's important to receive regular checkups with your healthcare provider and discuss any new symptoms you may be experiencing.

What is the thyroid and what does it do?

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ that is a part of the body's endocrine system, the system that controls hormone production and distribution. It's a small gland that sits in front of the neck and regulates the hormones T3 and T4, which control weight; energy levels; body temperature; and skin, hair, and nail growth, among other things. They also help regulate your heartbeat, breathing and metabolism (the speed at which you gain or lose weight).

How do thyroid disorders affect women?

Statistically, women are as much as five to eight times more likely to develop a thyroid problem compared to men. Women in particular are sensitive to changes in the thyroid gland as it aids in regulating menstrual cycles. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can cause heavier or irregular periods and make it difficult for a woman to get pregnant. Women in particular are more prone to develop hypothyroidism, especially those over the age of 60.

What kinds of thyroid disorders are there?

The most common thyroid problems include hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

Hyperthyroidism is caused by an overproduction of thyroid hormones T-3 and T-4. When these hormones are overproduced, it can lead to an increase in your body's metabolism, which can cause accelerated weight loss and heart rate irregularities.

Hypothyroidism is due to an underproduction of thyroid hormones. When T3 and T4 hormones are underproduced, it can lead to a decrease in your body's metabolism, leading to weight gain and slowed heart rate. Both conditions can lead to serious health problems if not addressed.

Common causes of thyroid problems include Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease.

Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder that leads to chronic inflammation in the thyroid, causing hypothyroidism. It is often a condition that runs in families. Typically, there is no cure, but when Hashimoto's thyroiditis leads to hypothyroidism, it can be treated with medication (Hashimoto's thyroiditis does not have symptoms by itself).

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease that leads to overactivity in the thyroid, causing hyperthyroidism. However, treatment of this disease with medication can lead to remission in 30%-50% of patients.

Rarely, people develop thyroid cancer, which affects around 35,000 women a year. People can also develop thyroid nodules, which are small growths on the thyroid gland. These are typically harmless but should be monitored by your healthcare provider for signs that they are cancerous.

Can thyroid disorders impact my ability to get pregnant?

Thyroid diseases can affect a woman's menstrual cycle, which can make it more difficult to get pregnant. Additionally, patients with Hashimoto's thyroiditis may be at increased risk for early pregnancy loss. If you have either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, your healthcare provider will likely want to closely monitor your thyroid function throughout the pregnancy and in the postpartum period.

Do race and ethnicity play a role in thyroid disorders?

Race and ethnicity can play a role in thyroid disorders. For example, women of Jewish descent are almost twice as likely as other women to have thyroid complications related to an overactive immune system.

African Americans are more likely to get anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is an aggressive form of the disease. In addition, thyroid tumors among African Americans are often diagnosed at a much later stage compared to other ethnicities, making them more likely to have negative outcomes. This is likely because of systemic racism that causes African Americans to be more likely to face barriers to healthcare and early screening. Both African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to be given the opportunity to have tumors removed by an experienced surgeon compared to white people.

How are thyroid diseases diagnosed? 

Thyroid hormone abnormalities are always detected with blood tests. If you take biotin supplements, you should be aware that they can interfere with thyroid labs and lead to incorrect results. Thyroid nodules can also sometimes be seen on CT scans/MRIs and then looked at more closely with an ultrasound.

What are common symptoms for thyroid problems?

Common symptoms of thyroid problems can vary widely. People can experience weight loss or gain, fatigue, tremors, palpitations, abnormal heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation), anxiety, depression, shortness of breath, heat intolerance, muscle pain, change in mood, eye symptoms and anemia, among other symptoms.

All of these can also be symptoms of other things, which is why bloodwork is the primary method for diagnosing thyroid conditions. If you're experiencing these symptoms, be sure to mention them to your healthcare provider who can run diagnostic tests.

What are the risk factors for thyroid diseases? 

People who have a family history of thyroid problems are more at risk of developing one, and women over the age of 60 are also at an increased risk. Certain illnesses including pernicious anemia and type 1 diabetes also put a person at a higher risk of developing thyroid disease.

Thyroid hormone abnormalities can occur due to Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the most common cause of hypothyroidism; Graves' disease; medications such as lithium or amiodarone; iodine deficiency or excess (not commonly seen in the United States); and pituitary gland abnormalities. Thyroid cancer is more common in patients with a previous history of head and neck radiation.

Am I more at risk for thyroid diseases as I age?

Women over the age of 60 are at a higher risk of developing thyroid problems compared to other people, but thyroid conditions can occur at any age. It's always a good idea to monitor your health and note any abnormal symptoms.

What can I do to keep my thyroid healthy?

As with many other diseases, a healthy diet (that includes lots of whole grains, vegetables and fruit) and regular exercise are good preventive measures.

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