There are certain perks of being a woman that most men would never understand—things like finding a great pair of stilettos on sale, or sharing hours of girl talk over a couple of martinis. On the other hand—at least when it comes to some medical conditions—there are also definite downsides to being of the fairer sex. Multiple sclerosis and even depression are two to three times more common in women than men. But that’s just the beginning: According to the American Thyroid Association, women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. Lest we jump too far ahead, though, let’s start with the basics.
What is a thyroid?
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck with a primary function of secreting thyroid hormones throughout the body. In children, this activity is critical for brain development. In adults, those hormones are responsible for regulating heart and digestive function, muscle control, bone maintenance and, more importantly, metabolism. Unfortunately, the thyroid doesn’t always function properly. In cases of hypothyroidism, the thyroid does not produce enough of its main hormone, thyroxine (also called T4). In hyperthyroidism, too much T4 is produced.
The ATA notes that more than 12 percent of Americans will develop a thyroid condition at some point in their lives, and there are around 20 million Americans currently struggling with a thyroid issue. The worst part? Up to 60 percent of those people are completely unaware of their condition.
Symptoms of Thyroid Problems
This discrepancy is possible because of the insidious nature of the symptoms associated with thyroid conditions. Issues like constipation or dry skin (two of hypothyroidism’s most common symptoms) can be linked to any number of causes. As a result, very few women even consider that their thyroid is to blame, and when left undiagnosed, the most severe cases can put women at risk for serious conditions, including cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and infertility.
With hyperthyroidism (of which the autoimmune disorder Graves’ disease is one type), individuals may experience irritability, nervousness, muscle weakness, unexplained weight loss, sleep disturbances and eye problems. But, says Dr. John Monaco of the Nashville Hormone and Integrative Medicine Center, hyperthyroidism is rare, and the vast majority of patients with thyroid issues are suffering from low thyroid, or hypothyroidism. And, he says, there are three key symptoms that, while being common to other conditions, are likely to point to this condition.
1. Weight gain/inability to lose weight
You know when you’ve put on a couple extra pounds and you actually deserve them—i.e. you hit the late-night buffet a few too many times on your all-inclusive Caribbean cruise, or you’ve made baking (and eating) a pan of fudge brownies a weekly occurrence. But what about when you’ve been doing everything right? When you’ve swapped your bacon-and-egg breakfasts for green smoothies, and you hit Zumba three nights a week? A sluggish thyroid may be to blame.
“The thyroid is the key to the body’s metabolism, so once the metabolism slows down, you assume that the eating and exercise don’t change, so a person is going to gain weight,” Monaco says. “And it’s very difficult to lose weight because you can’t rev up your metabolism. The typical things you would do to rev it up won’t work because the thyroid’s not working. It’s like throwing more wood on the fire, but there’s no flame.”
2. Extreme fatigue
Sure, you’ve got the kids, plus work, plus the house to take care of. It seems like your to-do list is always a mile long, and you need an extra three hours in every day just to break even. You’re tired—exhausted, even. And no matter how much you try to rest and regroup, you just can’t seem to break out of your haze.
“Fatigue is one of those problems that is common to so many things, including anemia, being out of shape and cardiopulmonary problems,” Monaco says. “But fatigue is one of the prominent symptoms of thyroid issues in the absence of those other issues.”
3. Cold body temperature
It’s not widely acknowledged, but in addition to keeping your weight under control, your metabolism also affects your body’s temperature. “Basically, it’s like any machine—when it’s working, when you burn calories, you produce heat, and that’s what warms you,” says Monaco. “So when the thyroid is not working and you’re not burning calories, you’re not producing heat.”
At some point, you’ve probably shaken hands with someone and noticed that their hand was freezing, despite the fact that you were indoors, in a controlled-temperature environment. If that happens to you, or if you wake up in the morning feeling cold, even though you were just under the covers, you may have an underperforming thyroid.
Typically, says Monaco, doctors prescribe additional T4 to patients experiencing hypothyroidism, with the hope that the body will effectively convert what’s needed into usable triiodothyronine, the active thyroid hormone, also called T3. But doctors are typically leery of prescribing T3 because it is an active hormone.
“Typically, doctors measure T4 levels and TSH—the thyroid stimulating hormone produced by the pituitary gland,” says Monaco. “When the T4 is low and the TSH is high, they make a diagnosis of hypothyroidism and prescribe the patient additional T4. But that T4 still has to be converted to T3 by the body. And there are things that will prevent the conversion of T4 to T3, but doctors don’t normally measure that.”
As a functional medicine doctor, Monaco is trained to discover and address the underlying causes of a patient’s issues, and not just address the symptoms on the surface. Additionally, he seeks to achieve a level of optimal body functionality, not just readings or measurements that fall within the “normal” range.
For this reason, Monaco recommends patients seek a functional medicine or other doctor who is willing to seek the root cause of a patient’s thyroid issues and be willing to try different approaches until optimal health is reached.
And, in the interim, there are some alternative treatments that have proven successful in addressing hypothyroidism. Addressing food sensitivities (typically by avoidance), supplementing with probiotics and working to destress and achieve greater relaxation are all ways to effectively minimize symptoms.
If you suspect your thyroid may be causing you problems, call your doctor.