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You've probably heard that your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that lives in the front of the neck, is important to your entire well-being. Every organ and cell in your body depends on thyroid hormones to perform properly, after all. So when your thyroid isn’t functioning efficiently, it can lead to a number of issues.
According to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. The ATA also reports that "women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems." That's because "autoimmune conditions tend to affect women at an increased rate overall, so it's not surprising that this applies to patients with thyroid dysfunction as well," explains Caroline T. Nguyen, MD, a board-certified endocrinologist and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
What Causes Thyroid Problems?
While there are various causes that can lead to thyroid disorders, Nguyen notes that one of the most common causes is an autoimmune dysfunction, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis (also called Hashimoto's disease). "What is happening here is your immune system has created an antibody that typically is meant to defend your body from infection or viruses. Now the antibody is, however, attacking the thyroid gland and causing it to not be able to produce thyroid hormone effectively," describes Nguyen.
As a result, you might have hypothyroidism, a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone to maintain a healthy body. Additional causes of hypothyroidism can include the removal of your thyroid via surgery or radiation treatment to the neck area.
On the flip side there's hyperthyroidism, meaning your thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone. One of the main causes of hyperthyroidism is also related to an autoimmune disease, but "this time the immune system has created an antibody that instead of preventing the production of hormone, it's now stimulating the production of hormones, so you get excessive hormone production," says Nguyen. A nodule, or several nodules, can sometimes overproduce hormones, too. Certain medications, including amiodarone and lithium, can also cause thyroid dysfunction.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
Some signs that might suggest you have an underactive thyroid include the following:
2. Dry Skin
Dry skin is a common symptom of hypothyroidism. According to a 2011 study, "thyroid hormone is an important regulator of epidermal homeostasis. The skin in hypothyroidism is rough and covered with fine scales, notably on the extensor extremities." In other words, when there's a lack of thyroid hormone being produced, the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, is unable to create new cells that help renew, maintain, and repair your skin.
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Since thyroid hormone helps process your digestive system, people with hypothyroidism might experience constipation
4. Weight Gain
5. Concentration Problems
Like every organ in your body, thyroid hormone plays a crucial role in maintaining brain health. When there are low levels of thyroid hormone, this can affect your ability to remember and concentrate.
6. Irregular Menstrual Periods
7. Muscle Weakness
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"It can affect your muscles, so your muscles can feel weaker," Nguyen says of the symptom that has been linked to hypothyroidism.
8. Constantly Cold
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According to Nguyen, when you don't have enough thyroid hormone, it's due to a decreased metabolic rate and drop in heat production, so that’s why you tend to feel colder.
Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism
Some signs that might suggest you have an overactive thyroid include the following:
1. Increased Heart Rate
A common symptom of hyperthyroidism is a rapid heart rate. "The thyroid hormone will act directly on the heart, so at the level of the heart, and cause an increased heart rate and increased metabolic rate, so your whole system is kind of ramped up," says Nguyen.
2. Weight Loss
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While you might experience weight gain with hypothyroidism, the opposite happens with hyperthyroidism. "You can find that you are losing weight without necessarily trying or your appetite might be stimulated," adds Nguyen.
3. Constantly Warm
When you have an overactive thyroid, you tend to feel warmer because both your metabolic rate and heat production have increased.
4. Eye Changes
Changes in your eyes can be a possible sign of high thyroid hormone levels. "In certain types of hyperthyroidism, you can develop eye disease, so your eyes might feel like they're popping out a little bit, which is called proptosis," explains Nguyen.
How Do I Get Tested?
Nguyen points out that "these symptoms are quite prevalent in the general population, even with patients who don't have thyroid conditions, so that's what makes it a little vague in that sense." If you notice these symptoms worsen, it's best to speak with your doctor and express the signs you're experiencing so your physician can determine how best to move forward.
Nguyen also recommends women over 30 talk to their doctor if they're having frequent miscarriages and infertility issues. Research has shown that hypothyroidism has been linked to an increased risk for miscarriage.
If your medical practitioner finds testing necessary, then you would typically take the TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test to check this hormone in your blood and observe the performance of your thyroid gland. Adds Nguyen: "If there's an abnormality in the TSH, then typically that's what triggers the physician to do additional testing."