Thyroid disorders will affect1 in 8 women during their lifetime according to the Office onWomen's Health. In addition,thyroid disorders are more common in women than in men. The thyroid is a small gland in the neck that produces hormones with a major impact on a woman's body. These hormones help regulate major body functions, including heart rate, metabolism, and growth. While many women suffer fromthyroid disorders at some point in their life, the symptoms can be easy to mislabel or misdiagnose. So, women need to be aware of whatthyroid conditions exist, the symptoms to look for, and ways to maintain or improve their thyroid health.
What is Thyroid Gland?
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system produces and releases hormones that regulate essential body functions of all kinds.The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck. It's located below the Adam's apple and can be felt (palpated) during a physical examination. The two lobes of the thyroid are connected by an isthmus - hence giving it a butterfly shape.
Inside the thyroid, there are hollow follicles. Thyroid hormones are derived from the colloid that fills these follicles.
What Are The Major Thyroid Hormones?
The thyroid produces two main hormones called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), and they have a tremendous impact on regulating body functions. Both are iodine-containing hormones and have a similar chemical structure. T4 and T3 each consist of two tyrosine amino acids, but thyroxine has four bound iodine atoms while triiodothyronine has three.So here's how thyroid hormones are secreted in ideal circumstances:
When blood levels of T4 are low, the pituitary gland (located at the base of your brain) releases a hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).
TSH signals the thyroid to release more hormones. If blood levels of T4 are high, then the pituitary gland stops releasing TSH and slows down the production of these hormones.
T4 is secreted by the thyroid follicles; T3 is formed at the target tissue when T4 is converted.
Calcitonin is another essential hormone produced by the thyroid. It helps to regulate blood calcium levels and is mainly involved in bone metabolism. Calcitonin is released in response to increasing levels of blood calcium ions and ensures that calcium gets deposited in the bones.
Although problems with calcitonin are rare, its production does decrease over time which may result in decalcification and weakening of bones as we age. Osteoporosis, a condition where bones are weak and easily broken another critical health issue for women, affecting1 in 4 women over the age of 65.
So, supporting a healthy thyroid in order to produce optimal levels of hormones is essential for many elements of women's health.
Why areThyroid Hormones Important?
Although you canlive without a thyroid gland, you can't survive without thyroid hormones – they're absolutely essential to maintain the body's metabolism. Some of the key roles of thyroid hormones include:
Regulating heart rate
Controlling body temperature
Affecting metabolism and weight
Controlling calcium levels
Playing a role in brain development
One of the key indicators of a thyroid disorder is a disruption in metabolism affecting weight and energy levels. This is because the thyroid hormones help regulate how glucose is oxidized and converted to energy (ATP).
Changes in thyroid hormone can cause a decrease or increase in the rate of metabolism, which may result in substantial weight gain or weight loss in addition to other symptoms.
What Types of Thyroid Disorders Are There?
Thyroid issues can include thyroid goiter, nodules, and cancer as well as autoimmune thyroid disorders (AITD). Some issues, like cancer, are severe enough to require a thyroidectomy (removing the thyroid gland).
Thyroid disorders lie along a spectrum, with some women experiencing more severe symptoms than others. This is related in part to the level of hormone disruption, family history, and other related symptoms or health conditions.
The most common forms of thyroid disorders can be classified in one of two categories:
Hyperthyroidism: An overactive thyroid producing an excess amount of hormones; includes Grave's disease.
Hypothyroidism: An underactive thyroid producing an insufficient amount of hormones; includes Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
What CausesThyroid Disorders?
There is no single, specific cause of thyroid disorders, and sometimes multiple elements contribute. However, common factors include:
Iodine deficiency or excess iodine intake
Certain medications (lithium)
Let's discuss these in more detail.
Autoimmune Disease and Thyroid Disorders
One of the most common causes of thyroid disorders is autoimmune disease. In autoimmune diseases, the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. Common symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, digestive issues, and swollen glands.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, thyroid diseases (including Grave's and Hashimoto's) are in the top five mostcommon autoimmune disorders. Also, autoimmune diseases are more common in women than men.
Autoimmune thyroid disease (AITD) is a condition in which the body's immune system attacks the thyroid gland. This can lead to either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
Researchers are still studying the mechanisms thattrigger an autoimmune attack on the thyroid gland but believe genetics and environmental triggers are key factors. AITD also has associations with other systemic autoimmune disorders such as Sjögren's syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, systemic sclerosis, psoriatic arthritis, and others.
Iodine Deficiency and Thyroid Disorders
Iodine is a trace element that is essential for the production of thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland needs iodine to synthesize the hormones thyroxine (T₄) and triiodothyronine (T₃).
Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in developing countries. In iodine-deficient areas, the prevalence of goiters (enlarged thyroid glands) is high, and many children are born with congenital hypothyroidism.
Foods that naturally contain iodine include seafood, seaweed, and dairy products. According to the American Thyroid Association, iodine deficiency was common in interior parts of the US up until the 1920s. Then, food manufacturers began adding iodine to salt to resolve the issues in the so-called "goiter-belt".
While iodized salt and awareness has virtually eliminated deficiency in the US and Canada,30% of the world's population is still at risk for iodine deficiency.
While enough iodine is essential for producing thyroid hormones, too much can also be harmful and lead to hyperthyroidism.
Certain Medications andThyroid Disorders
Certainmedications can cause thyroid disorders by either interfering with the body's ability to absorb iodine or by directly affecting the thyroid gland.Some of the most common offenders are:
Amiodarone (Cordarone) - a medication used to treat heart rhythm problems
Lithium - a medication used to treat bipolar disorder
Phenylbutazone (Butazolidin) - a medication used to treat pain and inflammation
Interferon alpha - a medication used to treat cancer and viral infections
Hormonal Imbalance in Menopause and Pregnancy
Hormonal imbalances caused by menopause and pregnancy can also overlap with or cause thyroid disorders.
During menopause, the level of estrogen in a woman's body drops. This can lead to an increase in thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. Another issue is that hypothyroidism can exacerbate symptoms of menopause and according to Healthline, increase the risk ofcomplications with osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases.
Pregnancy also alters hormone levels, including estrogen and progesterone.
These hormone changes can lead to either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. In addition, in pregnant women with Graves' disease (a type of hyperthyroidism), the risk for miscarriage is high, and the baby is at risk for birth defects.
Post-partum thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid after giving birth. According to the Office of Women's Health, this affects about10% of women and often goes undetected because symptoms are similar to "baby blues." Although the thyroid returns to normal for most women within 12-18 months after symptoms start, some may have lingering effects or need treatment.
Read more about the connection between hypothyroidism, menopause, and pregnancyhere.
So now, let's talk more about the symptoms of the two major forms of thyroid disorders in women: hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
Like the name suggests, "hyper" refers to too much activity, aka too much thyroid hormone. Conditions to be aware of:
On the flip side, "hypo" refers to under or too little activity. In other words, not enough thyroid hormone is being produced.
Causes of hypothyroidism:
Hashimoto's disease - an autoimmune disorder in which the body produces antibodies that attack the thyroid gland
Congenital hypothyroidism - a condition present at birth in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone
Medications such as amiodarone and lithium that block iodine absorption or interfere with thyroid hormone production
Symptoms of hypothyroidism can include:
Muscle cramps and aches
How Are Thyroid Disorders Treated?
As you can see, there are a variety of different thyroid problems and no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Consulting a health care professional is vital to get to the root cause of the thyroid condition and ensure there aren't any other underlying health issues.
Some common treatments include:
Medications - synthetic hormones for hypothyroidism and antithyroid medicines or beta-blockers for hyperthyroidism
Radioactive iodine - for Graves' disease and toxic nodular goiter, this treatment involves taking a pill that helps shrink or kill thyroid cells
Thyroid surgery - in some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove all or part of the thyroid gland
Thyroid hormone replacement therapy - this treatment is used when the thyroid gland has been removed or is not functioning properly
Supplements - iodine and selenium are two minerals that are important for thyroid health, and some people with thyroid disorders or risk factors may need to take supplements containing these minerals.
How Can You Support Your Thyroid With Supplements?
There are a few nutrients that have a direct effect on your body's ability to produce thyroid hormone.
Selenium is an essential mineral that helps to regulate thyroid function. Selenium deficiency can lead to problems with thyroid hormone production and metabolism.
The daily recommendation for selenium is 20-55 mcg for children and teens and 55 mcg for adults. Excess selenium can cause severe problems, so be sure to stay below theupper limit. Foods high in selenium include Brazil nuts, seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy.
Iodine is another essential mineral for thyroid health. Iodine deficiency can cause goiter (an enlargement of the thyroid gland), hypothyroidism, and cretinism (a condition that results in mental and physical retardation).
The NIH recommends 150 mcg of iodine for healthy adults and 220 mcg during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Remember that too much iodine can lead to hyperthyroidism. So, again, do not exceed the recommendedupper limits.
Ahealthy diet is vital to maintaining a healthy thyroid. The right amount ofexercise will also impact thyroid health and overall wellbeing.
Some people withthyroid disorders may need to takesupplements containing minerals that supportthyroid function. If you are unsure whether or not you should be taking a thyroid supplement, speak to yourhealth care professional.
So, what can you do if you think you may have a thyroid disorder? The best thing to do is see your doctor. They will be able to perform blood tests to determine whether you have a thyroid disorder and, if so, what type it is. From there, they can recommend the best treatment options for you.
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