Thyroid disorders are conditions that affect the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck. The thyroid has important roles to regulate numerous metabolic processes throughout the body. The thyroid gland is located below the Adam’s apple wrapped around the trachea (windpipe). A thin area of tissue in the gland’s middle, known as the isthmus, joins the two thyroid lobes on each side.
The thyroid uses iodine to produce vital hormones. The function of the thyroid gland is regulated by a feedback mechanism involving the brain. When thyroid hormone levels are low, the hypothalamus in the brain produces a hormone that causes the pituitary gland (located at the base of the brain) to release thyroid stimulating hormone.
Since the thyroid gland is controlled by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, disorders of these tissues can also affect thyroid function and cause thyroid problems.
At least 30 million Americans have a thyroid disorder and 15 million are silent sufferers who go undiagnosed. Women are as much as 10 times as likely as men to have a thyroid problem. If you’re a woman over 35 your odds of a thyroid disorder are high, more than 30%, by some estimates.
The thyroid produces thyroid hormone to regulate, (among other things) your body’s temperature, metabolism, and heartbeat. Issues arise when your thyroid is under- or over-active. If your thyroid is sluggish, it’s producing too little hormone. If it’s amped-up, it’s producing too much.
Causes & Symptoms Of Thyroid Issues
This could stem from genetics, an autoimmune attack, pregnancy, stress, nutritional deficiencies, or toxins in the environment. Diagnosing a disorder can be challenging, so here’s how to tell if your thyroid could be on the blink.
Sudden Weight Gain/Sudden Weight Loss
Going up a few pounds can be caused by so many things. However, weight gain is one of the top symptoms of a thyroid problem. If you’re gaining weight, and you aren’t eating any more than usual, or you are exercising, but not getting results, it can be due to an under-active thyroid.
On the other end of the scale, a sudden weight loss can signal hyperthyroidism.
Feeling tired and having no energy are issues associated with all sorts of different conditions, but they’re strongly linked with hypothyroidism, which is the disorder that becomes the result of too little thyroid hormone. If you’re still tired in the morning or all day after a full night’s sleep, that’s a clue that your thyroid may be underactive. This means you don”t have enough thyroid hormone in your bloodstream and cells, so your muscles aren’t getting a signal to get-going. Fatigue is the number one symptom, and that’s a clue that you’re not simply sleep deprived; your thyroid may be under-active.
Feeling unusually depressed or sad can also be a symptom of hypothyroidism. It is thought that the production of too little thyroid hormone can have an impact on levels of “feel good” hormone serotonin in the brain. An under-active thyroid effects other body systems, so it’s not surprising that your mood might sink there, too.
Sleep Patterns Are Messed Up
If you feel like you want to sleep all of the time, it could be caused by hypothyroidism. A sluggish thyroid can slow bodily functions down to the point where sleeping (even in the daytime) seems like a brilliant idea.
However, if you can’t sleep, it could be hyperthyroidism, as an overactive thyroid can cause anxiety and rapid pulse, which can make it hard to fall asleep or even wake you in the middle of the night.
Feeling Jittery & Anxious
As I just mentioned, anxiety and “feeling wired” are associated with hyperthyroidism, because the thyroid gland is making too much thyroid hormone. This causes your metabolism and body to rev into overdrive. If you feel like you just can’t relax, your thyroid may be “hyper.”
Also, watch for a fluttery feeling like you’re having heart palpitations, or that your heart is actually skipping a beat or beating too hard/too quickly. You may notice these feelings in your chest or at pulse points in your throat or neck. Heart flutters or palpitations can be a sign of too many thyroid hormones flooding your system (hyperthyroidism).
Hair Falling Out or Thinning
Dry, brittle hair that breaks or falls out can be a sign of hypothyroidism. This happens because too little thyroid hormone disrupts your hair growth cycle and puts too many follicles into “resting” mode, which results in hair loss. This sometimes happens all over the body including at the outside of your eyebrows. Something many women report is being asked by their hair stylist if they have a thyroid problem during their appointment. The hair salons are more aware of thyroid problems than some doctors.
An overactive thyroid can also do a number on your hair. Hair issues due to hyperthyroidism typically show up as thinning hair just on your head.
High Blood Pressure
Elevated blood pressure can be a symptom of both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. By some estimates, people with hypothyroidism have two to three times the risk of developing hypertension. One theory is that low amounts of thyroid hormone can slow heart beat, which can affect pumping strength and blood vessel wall flexibility.
Sure, it could be caused by sleep deprivation or aging, but cognitive functioning can take a hit when your thyroid is out of whack. While too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can cause difficulty concentrating, too little (hypothyroidism) can cause forgetfulness and general brain fog. When patients are treated for hypothyroidism, they are often surprised at how fast their brain fog goes away and how much sharper they feel. Many women think it’s just something that comes along with menopause when it really is a sign of a thyroid problem.
This is one of the top three most common symptoms of hypothyroidism most doctors see. People with hypothyroidism ordinarily complain of constipation, as the disruption in hormone production causes a slowdown of digestive processes, so there’s just no motility in your gut. On the reverse side of the spectrum, an overactive thyroid gland can cause diarrhea or more frequent bowel movements, which is why they’re symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Painful Extremities or Muscles
Mysterious or sudden tingling, numbness or actual pain in your arms, legs, feet, or hands, could be a sign of hypothyroidism. Over time, producing too little thyroid hormone can damage the nerves that send signals from your brain and spinal cord throughout your body. The result is those “unexplained” tingles and twinges.
Changes In Menstrual Cycle
Doctors find a strong link between irregular cycles and thyroid problems. Longer menstrual periods with a heavier flow and more cramps can be a sign of hypothyroidism. Periods may also be closer together.
With hyperthyroidism, high levels of thyroid hormone cause menstrual irregularities in the exact opposite way, by making them shorter, farther apart and they can be very light.
If you’ve been trying to have a baby for for quite a while with no luck, an under or over-active thyroid could be a contributing factor. Difficulty conceiving has been linked to a higher risk of thyroid problems. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can interfere with ovulation, which impairs fertility. Thyroid disorders are also linked to pregnancy complications.
Getting Chills or Hot Flashes
Feeling cold or having chills is associated with hypothyroidism, as the system slow-down caused by an under-active thyroid causes less energy to be burned by cells, and less energy equals less heat.
On the other hand, an overactive thyroid puts energy-producing cells into overdrive, which is why people with hyperthyroidism sometimes feel too warm or sweat profusely.
High levels of LDL or “Bad” cholesterol that haven’t responded to diet, exercise, or medication have been linked to hypothyroidism, and is a cause for concern. Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to heart problems, including an enlarged heart and heart failure
Lost Interest in Sex
Having little or no desire in sex can be a side effect of a thyroid disorder. Too little thyroid hormone could be a contributor to a low libido, but the cumulative impact of other hypothyroidism symptoms like weight gain, low energy, and body aches and pains can also play a part.
Dry, itchy skin can be a symptom of hypothyroidism. The change in skin texture and appearance could be due to slowed metabolism (caused by too little thyroid hormone), which can reduce sweating. Skin without enough moisture can quickly become dry and flaky, while also causing nails to become brittle and develop ridges.
Becoming Hoarse or Lump in the Throat
A change in your voice or a lump in your throat could be a sign of a thyroid disorder. One way to check is to take a good look at your neck to see if you can detect any signs of thyroid swelling. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists recommends do a physical check of your thyroid at home by following these directions:
- Using a hand mirror, watch your throat as you swallow a drink of water.
- Looking for bulges or protrusions in the thyroid area, which is below your Adam’s apple but above your collarbones.
- You may want to try this several times to get a hang of where your thyroid really is.
- If you see anything that’s lumpy or suspicious, see your doctor.
Altered Appetite or Taste Buds
An increased appetite can be a sign of hyperthyroidism when too much thyroid hormone may have you feeling hungry all of the time. The only upside is that the “hyper” part of the disorder typically offsets the caloric impact of an increased appetite so the end result isn’t weight gain.
If you are dealing with several of these symptoms, see your doctor and ask for a thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test, Free T3, and Free T4 tests to determine if you have an issue.