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What’s a thyroid, and why should I care?

By The Health News Team | March 6, 2024
Doctor examining a woman's neck

When talking with friends about feeling tired or a recent weight gain, have you ever been asked if your thyroid’s been checked? Do you then think to yourself, “What the heck is a thyroid?”

The thyroid is a small gland at the base of your neck. Shaped like a butterfly, it makes the hormone that controls your metabolism, which is responsible for providing your body with energy from the food and drink you consume.

When you’re having thyroid problems, the gland can produce too much of the thyroid hormone or too little. Such changes can affect a variety of bodily systems and functions, including your:

  • Breathing

  • Heart rate

  • Weight

  • Digestion

  • Mood

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office on Women’s Health, women are more likely than men to have issues with their thyroid. In fact, 1 in 8 women will develop thyroid problems in her lifetime.

“In women, thyroid issues may be more common after childbirth and menopause,” Dr. Neelima Chu, an endocrinologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says. “A woman may also be at increased risk if there is a strong family history of thyroid cancer or underactive or overactive thyroid disorders.”

Most common thyroid conditions

The two most common thyroid-related disorders are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.


Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone, resulting in a slowed metabolism. Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder, is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism can result in a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Feeling cold when others don’t

  • Constipation

  • Muscle weakness

  • Unexpected weight gain

  • Joint or muscle pain

  • Feeling sad or depressed

  • Feeling very tired

  • Pale, dry skin

  • Dry, thinning hair

  • Slow heart rate

  • Reduced perspiration

  • Facial puffiness

  • Vocal hoarseness

  • Increased menstrual bleeding


Hyperthyroidism is when the thyroid makes more thyroid hormone than needed, speeding up the metabolism and heart rate. Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder, is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.

Hyperthyroidism can result in symptoms, such as:

  • Unexpected weight loss

  • Increased appetite

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat

  • Feeling nervous, anxious or irritable

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Trembling hands and fingers

  • Increased sweating

  • Feeling hot when others don’t

  • Muscle weakness

  • Diarrhea or increased bowel movements

  • Fewer and lighter menstrual periods

  • Bulging, red or irritated eyes

Sometimes, the symptoms of a thyroid condition can be mistaken for issues related to menopause or other conditions. A blood test ordered by your doctor to measure your hormone levels is the best way to determine whether your thyroid is the problem.

“There are many causes for fatigue, weight gain and other symptoms a woman may be experiencing,” says Dr. Chu. “Issues related to thyroid hormones can be one of the causes, which can be confirmed by a blood test.”

Treating a thyroid condition is vital

If the thyroid is confirmed to be the problem, the first line of treatment is to start thyroid hormone therapy to get the levels into the normal range, Dr. Chu says.

Hypothyroidism is treated with thyroid hormone replacement to give the body enough of the hormone to function well. Hyperthyroidism is treated with medicines that can block the thyroid from producing too much hormone or block the effects of the hormone. Surgical removal of the thyroid can also be done, if necessary.

If a thyroid condition goes untreated, Dr. Chu reports it can lead to several health complications. Untreated hypothyroidism can cause heart disease, pregnancy problems, and the development of an enlarged thyroid gland known as a goiter. Untreated hyperthyroidism can result in heart problems, fertility issues, osteoporosis and pregnancy complications.

Improve your thyroid — and overall — health

Healthy lifestyle changes can help decrease your risk for developing thyroid disorders. This includes eating a diet founded on plant-based whole foods, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, decreasing stress, avoiding smoking and the overuse of alcohol, and getting adequate sleep.

“Lifestyle improvements are always very important for general health,” Dr. Chu says. “And they may help decrease inflammation, which is the driving force for Hashimoto’s thyroid disease.”

Additionally, micronutrients, such as selenium, an essential mineral, can promote thyroid health. Correcting an iron deficiency is also important for your general thyroid health, Dr. Chu says.

Too much iodine, on the other hand, can induce inflammation of the thyroid. In the United States, iodine is supplemented in several foods, and additional iodine supplements should not be necessary.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals, including phthalates, BPA, perchlorate and PCBs, that can leach from plastic and other materials have also been shown to effect thyroid hormone production and metabolism. Some of these chemicals are found in plastic bottles and containers, and Dr. Chu recommends avoiding microwaving or freezing food in plastic containers and drinking out of plastic bottles.

“Talk with your doctor anytime you have sudden changes in how you are feeling,” Dr. Chu says. “When thyroid levels are normal, but you continue to have symptoms, we can look into other causes, such as anemia, sleep apnea, stress, perimenopause or menopause, and lifestyle-related issues.”

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