Thyroid problems can have a noticeable impact on your energy level and mood.
Thyroid problems can be thought of as one of the great mimickers of symptoms; almost any symptom you have could potentially be to do with your thyroid. Most of the time, it may have nothing to do with your thyroid, but it is important to still rule your thyroid out.
If you have noticed yourself feeling tired, sluggish and depressed or anxious or even more irritable than usual, it could be because of irregular thyroid levels indicating a thyroid problem.
The thyroid is a butterfly shaped hormone gland found at the base of your neck. The thyroid is involved in metabolism and regulatory functions of the body. This means that the thyroid influences everything from how many calories you burn and how you break down food, to how fast your heart beats and your general health.
Thyroid disorders are surprisingly common, but they can be hard to detect- particularly in women.
Before we jump into the different types of thyroid problems you may come across, let’s first have a look at some basic thyroid biology. It is important to understand what the thyroid is, so we can understand why things sometimes go wrong.
Biology of the thyroid
The thyroid is in front of the windpipe, just below the larynx, or Adam’s apple. It is split in two halves called lobes which give it a butterfly-like shape. They are connected by a band of thyroid tissue called the isthmus.
The main function of the thyroid is to store iodine, which is used to produce thyroid hormones.
There are two main hormones produced by the thyroid: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). It also produces small amounts of calcitonin which helps control the body’s blood calcium levels.
Hormones and diseases
Many thyroid diseases are caused by too much or too little T3 or T4. You may have heard of these as hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, respectively. In rarer cases, thyroid disorders can be caused by nodules, abnormal thyroid growth or thyroid cancer. Let’s look at some common diseases of the thyroid. There are several types of thyroid tests to help identify a thyroid problem, if you’re looking to learn more about what is thyroid function test and what is thyroid stimulating hormone test then click through.
Hypothyroidism – The Underactive Thyroid
Hypothyroidism, more commonly called an underactive thyroid, is the result of the insufficient synthesis and release of thyroid hormones.
This means that it doesn’t produce enough hormones to work properly. It is very important to note that there is no way of preventing hypothyroidism, as most cases are caused by your own immune system attacking the thyroid gland and damaging it, or as a result of damage from an overactive thyroid or thyroid cancer.
An underactive thyroid is most commonly caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune means a disease caused by antibodies of lymphocytes (a form of a small leucocyte, or white blood cell) produced against substances naturally made in the body, like when someone says, “the infection triggered an immune response’.
- Weight gain
- Cold sensitivity
- Slow movements and thoughts
- Loss of libido (sex drive)
- Muscle cramps and aches
- Irregular or heavy periods
- Dry skin, hair thinning and loss
Hormones and diseases
We can think of hyperthyroidism as the opposite of hypothyroidism, as this is where there is excessive synthesis of thyroid hormones and you’re producing too much.
An overactive thyroid is most commonly caused by Grave’s disease, another autoimmune disorder. In this instance, the thyroid may also produce nodules, benign tumours called adenomas and in rarer cases, cancer.
Hyperthyroidism is 10 times more common in women than men, and typically happens between 20 and 40 years of age. There is also an inherited risk, meaning that someone in your family has thyroid problems previously diagnosed.
Typical symptoms of hyperthyroidism in women include many symptoms that can be mistaken for PMS (premenstrual syndrome) or other endocrine disorders, such as:
- Nervousness, anxiety and mood swings
- Persistent tiredness and weakness
- Heart palpitations
- Sensitivity to heat
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irregular or light menstrual cycles
- Unexplained weight loss
- Swelling of the neck
- Bulging eyes (associated with Graves’ disease)
Pregnancy can also cause a thyroid disorder known as postpartum thyroiditis which usually begins between two and six months after giving birth, usually lasting up to one year.
Symptoms of postpartum thyroiditis can sometimes have a mix of symptoms associated with hypo and hyperthyroidism.
How are thyroid problems diagnosed?
Thyroid problems are mostly manageable upon diagnosis. They can be diagnosed through a blood test that measures the number of thyroid hormones in your blood.
You can request this through the NHS, but it can be much quicker to go private or buy a thyroid testing kit (home-to-lab) that you can conveniently do at home and send off for analysis.
How are thyroid problems diagnosed?
You may also be able to spot thyroid problems by doing a “neck check”, which looks out for goitre: swelling of the thyroid gland that causes swelling in the front of the neck or a visible lump that moves as you swallow.
This can feel like a tightness in your throat and cause difficulty swallowing or breathing. Normally, you cannot see your thyroid, but it can be felt with practice, especially as you swallow as it causes the thyroid to move up and down.
How to do a Neck Check
- Hold a handheld mirror in your hand so you can view your neck and tilt your head back.
- Take a drink of water and swallow whilst looking in the mirror. Check for any bulges or protrusions in this area, making sure not to confuse the Adam’s apple for anything unusual.
- If you see anything unusual, book an appointment to see a GP immediately.
It is always worth speaking to a GP if you experience any of the above symptoms. It can be easy as a woman to pass off your symptoms as a normal part of your menstrual cycle and all the issues that can cause, but it is important to remember that a menstrual cycle should be nothing more than an inconvenience.
It should not be causing you severe pain or issues physically or mentally. This usually indicates that there is an underlying issue. We are often taught as women that these are normal symptoms to experience, but they are not. Whilst they won’t necessarily be a thyroid issue, it is always worth playing it safe and speaking to a professional.