When women come to me with extreme fatigue or sudden weight gain, they often know that it could be connected to thyroid functioning. But women who come to my office complaining of constipation, concentration issues, and chronic rashes or hair loss are sometimes surprised when I suggest we test their thyroid hormone levels. They had no idea that symptoms like that could be related to an imbalance in these crucial hormones.
One of the main goals of my practice, and my website, is to get women the information they need, then support them through the changes they need to make to feel their best. So many women have told me they had no idea how many symptoms could be related to thyroid dysfunction that I realized I have a great opportunity to help!
Let’s take a quick look at what the thyroid is and the role of thyroid hormones in your body. Then I’ll share five surprising health problems that can indicate an imbalance in thyroid hormones. Finally, I’ll give you some quick tips on how to support your thyroid naturally. Let’s get started!
What is the Thyroid Gland and What Does it Do?
Your thyroid gland is located at the base of the front of the neck. This butterfly-shaped organ releases hormones that regulate metabolism, and many other vital body functions. In fact, thyroid hormones impact every major body system!
Your endocrine system is made up of glands that produce, store and release hormones into the blood, and the thyroid is a vital part of this system. Without the endocrine system, hormones can’t carry their important messages to cells throughout your body.
Two major hormones are produced by the thyroid gland: Triiodothyronine (T3) and Thyroxine (T4). The gland uses iodine from the food you eat to produce these hormones. For your body to function optimally, levels of T3 and T4 should be well balanced, neither too high nor too low.
How Does My Thyroid Gland Know How Much T3 and T4 to Produce and Release?
Balance of T3 and T4 levels starts in the brain. There, the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands communicate to ensure proper amounts are released. Here’s how:
Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced by the pituitary gland and released to tell the thyroid how much T3 and T4 it should produce. And the hypothalamus produces TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH) to let the pituitary know how much TSH is needed.
It’s like that old song about how bones are connected, substituting glands and hormones. “The hypothalamus is connected to the pituitary, the pituitary is connected to the thyroid, TRH is connected to TSH…” As you can see, these glands – and the hormones they produce – are intricately connected, and it’s a delicate, and vitally important, balance.
Why is Balance of T3 and T4 So Important, Anyway?
T3 and T4 move through your blood to connect with the cells in your body. They regulate the rate of metabolism, which is how those cells work. These hormones play a role in heart rate and breathing, body temperature, cholesterol levels, body weight, central and peripheral nervous systems, menstrual cycles, and so much more. If levels are too high or too low, the messages these hormones relay can become jumbled, and these vital systems won’t operate as intended.
Because thyroid hormone imbalance can cause so many symptoms, some quite serious, it’s essential to recognize when your body isn’t releasing appropriate amounts. When you catch a thyroid problem early, you can often avoid some of the more severe issues, like Grave’s disease or Hashimoto’s disease.
Let’s take a quick look at the range of symptoms that can result from hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Then we’ll talk more in depth about those five surprising impacts I alluded to earlier.
Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism
When your thyroid gland is overactive, producing too much T3 and T4, it’s known as hyperthyroidism. While this condition is relatively rare, when it goes unrecognized symptoms can be quite uncomfortable.
Signs that you might be dealing with an overactive thyroid include restlessness, irritability, poor sleep, hand tremors, weight loss even if you’re eating more, heart palpitations, sweating, increased thirst, diarrhea, shortness of breath, menstrual changes, skin and hair changes, fatigue, muscle weakness, swollen thyroid gland, and eye problems.
Typically, those with hyperthyroidism won’t exhibit all of these symptoms, but will often have at least two. Symptoms rarely show up overnight, but develop over a period of several weeks. That’s why it’s important to recognize even mild symptoms, and investigate before the condition becomes too severe.
Left untreated, hyperthyroidism can increase risk of heart problems, pregnancy complications, and osteoporosis.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
Far more common, hypothyroidism is what it’s called when your thyroid gland is underactive, leaving levels of T3 and T4 too low. Symptoms range from annoying to quite severe depending on the level of deficiency, and show up slowly – often over several years. It’s easy to attribute some of the signs, like fatigue and weight gain, to aging, until you develop more obvious symptoms.
Signs of hypothyroidism also include constipation, dry skin, puffiness in your face, increased sensitivity to cold, hoarseness, high cholesterol, achy or weak muscles, joint pain and swelling, thinning hair, irregular or heavy periods, memory issues, depression, and a slowed heart rate.
Untreated, the signs of hypothyroidism can become more severe, and include a goiter (enlarged thyroid) and increased cognitive impairment. While rare, advanced hypothyroidism is very severe, and can be life threatening. Symptoms of this rare condition include low blood pressure, dips in body temperature, decreased breathing, and coma.
As you can see, your body can suffer in many ways when thyroid hormones aren’t properly balanced. Fatigue and weight gain are common red flags, but here are five other health issues that you might be surprised to learn could also suggest imbalanced thyroid hormones.
5 Surprising Ways That Imbalanced Thyroid Hormones Impact Health
Thyroid problems are often missed, partly because the range of symptoms is so wide, and can also indicate other conditions. These five health issues may stem from thyroid dysfunction, so if you are experiencing them, ask about having your thyroid hormone levels tested!
1. Heart Health
An imbalance in either direction can have a big impact on heart functioning. Because thyroid hormones can impact cholesterol level, blood pressure and heartbeat, if your thyroid gland isn’t functioning properly you may see signs that mimic heart disease or exacerbate existing heart disease.
Research has shown that hypothyroidism has a major impact on cardiac health. Low levels of thyroid hormones can slow your heart rate, raise blood pressure, and raise cholesterol levels.
Of particular interest is the impact that subclinical hypothyroidism (elevated TSH with normal thyroid hormone levels) has on the heart. A meta-analysis of studies concluded that there was an association between subclinical hypothyroidism and increased risk of coronary heart disease events and mortality in subjects with higher TSH levels, particularly a concentration of 10 mlU/L or greater.
It can be devastating when you want to start a family and have difficulty getting pregnant. If this is happening to you, talk with your healthcare provider about checking your thyroid. Research has shown a link between both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism and fertility issues.
A 2015 study published in The Obstetrician & Gynaecologist supported the longstanding theory that thyroid dysfunction and fertility problems can be connected. This study found that 2.3 percent of women experiencing fertility issues had hyperthyroidism, compared with 1.5 percent in the general population. Hyperthyroidism also has a connection to irregular menstrual cycles, which impacts fertility.
Hypothyroidism is also linked to menstrual issues, and in some cases, lack of ovulation in adult women, the study found. Additionally, thyroid disease is associated with increased risk of miscarriage, preeclampsia, premature birth, stillbirth, and poor fetal development.
Underlying causes of the thyroid problems, like autoimmune disease or disorders in the pituitary gland can also impact fertility. Treatment of thyroid disease can be an important piece of the fertility puzzle.
3. Bone Health
A recent review of studies summarized a number of ways that thyroid disorders impact bone health in both children and adults. While they didn’t find adequate clinical data to back up preliminary studies, that early analysis showed low bone turnover and decreased bone formation when hypothyroidism was present.
There is sufficient evidence demonstrating that hyperthyroidism causes high bone turnover and bone loss. Thus, thyroid hormone levels that are too high are associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and fracture, particularly in post-menopausal women.
The review revealed that subclinical hyperthyrodism, where T3 and T4 levels are within the normal reference range, but TSH is below its reference range, is also associated with bone loss and fracture.
4. Brain Health
Research has long shown a relationship between thyroid hormones and brain development. Thyroid hormones regulate neural development and the maturation and functioning of the central nervous system. Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can result in a number of medical conditions, including poor motor coordination, lethargy, memory impairment, mood disorders, dementia, and personality changes. With treatment, these conditions are typically reversible, but left untreated can lead to permanent cognitive impairments.
A 2015 study concluded that thyroid hormone activity in the brain is complicated, with a constantly changing relationship throughout development. Disruption of the mechanisms through which thyroid hormones are delivered to the brain can severely hinder neurological functioning.
Even mild thyroid dysfunction can have a significant impact on the brain, especially as we age. The signs of thyroid disease can be more easily missed or dismissed as normal aging. That’s why it’s important to be aware of how thyroid hormones can impact cognitive functioning.
5. Skin, Hair and Nails
Though you may think a focus on skin, hair and nails is all about beauty, and speaks only to vanity, I assure you it does not. Sometimes, the small concerns can give us big insight into what’s going on with our health. Paying attention to your skin and hair can help you catch a thyroid problem before you develop more serious symptoms.
Skin issues can include acne, dry skin, wrinkles and more severe skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. When it comes to hair, premature baldness, extreme hair loss, thinning eyebrows, changes to texture, and loss of eyelashes, can all be signs of a thyroid hormone imbalance. And what about your nails? Take notice if they are pale or yellow, brittle or ridged, thicken, peel or break easily, soft, or you have ingrown toenails or fungal infections in your nail beds.
How to Keep Thyroid Hormones Balanced Naturally
I have a wealth of advice on how to keep your thyroid hormones well balanced in my health library. Some of the best supports for your thyroid include natural supplements designed specifically for that purpose, and healthy, natural foods. Iodine is critical to thyroid functioning, so it’s important to be sure your diet includes plenty, or to supplement with both iodine and selenium, which work together to support thyroid health.
Good self care is also essential to keeping your thyroid working well. A little gentle exercise every day, and managing stress – both physical and emotional – are healthy lifestyle choices you can make to ensure thyroid health. And don’t neglect to take a little time each day just for you – even if it’s only a few minutes.
Serious Dysfunction Needs Treatment
Healthy food, supplements and lifestyle changes can benefit anyone, and I’ve seen the results patients have by following a few simple steps. But remember, it’s important to first rule out any serious medical conditions. Don’t put off a trip to your medical practitioner if your symptoms are lingering, getting worse, or you are noticing new symptoms. I recommend you work with your healthcare professional to get appropriate testing and talk about how you can support your thyroid in a way that works for you!
Keep All Your Systems Happy with Balanced Thyroid Hormones
Because so many of your body systems and functions rely on a properly functioning thyroid gland and good balance of your thyroid hormones, the more information you have, the better. I”m here to help you every step of the way as you travel the path to good health and great balance – in your thyroid and in your life!