The thyroid gives us hormones that support a ton of everyday functions in the body, like breath, energy, heartbeat, temperature, and much more. Yet, according to the American Thyroid Association, as many as 20 million Americans have issues with this small butterfly-shaped gland, and the majority have no idea.
The thyroid plays an important role in our health and wellbeing. Located front and center of the mid- to low-neck, its hormones are used by almost every cell in the body. These hormones are called triiodothyronine, or T3, and thyroxine, or T4.
Maintaining the right balance of thyroid hormones requires help from the pituitary gland. It keeps tabs on how much T3 and T4 are in the bloodstream. If there’s too much or too little, it adjusts the amount of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) it sends out. This cues the thyroid to up or lower production of T3 and T4.
When the amount of thyroid hormone in your body gets thrown off, problems arise. If the thyroid can’t make enough T3 or T4, you become hypothyroid. The opposite is called hyperthyroidism. That’s when your levels are too high.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism can occur at any age. About five percent of the population deals with the effects of low thyroid hormones. You could feel some or all of these symptoms:
- Unexplained tiredness and low energy
- Hoarse-sounding voice
- Feeling cold, especially in the hands and feet
- Low body temperature
- Aches and pains, including joint stiffness
- Weight gain (usually modest) and inability to lose it
- Dry skin, hair, nails
- Hair loss
- Irregular menstrual cycle or heavier periods
- Difficulty with bowel movements
- Depression or moodiness
- High cholesterol
Causes of hypothyroidism
Wondering what’s causing your low thyroid levels? It might be one of these reasons:
In autoimmune disorders, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. With Hashimoto’s, the body creates antibodies against the thyroid gland. This causes inflammation and lowers hormone output.
Unfortunately, finding the root cause of Hashimoto’s isn’t always possible. Science is still learning about autoimmunity. But some sources suggest it could be genetic or triggered by another an issue, like a virus or Lyme disease.
Currently, there’s no treatment for Hashimoto’s. Replacing thyroid hormone is the main focus. However, vitamin D may be helpful in lowering antibodies.
Cortisol is an essential hormone produced by the adrenal gland. When we’re stressed, our bodies ramp up cortisol production to help us cope. That’s a good thing. But the problem is: chronic stressors are everywhere, and our cortisol can stay high as a result.
So, what do high levels do? Excess cortisol causes weight gain, leads to poor sleep, and tells the pituitary gland to put TSH production on the back burner. And that means thyroid function drops, too.
Cancer treatment or thyroid removal
Radiation and chemotherapy can harm your thyroid, but symptoms may not crop up until years later. If you are a cancer survivor, aim for regular lab follow-ups, so you can stay on top of any issues.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism
Hypothyroidism gets a lot of attention because it’s more common than hyperthyroidism. But an overactive thyroid is just as uncomfortable and needs treatment. If you have these symptoms, talk to your doctor:
- Weight loss
- Hunger or changes in appetite
- Discomfort in heat
- Too much sweating
- Heart flutters or palpitations
- Irregular periods (usually skipped)
- Weakness or changes in strength
- Intense itching
- Feeling like you might pass out
Causes of hyperthyroidism
Hyperthyroidism can result from any of these issues:
Grave’s disease can run in families and is the number one reason for hyperthyroidism. In this disorder, the thyroid resists TSH released by the pituitary gland. The thyroid may be enlarged and have nodules. Also, autoantibodies might be present, just like in Hashimoto’s.
It takes trial and error to find the right thyroid dosage. Watch how you’re feeling and take notes. Too much medicine can make you hyperthyroid. (And you don’t want that either.)
Pituitary adenomas are rare. They’re tumors but are usually not cancerous. However, they can cause issues for some people, including TSH dysfunction, excess thyroid hormones, and more.
Thyroid support supplements
Many of us make supplement decisions on our own. But be careful with thyroid support. Why? Because it’s hard to know what you’re getting. The FDA doesn’t keep tabs on supplements like it does on medication. In fact, Consumer Reports says nine out of ten thyroid support supplements contain actual hormones and not just herbs. Taking something with hormones will make it harder for your doctor to prescribe the correct dose.
Also, many products on the market have iodine. Most of us get plenty of iodine in our diet, and more isn’t always a good thing. Too much can mess with your levels and even hurt your thyroid.
During pregnancy, the body stores extra hormones in the thyroid. After giving birth, the hormones flush out. As a result, you could have high T3 and T4 levels. But they usually return to normal on their own.
Getting the most from thyroid testing
Many patients who go to their doctors suspecting thyroid problems will leave with a single lab request: thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). And testing TSH isn’t wrong. It gives insight into how much thyroid hormone your body is requesting. Usually, low levels of TSH indicate possible hyperthyroidism, and higher values point toward hypothyroidism.
However, if TSH is all that’s tested, thyroid issues can be easily missed. Here’s why: it’s possible to be within the reference range for TSH and still have low T4 and T3, the actual thyroid hormones your cells need. If your TSH is in range and you still have symptoms (or your provider says you’re fine), ask about a complete thyroid panel, including:
- Free thyroxine (T4) and free triiodothyronine (T3)
- Reverse T3
- Anti-thyroid (ATA) antibodies, such as thyroglobulin, or TgAb, and thyroid peroxidase, or TPO