Women are much more at risk of an underactive thyroid than men – here’s why

Hypothyroidism affects 15 in every 1,000 women in the UK. Here’s what a doctor wants you to know about having – and treating – an underactive thyroid.

For such a small organ, the thyroid sure has a lot of responsibility. The butterfly-shaped gland, which is located in the neck, manages the body’s metabolic rate by producing hormones including thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which regulate your metabolism (this is the process that converts food into energy).

A thyroid that’s functioning optimally promotes all-around wellness: it aids your digestive system, making sure food is converted into energy at an appropriate speed, and it regulates your heart rate and body temperature, too. If something goes awry, however, it can throw everything off balance.

Hypothyroidism, the medical name for an underactive thyroid, affects 15 in every 1,000 women in the UK, and can have a serious impact on your wellbeing. Here’s what you need to know.

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What is an underactive thyroid?

An underactive thyroid is, essentially, when your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones. “Lots of cells in our bodies require thyroid hormones to function properly, so if we don’t have enough of this hormone it causes the functioning of your body to slow down,” says Dr Francesca Jackson-Spence, NHS doctor and media medic.

Conversely, an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) occurs when thyroid hormones are produced to excess. This results in a sped-up metabolism.

What are the symptoms of an underactive thyroid?

“Because thyroid hormones have a crucial role in metabolism, having insufficient amounts often results in various symptoms,” says Dr Jackson-Spence. She explains that the most common symptoms include:

• Unexplained tiredness

• Weight gain (or difficulty losing weight)

• Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation

• Aches and pains

• Dry skin

• Thinning hair

• Feeling more sensitive to the cold

• Low mood

• Depressive symptoms

• Memory problems

• Changes to sex drive

“Put simply, when we don’t have enough thyroid hormone, everything starts functioning a bit more slowly and sub-optimally,” she says.

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If you are experiencing any symptoms of an underactive thyroid, it’s advisable to get checked out by your GP. “Checking for an underactive thyroid is quite straightforward by asking you some questions about your symptoms, examination and a blood test,” assures Dr Jackson-Spence. The blood test, called a thyroid function test, examines levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and T4 in the blood. A high level of TSH and a low level of T4 in the blood may indicate that you have an underactive thyroid.

What causes an underactive thyroid?

Being born with a uterus, unfortunately, makes you immediately more at risk of developing an underactive thyroid. “Women are 10 timesmore likely to have hypothyroidism than men,” says Jackson-Spence. This is thought to be because of the autoimmune nature of the condition, and also because pregnancy is associated with changes in thyroid function.

“The most common cause of an underactive thyroid is ‘autoimmune thyroiditis’,” Dr Jackson-Spence says. “This is where your immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland and stops it from working properly. Other, more rare, causes can include certain medications or surgery and, in some more deprived parts of the world, iodine deficiency; as iodine is required to make thyroid hormone.” Women can also develop an underactive thyroid after having a baby, but often it lasts only a few months and corrects itself, says Dr Jackson-Spence.

Can I reverse an underactive thyroid?

There isn’t a cure for hypothyroidism, but there are ways to manage symptoms. “An underactive thyroid is easily treated with thyroid hormone replacement in the form of thyroxine tablets,” Dr Jackson-Spence says. “It’s important that an underactive thyroid is treated with lifelong thyroid hormone replacement as the long-term effects of having an underactive thyroid can not only make you feel unwell, it can also increase the risk of developing certain diseases, such as heart disease, and can cause complications in pregnancy.”

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