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Do women experience more thyroid problems?

Monday 4 May 2020
Thyroid Disorders

Table of Contents


I. Overview of the thyroid

II. Risk factors for women

III. Menopause

a. Menstrual periods

IV. Pregnancy

a. Postpartum thyroiditis

V. Treatment for women


Overview of the thyroid

The thyroid is an important, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck. This gland may be small but is vital in the proper functioning of the body. The thyroid is responsible for regulating the body’s metabolic rate, which controls the heart, muscle and digestive function, brain development, and bone maintenance.

The thyroid produces thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) hormones, which regulate the metabolic functions. The thyroid hormone cells are also responsible for extracting and absorbing iodine from the blood and incorporating that substance into the thyroid hormones. The thyroid works in tandem with the pituitary gland and hypothalamus to keep the body functioning. This whole network is referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis (HPT). 

The HPT involves a delicate balance of hormones, and it can be easily thrown off by several factors, like diet or genetics. Thyroid disorders can occur in anyone, but women are more likely to be affected. In the United States, one in eight women will develop thyroid problems during her lifetime. Luckily, there are medications like Synthroid that can control symptoms of several thyroid disorders. [1]

a diagram describing how the thyroid, hypothalamus, and pituitary gland interact in the body

The two common disorders of the thyroid include:

Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is underactive and cannot produce enough of its hormones. Hypothyroidism can lead to symptoms of fatigue, constipation, depression, weakness, dry skin, weight gain, and slow heart rate. Hashimoto’s disease is a leading cause of hypothyroidism. You may also experience hypothyroidism if your thyroid has been removed or damaged due to radiation treatment.

Hyperthyroidism: Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is overactive. When too much of the thyroid hormone is produced, it can cause symptoms such as restlessness, nervousness, irritability, shaking, muscle weakness, weight loss, and brittle hair and nails. Thyroid nodules and Graves’ disease are two diseases that cause hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism affects around one percent of women and is less common in men. [2]

Read on to learn more about why women experience thyroid problems more frequently and how it can affect everyday function.

Risk factors for women

The risk factors for women are generally the same risk factors for men, but there are a few crucial differences. People with a family history of hereditary thyroid disorders are at a higher risk of hyper and hypothyroidism. Your risk of thyroid problems or thyroid cancer goes up significantly if you have a parent, brother, sister, or child with a similar thyroid condition.

Diet and your body mass index (BMI) also affect your risk. Those who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of developing thyroid problems. The functioning of the thyroid relies on iodine consumption through your diet. Getting enough iodine is especially important for infants and pregnant women. Fish, dairy products, and seaweed are foods that can provide iodine. Approximately one-third of the population is at risk of iodine deficiency, especially in areas of the world where there is not a lot of iodine in the soil. [3]

Women can be affected by all the risk factors listed above, but age plays a vital role in women’s thyroid health. This is because the risk of thyroid problems peak earlier for women than men. Women are at a higher risk for thyroid disorders in their 40s and 50s whereas men are at higher risk in their 60s and 70s. Women experience this earlier onset because menopause takes place around that time. [4]  

Menopause

Menopause is a time when a woman's menstrual periods stop, and a woman can no longer get pregnant. The production of estrogen by the ovaries also decreases during this time.  Less estrogen in the body may impact levels of thyroid hormones, so women who are experiencing menopause may not know that they also have thyroid disease. Thyroid disease and menopause often have overlapping symptoms.

an older woman standing in front of a wall

Hypothyroidism is most common in middle-aged women. This thyroid disorder can increase or worsen symptoms of menopause. In one 2007 study, women with a thyroid disorder and severe menopause symptoms experienced improved symptoms after treatment for their thyroid issues. [5]

a. Menstrual periods

A critical function of the thyroid is regulating your menstrual period. If your body produces too much or too little thyroid hormone, your periods may become very light, heavy, or irregular. Thyroid disease can also make your periods stop for several months or go on longer than usual (amenorrhea). The ovaries can also be affected by thyroid disease, which can lead to menopause before 40 years of age (early onset menopause).

Pregnancy

Thyroid hormones play a big part in pregnancy and a woman’s ability to get pregnant. It is essential to diagnose a thyroid problem early on because thyroid problems can cause health issues for the mother and the baby. Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can upset the balance of hormones responsible for ovulation. Hypothyroidism can also affect the production of prolactin, which is the hormone that helps the body create breast milk. Overproduction of prolactin can also prevent ovulation. 

Pregnancy-related hormones raise the level of thyroid hormones in the blood. These hormones are important for a baby’s brain development in the womb. It can be difficult to diagnose thyroid problems in pregnant women because hormone levels are constantly in flux during this time.

The following problems can occur if a woman has hyperthyroidism during pregnancy:

  • Fast heart rate in a newborn
  • Low birth weight
  • Miscarriage
  • Premature birth
  • Preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy)

The following problems can occur if a woman has hypothyroidism during pregnancy:

  • Anemia (lower number of healthy red blood cells)
  • Issues with baby’s growth and brain development
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Low birth weight
  • Preeclampsia

a pregnant woman on a beach

a. Postpartum thyroiditis

This condition involves an inflammation of the thyroid after giving birth and affects around 10 percent of women. Many women misinterpret their symptoms as the “baby blues” because it often leaves them feeling tired and moody. In most women, the thyroid returns to normal functioning around a year after giving birth. This disorder usually occurs in two stages:

Stage 1: This stage occurs 1 to 4 months after birth and lasts 1 to 2 months. During this stage, you may have signs of hyperthyroidism because the damaged thyroid is leaking hormones into the bloodstream. 

Stage 2: This stage occurs later, 4 to 8 months after giving birth, and can last for up to 12 months. Women may experience symptoms of hypothyroidism in this stage because the thyroid loses most of its hormones when the immune attack from the first stage is over. [6]

Treatment for women

Treating thyroid issues is no different for women. For women, the most challenging part of thyroid disorders is diagnosing them in the first place. Because many natural occurrences in a woman’s body mimic thyroid disease symptoms, it is important to have your doctor check your thyroid hormone levels when necessary.

a woman excitedly holding her hands up in the air

If you have hypothyroidism, you may be prescribed Synthroid to restore adequate hormone levels. For most people, this drug works quickly to restore feelings of normalcy. [7] If you have hyperthyroidism, then your doctor may recommend anti-thyroid medications or radioactive iodine. Anti-thyroid drugs prevent the gland from producing excess amounts of hormones. The thyroid is programmed to absorb iodine, so when it absorbs radioactive iodine, the thyroid activity will slow and cause the gland to shrink. Your doctor will determine the proper treatment for you and your specific condition. [8]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.