The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, can have a dramatic impact on a huge variety of bodily functions, and if you’re a woman over 35 your odds of a thyroid disorder are high—more than 30 percent, by some estimates.
At least 30 million Americans have a thyroid disorder and half—15 million—are silent sufferers who are undiagnosed, according to The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Women are as much as 10 times as likely as men to have a thyroid problem.
Located above the Adam’s-apple, your thyroid produces thyroid hormone (TSH), which regulates, among other things, your body’s temperature, metabolism, and heartbeat. Things can start to go wrong when your thyroid is under- or over-active. If it’s sluggish, it produces too little TSH; amped-up and it produces too much. What causes your thyroid to go haywire? It could be genetics, an autoimmune attack, pregnancy, stress, nutritional deficiency, and toxins in the environment. Because of thyroid hormones far reach in the body—from the brain to bowels—figuring out a disorder can be challenging. Here’s how to tell if your thyroid could be on the blink:
- You’re exhausted
Feeling tired and having no energy are issues associated with lots of conditions, but they’re strongly linked with hypothyroidism, the disorder that’s the result of too little thyroid hormone. If you’re still tired in the morning or all day after a full night’s sleep, that’s a clue that your thyroid may be underactive. Too little thyroid hormone coursing through your bloodstream and cells means your muscles aren’t getting that get-going signal.
- You’re feeling down
Feeling depressed or sad can also be a symptom of hypothyroidism. Why? It’s thought that the production of too little thyroid hormone can have an impact on levels of “feel good” serotonin in the brain. With an under-active thyroid turning other body systems down to “low,” it’s not surprising that your mood might sink there, too.
- You feel jittery and anxious
Anxiety and “feeling wired” are associated with hyperthyroidism, when the thyroid gland is making too much thyroid hormone. Flooded with consistent “all systems go” messages, your metabolism and whole body may spin into overdrive. If you feel like you just can’t relax, your thyroid may be “hyper.”
- Your appetite or taste buds are altered
An increased appetite can be a sign of hyperthyroidism when too much thyroid hormone may have you feeling hungry all of the time. The only upside is that the “hyper” part of the disorder typically offsets the caloric impact of an increased appetite so the end result isn’t weight gain.An under-active thyroid, on the other hand, can mess with your sense of taste and smell.
- Your brain feels fuzzy
Sure, it could be caused by sleep deprivation or aging, but cognitive functioning can take a hit when your thyroid is out of whack. Too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can cause difficulty concentrating and too little (hypothyroidism) may cause forgetfulness and general brain fog. “When we supplement patients for hypothyroidism, they are often surprised at how fast their brain fog goes away and how much sharper they feel. Many women think it’s just something that comes along with menopause when it really is a sign of a thyroid problem.”
- You’ve lost your interest in sex
Having little or no desire in sex could be a side effect of a thyroid disorder. Too little thyroid hormone could be a contributor to a low libido, but the cumulative impact of other hypothyroidism symptoms—weight gain, low energy, and body aches and pains—could also play a part.
- You’re feeling all fluttery
That fluttery feeling you’re having may be heart palpitations. It can feel like your heart is actually fluttering or skipping a beat or two, or beating too hard or too quickly. You may notice these feelings in your chest or at pulse points in your throat or neck. Heart flutters or palpitations can be a sign of too many thyroid hormones flooding your system (hyperthyroidism).
- Your skin is dry
Skin that’s dry and itchy can be a symptom of hypothyroidism. The change in skin texture and appearance is probably due to slowed metabolism (caused by too little thyroid hormone production), which can reduce sweating. Skin without enough moisture can quickly become dry and flaky. Likewise, nails can become brittle and may develop ridges.
- Your bowels are unpredictable
People with hypothyroidism sometimes complain of constipation. On the reverse side of the spectrum, an overactive thyroid gland can cause diarrhea or more frequent bowel movements, which is why they’re symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
- Your periods have changed
Longer menstrual periods with a heavier flow and more cramps can be a sign of hypothyroidism, where thyroid hormones are in short supply. Periods may be closer together. With hyperthyroidism, high levels of TSH cause menstrual irregularities in a different way. Periods are shorter, farther apart and may be very light.
- Your thermostat is on the fritz
Feeling cold or having chills is associated with hypothyroidism. The system slow-down caused by an under-active thyroid means less energy is being burned by cells. Less energy equals less heat. On the other hand, an overactive thyroid puts energy-producing cells into overdrive. That’s why people with hyperthyroidism sometimes feel too warm or sweat profusely.
- Your sleep schedule is messed up
Want to sleep all of the time? It could be hypothyroidism. A sluggish thyroid can slow bodily functions down to the point where sleeping (even in the daytime) seems like a brilliant idea. Can’t Sleep? It could be hyperthyroidism. An overactive thyroid can cause anxiety and rapid pulse, which can make it hard to fall asleep or even wake you in the middle of the night.
- Your hair is thinning or falling out
Dry, brittle hair that breaks or falls out can be a sign of hypothyroidism. Too little thyroid hormone disrupts your hair growth cycle and puts too many follicles into “resting” mode, resulting in hair loss—sometimes all over your body including at the outside of your eyebrows. An overactive thyroid can also do a number on your hair. Hair issues due to hyperthyroidism typically show up as thinning hair just on your head.
- You have trouble getting pregnant
If you’ve been trying to have a baby for an extended period of time with no luck, an under- or over-active thyroid could be a contributing factor. Difficulty conceiving has been linked to a higher risk of undiagnosed thyroid problems. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can interfere with ovulation, which impairs fertility. Thyroid disorders are also linked to pregnancy complications.
- You have high cholesterol
High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol that hasn’t responded to diet, exercise, have been linked to hypothyroidism. Elevated levels of the “bad” cholesterol can be caused by an under-active thyroid and are cause for concern. Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to heart problems, including an enlarged heart and heart failure.