You’ve undoubtedly heard about thyroid problems, but you wouldn’t be alone if you don’t really know exactly what the blanket term means or what the symptoms are. The small, butterfly-shaped gland in the neck can be responsible for all manner of bodily issues - and while it does affect men, women are far more likely to experience hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) or hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid).
If you're worried about a sudden weight loss or gain, or have questions about how your thyroid can affect pregnancy, Dr Malcolm Prentice, Consultant Endocrinologist at The Lister Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK) shared his advice with Cosmopolitan on what to look out for - and when you should seek medical help.
What are the different types of thyroid conditions?
"The thyroid gland in the neck makes thyroid hormone which is released into the blood to regulate the speed of all the metabolic chemical processes in the body," explains Dr Prentice. "The thyroid can become underactive, overactive, infected or cancerous. It can also become short of Iodine which is essential for its function.
"Blood tests for thyroid hormones can detect all these conditions except thyroid cancer."
What is the most common thyroid problem?
Dr Prentice says the majority of patients will be diagnosed with an underactive thyroid; "where the thyroid only produces low levels of thyroid hormone resulting in hypothyroidism."
Symptoms of this low level of thyroid hormone include:
- Weight gain
- Dry skin
- Heavy periods
- Increased problems with conception and pregnancy
However, there is a cure. A diagnosis from your doctor will lead to you being prescribed with a hormone replacement, which will usually reverse the effects of hypothyroidism.
What is an overactive thyroid gland?
Hyperthyroidism also applies to an overactive thyroid, however the symptoms will be very different. These include:
- Weight loss
- Fast heart rate
- Loose and frequent bowels
It can occasionally lead to more serious heart complications and osteoporosis (thin bones)
"An overactive thyroid can always be effectively treated and cured either by tablets, or a small single radiotherapy dose given in a pill, or surgery to remove the gland or parts of it," says Dr Prentice. "It may be unsafe to treat an overactive gland in pregnancy. So, pregnancy should, if possible, be planned around the thyroid treatment.
"Hyperthyroidism can also be caused by infections of the gland - e.g. a virus which usually will resolve by itself - but sometimes additional medication is needed temporarily to reduce the inflammation. "
Can thyroid issues lead to miscarriages?
"The risk of miscarriage increases with any alteration of the thyroid hormone level, both too low, or too high.
"If a woman has not been diagnosed as having a thyroid condition and has a miscarriage, it is important to check the thyroid hormone blood levels and ideally to treat and correct any abnormality before attempting conception again."
Can an over or underactive thyroid affect my periods?
Very much so. Your thyroid helps control your menstrual cycle, so too much of the thyroid hormone can make your periods light, heavy or irregular - but seeking helping and being provided with the right medication should help.
"Any upset including to the periods will return to a normal state for women after the thyroid levels are normalised," says Dr Prentice.
Can my thyroid affect my weight?
Absolutely - although it's worth noting that sudden weight loss or gain doesn't always mean hyperthyroidism or thyroid issues, and you should consult your doctor who can help diagnose and treat appropriately.
"Any weight loss or gain from a thyroid condition can be reversed by treatment. However, there are many other causes of altered weight which should be investigated if the thyroid tests are normal, in order to exclude other causes and treat them."
Can I take a thyroid function test at home?
No - if you're concerned, book an appointment with your GP, and don't bother picking up a home test; Dr Prentice says they're of "no value".
You may want to consider taking an iodine supplement, however. "Iodine is the essential naturally occurring mineral which is essential for the thyroid gland to make the thyroid hormone (Thyroxine)," explains Dr Prentice."Iodine is mainly found in ordinary milk (less in organic milk), yoghurt and white fish and scampi in the UK."
Consult your doctor before you take the supplement - particularly if you're pregnant. They can advise on the recommended dosage, and ensure you're taking it safely.