Deep in the lower part of the neck is a small butterfly-shaped gland that produces a hormone that influences every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. It’s called the thyroid gland, which is the great and powerful Oz behind the curtain — unseen but mighty. The thyroid gland is heavily involved in nearly every bodily function, affecting your metabolism, weight, energy, and sometimes your mood, heart rate, digestive function, body-temperature regulation, digestive health, bone health, brain function, and so much more.
Yet most of us don’t give our thyroid gland much thought — that is, until something goes wrong. “People find out how important the thyroid is when it doesn’t function properly — when it’s overactive or underactive,” notes Christian Nasr, MD, medical director of the Thyroid Center at the Endocrine and the Metabolism Institute at The Cleveland Clinic. “It can happen so slowly that they don’t realize it. And it’s a more common problem than many people realize: An estimated 20 million Americans, most of them women, have a thyroid disorder, yet as many as 60 percent of them don’t realize it, according to the American Thyroid Association.
The problem: “Not everyone’s body has the classic, textbook symptoms of thyroid disease — sometimes symptoms of thyroid dysfunction can be subtle,” explains Ayla Bakar, MD, a clinical endocrinologist with Northwestern Medicine in the great Chicago area. “Initially, the body is very good at adapting, so symptoms may not be noticeable at first.”
Here’s what to look out for:
“Almost all of the symptoms of hypothyroidism are non-specific,” says Laura Ryan, MD, an associate clinical professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at The Ohio University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. As a result, a woman may blame these symptoms on factors like stress or aging before suspecting her thyroid.
But if you’re experiencing fatigue, weight gain, slow reaction time, poor concentration, brain fog, depression, constipation, feeling constantly cold, dry skin, hair loss, irregular periods, and muscle pain or weakness, you may have hypothyroidism, which means your thyroid is under active. The most common cause of hypothyroidism in the US is Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid so it can’t make enough thyroid hormones.
Moody? Can’t sleep?
With hyperthyroidism, the thyroid gland is overactive, which can cause various bodily functions to speed up. “It’s kind of like drinking way too much coffee — you feel revved up,” Dr. Ryan notes, but eventually, fatigue sets in. Other symptoms can include nervousness, irritability, increased warmth or sweating, difficulty sleeping, weight loss, muscle weakness, tremors, heart palpitations, more frequent bowel movements, menstrual irregularities, and skin changes.
Sometimes an over- or underactive thyroid shows up as a goiter — and enlargement of the gland. Goiters are often painless, but they can cause a cough or difficulty swallowing or breathing.
Feel better fast!
If you suspect a thyroid problem, your doctor can run tests to check it. The good news: Because the gland regulates so many functions, when it’s rebooted, everything improves. Women experience improved energy, clarity, and mood while also reporting less pain and deeper sleep.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.