The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that produces the thyroid hormone. For most people, they don’t even know what the thyroid does until they have a problem with it. The thyroid is responsible for all metabolic actions, in every cell of the body. If the thyroid is underactive it does not produce enough hormones to regulate the major bodily functions it is responsible for. Women are also more likely to suffer from hypothyroidism than men.
Women are disproportionately affected by hypothyroidism and the risk of diagnosis only increases with age. However, because symptoms are gradual and they can be confused with a myriad of other ailments, most women are left misdiagnosed or undiagnosed and their hypothyroidism is left untreated.
Hypothyroidism can be caused by many reasons either during or after pregnancy. Iodine intake is crucial to thyroid functioning and during pregnancy iodine requirements are higher than usual. Hormonal fluctuations can also cause the thyroid to malfunction. Some women even carry antibodies designed to attack their thyroid after birth, leading to a potentially permanent condition.
Eating disorders are worryingly common. A significant number of women will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders and the complications that arise from them can lead to hypothyroidism. The thyroid reduces its function as an adaptation to the malnutrition.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism appear gradually and are often also symptoms one would expect of ageing or stress and so are often misidentified as the menopause or other mild conditions. Symptoms such as weight gain or depression are often treated as a standalone issue rather than a sign of something else. Genetic predispositions and family medical histories can hint to thyroid issues and it is important to get tested for them if there is any doubt.
Reduced levels of thyroid hormone can interfere with ovulation and impair fertility. The thyroid hormone directly affects the regulation of ovulation and the menstrual cycle. Becoming pregnant whilst suffering from hypothyroidism can produce risks for foetal development and carrying the baby to term. It is important to be closely monitored at all stages of fertility and pregnancy.
Hypothyroidism is most common in women and the risk of developing it only increases with age, with women over 60 being the largest group. As the symptoms of hypothyroidism can be confused for common signs of ageing and menopause it is important to be tested for everything if there is any doubt to the origin of symptoms.
The thyroid gland produces a hormone called T4 which is not usable by the body; it has to be converted into T3 which is then used by the body. Hypothyroidism happens when this conversion ceases to work. A full thyroid panel should check the function of all of these hormones. Hypothyroidism can be treated effectively with medication, although medication will often have to be taken for the rest of your life it is important to be on the right medication for you.