You’re probably not that familiar with your thyroid gland. But, behind the scenes, this is the little powerhouse that controls your metabolism, regulating your energy, body temperature and weight among other things.
When it stops working the way it should it can trigger a range of symptoms – but unfortunately the list is so random that many of the things you’re likely to experience can all too easily be put down to your age or lifestyle.
This blog is adapted from an article I wrote for Yours magazine.
‘The most common thyroid problem is hypothyroidism, meaning the gland is under-active, or slowing down its production of the hormone thyroxine,’ says Dr Andrew Bates, a physician and endocrinologist at Spire Parkway Hospital in Solihull. ‘It affects women more than men (15 per 1000 compared to one in 1000 men), and is more likely over the age of 50. But both of these facts, together with the typical symptoms – dry skin, weight gain, lethargy and sensitivity to cold – may be mistaken for symptoms of your menopause.
‘Usually it’s caused by an autoimmune disorder,’ says Dr Bates. ‘You could be born with a predisposition to it, but then something (usually unknown) will trigger the change that causes you to go slow.’
So – top advice – don’t just ignore symptoms or try to treat them yourself. ‘Ask your GP to check your thyroid. This will usually involve a blood test to measure levels of your Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH),’ says Dr Bates. ‘It’s a good early screening test and will flag up whether or not you have a problem, but you may then need further tests for the thyroid hormones free T4 and free T3.
‘After that, treatment is with thyroxine, to replace the hormone your body isn’t making. It should be side effect free, as long as it’s being regularly monitored by your GP, because you are just putting back what your body is missing. The only problems are if you are being under-treated, and not feeling the benefits; or if you’re on too high a dose, which can trigger problems with your heart and bones – and this is why monitoring matters so much.’
Typical signs of an underactive thyroid include:
- Dry skin
- Dry, brittle nails
- Pale skin and lips
- Slow speech
- Swollen eyelids
- Cold skin
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Decreased sweating
Weight loss, despite eating more, can be a sign of an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). Hyperthyroidism is much less common than hypothyroidism, but it also causes random symptoms – many of them overlapping with those of an underactive gland. For example you may be very tired.
Getting your mojo back
You could start to feel better within a few weeks, although it can be a full year before you’re really back to normal.
In this time you should expect to get your energy back, and also to lose the weight you’ve gained once your metabolism is revving at full throttle again. ‘But thyroxine isn’t a magic bullet for weight loss – you still have to make sure you’re not consuming more calories than you’re burning, so eating sensibly is essential,’ says Dr Bates.
Look after yourself
You should also try to look after your health generally, to keep your thyroid happy, says Judy Watson, a nutritionist with a special interest in hypothyroidism.
Stress can trigger thyroid problems so recognise when you’re under pressure and try to take your foot off the accelerator. ‘Cutting back on processed foods, sugar and white flour will help you cope better with stress; and try to eat more fish, seaweed snacks, goat’s milk and strawberries – they’re all good sources of iodine, which supports the thyroid gland. Selenium – found in highest quantities in Brazil nuts – is also very thyroid friendly.’
If you’ve assumed your symptoms are a result of your menopause, you could be shooting yourself in the foot by trying to boost oestrogen levels with lots of soya foods, says Judy. ‘If the problem is really an underactive thyroid, and you haven’t had it diagnosed, soya can block both iodine and thyroxine, making your symptoms worse. Even if you’re taking thyroxine as a medicine, soya can block it – so beware.
‘I also recommend avoiding peanuts, millet and brassica greens (eg brussel sprouts), which contain goitergens which slow down the thyroid.
‘You should also avoid the trend for detoxing or fasting which can slow down your thyroid gland even more. Three sensible meals a day is a better way to shift