Learn about the link between the thyroid gland and metabolism.
Most people know that the most effective way to lose weight is through a low-calorie diet and increased exercise. When those lifestyle changes don’t seem to be making a dent in the waistline, many people wonder, “Could I have an underactive thyroid?”
This butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck plays a role in the function of nearly every system of the body through the creation of thyroid hormones. It is heavily involved in metabolism – the process by which the body converts food into energy. Produce too little thyroid hormone (triiodothyronine and thyroxine), and your metabolism slows down, leading to fewer calories burned and for some people, extra pounds. But it’s important to understand the real impact.
“An underactive thyroid is usually not responsible for as much extra weight as people think – or in some cases hope,” notes Dr. Kay Lovig, Chief of Endocrinology at White Plains Hospital. “Hypothyroidism can contribute to an extra five to ten pounds on average.”
Additionally, unless the weight gain comes with other symptoms, it’s probably not a thyroid problem, according to the American Thyroid Association, and you may have to ramp up activity and further refine your diet.
Why the thyroid is so important
“Thyroid hormones act on every organ in your body, as well as your skin and cells, so symptoms that it is not functioning properly can really run the gamut, and can be vague,” says Dr. Lovig. “If you feel off and are not really sure what the cause is, ruling out the function of the thyroid is pretty simple to do through bloodwork, and I think there’s a lot of value in doing that.”
In addition to changes in weight, symptoms of an improperly functioning thyroid may include:
- Changes to your skin and general appearance. Your face is puffy or your skin is dry or irritated.
- Mood swings, feeling tired or depressed, anxious or nervous
- Feeling too hot or too cold, especially in the toes and fingers
- You skipped your period but aren’t pregnant
The thyroid can also produce too much hormone, called hyperthyroidism, which may lead to weight loss, explains Dr. Lovig. But 30% of patients with hyperthyroidism will experience weight gain too. Hashimoto’s disease is another common thyroid condition, an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system creates antibodies that damage your thyroid gland. There is even some evidence that viruses including COVID-19 can inflame the thyroid, leading to issues, but more data is needed to confirm that connection. Consulting with an endocrinologist is the best way to get to the bottom of the issue and determine the best course of treatment.
Who is at risk?
Thyroid issues tend to increase with age, although the exact connection is unclear. One in eight women will develop a thyroid condition in their lifetime – far more than men. Most primary care physicians will include thyroid function tests as part of routine bloodwork. Should an issue be determined, an overactive or underactive thyroid and the associated symptoms are easy to treat with medication.
With a promising new year ahead, it is the perfect time to pay attention to any warning signs and learn about the important role this gland plays in your overall health.