‘Thyroid problems’ is an umbrella term that describes a range of medical conditions associated with the thyroid gland. These conditions include hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid).
An underactive thyroid can result in a person feeling depressed, tired and gaining weight. Whereas an overactive thyroid can make a person hyperactive, irritable, feel anxious and lose weight.
There are other thyroid disorders such as those caused by iodine deficiency leading to goitre, as well as thyroid cancer.
On this page we will explore what the thyroid gland is and introduce the signs and causes of thyroid problems. We will also find out how adopting a healthy thyroid diet can help manage your weight.
What is the thyroid gland?
The thyroid gland, located in the neck, is part of the endocrine system. This a collection of glands all of which produce hormones controlling sexual development, growth, metabolism, energy and mood. Once they reach a particular destination, the hormones bind to proteins called receptors. This causes a response in that particular organ or tissue.
The thyroid gland secretes a group of hormones including thyroxine (T4), and triiodothyronine (T3). These aid regulation of a person’s growth and metabolism. T4 is the inactive precursor to the active thyroid hormone T3, with T3 carrying great influence over the following:
- menstrual cycle
- body temperature
- muscle strength
- heart rate
Signs of thyroid problems
Thyroid disorders tend to run in families and can develop at any age. Yet women in perimenopause and older are most likely to suffer with thyroid problems. Depending on the type of thyroid problem, signs and symptoms will differ. There are, however, key symptoms to look out for which can indicate you may need professional help. These include:
Muscle and joint pain and tendonitis problems
Pain in the muscles and joints, weakness in the arms, and a tendency to develop carpal tunnel can all be signs of thyroid problems. If these ailments persist, you need to make an appointment with your doctor. If they diagnose a thyroid problem you will be referred for appropriate treatment.
Discomfort in the neck
If you feel like your neck is swollen and your voice sounds hoarse, you could have 'goitre'. This is a non-cancerous enlargement of the thyroid gland, primarily caused by iodine deficiency.
Changes to the condition of your hair and skin
Thyroid disorders can have a significant impact on your hair and skin. With hypothyroidism, hair is likely to become coarse, brittle and dry - and may break off and fall out. Skin can also become dry, pale and scaly. In some cases the dryness can be so severe that palms and soles can thicken.
In hyperthyroidism, hair loss can also occur, and skin can become thin and fragile.
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as constipation and diarrhoea are particularly similar to the symptoms of hypothyroidism. It is important to consult your GP and rule out thyroid problems if you are experiencing bowel issues.
Irregular menstruation pattern
Low levels of the active thyroid hormone can cause very light or very heavy menstrual periods. It can also cause very irregular or absent menstrual periods.
If you are trying to lose weight - eating a low-calorie diet and getting plenty of exercise - but are failing to shed the pounds, you could have a thyroid problem. Difficulty losing weight is associated with hypothyroidism. Whilst individuals losing weight too quickly and unexpectedly, could have undiagnosed hyperthyroidism.
Feeling unusually tired and needing naps during the day - despite getting plenty of sleep - could also indicate you have thyroid problems.
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough T3 and T4. This eventually causes the metabolism to function too slowly. Symptoms include sluggishness, weight gain and feelings of depression. To find out more about this condition, please see our hypothyroidism fact-sheet.
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
Hyperthyroidism refers to overactivity of the thyroid gland causing metabolism to function too quickly. This condition causes people to feel hyperactive, overly anxious and experience unexpected weight-loss. You can find out more on our hyperthyroidism fact-sheet.
What causes thyroid problems?
Both conditions can develop for a number of reasons.
An underactive thyroid can be linked to:
- autoimmune disease
- certain medications
- thyroid surgery
- treatment for overactive thyroid problems (hyperthyroidism).
Hyperthyroidism can be linked to:
- an autoimmune disorder (Graves' disease)
- thyroiditis - when the thyroid gland becomes inflamed and is thus unable to produce hormones at a normal rate.
Although a tailored diet isn’t considered helpful to treat thyroid problems, a healthy diet can help manage the weight problems associated with thyroid disorders.
The type of thyroid diet that will be recommended will depend on the nature of your condition (underactive or overactive). It will typically involve a variety of foods to ensure you get plenty of nutrients and maintain a healthy weight. Seeking help from a nutrition professional can be beneficial for making the right food choices for particular thyroid problems. They will be able to devise a tailor-made diet plan to meet your specific needs.
Before you change your diet, you should always consult your GP.
Please follow the links to find out more about hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) and to explore further the benefits of a specific thyroid diet for helping to make living with the condition more acceptable, and easier to manage.
Content reviewed by dietitian, Felicity Lyons. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
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