Why your thyroid can have such a big impact on your health

Woman touching neck gland to show thyroid health. (Getty Images)
How much do you know about your thyroid health? (Getty Images)

One in 20 people in the UK have a thyroid problem, with women six times more likely to than men, research shows. And yet, not enough of us realise just how much the tiny gland can affect our health.

"The thyroid gland is a small butterfly shaped gland that is situated at the front of your neck, just in front of your windpipe and below your Adam’s apple. It forms a vital part of the endocrine system, a network of glands which are responsible for producing hormones that control metabolism, sexual development, and growth," says Jodie Relf, registered dietitian and spokesperson for MyOva.

"The main role of the thyroid gland is control of the metabolism, the rate at which your body turns food into energy, and therefore influences weight management and appetite regulation."

Sad caucasian senior woman wearing casual clothes sits on couch at home alone feels unhappy because of headache, stress, illness or bad news, she needs rest and sleep
Problems with your thyroid can affect how you feel mentally and physically. (Getty Images)

An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) is where your thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones, with common signs including tiredness, weight gain and feeling depressed.

The NHS states there's no way of preventing an underactive thyroid, as most cases are caused by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland, or by damage to the thyroid from treatments for an overactive thyroid or thyroid cancer).

However, it can be successfully treated by taking daily hormone tablets to replace the hormones your thyroid isn't making, which is why recognising the signs is so important.

Meanwhile, an overactive thyroid (also known as hyperthyroidism, or thyrotoxicosis), is where the thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormones. As these can also affect things like your heart rate and body temperature, having too much of them can cause potentially serious problems. Symptoms include anxiety, mood swings, trouble sleeping, fatigue, heat sensitivity, swelling in your neck, an irregular/unusually fast heart rate, twitching or trembling and weight loss.

An overactive thyroid is usually treatable, with the main treatments including a medicine to stop you producing too much of the hormones, radioiodine treatment (radiotherapy to destroy cells in the thyroid) or surgery. However, if left untreated, this may lead to further issues like eye problems, pregnancy complications and a thyroid storm (a sudden and threatening flare-up).

Mirror image of a pensive senior woman looking at her aging face with a little sadness.
Signs of thyroid issues can be confused with menopause symptoms. (Getty Images)

An important part of recognising a thyroid issue, is being able to distinguish it from other common conditions, including the menopause, which it can be mistaken for.

"Whilst hypothyroidism can occur at any time, it is more common in postmenopausal women when hormone levels are changing," says Dr Dave Nichols, NHS GP and resident doctor at MyHealthChecked.

"There is lots of overlap in how hypothyroidism and the menopause present. Common symptoms such as tiredness, weight gain, constipation, dry skin/hair, muscle aches and low mood are commonly seen in both conditions. Around the menopause women notice a change in their periods which can also be associated with hypothyroidism.

"Whilst the menopause remains a clinical diagnosis, healthcare providers will often order some routine bloods which will include a thyroid profile to ensure an underactive thyroid is not causing any of the patient’s symptoms.

"Additionally, the overlap of symptoms mean women being treated for the menopause or depression could be unaware their thyroid levels aren't right."

Shot of a young woman making a healthy snack with fruit at home
Are you getting all the nutrients you need? (Getty Images)

While the first port of call should be consulting a doctor (and as mentioned, some issues aren't always preventable), there are things you can do to help support your own thyroid health where possible, according to Relf. "A well-rounded lifestyle, and dietary choices play pivotal roles. Whether maintaining a healthy thyroid or addressing an under or overactive thyroid, consider the following..."

  1. Easting a balanced diet: "Prioritise a diverse diet rich in fruits, vegetables, proteins, fibre, and healthy fats. A variety of nutrients supports overall health, including thyroid function"

  2. Consider multivitamins: "In our hectic lives, achieving a perfectly balanced diet can be challenging. A daily multivitamin can fill potential nutritional gaps. However, it's crucial to understand that supplements don't substitute for a well-balanced diet"

  3. Maintain adequate Vitamin D levels: "There's a link between Vitamin D deficiency and thyroid function. During autumn and winter when sunlight is scarce, a daily vitamin D supplement (10mcg) can be beneficial. Those with darker skin tones may need a supplement year-round"

  4. Ensure sufficient iodine intake: "Prolonged low iodine levels can strain the thyroid and lead to a goitre (lump or swelling at the front of the neck). It's especially vital during pregnancy to support the baby's brain development"

Woman choosing greenery and vegetables at farmer market and using reusable eco bag.
Some foods may help or hinder thyroid issues if you don't have the right amount. (Getty Images)

Relf also says there are certain foods you may need to be aware of, especially if you are using thyroid hormone replacement medication. These, the expert explains, include:

"These foods, when consumed in large quantities, can act like an antithyroid drug, negatively impacting the functioning of the thyroid by preventing the thyroid from using iodine. You can still include these foods in your diet but not in large quantities and cooking them helps reduce their impact on the thyroid."

These foods include brussel sprouts, cabbage, turnips, kale, cauliflower and sweetcorn.

"The evidence is mixed, but some research has shown that soya interferes with the absorption of levothyroxine. It’s recommended that you leave a four-hour gap between taking your medication and consuming soya."

"Too much fibre can affect the absorption of levothyroxine, so leave a gap between consuming fibrous foods and your medication. But fibre is an important part of a healthy diet and digestive system so please don’t avoid it."

"This is naturally high in iodine, and although iodine is needed to make thyroxine, consuming it in large quantities can have a negative impact on the thyroid even if you have an underactive thyroid."

"Selenium is a crucial component in the production of thyroid hormones. This can be found in brazil nuts, eggs, legumes, tuna fish and sardines. You should be able to obtain adequate amounts by including these foods in your diet."

"Zinc is a mineral which plays a role in the synthesis of thyroid hormones. This is found in beef, chicken, shellfish and legumes."

woman running outside
Exercise can help support healthy thyroid function. (Getty Images)

Other than considering what you're putting in your body, Relf advises, "Sleep, stress management and exercise are all important components of healthy thyroid function and should therefore not be forgotten.

"Regular exercise promotes overall health and encourages a healthy metabolism. If you are exercising at higher intensities, ensure you are allowing enough time between workouts to rest and recover to avoid this negatively impacting your thyroid health."

For more information on thyroid issues, visit these NHS website pages on an underactive thyroid, an overactive thyroid and thyroid cancer. Speak to your doctor about any unusual symptoms or before making any big changes to your diet and lifestyle.