This little-talked about gland impacts your hormones, metabolism and brain function. Here’s everything you need to know about your thyroid…
Alongside the posts about menstrual cycles and mobility, the health pages on Instagram have started to talk about a small but mighty part of the body: our thyroids. Maybe you’ve scrolled past the videos too, detailing thyroid-health nutrition and exercise tips in reels or carousels.
It might sound like a random part of the body for the wellness community to get on board with, but they’re chiming in for a reason: thyroid health isn’t discussed enough. And a better understanding of it is actually crucial for women; we are 10 times more likely to suffer from thyroid issues than men, and the way our high-stress world is set up isn’t conducive to it performing at its best.
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Of course, we shouldn’t be taking everything we read on social media as gospel. So to work out what we really need to know about the gland, we turned to two hormone experts.
What exactly is your thyroid?
“The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, located just in front of the windpipe,” explains Dr Marion Gluck, hormone specialist and founder of The Marion Gluck Clinic. “The gland produces thyroid hormones called thyroxine and T3. These act on nearly every cell in the body to regulate metabolism, energy levels and sensitivity to other hormones in the body, such as oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone.”
The thyroid can be seen as a thermostat for the body, says Nicki Williams, a nutritionist and women’s health and hormones expert. “It can turn processes like metabolism, energy, temperature and alertness up or down, depending on what is needed and how well the gland is functioning,” she explains.
A thyroid that isn’t working can lead to thyroid dysfunction – if it is underactive it is known as hypothyroidism; if it is overactive it’s known as hyperthyroidism.
What can cause thyroid issues?
You don’t only need to be conscious of your thyroid if you have a diagnosed problem with it. We all need to support its function just as with every other element of our body, from our muscles to our brain health.
It’s important to know that issues are often genetic, so an underactive or overactive thyroid isn’t necessarily down to your lifestyle – and diagnosed thyroid illnesses aren’t fixable through food or exercise. But lifestyle habits can have an impact on the gland for those who simply want to support its function and feel better, says Williams.
“Many different nutrients are needed for our thyroid hormones to be produced and work properly – a deficiency can impact thyroid function,” she explains. These include iodine, tyrosine, selenium, copper, zinc, iron, essential fatty acids, vitamin A and vitamin D.
It isn’t a solo worker in the body, either – just as thyroid hormones impact every cell, other hormones also impact the thyroid.
“The adrenal glands – which produce hormones such as cortisol and oestrogen – rely on the thyroid gland for support. Overburdened adrenal glands can then cause an overworked thyroid, too,” says Dr Gluck. So living in a constant state of stress with skyrocketing cortisol is a disaster for thyroid function – yet we all do it more often than we’d like.
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Dr Gluck adds that the relationship between oestrogen and thyroxine is also important. “Oestrogen dominance can stop the conversion of thyroxine into T3 thyroid hormone. This means that although there is not a direct issue with the thyroid gland, symptoms of hypothyroidism will be experienced. Too much oestrogen can also block the uptake of thyroid hormones, once again leading to symptoms of hypothyroidism.”
What are the signs of thyroid dysfunction?
“As thyroid hormones travel to every cell in the body, an imbalance can have a wide range of symptoms,” says Williams.
An underactive thyroid is associated with a slowing down of body functions, like lethargy or fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest, brain fog and unexplained weight gain. Other symptoms might include susceptibility to cold weather, depression, dry skin, hair and nails, aching muscle and joints, constipation and sensitivity to stress.
An overactive thyroid is more to do with a ramping up of processes. They might include anxiety, heart palpitations, unexplained weight loss, high blood pressure, sweating, panic attacks and swollen glands.
“Symptoms can be confused with other common signs of ageing or hormone imbalance, so it’s important to get your thyroid checked regularly,” says Williams. “Ensure you are tested for the full pathway for thyroid health – TSH, freeT4, freeT3 and thyroid antibodies for a full overview of thyroid health.”
Dr Gluck also notes that these symptoms can often be mistaken. “In my experience, women with thyroid problems can often be misdiagnosed and put on antidepressants if the symptoms are similar. And women with oestrogen dominance are often unnecessarily put on thyroxine. With thorough testing, this misdiagnosis can be avoided,” she says.
How to support your thyroid health
If you are worried about having thyroid dysfunction, make sure you see your GP. It’s crucial to get the correct diagnosis, and hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism also need to be managed through medication. If you are well but just want to support the function of your thyroid gland, you can do so with simple tweaks:
Check your diet
- Include plenty of protein: “Protein breaks down to amino acids, one of which is tyrosine, needed to make thyroid hormone,” says Williams.
- Support insulin levels by balancing carbohydrates with fats and proteins: “Excessive insulin is linked to suppressed thyroid function,” she adds.
- Eat a wide variety of nutrients: in particular, iron (from red meat and leafy greens), iodine (found in nori seaweed) and zinc (like shellfish, whole grains, nuts and seeds).
- Reduce caffeine: “This can cause excess stress on the adrenal glands and impact thyroid function,” says Dr Gluck.
“For thyroid health, relaxation is important. Do something every day to reduce your stress, even if it’s just some deep breathing,” says Williams. That also means tapping into your exercise routine to get the best de-stressing results.
“Physical activity can increase your metabolism and help transport nutrients to your cells and endocrine glands to support thyroid function. But if you think your thyroid needs some extra support, I’d try to avoid particularly taxing exercise that stresses the body and instead focus on lower intensity resistance work, walking, yoga or pilates,” Williams adds.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).