Doctors’ Note – May 2024

Dear Southcoast Health Community,

It’s National Women’s Health Month, and we’re taking a closer look at thyroid disease, including thyroid conditions that commonly affect women.

The small, butterfly-shaped thyroid gland is located at the front of the neck. It produces the hormone thyroxine, which helps to regulate many of the body’s functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and metabolism.

Thyroid conditions cause the body to produce either too much or too little of the hormone, which can cause fatigue or restlessness, and potential changes in weight.

“Women are more likely than men to experience thyroid conditions – especially after pregnancy,” says Dr. Amy Anderson, Medical Director and Chief of Endocrinology at Southcoast Physicians Group. In fact, according to the American Thyroid Association, 1 in 8 women will suffer from thyroid illness at some point in their lives and are five to eight times more likely than men to experience them.

The most common thyroid conditions include:

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) occurs when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroxine. Symptoms include fatigue, dry skin, depression, constipation and feeling cold.
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) means the thyroid is producing too much thyroxine. Symptoms include weight loss, anxiety, rapid heartbeat and sweating.
  • Postpartum Thyroiditis can occur after pregnancy when the thyroid becomes inflamed, leading to temporary hyperthyroidism followed by hypothyroidism (also may be temporary).
  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Symptoms can include fatigue, weight gain and cold intolerance. Hashimoto’s may be caused by genetic and other factors such as infection, excess iodine intake and radiation exposure. Hashimoto’s is a leading cause of hypothyroidism in parts of the world that are iodine rich like the United States.
  • Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the thyroid to produce too much hormone (hyperthyroidism). Although rare, women are affected 4 times more often than men. Symptoms include weight loss, rapid heartbeat, nervousness and eye problems. Genetics and triggering factors like stress and infection play a role in Graves’ disease.
  • Thyroid Nodules & Thyroid Cancer are abnormal growths that can develop in the thyroid. Most nodules are non-cancerous, but some may be cancerous or cause hyperthyroidism.

Diagnosis & treatment

If your healthcare provider suspects you have a thyroid condition, they will order blood tests to determine hormone levels in your body. Thyroid scans and ultrasound may also be needed. In the case of Graves’ disease, an eye exam is also recommended. Other tests may include a radioactive iodine uptake test and biopsies, particularly in the case of thyroid nodules.  

Treatments typically include medication to replace missing thyroid hormones or reduce hormone production. Radioactive Iodine Therapy targets and damages overactive thyroid cells and reduces hormone production. It is also used to treat thyroid cancer. In some cases, part or all of the thyroid may need to be surgically removed.

Lifestyle changes also play a significant role in thyroid health. It’s important to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, manage stress and avoid triggers like smoking to help manage symptoms. Be sure to talk to your doctor before making any dietary changes.

The bottom line
“Regular screening and early treatment are essential for managing thyroid disorders in women,” notes Dr. Anderson. “It’s important to consult your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment if you experience persistent symptoms. Regular checkups and staying informed can help all women take proactive steps to maintain their thyroid health.”

Learn more about our endocrinology services here.

Amy Anderson, DO

Medical Director and Chief of Endocrinology