The thyroid is a relatively small gland in your neck, but because it governs the body’s metabolism, it can have a huge impact on the way you feel.
For example, have you ever felt really sluggish but just chalked it up to stress? You could be experiencing a typical symptom of an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, which is the most common type of thyroid disease. “If you have a six-cylinder car, it’s like running on four cylinders,” says Dr. Peter Singer, an endocrinologist in Los Angeles. “Basically, it’s slowing down.” But because fatigue is often a vague symptom, lots of women overlook it or rationalize it away.
“It doesn’t hurt to have a TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test every year, and certainly if there is a first-degree relative with a history of thyroid disease,” says Dr. R. Mack Harrell, an endocrinologist in Hollywood, Fla.
If you do exhibit signs of thyroid disease, your doctor may also opt to run one of several other thyroid tests to get a better sense of how your thyroid is functioning. The T3 (Triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine) tests both examine the production of certain thyroid hormones, while the radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) test can also aid in evaluating thyroid function.
Here are some other surprising signs of thyroid disease:
Heart palpitations. Frequently feeling like your heart is pounding, racing or beating irregularly—to a degree that can’t be explained by just an extra-strong cup of coffee—could indicate hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, which occurs in about 1 percent of all women, according to the Endocrine Society. You may also notice a tremor in your hands.
Irritability or anxiety. These symptoms often go hand-in-hand with the jittery feeling hyperthyroidism, most often caused by Graves’ disease, can elicit.“It’s being amped up, the fight-or-flight reaction,” Singer says. If you’re feeling irrationally short or stressed out, and it can’t be explained by your lifestyle, talk to your doctor.
Swelling in the neck. An enlarged thyroid gland is often the first sign of Hashimoto’s disease, also known as autoimmune thyroiditis. This condition, the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the U.S., causes the immune system to attack the thyroid. The resulting inflammation can also lead to a hoarse voice.
Weight gain. Obviously you can’t blame just any extra pounds on an underactive thyroid, but in some cases, women do begin putting on extra weight because their thyroid is not producing enough hormones to maintain their metabolism. On the flip side, if you’re unexpectedly losing weight, that could be a sign that your thyroid is overactive.
Hot flashes. You may think you’re just going through “the change,” but an increased sensitivity to heat and excessive sweating could be symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Older women are less likely to develop an overactive thyroid than younger women, but when they do, heat intolerance is often a symptom. If it doesn’t feel like your typical hot flash, or you’re relatively sure it’s not menopause, get it checked out.