Thyroids and irregular periods
According to the American Thyroid Association, “More than 12% of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition in their lifetime.” And women are up to eight times more likely to develop a Thyroid condition than men. In fact, if your doctor has ever ordered a blood test because of an issue with your cycle, you’ve likely had your Thyroid hormone levels tested already. But why? What’s the connection between Thyroids and irregular periods?
What is your Thyroid?
Before we jump into how your Thyroid affects your cycle, there’s a lot we need to unpack about your Thyroid. First: What is it?
Your Thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of your neck. It mainly releases two hormones: Thyroxine, AKA T4, and Triiodothyronine, AKA T3. In the medical community, they are often grouped together into a single entity known as Thyroid hormone. This gland is kind of a big deal because it’s responsible for controlling your metabolism.
Quick refresher: Your metabolism is the process your body performs to convert food into energy. Because your Thyroid regulates how and when your body gets energy, it also affects every cell in your body, including your brain, toes, and everything in between. So when it comes to Thyroids and irregular periods, you know they’re definitely linked. But what happens when your Thyroid doesn’t work the way it should?
What are common Thyroid issues?
Like many health conditions, Thyroid issues exist on a spectrum. Mild conditions may not even cause any noticeable symptoms. However, there are two common ones that can wreak havoc on your period.
Hypothyroidism describes someone with an underactive Thyroid. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), approximately 5% of Americans over the age of 12 have Hypothyroidism, but many cases are mild.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism include:
- Weight gain
- Muscle and joint pain
- Sensitivity to the cold
- Slower heart rate
- Thinning hair and dry skin
- Irregular menstrual periods or fertility issues
Hypothyroidism can be congenital or caused by several different things, such as:
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Thyroid inflammation
- Certain medications
- Thyroid radiation treatment
- Thyroid surgery or removal
If you are experiencing symptoms of Hypothyroidism and can point to any of the causes listed above, it’s vital that you see your doctor. To receive an official diagnosis, your healthcare provider will likely want to run several tests, including blood and imaging tests.
Treatment for Hypothyroidism
For many people with Hypothyroidism, treatment involves taking a medication called Levothyroxine in the form of a pill. It’s a synthetic version of the hormones produced by the Thyroid and, once you and your doctor have determined the proper dosage, your Hypothyroidism will likely be completely under control – provided you take the medication as instructed.
That said, getting the levels right can take some time, so don’t expect to feel amazing overnight. And if you’re not up for the synthetic versions, you can also get natural forms — but be warned, they are animal-derived.
You can probably guess that Hyperthyroidism is the opposite and describes someone with an overactive Thyroid, i.e., the Thyroid produces too much of the Thyroid hormone. Comparatively, Hyperthyroidism isn’t as common and only affects about 1% of Americans over the age of 12.
- Difficulty tolerating heat
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shaky hands
- Increased appetite accompanied by weight loss
- Enlarged Thyroid gland, AKA a goiter
- Increased irritability
- Fatigue and difficulty sleeping
- Frequent bowel movements
- Excessive sweating
One of the causes of Hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition that causes your body to attack your Thyroid. Other causes include:
- Incorrect dosage of Thyroid hormone medicine
- Overactive Thyroid nodules
- Thyroiditis, AKA an inflamed Thyroid gland
- Benign tumor on the Pituitary gland
- Excess iodine
Like Hypothyroidism, you should see your doctor to receive an official diagnosis.
Treatment for Hyperthyroidism
Treating Hyperthyroidism can be quite nuanced. Depending on the cause, people with Hyperthyroidism may be prescribed medication or recommended for radioiodine therapy or surgery to remove the Thyroid. After which, replacement T4 will be prescribed. What to know about Thyroids and irregular periods?
Testing your hormone levels
At the most basic level, Thyroid testing involves a simple blood test. Unless you’re deathly afraid of needles, then maybe it’s not so simple. The results can tell your doctor the levels of T3, T4, Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH), and Thyroid antibodies.
If your doctor thinks it’s warranted, they may also do some imaging tests. These tests can include an ultrasound, computed tomography, AKA a CT scan, or a Thyroid uptake test, which involves swallowing iodine and seeing how much your Thyroid takes up.
Depending on the results of blood and imaging tests your doctor will be able to tell if your Thyroid is working properly, the size of your Thyroid, and what might be causing the issues. Aside from a little needle poke and some potential fasting, Thyroid testing is generally painless.
What does my Thyroid have to do with my cycle?
Okay. Now to address the reason you’re here in the first place. What does all of this have to do with my cycle? Remember when we said that the Thyroid affects every cell in your body? This includes other hormone-producing glands, like your Ovaries and Pituitary gland.
The Ovaries are, of course, directly involved in your reproductive system. They produce Estrogen and Progesterone, which are key to fertility and regulating the menstrual cycle. When the Thyroid isn’t working as it should, this can cause irregular cycles, heavy periods, or amenorrhea, AKA lack of menstrual period.
The relationship between the Thyroid and Pituitary Gland, though, is a little more complicated. Your Pituitary gland is located in your brain and is responsible for several different functions, including releasing TSH.
Essentially, this tells your Thyroid when to release Thyroid hormone. Interestingly, research on animals has shown that the Pituitary gland also has Thyroid hormone receptors. Which means we know that the Pituitary gland is targeted and affected by Thyroid hormone.
So, the Pituitary gland affects the Thyroid, which affects the Pituitary gland, which affects the Thyroid… You get the idea. But there’s more… The Pituitary gland also secretes Follicle-Stimulating Hormone, or FSH, and Luteinizing Hormone, or LH, both of which are vital components to maintaining a regulated menstrual cycle. So, imagine what happens when the Thyroid or the Pituitary gland isn’t working quite as it should…
Typical symptoms of Thyroid issues
Thyroid issues can have a huge impact on your menstrual cycle. Here are some of the things you may see. Menstruators with Hypothyroidism may experience the following:
- Absent or irregular periods
- Heavy/lighter periods and/or frequent bleeding
- Fertility issues/frequent miscarriages
Typical menstrual symptoms of Hyperthyroidism include:
- Absent or irregular periods
- Light periods
- Fertility issues/frequent miscarriages
This is because both high and low amounts of TSH and Thyroid hormones can affect Ovarian hormones and ovulation. High levels of TSH may stimulate the Pituitary gland to release Prolactin, which breastfeeding mamas may remember is released when babies suckle. And large amounts of Prolactin can also make your body hit the breaks on Ovulation. That’s part of the reason it can take several months for breastfeeding women to see the return of their periods.
In fact, both over and underactive Thyroids can cause fertility issues. Women with Thyroid conditions also have a higher chance of miscarriage. So, you can see there is considerable overlap between the two conditions. That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor. They can order the appropriate tests and provide an official diagnosis and a treatment plan.
What you can you do?
You can control your diet. Thyroid conditions can sometimes seem completely out of our control. It’s not like having a food intolerance, where you can mitigate most of the symptoms by avoiding certain foods. In many cases, people inherit Thyroid issues or have another condition that affects their Thyroid. However, there is one thing that you can control, and it affects every cell in your body: your diet!
When it comes to Thyroid conditions, the main thing you’ll want to focus on is your iodine intake. Iodine is a mineral commonly found in seaweed, shrimp, tuna, eggs, and dairy products. Iodized table salt is also readily available in grocery stores.
In recent years, iodine has received a bad rap, but iodine is essential for your body. This is because your Thyroid uses iodine to create Thyroid hormone. So, when there’s too much or not enough it affects your Thyroid, naturally.
Most people don’t need to worry too much about how much iodine they get. But people with Thyroid conditions are generally more sensitive to it. Depending on your Thyroid condition, your doctor may recommend increasing or decreasing your iodine intake. For example, people with Hyperthyroidism may want to limit the amount of iodine-rich foods they consume to help mitigate the symptoms of their overactive Thyroid. The opposite may be true if you have Hypothyroidism. Your doctor may encourage you to increase your iodine intake to help your Thyroid create more Thyroid hormone.
In any case, you should always discuss diet changes with your doctor and follow their recommendations. It can also be a good idea to get a second opinion from another reputable source about your specific case.
Thyroids and irregular periods: What now?
Okay, that was a lot. So, let’s sum up the whole Thyroids and irregular periods thing:
- Your Thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck.
- Its main job is to regulate your metabolism, so it affects pretty much everything else in your body.
- Thyroid conditions may be inherited, caused by another condition, or arise without an obvious cause.
- Hypothyroidism describes people with an under-active Thyroid.
- Hyperthyroidism describes an over-active Thyroid.
- Both hypo and hyperthyroidism can affect your menstrual cycle.
- There is considerable overlap between the two conditions, so it’s important to see your healthcare provider.
- Follow your treatment plan as carefully as you can.
- Talk to your doctor about your iodine intake.
- Seek a second opinion, when necessary.