How — and Why — Thyroid Diseases Disproportionately Affect Women

Thyroid diseases are more common in women — and they cause gender-specific symptoms.

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The thyroid may be tiny, but its role in the body is mighty. The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that’s responsible for controlling the way your body uses energy. It secretes hormones that affect everything from your heart rate to your body temperature to how fast you’re able burn off that burger you had for lunch.

Anyone with a thyroid—which is everyone, unless it’s been surgically removed—has the potential to develop a thyroid problem. For women, however, the odds are much, much greater. Women are five to eight times more likely to have a thyroid problem than men, according to the American Thyroid Association.

Common Thyroid Diseases in Women

Thyroid disorders range in type and severity for all genders, but there are some that appear to be more common in women. These thyroid diseases are:

  • Hypothyroidism, when the thyroid gland makes too little hormone
  • Hyperthyroidism, when the thyroid makes too much hormone
  • Thyroiditis, especially postpartum thyroiditis, which is inflammation of the thyroid gland
  • Goiter, which is an abnormally enlarged thyroid gland
  • Thyroid nodules, which is swelling in one section of the thyroid gland
  • And thyroid cancer, when cancer cells form in the tissues of the thyroid gland.

How Thyroid Disease Symptoms Affect Women

Thyroid problems are not only more common in women, but some of the symptoms they cause are gender-specific. That’s because functions of the thyroid have a lot to do with a woman’s reproductive system, often affecting the menstrual cycle, ovulation, and pregnancy.

In women, thyroid diseases may:

  • Cause irregular, light, or heavy menstrual periods or even stop flow altogether for months (amenorrhea).

  • Lead to early menopause (before age 40), if your body’s immune system caused the thyroid disease. (Here’s how to know if you’re going through menopause.)

  • Make it harder to get pregnant, especially with hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. When the hormone imbalance from thyroid disease affects the menstrual cycle, it also impacts ovulation.

  • Cause health problems during pregnancy. Having untreated hyperthyroidism or hyperthyroidism during pregnancy can cause health problems for mom and baby, including:

— Problems with baby’s growth, development, and health
— Low birth weight
— Miscarriage or stillbirth
— Or preeclampsia, a serious syndrome in a pregnant woman causing high blood pressure and kidney and organ problems.

If you are trying to have a baby, is it important to check for thyroid problems before getting pregnant. When you’re pregnant, your thyroid hormone levels elevate naturally, because thyroid hormones help with the baby’s brain development. It can be harder to detect thyroid issues once you are pregnant because of the normal change in hormones that happen during pregnancy.

Why Are Women More Likely to Have Thyroid Problems?

Little is known about what causes thyroid issues in all genders, but some risk factors may hint at why the condition’s prevalence weighs more heavily on women:

  • Having an autoimmune disease—such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus—is a risk factor for developing a thyroid disease. Autoimmune diseases are also much more common in women than they are in men.

  • Having been pregnant, especially within the past 6 months, is another risk factor for both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.

Regular screenings aren’t recommended for thyroid disease, but if you’re having hyperthyroid or hypothyroid symptoms, especially if you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s wise to see a doctor. Health complications caused by untreated thyroid disorders can be avoided with proper treatment.