Always Tired? Your Thyroid May Be to Blame

The thyroid is a small gland with a big job. Here's what you need to know about it.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 21, 2015
2 min read

In today's you-can-do-it-all culture, it's hard to find a woman who doesn't feel tired. But it might not be a side effect of multitasking.

An estimated 20 million Americans have some kind of thyroid disease, and women are five to eight times more likely than men to have a thyroid problem. Even more surprising? Sixty percent of those with an issue go undiagnosed for years.

"Women especially have such busy lives and often think it's normal to be tired all the time. It's hard for them to know when it's a real problem," says Nancy Simpkins, MD, a board-certified internist.

Here's what you need to know.

Your thyroid is the mastermind of your body. This relatively small hormone-producing gland in the middle of your lower neck has a really big job. "It controls all of your bodily functions by sending messages to every organ in the body," Simpkins says.

"If your thyroid isn't functioning well, it can throw your whole system off."

Hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism? "The first means your thyroid gland is not producing enough thyroid hormone. Hyperthyroidism happens when your thyroid gland produces too much," says Melanie Goldfarb, MD, an endocrine surgeon. "Hypothyroidism is by far the most common."

Hypothyroidism feels a lot like jet lag. If you're walking around every day feeling like you just got off a transatlantic flight, you probably should get your thyroid checked, Simpkins says.

"Most patients say they just feel sluggish or as if they're walking around in a trance," she says.

Other symptoms include weight gain, chronic constipation, and hair loss.

Thyroid disease is often mistaken for depression. "People with underactive thyroid often can't seem to get moving -- and it can feel a lot like depression," Simpkins says. Talk to your doctor. If you take antidepressants, they may need to be switched out for thyroid medication.

Should I be screened for thyroid disease? You and your doctor can decide when a test makes sense for you. Also, make sure your doctor is aware of all the medications you take. Some can affect thyroid test results.

Can you feel for any changes in my thyroid? Your doctor should touch your neck every year to look for changes. Thyroid disease -- and thyroid cancer -- will often change the size, shape, and contour of the gland.

Could the underlying cause of my symptoms be my thyroid? If you have any unexplained symptoms such as fatigue, depression, or infertility, mention them if your doctor doesn't ask.

What are my treatment options? If you do have thyroid disease, discuss next steps -- whether you need an ultrasound, if you need to see a specialist, what medications could help, and how long it will take to get the disease under control.

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