Has your energy been idling on low lately? Or your weight crept up and refused to budge no matter how much you hit the gym or cut carbs? You may blame it on midlife hormone changes, but did you know your thyroid gland could be the culprit? And because those signs of “thyropause” can masquerade as menopause, they often slip under the radar. “Our research shows that almost 11 per cent of women have thyroid issues without knowing it,” says Dr Sonia Davison, endocrinologist from Jean Hailes for Women’s Health. “This means they’re needlessly putting up with uncomfortable symptoms.”
Shaped like a butterfly, your thyroid gland is a small, soft organ that sits at the base of your throat. It works a little like a master switch on your metabolism, releasing hormones that affect your body temperature, energy levels and the speed at which you burn kilojoules. Thyroid hormones also affect your menstrual cycle, appetite, heart and nervous system. According to the Australian Thyroid Foundation, 10 times more women are affected by thyroid problems than men. “Yet it only takes a simple blood test to diagnose thyroid issues,” Dr Davison says. “Once women get treatment – which often involves taking tablets to achieve the right balance of thyroid hormones – troublesome symptoms can be relieved or completely resolved.”
Just as a woman’s hormones can change during perimenopause and menopause, thyroid hormone function can also change at midlife. So make sure you keep an eye out for these classic thyroid symptoms that can mimic menopause:
As you reach your 40s and 50s, menopausal hormone changes can play havoc with your body’s natural thermostat, triggering hot flushes and perspiration at much lower body temperatures than normal. But a drop in oestrogen is not all that could be turning up your body heat. “When your thyroid is overactive, your body is working faster than usual, so your temperature rises and you may feel hotter, perspire more and constantly have flushed cheeks,” says Dr Caroline Thew, consultant endocrinologist at the Women’s Mental Health Clinic at Melbourne’s Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre. If you’ve got the double whammy of hot flushes and overactive thyroid, you may feel like you’re living in a sauna. “Getting the right hormone treatment for both issues can radically improve your quality of life,” Dr Thew says.
Many women complain about developing a muffin top at midlife but, if you’ve also noticed puffy hands, eyes and feet, low thyroid levels may be the culprit. “An underactive thyroid can cause weight gain plus reduced kidney function, so that you don’t filter water as effectively from your system,” Dr Thew says. “Some women also complain that this fluid retention gives them a rounder ‘moon-face’ appearance,” she adds.
“While an underactive thyroid can interfere with ovulation, leading to a much longer menstrual cycle or more erratic periods, an overactive thyroid can cause heavier and more frequent bleeding,” Dr Davison says.
Is your skin so dehydrated you’re having to apply moisturiser three or four times a day? “The thyroid gland produces thyroxine, a hormone that plays a very important role in healthy skin function,” says Dr Eleni Yiasemides, a Sydney-based dermatologist and Mohs Micrographic Surgeon. “When thyroxine levels drop too low, this can cause skin to lose moisture and become dry, itchy and scaly.”
If you’re shedding more hair than usual on your pillow, clothes and in your hairbrush, your thyroid could be slacking off on its job. “Hair loss is often the first sign of thyroid issues,” says David Salinger, Director of the International Association of Trichologists. “Every day you lose about 70 or 80 strands of hair, but underactive thyroid can increase the loss of hair to around 200 strands a day.”
Here’s why. Usually each hair has a growth cycle of about four years, then a three-month resting cycle before it falls out and a new strand starts to grow. “But when you have an underactive thyroid, that growth cycle may be far shorter and the resting stage may occur sooner, so you shed more hair and not just from your head,” David says. “Losing the outer third of your eyebrows is another classic thyroid symptom.” Dull, dry hair can also be due to low thyroid hormones, because you produce less oil from the sebaceous glands in the scalp.
Thinning hair tells a different hormonal story. “This is more likely to be caused by the drop in oestrogen at perimenopause and menopause,” David says. “This can cause around 30 per cent or more of your hair follicles to become smaller. They then produce more fine hair strands, which can make sections of your hair look thinner on your scalp.” To nourish your hair, he suggests eating a range of different-coloured vegetables high in antioxidants, such as vitamins A, E and C.
© Prevention Australia
First published: 24 Jun 2019