10 Common Myths About Thyroid Disease You Probably Believe
Thyroid problems are very common: An estimated 20 million Americans live with some form of thyroid disease, such as hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, Graves' disease, or Hashimoto's thyroiditis. (Some experts say that if you're a woman over the age of 35, then your odds of developing a thyroid disorder are more than 30%.) Lots of things can trigger thyroid problems, including genetics, an autoimmune attack, pregnancy, stress, nutritional deficiencies, or toxins in the environment, but experts aren't entirely sure.
Diagnosing thyroid problems is very challenging; symptoms are often vague and nonspecific, such as fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Perhaps that's why the butterfly-shaped endocrine gland remains one of the most misunderstood parts of the body. Here, thyroid experts separate fact from fiction.
Myth: If you have a thyroid problem, you'll definitely know it
Fact: “Thyroid-related symptoms can be present in many different medical conditions,” says Dorothy Fink, MD, endocrinologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Common symptoms include extreme fatigue (even after a full night's rest), brain fog, anxiety, heart palpitations, dry skin, and high blood pressure. Dr. Fink says thyroid disorders are often misdiagnosed in women in particular because other female-specific, hormone-related conditions can have similar symptoms, including premenstrual dysphoric disorder, perimenopause, or menopause. Simply being overweight can create symptoms that mirror those of thyroid diseases as well, Dr. Fink notes.
Myth: Only older women can develop thyroid problems
Fact: Thyroid disease can affect men and women at any age. However, women do have a higher chance of developing a thyroid problem, says Dr. Fink.
“I have tons of young women with thyroid conditions,” she says. “Your genetics plus environmental factors are usually what tip someone over into developing an autoimmune-related underactive or overactive thyroid condition. It can present across any age, but it has a predilection for women.”
Christian Nasr, MD, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says women are more likely to develop thyroid conditions because they have higher estrogen levels than men. “Estrogen makes the cells more visible to the immune system, so women tend to be more affected by all thyroid conditions—hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, nodules, and thyroid cancer,” Dr. Nasr says.
Myth: Consuming extra iodine will improve your thyroid health
Fact: Your thyroid needs iodine to function properly—but most Americans have no problem getting enough of it. Taking supplements or eating a ton of seaweed could actually do your thyroid more harm than good, Dr. Fink says. Excess iodine can trigger thyroid dysfunction: “If you don’t have the proper mechanisms working in your thyroid to shut it down when it’s overdosed on iodine, it will turn into this iodine-using factory and keep churning through all this iodine and make too much thyroid hormone,” she says. “It can cause an overactive thyroid if you really overdose on it.”
Myth: Gluten sensitivity can trigger thyroid disease
Fact: “Graves' disease and thyroid cancer are not going to get better by staying away from gluten,” says Dr. Nasr. “If someone has a family history of Hashimoto’s or hypothyroidism—because that’s the strongest factor—it likely won’t make a difference.”
However, Dr. Nasr says celiac disease is common in people with autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s and Graves'. If you’re someone who has both a thyroid condition and a gluten sensitivity, it makes sense to remove gluten from your diet—just don’t expect your thyroid to improve because of your diet restrictions. “The antibodies from the thyroid do not come down and become normal on a gluten-free diet,” says Dr. Fink. “We don’t treat based on an antibody level. If your antibody level and thyroid condition is positive, it’s positive.”
Myth: Doing headstands will alleviate your thyroid disease symptoms
Fact: There's a myth that doing headstands or other inverted yoga poses alleviates thyroid disease symptoms by increasing blood flow to the gland. And sure, yoga can strengthen the body and soothe mind, but the truth is, no number of downward dogs will cure your thyroid condition or prevent one from occurring. Still, Dr. Fink and Dr. Nasr say if inversions make you feel healthy, go for it. Plus, daily yoga could help your symptoms in other ways. “I would assume someone who is doing yoga is less stressed," says Dr. Fink, "and losing weight would benefit because if you weigh less, you can take less thyroid hormone.”
Myth: If you have a lump on your neck, you definitely have a thyroid problem
Fact: A lump on the neck is not necessarily a goiter (enlarged thyroid). “While the thyroid is the most common thing that can enlarge in your neck, there are a lot of other things in the neck besides the thyroid,” says Dr. Fink.
Other causes of a neck lump could be a swollen lymph node or cyst. Either way, Dr. Fink recommends you get any neck lumps checked out by your doctor, who will evaluate the problem (or lack thereof) with a quick exam and order up ultrasounds or CT scans, if necessary.
Myth: If you're tired and gaining weight, there's definitely something wrong with your thyroid
Fact: “The symptoms of an underactive thyroid are very non-specific, meaning they can present with many different conditions,” says Dr. Fink. “I always tell patients I’m looking at them as a whole person, not as just their thyroid gland, even though they may come to me saying they have a thyroid problem."
For female patients, Dr. Fink first looks at the menstrual cycle, which often causes symptoms similar to those found in thyroid disease patients. “Symptoms like fatigue and weight gain can come up with a thyroid condition or with a menstrual cycle,” says Dr. Fink. “One good trick is to find a good app to track your period and that can help us sometimes understand their bodies better and the daily fluctuation of hormones.” If your period isn’t to blame for tiredness or a few extra pounds, Dr. Fink says a TSH test is the next step in diagnosing a true thyroid condition.
Myth: Thyroid disease is easy to treat
Fact: Thyroid conditions aren’t "easy" to treat, but treatment isn’t that complicated either, says Dr. Fink. She says most people with thyroid disease are prescribed medication to replace T4, one type of thyroid hormone that a faulty thyroid is unable to produce on its own. Then, the thyroid gland is able to convert the T4 into T3, the other needed hormone, on its own—even in someone with a thyroid condition.
Dr. Fink says patients only encounter problems when they ask for a T3 medication, too. “A lot of stuff online talks about giving T3 and it gets very complicated because when you give someone the T3. It goes in the body and comes almost straight out,” she says. “It almost gives people a high, and lot of people can get addicted to it.” To make matters worse, Dr. Fink says T3 prescriptions can lower the thyroid’s ability to produce T4 on its own, resulting in an overactive thyroid.
Myth: Removing metallic foods and elements from your diet can alleviate thyroid problems
Fact: Avoiding processed foods is always a smart move, says Dr. Fink. At the same time, there’s no convincing research that suggests you need to obsess over the metals you’re consuming, so don’t toss your copper and steel pots and pans just yet.
The same goes for those silver fillings your dentist put in your mouth: “I can’t say based on what I know now that this will predispose you to a thyroid condition. I wouldn’t suggest going to the dentist and getting your fillings removed for this purpose,” says Dr. Fink.
Myth: If you eat any soy-based products, your thyroid won’t function properly
Fact: Soy does have an affect on the thyroid, but hypothyroid tofu lovers don’t need to totally abstain from soy-based foods to maintain healthy hormone levels.
Dr. Fink says soy, when eaten often, can decrease absorption of the prescribed thyroid hormones hypothyroid patients need. "In general, I tell patients with hypothyroidism they don’t need to completely avoid these things, but overdosing on them could create an issue,” she says.
So, what does the doc recommend for soy eaters? “People can have their thyroid medicine in the morning and have tofu for dinner a few times a week and be totally fine,” Dr. Fink says.