The thyroid gland plays a vital role in regulating our metabolism, from managing how quickly we burn calories to helping our brain, heart and other organs function properly. 

It affects nearly every organ in your body by controlling how your body uses energy. 

To draw an analogy, the thyroid is the staff member who works tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the business running efficiently while the big showy players like the heart and brain get all the attention and recognition! 

Of course, like any worthy enterprise, the maintenance of the body is a group effort but this small organ remains an unsung hero of the endocrine system – a network of glands that releases different hormones into your body.

The thyroid affects nearly every organ in your body; it is the unsung hero of the endocrine system. #thyroid #endocrine system #hormones Click To Tweet


What is the thyroid gland?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits in front of your windpipe (trachea) and just below the Adam’s apple (larynx). It secretes hormones into your bloodstream that contain iodine, playing a significant role in controlling your body’s metabolism. 

The thyroid gland helps regulate:

  • growth
  • brain development
  • digestive function
  • muscle control
  • how fast you burn calories
  • heart rate
  • mood/wellbeing
  • body temperature


Hypo, hyper – whoa, this sounds the same – but different!

Two of the most common thyroid problems are complex autoimmune disorders. Both have some symptoms that are the exact opposite but they also share symptoms in common.

No wonder people get confused about the thyroid. 

After reading our list of symptoms, you may be convinced you have both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism! If that’s the case, read on, because we explain the differences below.


Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid)

Hypothyroidism, which is effectively an underactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid isn’t producing enough thyroid hormones. As a result, the body’s metabolism slows down. 

It’s the most common thyroid condition in Australia.

While thyroid problems can affect people from infancy through to adulthood – it’s most common in older women. Hypothyroidism is estimated to affect six to 10% of women, with it becoming more prevalent as women age – affecting up to 25% of women over the age of 65. 

The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease. It occurs when antibodies from the immune system attack the thyroid and destroy the gland, reducing its ability to produce hormones. Hashimoto’s disease – which can run in families – can also cause goitre, a condition that enlarges the thyroid.

Other causes of hypothyroidism include iodine deficiency, medications (such as lithium) and radiotherapy for cancer for the head and neck. Treatment for hyperthyroidism can also result in hypothyroidism. 

The symptoms of hypothyroidism can read like a shopping list of non-specific characteristics. 

Symptoms can include:

  • feeling unnaturally cold
  • constipation 
  • muscle weakness and stiffness
  • fluid retention (oedema)
  • high blood pressure
  • elevated blood cholesterol levels 
  • loss of appetite or unexplained weight gain
  • feeling down
  • fatigue
  • dry skin, dry thinning hair or brittle nails
  • slow heartbeat 
  • less sweating than usual 
  • swollen face 
  • hoarse voice 
  • heavier than usual menstrual bleeding
  • poor memory and concentration
  • enlarged thyroid gland (goitre)

Symptoms will vary from individual to individual. For some, the onset of symptoms is gradual and can take years while for others there is an immediate impact. 

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can increase the risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease.

More women than men are susceptible to hypothyroidism and the prevalence rises with age.  #hypothyroidism #womenshealth #underactivethyroid #hashimotosdisease Click To Tweet


Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid)

Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid, is a condition where the thyroid gland produces more thyroid hormones than you need. It’s the opposite of hypothyroidism, however, the two conditions can share some common symptoms.

The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease where your antibodies attack the thyroid gland and push it into “overdrive”. 

Graves’ disease is more common in women than men, and in people between the ages of 20 and 50 years. Like Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease can also run in families.

Other causes of hyperthyroidism include excessive iodine intake, inflammation of the thyroid or a thyroid tumour.

Symptoms can include:

  • increased appetite or unexplained weight loss 
  • anxiety, irritability and mood swings
  • sleep problems
  • feeling hot or excessive sweating
  • fatigue
  • muscle weakness or hand tremors
  • rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • diarrhoea
  • dry skin or thinning hair
  • menstruation changes including decreased and sporadic flow
  • enlarged thyroid (goitre)

Graves’ disease can also be characterised by eye swelling, protruding eyeballs and double vision.  

Hyperthyroidism explained #hyperthyroidismsymptoms #hyperthyroidism #gravesdisease #seeyourdoctor Click To Tweet


Other thyroid problems

Less common problems of the thyroid gland include nodules (non-cancerous lumps inside the thyroid) and cancerous tumours, which may have been triggered by certain genetic disorders.


Diagnosing and treating common thyroid conditions

If you have any concerns about your thyroid or potentially related symptoms, then it’s important to discuss these with your healthcare provider. 

Your doctor will take a brief history, conduct a physical examination and order some blood tests, which is likely to include a thyroid function test. The doctor (or specialist) may also order an ultrasound or radioactive iodine scan to check the internal structure of your thyroid.

If any findings or results are outside of the healthy range, you may be referred onto an endocrinologist. 

Iodine deficiency – a common cause of thyroid problems – can often be improved by increasing your intake of iodine through iodised salt or iodine rich foods (such as bread fortified with iodised salt and any type of seafood, including seaweed). 

If your hypothyroidism is due to low thyroid function or damage to the thyroid or related glands, then your doctor may recommend boosting your thyroid hormone levels with thyroxine tablets, which is a form of hormone replacement. 

There is no cure for hyperthyroidism, but there are ways to successfully manage the condition, including medication, radioiodine therapy and surgery (by removing some or all of the thyroid gland). 

Your healthcare provider can also provide advice on how best to manage the symptoms of thyroid disease, along with treating the underlying cause itself.


Not feeling your best? Concerned about your thyroid?

The thyroid plays a vital role in setting and controlling how we feel and function. 

Unfortunately it can under-function and over-function in some people, the results of which can make us feel pretty miserable.

If you’ve ticked off a number of symptoms on the thyroid check list and you’re simply not feeling like your old self, then perhaps it’s time for a thyroid health check?


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