Why Women Have More Thyroid Disease Than Men
More than 20 million Americans suffer from some form of thyroid disease. But females are five to eight times more likely to incur thyroid problems than males. And, with an estimated one in eight women developing thyroid disease in their lifetime, scientists and doctors have struggled for decades to figure out the reasons for this huge gender difference.
In this article, Austin, TX top thyroid doctor, Ruthie Harper, MD, explains some of the reasons why more women than men suffer from thyroid disease.
What Is Thyroid Disease?
The thyroid gland, located in the neck, produces essential hormones that help the body regulate temperature, metabolize energy, and support the muscles, brain, heart, and other organs. The diseases that can affect the thyroid are numerous and varied.
Conditions causing hyperthyroidism, the production of too much thyroid hormone, include: Graves’ disease, adenomas (nodules); thyroiditis (inflammation causing hormone “leaks”); and, cancer.
Causes of hypothyroidism, the production of too little thyroid hormones, are typically either autoimmune in nature (Hashimoto’s Disease), or are environmental (exposure to x-rays, iodine or lithium). In Hashimoto’s Disease an autoimmune reaction causes the body to attack the thyroid tissue, eventually destroying the thyroid gland’s ability to produce hormones.
Both Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s disease are up to eight times more common in women than men!
Theories on Why There is More Thyroid Disease in Women
Both Hashimoto’s disease and Grave’s disease are autoimmune disorders – and almost all autoimmune conditions have a higher incidence in women than in men. So, doctors look to what is known about autoimmune diseases for clues as to why more women than men suffer from thyroid disease.
Hormones and Thyroid Disease in Women
The female hormones estrogen and prolactin play an important role in modulating the immune system. And some of the most common onset times for thyroid disease to occur are pregnancy, puberty, and peri-menopause. So, scientists believe that female hormones may play an important role in the development of autoimmune thyroid conditions.
Women’s Care Products and Thyroid Disease
Unfortunately, women’s personal care products are often filled with toxins. Studies report that the average American female uses twelve personal care products, which add up to 168 different chemical ingredients – while men on average use just six personal care products containing 85 different ingredients.
Skincare ingredients that are absorbed into the skin, are an especially intensive delivery system for chemicals and toxins. And many of these products contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as parabens, that can disrupt healthy hormonal balance.
Genetics and Thyroid Disease
There is also a hereditary component to thyroid disease, as many of these conditions – including Hashimoto’s Disease – tend to run in families. But, while some women do have a genetic predisposition to developing thyroid disease, in identical twin studies only 50 percent of studied twins both had Hashimoto’s disease. So, genes alone are not the single responsible factor.
Nutrition, Stress and Thyroid Disease
Most experts in the field of thyroid disease believe that a combination of nutrient deficiency, food sensitivity, and stress, can also trigger thyroid diseases including Hashimoto’s disease.
The basis of this theory is a bit complicated – but very interesting. All of these factors have one thing in common: that the body feels like it is under stress or danger and needs to go into an “energy-conservation” mode in order to survive.
Stated another way, through human history, during times of famine (nutrient deficiency), war, and other stresses it was important for human’s bodies to conserve resources. So, during these various traumas, the body adapted by decreasing thyroid function, in order to slow down metabolism.
Known as “adaptive physiology” this theory suggests that the human body develops chronic illness as a protective mechanism, to adjust to problems in the environment. So, in this scenario, when a woman experiences stress and/or insufficient nutrients in her diet (from dieting, processed foods, food sensitivity, poor diet, etc.) the thyroid “thinks” she needs to start conserving energy – and begins to effectively “shut down”.
Modern Life and Thyroid Disease in Women
As women, our bodies carry a tremendous amount of stress throughout our lives – from bearing children, to raising a family, and then juggling these duties with a career and constant pressure to be thin and attractive. Tragically, women are also more likely to be physically, emotionally, and sexually abused than men.
And, any or all of these stressful life experiences can send a signal to the woman’s body that she is in “danger” – which then triggers the thyroid to start conserving energy. The result is weight gain (which is actually a good thing in times of famine) as well as decreased energy (which may have kept women safe throughout history, by keeping them still).
Additionally, today our diets are far from what humans once ate in their original state. Most of us eat a processed diet lacking in essential nutrients. And, thanks to modern agri-business farming practices, even fruits and vegetables have far fewer of the nutrients than they once did. For example, as a result of mineral depletion of agricultural soil, a woman would have to eat 25 apples today, to get the same amount of iron from a single apple in 1950!
And, of course, many women are perpetually on a calorie-restricted diet in efforts to remain unrealistically thin. Which further signals the body that food is in short supply, so the thyroid may slow down in order to compensate!
Treating Thyroid Disease in Women – Austin, TX
The good news is that there are many things that a woman can do to remedy dietary deficiencies, as well as reduce stressors to make her body feel “safe” again, so that the thyroid will stop “conserving resources”.
But remember, genetic predisposition, hormonal factors, environmental exposure, stress and diet “triggers” will vary from person to person. For this reason, a woman experiencing thyroid disease or deficiency needs to consult with a physician like Dr. Ruthie Harper who truly understands disorders of the thyroid in women – and can help her get to the root cause of Hashimoto’s disease or other thyroid conditions.
Diagnosing and treating thyroid problems is much more complex and nuanced than just prescribing a “standard does” of Synthroid, like most physicians do. Most doctors simply do not recognize the effects of reproductive hormones, stress hormone, and nutrition on optimal thyroid function.
Dr. Harper uses in-depth testing of all thyroid hormone levels (TSH, Total T4, Free T4, Free T3, and Reverse T3), combined with other diagnostic and nutritional testing, to provide a comprehensive and successful approach to treating thyroid disease.
If you live in the greater Austin, TX area, schedule a thyroid consultation with Dr. Harper today to restore your health and quality of life!