Recovering the Sacred: Thyroid health important for women |

Recovering the Sacred: Thyroid health important for women

Rebecca Chavez

Special to First Nation's Focus

Rebecca Chavez

We’ve all experienced changes in our bodies throughout our lifetimes: weight gain, trouble concentrating, fatigue, feeling anxious or a little depressed, muscle or joint pain, or perhaps thinning hair or dry skin.

All too often we will chalk up these changes as normal stresses of modern life or simply getting older. Sound familiar? While it is true that these changes can be normal, they may also point to a thyroid disorder. 

The thyroid is a small butterfly shaped gland located in the front of the neck just below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid produces hormones that control metabolism and how the body uses energy.

These hormones affect every other organ in the body-influencing heart rate, body temperature, reproduction, menstruation, weight, digestion, bone density, just to name a few.

Because the thyroid is such a powerful force within the body, if it is not working properly, it can cause imbalances that are associated with a number of symptoms that can impact overall health.

There are different types of thyroid disorders, however hyperthyroidism (too much hormone being produced), and hypothyroidism (not enough hormone being produced), are the two most common.

According to the American Thyroid Association, more that 20 million Americans suffer from some form of thyroid disorder. Hypothyroidism is much more common: nearly 1 in 20 Americans over the age of 12 have the condition, whereas hyperthyroidism only affects 1 in 100. 


Thyroid disorders in women

Women are more likely than men to be affected with thyroid disorders. It is estimated that 1 in 8 women will develop a thyroid problem in her lifetime.

Many women will develop a thyroid disorder following childbirth or during menopause. Among tribal populations, women with diabetes are more than twice as likely to have hypothyroidism as are non-diabetic women.

Diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders

Unfortunately up to 60% of those affected thyroid disease are unaware because the symptoms often coincide with other conditions. If you are concerned that you may have a thyroid disorder, make an appointment with your health care provider.

You will be asked about your medical history and if any family members has had thyroid disease. A physical exam will be done and your thyroid checked for enlargement or nodules.

Depending on your symptoms and exam findings, a lab test may be done to evaluate the amount of thyroid hormone in your blood. If an enlarged thyroid or nodules are found on  examination, your provider may order an ultrasound to determine the size of the enlargement or nodules.

Hypothyroidism is treated with levothyroxine, a synthetic form of the hormone the thyroid produces. You will likely need to take this medication for the rest of your life.

The treatment of hyperthyroidism will depend on symptoms and the cause. You may be prescribed antithyroid medication which will block the amount of hormone the thyroid produces.

If you are experiencing high blood pressure or irregular heartbeat, your provider may also prescribe a beta-blocker which is an anti-hypertensive medication that can ease symptoms such as tremor, rapid heartbeat and heart palpitations. In the event of an enlarged thyroid you may have surgery to remove most of the thyroid gland or be prescribed radioactive iodine which will shrink the thyroid gland. These treatments may cause hypothyroidism.

Complications of untreated thyroid disorders

It is important to take the medication prescribe by your provider as untreated thyroid conditions can lead to severe complications.

Untreated hypothyroidism may not cause noticeable symptoms in the early stages. However over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause heart disease, infertility, obesity and birth defects in the newborn.

People with hypothyroidism may develop a goiter, or enlarged thyroid. A rare but potentially life-threatening condition called myxedema can occur if hypothyroidism is left untreated or is under-treated.

Untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to serious complications mainly related to the heart. Hypertension, heart arrhythmias, and even sudden cardiac arrest can occur. Individuals with untreated hyperthyroidism may also develop osteoporosis, bulging eyes or goiter.

Know the risks

Although anyone can develop thyroid disorders, those at increased risk include anyone who is:

• Female

• Older than age 60

• Has a family history of thyroid disease

• Has an autoimmune disease, such as diabetes, lupus or celiac disease

• Has been treated with radioactive iodine 

• Has received radiation to the neck or upper chest

• Has had thyroid surgery

• Has been pregnant within the past 6 months

• Thyroid disease are life-long conditions. With careful management, women with thyroid disease can live healthy, normal lives. O

“Recovering the Sacred” is a monthly women’s health-focused column from Rebecca Chavez (Western Shoshone), who is a certified nurse-midwife, women’s healthcare provider and a mother of two. If you have any questions or ideas for future topics, email her at


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