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Your Thyroid: Separating Fact from Fiction

Your thyroid: that small butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck that you’ve likely heard a lot about, but may not know much about. The gland churns out thyroid hormones, which regulate your metabolism. Even more than a calorie-burning machine though, your thyroid also determines your body temperature, energy levels, appetite, how your heart, brain, and kidneys function—and impacts “virtually every organ system in your body,” says Jeffrey Garber, M.D., an endocrinologist and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Overcoming Thyroid Problems.

When your thyroid is working well, your metabolism is humming, you feel energized, and your mood is stable. Too much or too little thyroid hormone, however, can make everything seem…off. Here, we separate facts from fiction about the popular gland so you can be informed, address any issues head-on, and start feeling like yourself again.

Fact: You Could Unknowingly Have a Thyroid Issue

About 10 percent of the population, or 13 million Americans, may be unaware they have a thyroid condition, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. That’s because many thyroid-related symptoms are subtle. Common signs include fatigue, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, depression, hair loss, irritability, feeling too hot or too cold, and constipation. If you have any changes in your physical or mental health that aren’t going away, ask your doctor to test your thyroid hormone levels. [Tweet this tip!] Why it’s important: Untreated, a thyroid condition could contribute to more serious issues such as high LDL (bad) cholesterol and heart disease. Poor thyroid function may also interfere with ovulation, which can affect your ability to get pregnant (taking certain thyroid hormones if you’re trying to conceive can help).

Fiction: Treating a Thyroid Problem Can Fix a Weight Problem

Hypothyroidism—an underactive thyroid—can contribute to weight gain, yes. When thyroid hormones are too low, your body pulls the breaks on your metabolism. However, medication isn’t the magic bullet many people hope it will be. “The amount of weight gain we typically see in patients with hypothyroidism is modest and mostly water weight,” Garber says. (Low levels of thyroid hormones cause your body to hold onto salt, which leads to fluid retention.) Treatment can help you drop some of the weight, but many different factors affect your metabolism—genetics, muscle mass, how much sleep you get, and more—so addressing the thyroid issue is just one piece of the weight-loss puzzle.

Fiction: Eating Kale Messes with Your Thyroid

You may have heard that chemicals in kale called glucosinolates can suppress thyroid function (we even reported on the concern earlier this year.) The thinking is that glucosinolates form goitrin, a compound that can interfere with how your thyroid handles iodine, an element needed to produce thyroid hormones. The reality? “In the U.S., iodine deficiency is very rare and you’d have to consume huge amount of kale to interfere with iodine uptake,” Garber says. If you’re concerned, but want to keep the superfood on your menu, cooking the leafy green partially destroys goitrins.

Fact: If Mom Has a Thyroid Issue, You May Develop One

One of the strongest risk factors for thyroid problems is your family history. Up to 67 percent of your circulating thyroid hormone levels are genetically determined, according to a study in The Clinical Biochemist Reviews. Certain thyroid issues, such as Graves’ disease—an autoimmune disorder that leads to an overactive thyroid gland—are especially tied up in your DNA. About a quarter of people with Graves’ disease have a first-degree relative with the condition. If your mom or other close relatives have experienced thyroid issues, talk to your doc. Women are up to 10 times more likely to develop thyroid disease, so focus the ladies in your family.

Fiction: You'll Need to Take Thyroid Medication Forever

It depends. If you receive a treatment such as surgery or radioactive iodine that removes part or your entire thyroid, then you’ll likely need to take thyroid hormones for life. However, with an overactive or underactive thyroid, you may only need temporary treatment to help your body regulate its own hormone levels. “I prefer to prescribe the smallest doses possible and for the shortest duration,” says Sara Gottfried, M.D., author of The Hormone Cure. Once your body obtains an optimal level, your doctor may decrease or eliminate your medication and monitor you to make sure you can maintain those levels on your own.