When our grandparents were our age, thyroid disease was not something that they probably ever even heard about. This is because it was quite rare, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Today, however, thyroid diseases are on the rise. The question remains: Why? While many experts say this is at least in part due to increased capacity to detect and diagnose these problems, there are other culprits as to why millions around the world struggle with a poorly functioning thyroid.
What is thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease is a condition that affects the thyroid gland, which is located in the neck below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid produces hormones that control metabolism and regulate many other bodily functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, digestion, and weight. There are two main types of thyroid disease: hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). (1)
Hypothyroidism can also be classified as primary or secondary. Primary hypothyroidism occurs when your body does not produce enough thyroid hormone naturally. Secondary hypothyroidism occurs when your body does not respond properly to its own thyroid hormone because of something else going on in your body such as another autoimmune disease or pituitary gland disorder.
It’s More Complicated Than Simply Being Under or Over-Active
Hyperthyroidism can be classified as Graves’ disease or toxic multinodular goiter; however, these conditions often occur together with Hashimoto’s disease, another common form of hyperthyroidism that is not considered a separate condition. Graves’ disease occurs when your body has an immune system response to the presence of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which can lead to overproduction of the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Toxic multinodular goiter occurs when nodules, or growths, form on the thyroid gland due to iodine deficiency. (2)
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What Causes Thyroid Disease?
Many factors can contribute to thyroid disease, including:
- Genetics: Your genes may play a role in developing thyroid disease. If someone in your family has either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, you’re at greater risk for developing it.
- Age: Thyroid disease is more common among middle-aged and older adults. The reason isn’t clear, but some researchers suspect it may be due to an increase in iodine deficiency during these years.
- Gender: While men and women have an equal chance of developing Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s disease, women are more likely than men to have hypothyroidism.
Lifestyle Factors That Can Contribute to Thyroid Disease
While you can’t change your family history or age, some lifestyle factors may contribute to developing thyroid disease. These include:
Smokers generally have a higher risk of developing hypothyroidism than nonsmokers. This is especially true if you smoke and have Hashimoto’s disease. This is because smoking can increase the rate of thyroid hormone breakdown, which may cause your body to develop an underactive thyroid gland. (3)
A diet high in iodine may help prevent hypothyroidism, especially if you have Hashimoto’s disease or another autoimmune disorder that damages the thyroid. In fact, iodine deficiency is a common cause of hypothyroidism in many parts of the world. In the United States, however, the average person gets enough iodine from iodized salt and other food sources. If you’ve been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease or an autoimmune thyroid disease, consult your health care practitioner about whether adding more iodine to your diet might help prevent hypothyroidism.
Too Much of Certain Vitamins and Minerals
If you take too much of certain vitamins and minerals, they can overwork your thyroid gland and cause hyperthyroidism. For example, some studies have linked taking high doses of vitamin A supplements to an increased risk of hyperthyroidism in postmenopausal women.
Other studies have shown that taking high doses of vitamin B6 can cause symptoms of hyperthyroidism. However, the amount of these vitamins and minerals you would need to take to experience this side effect is likely much higher than what’s found in a typical multivitamin or other supplement. Thus, unless you are taking very high doses of these substances on a daily basis, they shouldn’t cause your thyroid gland to produce too many hormones.
Obesity is a known risk factor for hyperthyroidism. Researchers believe that the excessive weight on your body can cause inflammation in your thyroid gland, which can lead to it producing too many hormones and causing symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Undereating and Overexercising
Many people who want to lose weight try to eat less and exercise more. In some cases, this can cause the body’s metabolism to slow down. This may be because when you cut calories, your body thinks it is starving and slows down its metabolism in order to conserve energy. When your metabolism slows down, less thyroid hormone is produced by your thyroid gland. (4)
Alcohol can interfere with the production of thyroid hormone. When you drink alcohol, it can cause your body to produce an enzyme called deiodinase, which removes iodine from the thyroid gland. Without iodine, your body cannot make thyroid hormone. (5)
- Birth control pills
- Antacids, such as Rolaids and Tums
- Chemotherapy drugs (for cancer)
- Diuretics (water pills)
So Why Do We Have A Higher Rate of Thyroid Disease Than Our Grandparents?
All of these previously mentioned reasons for thyroid disease doesn’t explain why this disease was almost unheard of in our grandparents’ time and is seemingly everywhere now. There are a few reasons for this (2):
- Increased screening and diagnosis: As with many illnesses, in our grandparents’ day many, many people just went undiagnosed. There was a lack of knowledge, for starters, and people were also less likely to seek medical attention unless something seemed really serious. This is in large part due to that it is so much easier today to seek medical care than before. Particularly if you lived in a smaller town or more remotely, you were even less likely to see a medical professional. If you saw one, that one was less likely to be capable of properly diagnosing you.
- People live longer: Simply put, the average age people live to is older than it was when our grandparents were born. The older we get, the more susceptible we are to any illnesses and diseases. This includes thyroid disease.
Of course, there are other aspects of this, though they are not necessarily scientifically confirmed. This refers to things like factory farming and the increased use of chemicals and hormones in farming. In our grandparents’ time, many people grew their own produce, perhaps even raised their own livestock. Factory farms didn’t necessarily exist, and producers weren’t under the same pressure to produce such a vast quantity of their products. Back then, fewer women took birth control, fewer people took medications in general, fewer people exercised vigorously, and dangerous fad diets weren’t quite so prevalent. All these things and more could potentially contribute to the increase, but these things are nearly impossible to quantify or truly prove.
The Bottom Line
The thyroid is a sensitive organ that can be thrown out of balance if we aren’t careful. Even things we think are good for us, such as eating a high-vegetable diet, regular, intense exercise, and taking supplements, can be too much of a good thing. This is why it is important for you to do your best to live as healthy as possible without overdoing any one thing. Regular check-ups with your healthcare provider will also help you to maintain tabs on your health and catch any issues, such as thyroid imbalances, that could lead to full-blown thyroid diseases.
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- “Thinking About Your Thyroid.” News in Health. September 2015.
- “Are Thyroid Diseases on the Rise?” Discover Magazine Anna Funk. June 6, 2021
- “Environmental Factors Affecting Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone and Thyroid Hormone Levels.” MDPI. Mirjana Babić Leko, et al. 2021.
- “Daily physical activity is negatively associated with thyroid hormone levels, inflammation, and immune system markers among men and women in the NHANES dataset.” NCBI. Christopher L. Klasson, et al. July 2022.
- “Association between lifestyle and thyroid dysfunction: a cross-sectional epidemiologic study in the She ethnic minority group of Fujian Province in China.” NCBI. Yanling Huang, et al. 2019.
- “Drugs and Other Substances Interfering with Thyroid Function.” Springer. Lucia Montanelli, et al. May 31, 2018.
- “Can Birth Control Cause Thyroid Problems?” Cleveland Clinic. February 11, 2021.