The thyroid has a profound influence on the body’s metabolism, temperature regulation, and the working order of almost every tissue and organ. However, what most don’t realize is how much more women than men struggle with imbalanced thyroid hormones. Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that targets the thyroid, is seven times more prevalent in women than men. Why does this happen? And what makes women so much more susceptible to thyroid issues?
For women walking the tight-rope of hormonal balance, understanding Hashimoto’s and the wider landscape of thyroid health isn’t just a trend—it’s an empowerment over your well-being.
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From Genetics to Environment
While autoimmune conditions—like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis—seem to be indifferent to gender, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis prefers the company of women.
The reasons why thyroid issues affect so many more women than men involve genetic factors that can switch genes on and off, as well as the environmental influences that sculpt each woman’s unique health journey.
The ‘why’ behind autoimmune thyroid disorders like Hashimoto’s disease is a complex web.
As women age, our immune systems go through changes, responding to milestones like puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. These immunological flares, combined with genetic susceptibilities, can ignite the autoimmunity that triggers autoimmune thyroiditis, including Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease.
Studies also suggest that as many as 10% of women will experience subclinical hypothyroidism in their lifetimes, which is often a precursor to the diagnosis of Hashimoto’s (1).
If the thyroid is like the keeper of women’s hormones, its disturbances may warn of deeper imbalances.
Hormones, Health, and a Hashimoto’s Horizon
Estrogen and progesterone, the two main female hormones, are intricately connected with the immune system and thyroid.
During puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, fluctuations in these hormones can shift the immune system toward more abnormal behavior, increasing the risk of autoimmune thyroid diseases (2).
The stress hormone cortisol, a player in the ever-so-common scenario of chronic stress, can also cast a heavy shadow on thyroid health.
As modern life twists the constants of circadian rhythms and work-life balance, women often bear the brunt of this stress-imbalance churn. The result? A staggering number of women with an underactive thyroid, grappling with weight management, fatigue, and the mental fog that accompany hormonal imbalances.
B12 Deficiency and Autoimmunity
A study involving 309 participants found a link between B12 deficiency and autoimmune thyroid diseases. Those with autoimmune thyroid disease (AITD) exhibited significantly lower levels of vitamin B12, than those without (3).
This suggests that adequate B vitamins are necessary for healthy thyroid hormone levels. The role of diet is foundational for thyroid health, particularly in a vitamin-starved society.
The standard Western diet often lacks the nutrients necessary for the synthesis and conversion of thyroid hormones (4). Iodine, selenium, and iron deficiencies contribute to an underactive thyroid.
Incorporating foods rich in these nutrients—like sea vegetables for iodine, Brazil nuts for selenium, and legumes for iron—can be a strategy in fortifying thyroid health.
The Gut-Thyroid Axis
The gut microbiome, that bustling community within our digestive tracts, holds the reins in shaping our immune system. Dysbiosis, an imbalance in the gut flora, has been implicated as a potential trigger for autoimmune diseases, and Hashimoto’s is no exception (5).
The bidirectional communication between the gut and the thyroid is known as the ‘gut-thyroid axis’ and it’s an important part of addressing an underactive thyroid.
For women navigating food intolerances and digestive sensitivities, gut health is even more crucial. Incorporating fermented foods, prebiotics, and probiotics could be pivotal in restoring and maintaining the integrity of the gut, supporting not only digestive wellness but also a balanced immune response.
Related: Understanding the OAT-Thyroid Axis
Nurturing Your Thyroid Health
If our understanding of Hashimoto’s and thyroid health is like a mosaic involving diet, lifestyle, genetics, and environmental factors, we can work to make each piece as strong as possible.
Women on a holistic health journey can take strides to reduce the likelihood of developing thyroid issues. Here’s a list of simple actions that can be tailored into day-to-day protection for your thyroid:
Eat a Thyroid-Friendly Diet
Dietary choices affect not only body weight and energy levels but also the harmony of hormones. A plant-forward, whole-food diet with an emphasis on variety is key. Lean into the rainbow of vegetables & fruits, and the nourishment of legumes and whole grains.
Minimize processed foods, sugar, and artificial additives to ease the burden on the thyroid.
Keep an Eye on Your Thyroid Function
Regular check-ups and communication with holistic or integrative practitioners are key to catching any thyroid issues early. Being attuned to your body’s feedback and taking advantage of the information from a thyroid panel can help you make the right decisions about your thyroid health.
Stress is the Silent Saboteur
Harnessing stress-management techniques—be it through yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or just time for self-reflection—conveys to the thyroid a message of safety. Managing stress is less about evading life’s tensions and more about developing resilience in face of inevitable challenges.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Thyroid Harmony
Supplementation can bridge the gap between what our diets offer and what our bodies need. Ensuring adequate levels of B-complex vitamins, particularly B12, and minerals like iron and selenium can support thyroid health.
It’s important to test your thyroid health before you supplement with iodine or selenium, as they’re not recommended for some types of thyroid issues.
Community and Connection
You don’t need to do it alone! Engage with support groups, connect with like-minded individuals, and tap into the vast resources online to gain wisdom, support, and the infinite benefits of shared experiences.
A Collective Call for Thyroid Health
The fact that Hashimoto’s affects more men than women doesn’t need to be a burden, but instead a reason to remain dedicated to hormonal wellbeing.
For women who have felt the symptoms of hormonal imbalances, the path toward hormone balance is paved by the power of adaptation and consistency. Taking care of your thyroid health protects not only your hormones, but your overall well being.
In learning how to support thyroid health and reduce your risk of Hashimoto’s, you’re benefiting from better health and also becoming part of the conversation to empower other women to bring their symptoms to light, and demand a more informed, empowered journey.