Hypothyroidism in Men vs. Women
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Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Women are more likely than men to experience hypothyroidism, and some symptoms even vary between genders.
When you think of critical organs, most likely the heart, lungs, and brain immediately jump to mind. But just because the thyroid may not get top billing doesn’t mean it’s not as important. In fact, this little butterfly-shaped part of the endocrine system is essential to everyday health.
When the thyroid is working properly, it makes hormones that regulate metabolism. When the thyroid fails to make enough of these hormones the result is hypothyroidism, which is also known as an underactive thyroid.
Hypothyroidism can happen to anyone, but it’s most common in women and people older than 50. “We do not fully understand the reason for women being more susceptible to developing hypothyroidism, but it is at least in part due to the fact that Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism — the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States — is an autoimmune disease,” says Jacqueline Jonklaas, MD, PhD, MPH, associate professor of medicine and endocrinology at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “Autoimmune diseases are, in general, more common in women.”
Hypothyroidism and Gender Differences
Although hypothyroidism affects women more often than men, many of the symptoms experienced by both genders are the same. Such symptoms range from fatigue, cold intolerance, muscle weakness, and muscle cramps to constipation, weight gain, and swelling. Impaired memory, slowed thinking, and depression can also result from hypothyroidism.
Other symptoms related to the reproductive system, however, are gender-specific. “For example, women will notice changes in their menstrual cycle,” Dr. Jonklaas says. Infertility could stem from hypothyroidism in both sexes, but it’s more common in women.” Although rare, women with moderately severe hypothyroidism can also experience galactorrhea, a discharge from the breasts.
Hypothyroidism can affect exercise capacity, physical performance, and libido in both genders. Men may also experience erectile dysfunction, according to Frederick Singer, MD, an endocrinologist and director of the endocrinology and bone disease program at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
Something that men and women may share is the tendency to dismiss their symptoms, chalking them up to stress or simply aging. But getting a proper diagnosis is important so treatment can be started and symptoms stopped.
Hypothyroidism and Pregnancy
Because many women with hypothyroidism are of child-bearing age, it’s not uncommon to be pregnant while having the condition. When that’s the case, it’s especially important to have thyroid function carefully monitored, according to Jonklaas.
In other women, Jonklaas says, changes can occur in the immune system during pregnancy or after delivery that then lead to a diagnosis. Postpartum thyroid dysfunction occurs in 5 to 10 percent of women who’ve just given birth. In some women, the thyroid eventually recovers, but others need lifelong thyroid replacement, according to Harris L. Wasser, MD, an endocrinologist at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Often the condition is not properly diagnosed and is dismissed as postpartum blues, but a simple blood test can tell for certain.
Ultimately, whether male or female, most people with hypothyroidism can be successfully treated. If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism, your doctor will likely prescribe you a form of synthetic thyroid hormone to replace the natural hormone your thyroid isn’t making, and in time, your thyroid hormone levels should return to normal.
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