Our thyroid gland forms an important part of our body’s intricate endocrine network. Situated at the front of the neck (it’s shaped like a bowtie), the thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate the body's metabolic rate. These hormones help to maintain our body temperatures, control how we use vitamins and regulate how fast our bodies consume calories to produce energy.
The thyroid is incredibly influential to core body processes - making it unsurprising that thyroid hormone imbalances drastically affect a woman’s menstrual cycles too. The scary thing is, ladies - thyroid disease and imbalance is incredibly common.
Experts estimate that up to 20 million people worldwide currently suffer from some type of thyroid disease. It’s estimated that 60% of people affected, are completely unaware of their condition, which is a scary thought.
Thyroid disease is 4 to 7 times more common amongst women. If left undetected and untreated, a thyroid disorder can throw your normal menstrual cycle and fertility into disarray.
The thyroid has a huge influence over our menstrual processes, varying from their length, quality and duration, to their frequency. When a thyroid gland produces too much hormone, the thyroid imbalance is referred to as “hyperthyroidism” - and when the amount is too low, it’s known as “hypothyroidism”. Each of these extreme imbalances result in their own set of menstrual side-effects and irregularities:
Symptoms of hyper-thyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
Hyperthyroidism in a teenage girl can delay the onset of puberty and menstruation into the mid-teens, in some cases after the age of 15.
Lighter than normal periods are frequently associated with hyperthyroidism. These also tend to be infrequent and sporadic. Often sufferers of hyperthyroidism will stop their periods altogether for long periods of time - a condition that’s known as amenorrhea.
Symptoms of hypo-thyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
Hypothyroidism in young girls may trigger very early menstruation, i.e., before the age of 10. Occasionally, if this condition occurs very early during the puberty phase, menstrual periods may also begin earlier than usual.
Periods are characterised by being heavy - a term called “Menorrhagia” is used to describe this. It refers to excessively heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding - eg. soaking through pad every hour for several hours. Hypothyroidism is associated with menorrhagia.
Hypothyroidism can cause periods to come more often and last for longer - for example, some women will find their 28 day cycle shortened to a 25 day cycle, and their normally 5-day long periods drawn out to last 6 or 7 days.
Hypothyroidism is also associated with more severe PMS symptoms and painful menstrual periods, known as dysmenorrhea. Dysmenorrhea can include an achy or stabbing low backache, nausea, leg aches, feelings of fullness, headaches, and a range of bowel disturbances.
Red flags (pardon the pun!) and warning signs to discuss with your doctor:
If heavy bleeding lasts for over 24 hours
If your period regularly lasts longer than 7 days
If periods are coming fewer than 21 days apart
If periods have stopped for more than 3 months
If periods are accompanied by far greater level of pain than normal
As you can see, our thyroid glands have tremendous influence over our periods - yet another reason to keep a watchful eye out and to ensure that if we notice any inconsistencies or potential symptoms, we seek professional advice as soon as possible.
Many menstrual problems may be symptoms of undiagnosed thyroid conditions. Girls who have either very early or very late menstruation should be evaluated for a potential thyroid problem, as thyroid problems can frequently be a cause of early or delayed puberty and menstruation. In addition, any change in menstrual patterns - such as more or less frequent periods, the onset of substantially heavier or lighter periods, or the lack of periods entirely, should trigger a thyroid check up with your doctor.
Your doctor will be able to check your thyroid production levels through a simple blood test - making it often relatively easy and quick to being treatment.