If you know anything about hormones, you probably have an idea of how to answer the question posed by the title of this article. After all, menopause involves declining levels of certain hormones while the thyroid produces other particular hormones. But where does the overlap occur?
What you should know about the thyroid
The two main hormones produced by the thyroid are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones are responsible for regulating critical functions, including but not limited to body weight, breathing, heart rate, muscle strength, menstrual cycle, central and peripheral nervous systems, cholesterol levels, body temperature, and more. When levels of either of these hormones are too high or too low, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland step in. The hypothalamus makes TSH releasing hormone (TRH), which in turn prompts the pituitary to tell the thyroid to produce more or less of T3 or T4 by increasing or decreasing the release of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).
Underactive thyroid and menopause
If all of these cogs in the wheel work as they should, great! However, sometimes the levels of T3 and/or T4 are abnormal, and that's when women can experience symptoms that are similar to those associated with menopause. More specifically, the symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) are similar to those of menopause.
For example, both conditions are associated with:
- Changes in sex drive or menstrual cycle
- Weight changes
- Difficulty sleeping
In both cases, there are issues with body temperature: menopause is characterized by night sweat and hot flashes, while women with hypothyroidism often experience an intolerance to cold. Dry skin is common with an underactive thyroid, while vaginal dryness is a hallmark of menopause.
One reason for this relationship may be the association between the thyroid and estrogen. Researchers have found evidence that estrogen could have a direct impact on the thyroid. Because menopause is associated with a dramatic drop in estrogen levels, it seems logical that this decline would have an effect on the thyroid.
If you are experiencing the symptoms already mentioned, you should talk to your doctor. The two main risk factors for hypothyroidism are age and sex: it is much more common among women age 50 and older, and so it is timed well with menopause. A simple blood test that checks your hormone levels can help uncover the cause of your symptoms. For example:
- Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH): persistently high levels of FSH (more than 30 mIU/mL) can indicate menopause
- Luteinizing hormone (LH): persistently high levels may indicate menopause, although LH is also elevated in the middle of a woman's menstrual cycle
- Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH): high TSH can indicate an underactive thyroid
- T3 and T4: these levels do not change significantly in the presence of hypothyroidism, but doctors check them to rule out other thyroid conditions
- Thyroid antibody testing: if a doctor detects antibodies to proteins produced by the thyroid, it indicates either an underactive or overactive thyroid
See how it is entirely possible to be in menopause and have a thyroid condition simultaneously? The interactions between the two issues can make symptoms more severe.
Menopause and thyroid conditions
If you already have a thyroid condition prior to entering menopause, or if you develop a thyroid condition while transitioning to menopause or thereafter, there are a few things you and your doctor should discuss.
- Thyroid hormone levels should be checked periodically (at least once a year), especially if you are experiencing symptoms of an underactive thyroid or menopause
- Women who have borderline thyroid function and who are not getting enough iodine (which is necessary for T3 and T4) may be at risk for hypothyroidism if they eat a lot of soy products
- Osteoporosis is a real concern for women, especially since both estrogen and thyroid hormones are involved in maintaining bone health. Because estrogen levels decline in both menopause and hypothyroidism, it's important to have your bone density checked and to consume foods that support bone integrity and are rich in potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium.
- Regular weight-bearing exercise also helps promote bone strength. Include exercise such as walking, dancing, jogging, or rebounding as part of your lifestyle at least four days a week for 30 minutes or longer.
- Menopause and hypothyroidism are associated with weight gain. Increase your exercise and adjust your diet to include more nutrient-rich foods (e.g., organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes) and eliminate processed foods.
Galan N. Is there a link between menopause and an underactive thyroid? MedicalNewsToday 2017 Nov 24
Santin AP, Furlanetto TW. Role of estrogen in thyroid function and growth regulation. Journal of Thyroid Research 2011; 2011:875125