What Does Your Thyroid Actually Do (And How Can it Make You Gain Weight)?

You’ve heard of your thyroid — that small gland in the center of your neck — before. And you’ve probably heard it in the context of your weight, too. Perhaps you’ve even chalked up a small amount of weight gain over the years thanks to a slowing metabolism (or you’ve told your super thin friends they’re lucky to have a fast one). Either way, when discussing metabolism and weight, it all starts with the thyroid.

What it is and where it’s located

An illustration of the thyroid

An illustration of the thyroid | iStock.com/Nerthuz

As stated before, the thyroid is quite small. WebMD explains it’s about two inches in length, and it’s butterfly-shaped. It’s in the front of the neck and sits just below the larynx. Due to its shape, two lobes stick out on either side of your windpipe. It’s also not typical to be able to feel for it or see it from the outside.

The function of the thyroid

The Society of Endocrinology explains your thyroid is there primarily to produce hormones. The hormones help to keep your metabolism humming at a healthy rate, and they also help keep your heart, digestive system, muscles, brain, emotions, and bones healthy.

As a reminder, your metabolism turns the food you eat into energy for your body to use. There are two hormones produced by your thyroid that assist with your metabolism, WebMD says. These hormones don’t just affect your weight (which is what your metabolism is most known for assisting with), but they can also impact how fast your heart beats and how deeply you’re breathing.

How does your body know how much of these two hormones you need? Your pituitary gland, which is pea-sized and located at the base of the brain, is what tells your thyroid how much it should be producing.

What happens with an overactive thyroid

You’ve probably heard of an overactive thyroid in the context of weight loss, but that’s not all that occurs when this gland is overproducing hormones. WebMD explains you may also notice you’re more irritable than normal, your heart races, or you’re feeling weaker than usual.

As for why your thyroid goes into overdrive, it’s typically from another immune system issue. For example, Graves’ disease causes antibodies to attack your thyroid by mistake, causing it to overproduce hormones, Mayo Clinic explains. Any abnormal enlargement or nodules on the gland can cause it to become overactive, too.

What happens with an underactive thyroid

woman adjusting weight scale

Woman adjusting weight scale | iStock.com/tetmc

When low levels of thyroid hormones are produced, it’s underactive. This can occur from too little iodine in the diet (though this is rarely the problem with Americans since iodine has been added to table salt), certain pharmaceuticals, or other autoimmune diseases.

If hypothyroidism occurs early on in life, it can greatly impact your ability to learn or physically grow. If it’s developed later in life, then a common symptom is weight gain due to a decreased metabolism, explains the Society of Endocrinology. You may also notice fatigue, and intolerance to cold, a poor appetite, stiff muscles, memory problems, and a low heart rate.

If you’re wondering how much weight hypothyroidism makes you gain, it’s probably not as much as you think. Endocrinologist Amber Taylor Champion tells Everyday Health five to 10 pounds can be expected. If extreme weight gain is noticed, other factors may be at play.

How to boost your metabolism with hypothyroidism

If you suspect you have hypothyroidism, it’s important to talk to your doctor. While weight gain is often the main concern, the thyroid is responsible for many other bodily processes that can be affected negatively by the gland being underactive. Your doctor can diagnose you with a blood test.

As for ways to boost your metabolism with the condition, taking thyroid hormones can help. Otherwise, make sure you’re exercising regularly, as this can make a huge difference. Aim to get a healthy mix of weight training and cardio, and if you’re able, high-intensity interval training can be particularly helpful.

Make sure you’re not skipping meals as well. When you’re making meals, get plenty of protein, stay away from refined carbs, and carry around a water bottle with you so you can ensure you’re getting enough water. Getting at least eight hours of sleep per night can also help your metabolism and thyroid more than you think.

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