Your thyroid gland is essential for properly regulating virtually every organ in your body, including your brain. When your thyroid is not working correctly, it can cause a wide variety of symptoms and potentially damage your organs.
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Hyperthyroidism tends to speed up every function of your body, which results in symptoms such as:¹
Increased sweating and low tolerance of heat
Difficulty sleeping, sometimes resulting in fatigue.
Hair becoming fine and brittle
Weakness in muscles, especially thighs and upper arms
More frequent bowel movements
Unexpected weight loss despite having a good appetite and eating well. In some cases, your appetite might even be increased.
Light and less frequent menstrual periods
A goiter, or an enlargement of the thyroid gland, can be found in a manual check. Your doctor may check your neck for a goiter if you have the symptoms above, and it is also possible to self-check.
A blood test is advised as all of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions. If hyperthyroidism is present, the blood test will reveal elevated levels of thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) and low levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).
It's estimated that about 1 in 100 Americans aged 12 and older have hyperthyroidism.²
Hyperthyroidism has a number of causes. Risk factors include:
Being over 60
Having a family history of thyroid disease
Having diabetes, either type 1 or type 2
Having a hormonal disorder called ‘primary adrenal insufficiency’³
Consuming too much iodine, including food like seaweed and medications that contain iodine
Smoking or using other nicotine products⁴
Typically, hyperthyroidism is caused by:
Graves’ disease: This is an autoimmune disorder and is the most common cause.
Overdosing on thyroid medication: Somebody with hypothyroidism who is on synthetic hormones may experience symptoms of hyperthyroidism if their gland starts producing more hormones. Or they might accidentally take a double dose.
Overactive thyroid nodules: It's common for your thyroid to have benign lumps, but occasionally these lumps can start producing too much hormone. This is more common in older adults. In some cases, this can turn into a toxic multinodular goiter, where you have a goiter that becomes overactive.
Thyroiditis, or inflammation of the thyroid gland: This can develop after giving birth and may or may not result in pain. In some cases, thyroiditis can cause the thyroid to be overactive for a while then become underactive. Thyroiditis may be temporary and self-limiting – you might get better on your own, and you may or may not know you had an issue.
A noncancerous tumor in the pituitary gland: This gland regulates the thyroid.
Consuming too much iodine: Your thyroid needs iodine to produce hormones, so if you eat too much, it can make you produce too much thyroid hormone. The most common cause is either heart medication that contains iodine or eating a lot of seaweed or seaweed supplements.
Untreated hyperthyroidism can cause a variety of health problems, including:²
Irregular heartbeat, potentially leading to heart failure or stroke
Graves' ophthalmopathy, an eye disease that causes dry eyes, photophobia, excessive tears, double vision, and a feeling of pressure behind the eyes. This can eventually result in vision loss.⁵
Osteoporosis and overall thinning of the bones
Female infertility (there is also some indication the condition may reduce male fertility)⁶
Treating hyperthyroidism is important as it can cause permanent damage to your heart, bones, eyes, and reproductive system.
There are three main treatments for an overactive thyroid.
There are two primary drugs approved for treating hyperthyroidism – methimazole and propylthiouracil. In some cases, you can discontinue medication after a while because hyperthyroidism has gone into remission, but you still have to monitor your thyroid function regularly.
This drug blocks thyroid hormone production directly and is used primarily in patients with Graves’ disease. It takes a while (weeks to months) for the medication to work. It's not advised for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding or individuals with liver disease, blood cell disorder, or a weak immune system.
Side effects include:
Increased risk of infection
Rash or itching
Decreased sense of taste and numbness
You should take it with food to help avoid an upset stomach⁷
This medication blocks the action of thyroid hormones, and is typically prescribed only if methimazole does not work. This is because, in rare cases, propylthiouracil can cause severe liver damage, which can occasionally be fatal. It's typically seen as a treatment of last resort for people who are poor candidates for any other treatment.
Side effects include:
Loss of taste
Numbness and tingling of hands or feet
Joint or muscle pain
Beta-blockers are sometimes used to temporarily control symptoms while waiting for another treatment to kick in.
While they don't reduce the amount of hormone being produced, they block some of the action of thyroid hormone and result in a quick resolution of symptoms. This means you feel better until a longer-term treatment comes into play.
Radioactive iodine treatment
This is the preferred treatment for hyperthyroidism caused by the overproduction of thyroid hormones. You take a single oral dose of radioactive iodine, which destroys part of your thyroid and results in you having an underactive thyroid. You can then be treated with thyroid hormone replacement therapy, which is typically lifelong.
The dosage is usually set to intentionally drop the thyroid too low to prevent hyperthyroidism from returning.
The radioactive iodine will not affect the rest of your body, as the thyroid absorbs all of the iodine it can find.
Sometimes, surgery may be performed to remove part or all of the thyroid gland. This is generally reserved for cases when hyperthyroidism is severe and uncontrolled, and radioiodine treatment is considered unsafe, such as during pregnancy. People who have received surgery typically require lifelong thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
Your doctor might also recommend a low-iodine diet.⁸ This includes avoiding:
Iodized salt (it can be hard to find salt without added iodine)
Avoiding restaurants altogether is recommended because most restaurants use iodized salt.
In many cases, no. It is sometimes possible to send hyperthyroidism into long-term remission with a course of medication, but it does tend to come back.
If your hyperthyroidism is caused by thyroiditis or excessive ingestion of iodine or thyroid medication, then it typically will resolve, although you might need a course of beta-blockers or possibly methimazole in the short term. If it is caused by eating too much seaweed, you will be advised to reduce your consumption and/or avoid seaweed supplements.⁹ Thyroiditis often resolves over time, although it can leave you with an underactive thyroid.
If you use kelp-based supplements, you should tell your doctor and have your thyroid checked regularly. Kelp-based supplements are often sold for weight loss, and as weight loss is a symptom of hyperthyroidism, it might look like the pills are ‘working.’
If your hyperthyroidism is caused by Graves’ disease or overactive nodules, then the ‘cure’ has its own issues. Typically, the only way to permanently prevent the overproduction of thyroid hormone is to intentionally damage the thyroid with radiation or surgery.
The thyroid then usually becomes underactive, resulting in the lifelong need for hormone therapy to correct this. While this typically causes fewer complications than hyperthyroidism (as long as you take your meds), it would not be entirely accurate to call it a cure.
Typically, hyperthyroidism caused by an overdose of thyroid hormone replacement or seaweed is usually transient. The thyroid hormone level will normalize when you stop taking them, but you may need treatment to control symptoms.
Postpartum thyroiditis can sometimes go away on its own (and sometimes not produce symptoms). However, in some people, it can result in temporary hyperthyroidism and permanent hypothyroidism later on.
There are likely more people with postpartum thyroiditis than is known as it can be asymptomatic, and it may be one of the causes of hyperthyroidism. Due to this reason, many doctors recommend screening people who have recently given birth to monitor thyroid levels and make sure that they are returning to normal. Note that you should not take anti-thyroid medications if you are breastfeeding.
Thyroiditis from other causes can also sometimes go away on its own, possibly before anyone notices they may have the condition. Your doctor may want to check your levels a couple of times to ensure that your hyperthyroidism is not transient.
If you have had hyperthyroidism for a while, however, it is unlikely to go away without treatment.
Your thyroid gland is a very important part of your body, and looking after it can help you avoid developing thyroiditis and related problems. While there is no specific diet for your thyroid (whether or not you have a disorder), eating healthily in general will help keep your thyroid happy.
Some considerations for a healthy thyroid are:
Get enough vitamin D:¹⁰ There is a potential connection between vitamin D deficiency and an underactive thyroid. Many people don't get enough vitamin D in their diet.
Be careful with seaweed supplements, especially those containing kelp: While kelp is typically good for you, it can cause an overactive thyroid in some people. Before taking these supplements, talk to your doctor and get your thyroid levels checked regularly. Stop taking seaweed immediately if your levels are high.
Quit smoking: Talk to your doctor about a cessation program if you are unable to manage it on your own. While ex-smokers still have an elevated risk of hyperthyroidism, it is lower than people who are still using nicotine products. This includes vaping.
Be careful with your dosage if you are on thyroid medication: Make sure you don't take an overdose. Keep children away from thyroid medication. Be aware that medication intended for dogs often has a higher dosage and can be highly toxic.
There are relatively few ways to prevent hyperthyroidism, however, and in many cases, the cause of both overactive and underactive thyroid is purely genetic.
If you have any of the symptoms listed above, your doctor will want to check your thyroid hormone levels. Recommendations on thyroid screening for adults vary from screening everyone 35 years and older to no routine screening at all.
Consider talking to your doctor about testing if:
A family member has been diagnosed with thyroid disease
You have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. As diabetes greatly increases the risk of thyroid disease, regular testing is recommended.
You are routinely taking medications that contain iodine
You are trying to get pregnant and are having problems
You are experiencing clinical depression with no apparent cause, as this can be a symptom of both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism
If you have symptoms of hyperthyroidism, talk to your doctor right away about a thyroid check and to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.
Hyperthyroidism can be treated, but it cannot be cured in the sense that you can take medication or get treatment and completely return to normal life.
Some causes of hyperthyroidism are short-term, such as pregnancy, which may resolve on their own or require only temporary treatment to deal with symptoms. Others may require long-term medication and/or monitoring or may permanently depress your thyroid function levels, necessitating treatment for hypothyroidism.
The outcome depends on the cause of your hyperthyroidism. Talk to your doctor about this and find out your options.
Hyperthyroidism (overactive) | American Thyroid Association
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) | National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease | National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Graves’ ophthalmopathy (2014)
Methimazole | University of Michigan Health
Low iodine diet | American Thyroid Association