When it comes to fertility, there are a lot of factors to consider, and one of the biggest isn’t exactly the most obvious. In fact, the key to some fertility problems may actually be in your throat.
The thyroid, a butterfly shaped organ at the front of the throat, plays a key role in menstruation, conceiving, and ovulation. Whether trying to conceive, already pregnant, or just becoming more aware of your own fertility, paying attention to thyroid health can be a critical component in tracking and improving fertility.
“Thyroid hormones are essential in the first 12 weeks of embryo development,” says Dr. Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, PHD, CEO of Boost Thyroid. “The embryo can’t produce any thyroid hormones on its own just yet, but even in the later stages of pregnancy the mother’s thyroid hormones will impact the growth of the fetus.”
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system, which helps to both produce and distribute hormones throughout the body. Those hormones, called T3 and T4, control the speed at which the body’s cells work.
An estimated one in eight women will develop thyroid disease within their lifetime.
This process is known as metabolic function, and if it isn’t working properly it can affect the body in a lot of different ways. When the thyroid doesn’t work properly it can cause problems with breathing, heart rate, muscle strength, body temperature, and the menstrual cycle.
The pituitary gland, an endocrine gland at the base of the brain that secretes hormones into the bloodstream, produces Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), which tells the thyroid to produce T3 and T4, the hormones that affect the speed of metabolic function. It also releases prolactin, which stimulates lactation and affects the production of estrogen from the ovaries. If the thyroid and pituitary gland aren’t able to communicate properly because of lack of, or an increase in, TSH or T3 and T4, the reproductive system can be affected.
An estimated one in eight women will develop thyroid disease within their lifetime. Given the thyroid’s direct connection to reproductive health, it’s important to understand and pay close attention to thyroid health, along with fertility, for a better chance at conceiving and an overall healthy pregnancy.
“Knowing your thyroid status can be really helpful for the reproductive specialists you work with,” says Dr. Högqvist Tabor. “It is a crucial part of making informed decisions throughout the stages of a reproductive treatment journey.”
If the thyroid isn’t working properly, it is due to either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Although just a few letters apart and extremely easy to mess up with autocorrect, the two affect the body very differently and both can impact fertility and pregnancy.
The symptoms for hypothyroidism can mirror those of normal pregnancy changes. Weight gain, mood swings, and fatigue are some of the symptoms of hypothyroidism which can also be experienced during a normal and healthy pregnancy.
Hypothyroidism has been linked to maternal anemia, myopathy, congestive heart failure, pre-eclampsia, placental abnormalities, and postpartum hemorrhage. Pregnancy, and a change in hormones, can also trigger hypothyroidism in patients who were not previously diagnosed.
Hyperthyroidism is the opposite of hypothyroidism and is caused when the thyroid produces too much of the hormone thyroxine. Hyperthyroidism, and grave’s disease, have been linked to early labor, pre-eclampsia and thyroid storm-- a possibly life-threatening condition that causes the heart rate to increase dangerously high. Hyperthyroidism can cause irregular menstrual periods, which can result in missed ovulation.
If uncontrolled, thyroid disease can also lead to miscarriage and infertility if not properly diagnosed or treated. Too much or too little T3 and T4 can cause low success of fertilization, embryo implantation and disturb typical embryo growth.
And it isn’t just women whose reproductive health can be affected by thyroid disease. Male fertility can also take a hit if the thyroid isn’t working properly. Thyroid disease can lower testosterone, decrease sperm motility, and cause low counts of high-quality sperm.
With close monitoring and treatment, a healthy pregnancy is totally possible for patients with an over or underactive thyroid. Thyroid disease patients should talk early and often with their endocrinologist about their plans to conceive, and the effect thyroid disease might take on their reproductive health.
It can be helpful to test your thyroid health when planning to fall pregnant – if you have known thyroid issues it's even worth checking in with your doctor to ensure your thyroid levels are in the normal range.
“Take the medications and supplements, maintain regular appointments with your doctor, and reduce your stress levels,” says Dr. Högqvist Tabor. “You can absolutely have a healthy and normal pregnancy with thyroid disease."