Problems Controlling Your Weight? It Could Be Your Thyroid

Female doctor examining her patient.You eat a healthy diet and exercise every day, but you’re still gaining weight. The numbers on the scale continue to inch up despite your best efforts. There’s nothing more frustrating than doing the right things and not being able to keep the weight off. If you’re gradually gaining weight despite working out and watching your diet, it could be your thyroid. An under-active thyroid, a condition known as hypothyroidism, is common among women who are middle-aged or older, although it can affect anyone at any age. One classic sign of a sluggish thyroid gland is weight gain.

Is a Sluggish Thyroid Causing You to Gain Weight?

Almost 15 million people in this country have hypothyroidism and don’t know it. It’s more common in women, especially as they enter the perimenopausal years. Women with an under-active thyroid usually notice gradual weight gain that doesn’t respond to changes in diet or exercise. Other common signs and symptoms of a sluggish thyroid are dry skin, thinning hair, brittle fingernails, decreased energy level, constipation, brain fog, and memory problems and a sensation of being cold all the time.

Not everyone with hypothyroidism has all of these symptoms. There is a form of hypothyroidism called sub-clinical hypothyroidism where there are few signs or symptoms other than weight gain. If a doctor checks levels of active thyroid hormone in the bloodstream (T3 and T4), the levels are usually normal, but thyroid function is still sluggish enough to cause problems with weight control.

How Do You Know if You Have Sub-Clinical Hypothyroidism?

Because levels of active thyroid hormone are normal in sub-clinical hypothyroidism, you need an additional blood test to make the diagnosis. This test is called a TSH level. TSH or thyroid-stimulating hormone is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain. This gland sends a signal to the thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormone. One of the earliest signs of sub-clinical hypothyroidism is a rise in TSH. TSH goes up in an attempt to get the thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormone since the amount being made isn’t enough to do the job.

If you have an elevated TSH level, you have hypothyroidism even if the levels of active thyroid hormone in your bloodstream are within the normal range. Even if your TSH level is at the high end of normal, you may still experience some of the problems an under-active thyroid causes such as fatigue and weight gain.

The Problem with Having Sub-Clinical Hypothyroidism

If you have sub-clinical hypothyroidism, it can cause problems other than just weight gain. A certain number of people with this condition develop full-blown hypothyroidism over a period of years. In other cases, people with a mildly under-active thyroid live with symptoms such as fatigue, dry skin, sensitivity to cold and gradual weight gain and never know why. In addition, a sluggish thyroid gland can cause elevations in cholesterol levels that don’t respond to dietary changes.

The Bottom Line?

If you’re having problems controlling your weight, and you’re doing everything right, talk to your doctor about getting a thyroid profile to look for sub-clinical hypothyroidism. A woman has a one in five chance of having an under-active thyroid at some point in her life. Make sure your thyroid gland isn’t making it harder for you to control your weight.



American Family Physician. 1998, Feb 15: 57(4): 776-780.
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2002.
Short Summary:

Are you having problems controlling your weight? If you’re watching what you eat and exercising and still can’t keep the pounds off, it could be your thyroid. Sub-clinical hypothyroidism or a mildly under-active thyroid gland is a common problem, especially among women. Find out what the symptoms are and how to know if you have it.


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