Thyroid Test: Why You Need It
In the world of Western medicine, doctors and hospitals usually over-test, over-prescribe, and under-deliver.
So it’s with some irony today that I point out a crucial test that you’re probably not getting—a thyroid test.
Many insurance companies consider thyroid tests too expensive to be worth the trouble. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
Hypothyroidism—when the thyroid isn’t functioning correctly, and you are lacking thyroid hormones—can lead to a whole host of other problems.
Most alarming, a malfunctioning thyroid can cause cholesterol and heart issues, eventually leading to heart attacks or death.
What’s more, the symptoms of hypothyroidism are often vague, and can easily be attributed to other causes. That’s why getting a proper thyroid test is so important—without it, you might never know you have an issue.
In fact, it’s estimated that 60% of people with thyroid problems go undiagnosed.
But before we go into how to go about getting a check-up yourself, let’s take a look at why it matters so much.
Hypothyroidism—a silent killer
About 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, and the vast majority of cases involve a thyroid that isn’t functioning at full strength. Also known as hypothyroidism.
Women—especially those over the age of 60—have a much higher rate of hypothyroidism. Somewhere between five to eight times as many women have thyroid issues as men—up to 15% of females will have a thyroid problem sometime during their life.
This matters because the hormones produced by the thyroid are responsible for a number of crucial functions. They regulate metabolism and heart rate, to name two of their more important roles.
That helps explain the most common symptoms of a thyroid issue. These include fatigue, cold hands and feet, sudden weight gain, depression, constipation, and dry skin.
Some or all of these symptoms can appear—but they also might not. And since fatigue, to take one example, can be caused by so many problems, the thyroid often isn’t considered.
But it should be.
Hashimoto’s Disease—an autoimmune problem, where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid—can be treated if diagnosed. And it’s the most common thyroid problem.
There’s another form of thyroid disease called hyperthyroidism—it’s when your thyroid goes into overdrive.
It often presents in the opposite way—so instead of gaining weight, for instance, you quickly lose it. Hyperthyroidism also can result in irritability, muscle weakness, high temperatures, and sometimes retracted eyelids.
Anything from giving birth to experiencing stress can trigger hyperthyroidism, though there is usually a strong genetic component.
If any of the above sounds like you, it’s time to see a doctor. Because, as with many ailments, if caught early, thyroid problems are far more likely to respond well to treatment.
Even most thyroid cancers respond well to treatment. If they’re caught in time.
If thyroid problems aren’t caught in time, they can easily lead to much bigger issues. Cancers can spread, or a weakened cardiovascular system can fail.
Those are the stakes. If you have cardiovascular issues—particularly if you are a woman over 60—you need to check out your thyroid.
The easy way and the hard way
The best tests for thyroid problems are blood tests. They check for levels of thyroid-stimulating hormones—or TSH.
If those levels are abnormally high, it’s because the thyroid isn’t functioning properly, so the body keeps calling for more thyroid action.
The other substance these tests look for is thyroxin—T4. This is the most common hormone produced by the thyroid. If it’s low, you have a problem.
These are very easy tests to conduct. However, you may have to fight to get them.
Some doctors don’t like to test thyroid function—primarily because it’s a headache. That’s because a lot of insurance companies don’t like to pay for them.
Since the symptoms of thyroid problems are so vague, insurance companies would be paying for a lot of negative results, if they willingly pay for thyroid tests. They don’t want to do that.
So, in order to get a thyroid test, you’ll have to find an amenable doctor, and you may have a fight with your insurance company on your hands.
It’s worth it. Ideally, you should get a thyroid test once a year.
To help you make your case, you might want to conduct your own test as well.
This one is even easier, and extremely cheap. All you need is a thermometer.
This test—named the Barnes Basal Body Temperature Test, after the doctor that invented it—checks your temperature.
More specifically, it looks for changes in your body temperature over time. Here’s how to get an accurate reading.
When you go to sleep each evening, leave a thermometer by your bed. When you wake the next morning—before you get up, before you do anything—stick the thermometer under your armpit and get a reading.
That’s your basal body temperature. It’s crucial that you do this first thing upon waking, as your temperature can be affected by all sorts of things once you start your day.
Keep a record of your temperature each morning. If your basal temperature is slowly trending downward, that’s an indication that your metabolism is off—which means your thyroid is probably off as well.
The Barnes Basal Body Temperature Test is a great way to get a rough idea if you need to worry about your thyroid or not. With most symptoms so vague, it’s the best indicator I know, outside of blood tests.
And it’s a powerful data point to bring to a stubborn insurance company. If they think you might have a thyroid issue, the test and treatment suddenly look much cheaper than dealing with the fallout.
How to treat thyroid problems
Almost all hypothyroid problems can be solved with simple hormone treatment.
The underlying problem will never go away. In fact, in many cases, we aren’t even sure what the root cause is.
But as long as you replace the missing thyroid hormones with a medication like Levothyroxine, you can avoid most or all of the issues of hypothyroidism.
But again—there’s no way for your doctor to know if you need this simple solution, unless you diagnose the problem.
If you suspect a thyroid issue—or if you are in a dangerous demographic, like women over 60—than get a thyroid test once a year.
You don’t want to be the six out of every ten sufferers that don’t know you have a problem—until it’s too late.
- Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “Do you need a thyroid test?”, Nov 2015, Vol. 23, No. 3, Page 1 and 7
- Mayo Clinic, “Hashimoto’s Disease”, Mayo Clinic Staff, Jan 2, 2014 http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hashimotos-disease/basics/definition/con-20030293
- Medicine Net, “Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis”, Aug 8, 2015 http://www.medicinenet.com/hashimotos_thyroiditis/article.htm
- Regenerative Nutrition, “The Barnes Basal Body Temperature Test”, http://www.regenerativenutrition.com/content.asp?id=574
- American Thyroid Association, “General Information” http://www.thyroid.org/media-main/about-hypothyroidism/
- Circulation, “Cardiovascular Involvement In General Medical Conditions: Thyroid Disease And The Heart”, Dr. Irwin Klein et al, 2007; 116: 1725-1735 http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/116/15/1725.full
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: March 2, 2016