Your thyroid is a hard-working, butterfly-shaped gland that’s responsible for regulating your metabolism, which in turn provides energy to maintain crucial bodily functions such as breathing, digestion, and circulation. It deserves attention and care, from taking preventative measures to keep it healthy to watching for warning signs that something could be wrong. But about 60 percent of people with a thyroid condition don’t realize they have a problem, reports HealthyWomen, and therefore don’t seek treatment. Knowing the warning signs of a thyroid condition is a crucial way to take care of this vital organ—and one symptom that can show up in the bathroom may mean it’s time for a trip to the doctor. Read on to find out what it is.
There are different forms of thyroid problems; the two most common types are called hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. “A slowed thyroid gland is known as hypothyroidism, the condition in which your thyroid does not make enough thyroid hormones,” explains Yasmin Akhunji, MD, a board-certified endocrinologist with Paloma Health. “You might experience symptoms that feel like the body is slowing down, like dry skin, brittle nails, or weight gain.”
“An overactive thyroid gland is known as hyperthyroidism, the condition in which your thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone,” says Akhunji. “In this case, you might experience symptoms that feel like the body is speeding up, like excess sweating, restlessness, or a fast heartbeat.”
While you might not immediately associate your thyroid with your stomach, the two are inextricably linked. “The thyroid gland can have a significant impact on the gastrointestinal system,” according to the Endoscopy Center of Washington, D.C. “When the thyroid gland is not functioning properly, it can cause a wide range of problems, including digestive issues.”
An underactive thyroid slows down your body’s various processes, and that may include any of the many functions your digestive system performs. “Hypothyroidism slows the movement of food through your stomach and intestines,” advises Healthline. “Slowed digestion can lead to symptoms like heartburn, constipation, and bloating.”
When the thyroid is overactive, this can cause different types of problems in the digestive system.
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Just as hypothyroidism slows the body down, hyperthyroidism speeds things up. “At first, symptoms of hyperthyroidism may be vague and easy to dismiss,” endocrinologist Shiri Levy, MD, explained to Henry Ford Health. “Left untreated, a thyroid that has been working overtime can pump thyroid levels so high that organs like the heart and liver go into shock.”
Some of the symptoms related to hyperthyroidism make sense when you think of the body working overtime. Rapid heartbeat, increased metabolism leading to weight loss, excessive sweating, and feeling anxious and shaky are all symptoms of hyperthyroidism as cited by the Cleveland Clinic. (Those are just some warning signs of thyroid problems—others can include hair changes or extreme sensitivity to heat or cold.)
And while diarrhea and frequent bowel movements can signal many different conditions, they may also be caused by the hormones produced by an overactive thyroid.
“Frequent bowel movements” can mean different things to different people. “While all people make bowel movements, the frequency varies greatly,” Healthline says. “There is no generally accepted number of times a person should poop.” However, the site notes that most people have their own regular pattern of bowel movements. And while there are many factors that can affect changes in your bathroom habits—ranging from medication side effects to an upset stomach caused by foodborne illness—Healthline recommends speaking to your doctor about changes that last longer than a week.
Also look for changes in the appearance of your stool, as hyperthyroidism may affect the color and consistency as well as the frequency of your bowel movements. “Your stool should be brown, pain-free to eliminate, and soft to firm in texture,” says Akhunji.
“The classic symptoms of hyperthyroidism include heat intolerance, tremor, palpitations, anxiety, weight loss despite a normal or increased appetite, increased frequency of bowel movements, and shortness of breath,” writes Douglas S. Ross, MD, in an article published by UpToDate. If you notice any of these, make an appointment with your health care provider.