Why Do We Put on Weight with Hypothyroidism?

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Originally published on 9th April 2016
Last updated on 23rd July 2019

Thyroid disease is often used as a joke or a scapegoat for weight gain. People throw it around, and as such, it’s not taken very seriously.

Many people think it’s just an excuse for being overweight. 

But weight gain is a legitimate symptom of an underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism, along with many others. Why? 

Why Thyroid Hormones Are Important 

A thyroid gland produces five hormones: T1. T2, T3, T4 and Calcitonin.

These 5 hormones are needed for every process, every cell and everything function in your body, especially T3 and T4. So when they are abnormal (i.e. low), a lot of other stuff can go wrong too.

T3 is the most active thyroid hormone.

The main purpose of thyroid hormones, produced by the thyroid gland, is to ensure the metabolism is running properly.

The metabolism’s job is to produce heat and fuel. Heat to keep us warm and fuel to give us energy. Now, if we don’t have enough of those thyroid hormones I told you about, our metabolism won’t work properly and so can’t provide us with adequate heat and fuel.

Therefore, people with an underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism can have a slow metabolism, with symptoms associated with a slow metabolism, such as cold intolerance (from the lack of heat made) and extreme tiredness and weight gain (from the lack of calories burned to make energy).

Weight Gain

Medical professionals seem to think that the weight gain from hypothyroidism is usually between 10 and 30 pounds, thinking that the body adjusts for the slower metabolism after while. This is very much disputed, though, as many patients carry on gaining, despite a low calorie diet.

So Shouldn’t the Weight Gain Stop or Come off When You Start Medication?

You would think so, yes, but it’s not always so straight forward.

It all depends on if the hypothyroidism is being optimally treated and corrected. Many thyroid patients are not.

Remember the five thyroid hormones I mentioned at the start of this article? Well, we need to replace them, since the underactive thyroid isn’t making enough of them and this is usually done via medication.

Thyroid medication Comes in a Few Forms

Remembering that a healthy thyroid would be producing five hormones:

  • There is synthetic T4-only medicine, which only contains T4
  • There is T3-only medicine, which only contains T3
  • There is Natural Desiccated Thyroid (NDT) or Compounded Thyroid, which contains all five; T1, T2, T3, T4 and Calcitonin and is made from actual porcine thyroid gland

Doctors prefer using T4-only medication for hypothyroidism and very rarely prescribe the other options, even though they are available on prescription and can really prove useful to thyroid patients who don’t see results on T4-only meds. Why? Well, that’s up for debate. You can read a bit more about why here.

Essentially, NDT was used for many years until it fell out of favour due to a complicated history, at the same time that synthetic T4 was introduced. The result? Many patients are now on t4-only synthetics, like Levothyroxine and Synthroid, and still feel unwell because they need the other thyroid hormones too.

In theory, T4 should convert in to T3, and that’s why doctors refuse to believe that T4-only medication does not help everyone. But a lot of people can’t convert the T4 in to T3, so the medication doesn’t work for them. When they change to NDT, or add T3 to their T4, they usually end up making huge improvements. Like me.

Optimal Levels 

Having optimal thyroid levels and not just ones that are ‘in range’ can also make a big difference to symptoms and weight. Particularly Free T3 levels.

However, many people are only having their TSH and perhaps Free T4 tested, which doesn’t show if they’re Free T3 is optimised, and if they’re on T4-only meds, if the T4 is converting to adequate amounts of T3.

This too can leave ongoing complaints, symptoms and weight that keeps piling on.

For patients kept on a thyroid medication which is not working for them, or too low a dose, this means they are kept hypothyroid, non-optimally treated, and so their symptoms may get no better. Because of this, their metabolism may not function optimally, leading to weight gain and an inability to lose weight. Along with many other hypothyroid symptoms.

Are you a thyroid patient experiencing weight fluctuations?

You can click on the hyperlinks in the above post to learn more and see references to information given.

If you found this article beneficial, please take a moment to share it so we can help others get better with hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's, whilst also raising awareness. "Be Your Own Thyroid Advocate."

Written by Rachel, The Invisible Hypothyroidism

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4 thoughts on “Why Do We Put on Weight with Hypothyroidism?

  1. I have a naturally really large prominent thyroid. Many doctors have checked it, but they never actually show me the full results! I suspect that it’s showing low levels on some of T’s….but not the ones they commonly treat in the UK. I have a Fibromyalgia diagnosis, and am now suffering from unbearable fatigue. I’ve put on around 3 stone in weight. I can (and before our wedding 2 years ago, did…) lose weight following Slimming World, but it’s only a very little at a time (like half a pound) and I have to be ridiculously strict. One treat, off-plan meal….I’ll gain weight.
    I’m a bit at the end of my tether at the moment, after a sleep study shows no…I don’t have sleep apnea to explain the exhaustion. I really think it could be my thyroid.
    What test should I be asking for?
    Many thanks. Xx

    1. So sorry to read about your struggles Lucie. 😔 I would start by getting a print out of any tests so you can begin with the knowledge of what you’ve already had tested. The full thyroid panel consists of TSH, Free T3 and T4, Thyroid Antibodies TpoAB and Tgab and Reverse T3 (though extremely uncommon to successfully get done). I would be looking at your free t3 mainly to begin with and checking it is optimal (not just in range). If you haven’t already, feel free to join my Facebook group Thyroid Family. Over 36,000 members willing to help and support you further.

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