Life Time has partnered with the sports health experts at NYU Langone Health to provide insights into the common health issues that have the potential to prevent you from moving freely and functioning at your best.
Meet the Expert
- Sumedha Chablani, MD, endocrinologist, clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and thyroid health expert at NYU Langone
Q: What is thyroid dysfunction and how can it affect my performance as an athlete?
A: The thyroid is a small gland that sits at the base of the neck and releases two hormones, T3 and T4, that help regulate metabolism in the body. Thyroid dysfunction occurs when there is either an increased or decreased level of these hormones.
“While an athlete doesn’t necessarily have an increased or decreased risk of thyroid dysfunction, the presenting symptoms can affect athletic performance,” explains Sumedha Chablani, MD, an endocrinologist and thyroid health expert with NYU Langone. “While the symptoms of thyroid dysfunction can be nonspecific, one common sign is fatigue. I recommend that anyone with a preexisting or family history of thyroid disease follow up with their primary-care physician.”
3 Types of Thyroid Dysfunction
- Hypothyroidism is the most common type of thyroid dysfunction and occurs when your body underproduces thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include slow metabolism, weight gain, cold intolerance, constipation, decreased energy, slow heart rate, fatigue, and depression.
- Hyperthyroidism occurs when your body overproduces thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include fast metabolism, weight loss, hot intolerance, watery bowel movements, rapid heart rate, insomnia, and anxiety.
- Nodules or swelling of the thyroid gland can also affect the production of thyroid hormones. Severe symptoms of this include difficulty breathing or swallowing and hoarseness.
Thyroid Dysfunction in Athletes
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can present with fatigue or changes in energy levels, which can impact athletic performance and endurance. Thyroid hormones can also affect receptors on the heart — an essential organ when it comes to exercise and athleticism — causing decreased or increased heart rate.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism is an autoimmune response from your body. The body releases an antibody that attacks the thyroid gland, causing the under- or overproduction of thyroid hormones. Risk factors for this autoimmune process include genetics, infection, stress, or pregnancy.
Injury to the pituitary gland in the brain, which regulates the thyroid, can also lead to thyroid disease. “One cause of pituitary dysfunction that is especially relevant to athletes is traumatic brain injury from contact sports,” says Dr. Chablani. “Additional causes include the development of a growth on the gland, inflammation, and infection.”
Overcoming Thyroid Dysfunction
If you’re experiencing symptoms of thyroid dysfunction, the first step is to meet with your primary-care physician. They may refer you to an endocrinologist if needed.
“Thyroid dysfunction can actually be transient, meaning it can clear up on its own over time,” Dr. Chablani says. “We’re seeing this a lot with COVID-19, where some patients develop short-lived inflammation of the thyroid gland that can improve without any intervention. Your physician will monitor your levels to determine what or if medication is needed, and it’s important to follow up regularly.”
In the case of nodules or growth of the thyroid gland, there are a few different therapies used by physicians, and it may involve surgery.
“If an athlete is diagnosed with hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism — in addition to taking their prescribed medications and going to their follow-up appointments — general healthy lifestyle habits can improve their overall thyroid health,” adds Dr. Chablani. “Eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques can all be beneficial.”
The Sports Health experts at NYU Langone have the multi-specialty expertise to provide coordinated, comprehensive care for all types of athletes. As an official healthcare partner, Life Time is able to offer its members exclusive concierge access to NYU Langone’s world-class orthopedic specialists and performance experts, who can help you meet your fitness goals. To schedule an in-person appointment or video visit with a Sports Health expert, visit nyulangone.org/lifetime.