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Is Thyroid Medication Effective for Weight Loss?

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedFebruary 22, 2024

Treating an underactive thyroid might lead to weight loss, but thyroid medication isn't intended for weight loss. The American Thyroid Association (ATA) notes that thyroid issues could contribute 5-10 pounds of weight gain.

While thyroid medication helps manage the condition, it's unlikely to impact weight significantly. For those without thyroid problems, taking such medication can be risky, potentially causing hyperthyroidism—an overactive thyroid.

Discover more about hypothyroidism, the effects of thyroid medication on weight, anticipated weight loss post-treatment, timeframes for weight loss on thyroid medication, and alternative weight loss strategies for individuals with thyroid concerns.

🔑 Key Takeaways:

  • Thyroid hormones are vital for regulating energy usage and influencing organ function, including the heart.
  • Hypothyroidism is common, affecting nearly 5 out of every 100 individuals aged 12 and above in the US.
  • Untreated hypothyroidism during pregnancy can adversely affect both the mother and the baby.
  • Thyroid medication, like levothyroxine, aims to replenish deficient thyroid hormones and normalize metabolism.
  • Excessive thyroid hormone treatment should be approached cautiously, as discontinuation often results in regaining weight.
  • Due to hypothyroidism's impact on metabolism, focusing on a balanced diet is essential for supporting weight loss.
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What Is Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism, also called underactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid gland fails to produce adequate thyroid hormones required by the body. The thyroid gland, resembling a butterfly in shape, is located in the neck's front.

Thyroid hormones play a pivotal role in regulating the body's energy usage and influence the functioning of numerous organs, including the heart. In the absence of sufficient thyroid hormones, various bodily processes slow down.

But how common is hypothyroidism, and who's more likely to get it? What are its impact during pregnancy, and potential complications? Let’s find out below.

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How Common Is Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism is relatively common, affecting nearly 5 out of every 100 Americans aged 12 years and above. However, most cases of hypothyroidism are mild and may not present with overt or severe symptoms.

Who Is More Likely To Develop Hypothyroidism?

Certain demographic groups are more susceptible to hypothyroidism:

  • Gender: Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems, resulting in a disproportionate impact of hypothyroidism on them. This discrepancy could be attributed, in part, to hormonal fluctuations associated with the female reproductive system.
  • Age: The risk of developing hypothyroidism increases, especially among individuals older than 60.
  • Medical History and Conditions: Those who have previously experienced thyroid problems (such as goiter), undergone thyroid-related surgeries, received radioactive iodine treatment, or have a family history of thyroid disease are at elevated risk. Recent pregnancy, a genetic disorder called Turner syndrome, and certain health issues like celiac disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, pernicious anemia, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus increase the likelihood of hypothyroidism.

Is Hypothyroidism During Pregnancy A Problem?

Untreated hypothyroidism during pregnancy can negatively impact both the mother and the baby. However, thyroid medications are safe during pregnancy and can help prevent complications.

Many pregnant women taking thyroid hormone medication may require dosage adjustments, so it's crucial to notify a doctor promptly upon confirming pregnancy.

What Are The Complications Of Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism can contribute to elevated cholesterol levels. Severe, untreated hypothyroidism can lead to myxedema coma, an extreme manifestation characterized by significant slowing of bodily functions, which can be life-threatening.

💡 Did You Know?

Myxedema coma affected mainly females (66.7%) with an average age of 77 years. The mortality rate was 29.5%, at 1.08 per million people annually.

What Are The Symptoms Of Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism exhibits many symptoms that can vary from person to person. Common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue: Overwhelming tiredness and lack of energy
  • Weight Gain: Unexplained weight increase, often regardless of dietary habits
  • Cold Intolerance: Heightened sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • Muscle and Joint Discomfort: Muscle aches, weakness, and joint pain
  • Dry Skin and Thinning Hair: Skin dryness and hair thinning
  • Menstrual Irregularities: Heavy or irregular menstrual periods or fertility issues
  • Slowed Heart Rate: Heart rate slower than normal
  • Depression: Prolonged feelings of sadness or low mood

🩺 A Doctor’s Note:

Hypothyroidism develops gradually. Symptoms may not be noticeable for extended periods, months to years. Some symptoms, such as fatigue and weight gain, can be common and not exclusively indicative of a thyroid issue.

What Causes Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism can stem from various causes, including:

  • Hashimoto's Disease: An autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid, leading to inflammation and reduced hormone production.
  • Thyroiditis: Thyroid inflammation can cause thyroid hormone leakage, initially causing high hormone levels (thyrotoxicosis), followed by hypothyroidism.
  • Congenital Hypothyroidism: Some newborns have an underdeveloped or non-functioning thyroid, which, if left untreated, can result in developmental and growth issues.
  • Surgical Thyroid Removal: Surgery removing part of the thyroid can lead to hypothyroidism, while complete removal invariably does.
  • Radiation Treatment: Radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism or radiation therapy for head and neck cancers can damage the thyroid, leading to hypothyroidism.
  • Certain Medications: Specific medications, such as those used for heart conditions and bipolar disorder, can interfere with thyroid hormone production and cause hypothyroidism.

How Does Thyroid Medication Affect Your Weight?

When you have hypothyroidism, your metabolism slows down, making it more challenging for your body to burn calories and maintain a healthy weight.

Thyroid medication, such as levothyroxine, aims to replace the deficient thyroid hormones and restore your metabolism to a more normal level. As your thyroid hormone levels increase with medication, your metabolic rate can improve, leading to potential changes in weight.

Can Thyroid Hormones Or Medication Aid Weight Loss?

Historically, thyroid hormones have been explored as potential tools for weight loss. Administering excessive thyroid hormone can lead to more significant weight loss than dieting alone, but this approach comes with caveats.

Excessive thyroid hormone treatment should be approached cautiously. Once treatment is stopped, weight loss often rebounds. Relying on high doses of thyroid hormone for weight loss can have adverse effects, including muscle protein loss alongside body fat loss, which isn't ideal for overall health. Attempting to manipulate thyroid hormone levels through elevated doses is unlikely to yield sustained weight changes and may result in other complications.

While thyroid medication like levothyroxine can assist weight loss in individuals with hypothyroidism, it is not safe or recommended to use thyroid hormones as weight loss tools for those without thyroid disorders.

Using thyroid medication without medical necessity can lead to serious health risks. Thyroid medication is designed to address hormone imbalances and specific thyroid conditions. Using it solely for weight loss can disrupt thyroid hormone balance, potentially causing hyperthyroidism.

This can lead to symptoms like:

Even mildly elevated thyroid levels without a disorder can increase appetite and weight gain. It's crucial to use thyroid medication only as a healthcare professional prescribes and for its intended medical purpose.

How Much Weight Can I Expect To Lose Once My Hypothyroidism Is Treated?

When hypothyroidism is successfully treated with thyroid hormone replacement, some weight loss can be anticipated, but the extent of this weight loss tends to be modest.

Much weight gain associated with hypothyroidism is often due to excess salt and water retention rather than fat accumulation. Upon treatment, individuals can expect a relatively small weight loss, typically less than 10% of their body weight.

Similar to the approach to treating hyperthyroidism, addressing hypothyroidism through thyroid hormone therapy should ideally result in a return of body weight to levels before developing hypothyroidism.

However, because hypothyroidism tends to develop gradually over an extended period, it's not uncommon for significant weight loss to be elusive even after successfully managing the condition.

If other symptoms of hypothyroidism are resolved through thyroid hormone treatment, except for weight gain, it may indicate that weight issues are not solely attributed to the thyroid.

Once hypothyroidism is treated and thyroid hormone levels are restored to the normal range, the body's ability to gain or lose weight should resemble that of individuals without thyroid disorders.

💉 Medical Advisory

Not all individuals with hypothyroidism experience weight loss due to thyroid medication. A study from 2014 found that only about 52% of patients with diagnosed hypothyroidism lost weight after taking thyroid medication.

For those who did experience weight loss, the average amount was around 3.8 to 4.4 pounds after five months of treatment. It's important to manage expectations and understand that the effects of thyroid medication on weight can differ among individuals.

How Long After Starting Thyroid Medication Will I Lose Weight?

The timeline for weight loss after starting thyroid medication varies from person to person.

Weight loss is not guaranteed for everyone taking thyroid medication. After beginning treatment with thyroid medication, like levothyroxine, it generally takes time for your body to adjust to the new hormone levels and for your metabolism to normalize.

Typically, noticeable changes in weight may occur after about three to six months of consistent use of thyroid medication.

However, weight loss results can vary based on factors such as your initial thyroid hormone levels, medication, overall health, and lifestyle factors like diet and exercise.

What Weight Loss Options Are Available For Thyroid Issues?

Losing weight with hypothyroidism involves a holistic approach that combines thyroid medication, lifestyle modifications, and healthy habits. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Diet: Since hypothyroidism can slow your metabolism, focus on a balanced diet supporting weight loss. Tracking your calorie intake and making mindful food choices can help. Reducing or eliminating high-calorie foods and sugary drinks can make a significant difference in managing your weight.
  • Exercise: Regular cardiovascular exercise, such as brisk walking, running, or cycling, can help increase your calorie expenditure and support weight loss. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
  • Medication Optimization: Work closely with your healthcare provider to ensure you're on the right dose of thyroid medication. Achieving the appropriate dosage can optimize your metabolism and support weight management.
  • Nutrition Guidance: Consulting a registered dietitian can provide personalized nutrition advice tailored to your thyroid condition and weight loss goals.
  • Hydration: Staying hydrated can help regulate your metabolism and curb overeating. Aim to drink plenty of water throughout the day.

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  • Sleep: Prioritize adequate sleep, as sleep deprivation can affect hormones influencing hunger and metabolism.
  • Stress Management: Chronic stress can impact hormone balance and contribute to weight gain. Stress-reduction techniques like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing can be beneficial.
  • Support: Joining a support group or seeking guidance from healthcare professionals can encourage and help you stay on track with your weight loss journey.

Remember, weight loss results may vary, and it's important to approach weight management with realistic expectations and a focus on overall health and well-being.

🗒️ Related Articles:

To learn more about weight management, check out some of our articles:

Final Thoughts

Thyroid medication can assist with weight loss in individuals dealing with hypothyroidism by restoring their metabolic rates. However, the extent of weight loss is usually modest and varies among individuals.

It's essential to use thyroid medication only as prescribed by a medical professional and not as a means for weight loss in those without thyroid disorders.

Optimize thyroid medication with a healthcare professional combined with a balanced diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes for effective weight management in hypothyroidism.

FAQs on Thyroid Medication and Weight Loss

What are the benefits of taking thyroid medication?

Thyroid medication can boost energy, stabilize weight, improve sex drive, enhance sleep, alleviate muscle and joint pain, and uplift mood by treating low thyroid levels or hormone imbalances.

What happens when you start taking thyroid medication?

After starting thyroid medication, you should experience improvement within days, but it might take months for thyroid levels to normalize. If symptoms persist despite improved levels, your treatment might need adjustment.

What is the most common side effect of levothyroxine?

Frequent side effects of levothyroxine encompass heat intolerance, rapid heart rate, and diarrhea. More severe side effects are also possible.

Should I take thyroid medicine lifelong?

Treatment duration varies based on the diagnosis, but your doctor might prescribe medication long-term or lifelong to maintain proper thyroid hormone levels in your body.

Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Virtual weight loss solution
A personalized GLP-1 medication program (eg. Wegovy, Ozempic), delivered to you via our partner Korb Health
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • Free consultation; program starts at $269/mo
  • Checkmark Inside Circle.Customized online program and wellness coaching
  • Prescription medications and supplies shipped to your door