Board-certified OB-GYN, co-host of ABC’s The Revolution, leading women’s health expert, article and book author, television news medical correspondent, philanthropist, wife and mother of two. These are just a few of the impressive titles that identify Dr. Jennifer Ashton. We had the incredible privilege to meet this Woman You Should Know a few weeks ago, when our co-founder taped a segment with her on women’s thyroid health that airs today on The Revolution. A true advocate for women to demand the best for themselves and from their doctors when it comes to their health, Dr. Jen took time out of her unimaginably busy schedule to talk further with us about women’s thyroid health and to answer all of our questions.
Thyroid health is a topic we care deeply about at WYSK as two of us have been personally affected by the sudden onset of different thyroid diseases in our 30s and 40s, respectively. In both cases, the diagnoses were surprising and downright scary, simply because our bodies were inexplicably out of whack and we were clueless about thyroid disease as the cause. It’s an important subject that we find lacks attention and discussion, leaving women without the information and knowledge they deserve and need. This exclusive Q&A with Dr. Jen is our opportunity to cast a much needed spotlight on this curious little gland that is so often ignored or misunderstood, yet is so critical to overall health and wellness. We are incredibly grateful to Dr. Jen for helping us navigate through this relatively uncharted territory for all of our WYSK readers.
WYSK: As a doctor, do you find that most women have no idea what the thyroid is or what it does?
Dr. Jen: YES! I find that the majority of my patients and women in general know very little about the thyroid. Many people don’t know what it is, where it is, what it does. People shouldn’t be ashamed if they don’t know; they should ask their doctor or read about the thyroid online. Think of it like mini-med school.
WYSK: Where is the thyroid, and what does it do?
Dr. Jen: The thyroid is a small endocrine gland, meaning it makes hormones, and is located in the neck, right by the Adam’s apple. It is often referred to as the ‘master gland’ in the body because the hormones it produces, T4 and T3, regulate so many essential bodily functions. These range from our metabolism, to our menstrual cycles, to our moods, to our heart rate, to our GI tract.
WYSK: How does the thyroid affect women’s health?
Dr. Jen: The thyroid plays a key role in women’s health because having an over or under-active thyroid can affect the menstrual cycle and a woman’s fertility or pregnancy. In fact, it is often THE first blood test an Ob-Gyn will do whenever a woman’s periods are irregular (either too frequent or too infrequent). Thyroid problems can be a cause of miscarriage as well and can affect the fetus if not well-managed.
WYSK: What are some of symptoms of thyroid disease that women may encounter?
Dr. Jen: The symptoms of an underactive thyroid (or hypothyroidism) include: weight gain, constipation, feeling cold, depression, dry skin, brittle nails, shortness of breath, elevated blood pressure, absent OR heavy periods, swelling around the eyes. The symptoms of an overactive thyroid (or hyperthyroidism) are basically the opposite of those of hypothyroidism: weight loss, diarrhea, feeling hot/sweaty, anxiety, palpitations, heavy periods or frequent periods, thinning hair, and in some cases, discoloration or swelling of the skin overlying the shins.
WYSK: What about thyroid cancer?
Dr. Jen: This is usually a very curable form of cancer (there are different types of thyroid cancer, but the most common type is very curable). It is more common amongst women than men, and is one of the more common cancers affecting younger women. It is on the rise in the U.S. for reasons we don’t understand, so it is important to know the signs and symptoms. Pain in the neck or throat, hoarseness of the voice, difficulty swallowing, feeling a lump in the neck are all symptoms of thyroid cancer (though obviously don’t always indicate thyroid cancer). If you have these signs or symptoms, your doctor will probably do some blood tests, send you for an ultrasound of your neck/thyroid and possibly refer you for a needle biopsy. Like any cancer, the earlier thyroid cancer is detected, the better the chance for a cure.
WYSK: Does thyroid disease often go undiagnosed because many of the symptoms can be attributed to other things, such as stress?
Dr. Jen: Because these symptoms mimic so many other conditions (or even the normal aging process) the diagnosis can be missed. In fact, of the 27 million Americans with thyroid disease, an estimated 50% do not even know they have it.
WYSK: How many women are affected by thyroid disease?
Dr. Jen: Women are more likely to get thyroid disease and thyroid cancer than are men. In fact, a woman has a 1 in 5 chance of developing thyroid disease in her lifetime, and this is especially common right after pregnancy (affecting as many as 1 in 8 women postpartum) and near menopause.
WYSK: What questions should women ask their doctors about thyroid health?
Dr. Jen: Women should talk to their doctors about getting a simple blood test for thyroid disease and even if that initial test is normal, if she is still having symptoms, I always recommend repeating the blood test and doing a full “thyroid function panel.” There is some belief amongst hormone specialists, known as endocrinologists, that the blood tests can be ‘normal’ but that a slight/mild degree of thyroid dysfunction may still exist. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second or third opinion, and/or to see an endocrinologist.
Meet Woman You Should Know, Dr. Jen:
OB-GYN Dr. Jennifer Ashton, co-host of ABC’s The Revolution, is a leading women’s health expert who is an advocate for patients, especially women, and helps them demand the best for themselves and from their doctors when it comes to their health and families. Dr. Ashton is passionate about bringing up-to-the-minute medical information that transforms health, saves money and might just save a life.
Dr. Ashton is a Board-certified OB-GYN and is on the attending staff of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center – an affiliate of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine – in Englewood, NJ. Her private medical practice, Hygeia Gynecology, is also located in Englewood, NJ, where she treats women of all ages for both medical and surgical gynecologic conditions such as depression, hypertension and obesity.
A graduate of Columbia College at Columbia University, she went on to receive her medical degree from Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she was elected Class President for four consecutive years. Upon graduation, she was awarded the prestigious Bartlestone Award in Pharmacology. Dr. Ashton received her post-graduate training in women’s health and surgery at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. She also served as Administrative Chief Resident and was awarded Chief Resident of the Year upon completing her residency.
Dr. Ashton is a member of the North American Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, as well as a Fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. She has published articles in peer-review medical journals and presented at national clinical meetings in the fields of general surgery, critical care and gynecologic oncology. She serves on the Board of Trustees of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism in Medicine, which fosters the training and recognition of compassionate medical care.
Active in many charitable organizations, Dr. Ashton has been recognized for her philanthropic efforts by numerous foundations, including the Girl Scouts, at its Women of Achievement Awards Dinner (2007), and The Octoberwoman Foundation for Breast Cancer Awareness, as the recipient of their Hope for The Future Award (2008). She has also been awarded the Policeman’s Benevolent Association Medal of Honor for providing emergency medical care to injured Englewood police officers during the snow storm of February 2008, and honored by the city of Englewood for heroic service to Haitian earthquake victims.
Most recently Dr. Ashton served as a medical correspondent for CBS News from 2009-2011, and was seen on “The Early Show” and “The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.” She received the prestigious Alfred I. duPont – Columbia University Award for Excellence in Journalism for her work on CBS’ “Children of the Recession” series. In addition, Dr. Ashton has been a regular expert guest on “Dr. Oz” and has appeared on The Learning Channel’s (TLC) “A Baby Story.” From 2006-2009 she appeared on the Fox News Channel as a medical contributor, and was a featured expert guest on XM satellite radio’s “Oprah & Friends” with Dr. Mehmet Oz.
In January 2010, Dr. Ashton travelled to Haiti with a medical team, where she treated victims of the earthquake for eight days and reported her experience for CBS News.
Her award-winning book, The Body Scoop for Girls (Avery/Penguin), was released in January of 2010 and is a relatable guidebook for teenage health. Her second book, Your Body Beautiful (Avery/Penguin), was released on January 5, 2012 and is a new-age, head-to-toe guide to vitality and beauty for women aged 30 and over.
Part of a family of six other physicians and one nurse, Dr. Ashton resides in New Jersey with her husband, renowned thoracic surgeon Dr. Robert Ashton, and their two children.