Do you ever wish you could go back in time and change one (or more) major decisions in your life? I try to live my life with no regrets and with an appreciation that God is in control of it all. However, I had a health crisis with my thyroid several years ago –I wish that I had known then what I know now. Though I can’t have a “do over,” I can offer my experience to you in hopes that it will change your life for the better. In the end, that’s the essence having life experiences, right?
Here are some things that I wish I knew back then:
Your thyroid is critically involved in every aspect of your body’s functioning. RESPECT it. Who knew? I certainly didn’t have a full understanding 8 years ago when I started having massive anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and heart palpitations. A few months later, these symptoms were replaced with crushing fatigue, joint and back pain, hair falling out, cold all of the time (especially hands and feet), weight gain despite eating very little and exercising, brain fog and memory difficulties. I felt like I had aged 4-5 decades overnight and I was very sick. My sons would bring home the typical germs from school, and what should only have been a one or 2-day nuisance lasted weeks for me. I was, at the very least, hypothyroid, but there was a lot more going on.
The thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped organ in the front of your neck that wraps around your trachea, is intricately involved in many of your body’s functions:
Heart and Blood Pressure: when your thyroid is over or underactive, your blood pressure will either be too high (hyperthyroidism) or too low (hypothyroidism…my BP was once documented at 70/40). This poses an increased risk for heart problems, including heart attacks.
Brain/Cognition: Circulating thyroid hormones levels impact mental clarity, memory, concentration, and tendencies toward nervousness, anxiety, and depression. The brain’s ability to signal and communicate with different systems in the body is impacted by the thyroid, and emerging research suggests that there is a correlation between thyroid dysfunction and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Digestion: This is a HUGE problem area when the thyroid isn’t functioning properly. Hypothyroidism causes low stomach acid and hampers the body’s ability to digest foods. It’s common to have a host of issues including: GERD, bloating, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea (hyperthyroid), IBS, and food allergies and sensitivities. There are thyroid hormone receptors in the digestive tract, among other locations in the body. If digestion isn’t optimal, this means that thyroid hormones are also not getting to where they need to go!
Reproductive: Hypothyroidism inhibits the body’s ability to metabolize estrogen and progesterone. When these hormones are out of whack, there is a host of issues involving menstrual cycle difficulties, infertility, miscarriage, to name just a few. Men can have fertility issues related to hypothyroidism as well, though thyroid disease in men is less common.
Metabolic: The thyroid fuels your metabolic engine, regulating weight loss and gain. When it’s “broken,” so is the metabolism. The thyroid interacts with key hormones that affect our hunger and weight: insulin, leptin, and ghrelin. But metabolism includes more than weight management. It commands energy production in cells, efficiency of detoxifying the body, maintaining and building muscle mass, breaking down and absorbing hormones and nutrients.
Stress/Immune: Stress reactivity increases when the thyroid gland isn’t functioning properly. In fact, the adrenal glands (responsible for handling stress) have to take over for a sluggish thyroid. Between playing backup to the thyroid and managing our everyday stress, they can be taxed to the max. Fatigued adrenal glands impact the body’s ability to handle stress, the immune system’s ability to protect the gut and lungs, and the conversion and absorption of thyroid hormones. To translate, thyroid patients tend to be highly impacted by stress and get sick more often. Additionally, they will experience insomnia, interrupted sleep, lack of restful sleep, or waking feeling exhausted despite a full night’s sleep.
Aggressive treatment advised? Pause, pray, and consider alternatives. In terms of respecting the above, I wish I understood the gravity of my decision to have half of my thyroid removed when I was diagnosed with a precancerous mass on one lobe. Some people aren’t as lucky; they’ve had their entire gland removed due to cancer or for other reasons.
One of THE most important questions to ask about your condition is, why? I’ll warn you, this is a difficult question for most doctors to answer. It requires a lot of digging. I felt so miserable and just wanted a pill that would take away all of my symptoms. The reality was that it took time for my body to get into that state and it would take some time (and patience, oh my) to get out of it.
If you are faced with a decision that requires aggressive treatment, take some time to fully consider it. Seek counsel, second and third opinions, and educate yourself on alternatives. Ask how your quality of life will change, both short and long-term with this decision. Knowledge is power. If you move toward a more aggressive path, at least you will have done so fully informed.
(I’d like to add that if you’ve already had aggressive treatment, there is still hope for you!)
Hypothyroid diagnosis? Get evaluated for Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid, and is one of the main causes of hypothyroidism (some professionals believe that it accounts for as many as 95% of hypothyroid cases). I was never told that I had Hashimoto’s; I had to ask. In fact, I found out that I had been walking around with documented Hashi’s (discovered when I had my lobe surgically removed) for 6 years and didn’t know it. You might have to request the tests –we’ll cover these details in a moment.
Proper nutrition really has a place in healing your body. Many doctors that I’ve been able to have an honest conversation with have admitted that they had very little to no training in the area of nutrition in medical school. When I asked my endocrinologist if it was possible to correct, or at least improve, my situation nutritionally, I was met with a blank stare.
Guess what? A clean, healthy diet with no processed foods/sugars and an abundance of vegetables and spices can absolutely turn things around. I’ve seen it in others. I’ve experienced it in myself. Never underestimate the power of nutrition, especially if you have an autoimmune disease. Food allergies/sensitivities are often associated with autoimmune disease. After I removed gluten and dairy, I was able to put my Hashimoto’s in “remission,” which means my body was no longer producing antibodies that were attacking my thyroid. Everyone has different sensitivities, but gluten and dairy are major players in autoimmune disease (unfortunately!).
Just because a disease or condition is “common,” doesn’t mean you have to be ok with it. In addition to Hashimoto’s, I was dealing with nodules on my thyroid gland’s remaining lobe. I kept hearing how common they were, but I knew that I had a history of nodules-gone-awry (hence my surgery). You see, nodules start as cysts, then progress to nodules. Sometimes these nodules grow, change, and progress to precancerous and cancerous masses. I wasn’t ok with passively letting this play out, for fear that the very same thing might happen to my remaining lobe. I asked the question: why do I keep getting nodules and what I can I do to correct this? Whatever your situation, condition, or disease, I challenge you to not be ok with “common.” If you aren’t well and want to be, don’t give up. This brings me to my next point…
Not feeling heard? Do whatever it takes to find a doctor who will listen. Hey Doc, I’M NOT TIRED BECAUSE I’M DEPRESSED! (If anything, I was depressed because I was profoundly exhausted.) It was frustrating to tell my story for the hundredth time, only to be dismissed or told that I must have depression. I’m a mental health professional; I knew what depression was and this wasn’t it. I moved on and found an amazing doctor who listened and asked the ‘why’ questions. Today, we are a pretty amazing team.
Are you feeling dismissed? Here are a few suggestions:
- Choose a doctor who physically sits down and listens to you, not one who is walking out the door as you are talking.
- Bedside manners and an open mind in a doctor are more beneficial than book smarts.
- Consider seeing a functional medicine doctor. They are equipped to be able to answer the “why” questions, uncovering the root cause of illness/disease. This changed my life…I’d be bedridden today if I hadn’t gone this route.
Testing/Interventions to consider if you have thyroid issues/autoimmune thyroid disease. It’s important to get the right tests in order to get on the path to healing. Hopefully your doctor will automatically order these, but if they don’t, you as the patient have the right to request them.
- TSH – standard test, but can be in normal ranges even though the patient has symptoms
- Free T4 – (thyroxine) – thyroid hormone available that must be converted to T3 to be utilized
- Free T3 – (triiodothyronine) – active thyroid hormone responsible for optimal thyroid function (sometimes patients have trouble converting T4 to T3 which is why this test is good to have)
- TPO and TG Antibodies – (thyroperoxidase & thyroglobulin) the presence of these antibodies means that the body is attacking the thyroid gland.
- Vitamins/Minerals – many times, underlying deficiencies either cripple the thyroid, or mimic thyroid disease. Some of the most important ones to consider: Vitamin D, B12, thiamine (B1), Magnesium, Selenium, Ferritin, and Iodine.
Chances are, either you or someone you love is affected by thyroid disease. According to the American Thyroid Association, one in eight women will develop thyroid problems during their lifetime. I am one of them, but I’m not powerless, and neither are you! I truly hope that you’ve been inspired to advocate for your health today! I’m excited to share that I’ve been working on an exercise program for individuals with thyroid issues as well as other hormone imbalances –stay tuned!
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding and Treating the Root Cause by Izabella Wentz, Pharm D (www.thyroidpharmacist.com)
Thyroid Healthy by Suzy Cohen (www.suzycohen.com)