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Could your thyroid problem be the result of autoimmune disease?

Monday, April 12, 2010 Leave a Comment

Oprah's got it. Several women on my block have it. My high school girlfriend's got it, along with a whole host of mysterious, auto-immune symptoms. I've been struggling with it for four years.

It's the culprit in many of the unpleasant symptoms moms assume is just part of motherhood: weight gain, fatigue, brain fogs (yes, that is a medical term!), mood swings, dry skin, hair loss, high cholesterol, post-partum depression, irregular periods, even infertility.

I'm talking about thyroid disorders.

The thyroid, that delicate little butterfly shaped gland at the base of your throat, the one that regulates your metabolism, growth, moods and, really, makes the whole system run smoothly.

I was diagnosed with post-partum thyroiditis six weeks after the birth of my first son. I walked into my doctor's office, red-cheeked and probably wild-eyed, complaining of heart palpatations.

My thyroid was in hyper-drive, pushing out too much thyroid hormone, making me anxious, sleepless, hyper, and overheated. On the plus side, I lost most of the pregnancy weight in a matter of weeks.

But a few months later, my thyroid rollercoastered the other way, dropping into hypothyroid mode, meaning it was not producing enough thyroid hormone. I gained fifteen pounds, wanted to sleep 14 hours a night, and couldn't focus on anything to save my life.

"This is very manageable," my doctor assured me, and prescribed me synthetic thyroid hormone. I get my blood checked every 6-8 weeks, and all is good.

Except that it's not.

I now have a wardrobe that spans three sizes, thanks to the fluctuations of my thyroid. The brain fogs come and go, along with some serious irritability and impatience. I always feel like I need 34 more hours of sleep.

And a strange tremor also showed up in my left hand at the same time my thyroid went into hyperdrive. In fact, that's what took me into the doctor's office. All the other symptoms I chalked up to post-partum hormones.

In four years, I've been to countless specialists. Neurologists, Chinese doctors, chiropractors, endocrinologists, allergists. I've had MRI's and blood tests. I thought I had Parkinson's. The neurologist diagnosed me with essential tremor, which means, "It's not Parkinson's, but we have no idea what the hell is causing it or what to do about it or how to stop it from progressing. Here, take some tranquilizers." Um, no thanks.

It took four years for someone to finally test me for Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disease where your body is creating antibodies against your own thyroid. It's one of the most common causes of thyroid disorder and frequently appears after pregnancy, when the immune system has been suppressed to allow the baby to grow, and then surges back on.

Since I'm a catastrophizer (is that a word?), getting a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease sent me into overdrive and I found all sorts of disturbing statistics, like if you have an autoimmune disease, your chances of developing another increase -- and that list includes lupus, MS and rheumatoid arthritis. And if I have an autoimmune disease, my kids' risk goes up, too. And Hashimoto's Disease is not very well understood -- even my endocrinologist admits that.

But he assured me that Hashimoto's Disease is easy to manage. In fact, we don't do anything different, just continue checking my TSH levels and using the synthetic thyroid hormone. And let's up the dose.

Really? So why are my symptoms getting worse?

Under Attack

I picture my little thyroid gland, battered and torn and under attack. And I imagine all those synthetic thyroid hormones I'm taking running wildly at it, but the poor thing can't absorb any more, so the hormones run wild in my body, creating chaos elsewhere. (I have no scientific proof of this, of course.)

But it seems logical to me that if my own body is attacking my thyroid, my immune system must be agitated. By what? And if I have an unexplained tremor, is it possible my immune system could be attacking my nervous system?

Could it be something in my diet? I've asked my doctors for allergy tests. They were skeptical, but referred me to an allergist. Another specialist. Since I don't have gastrointestinal problems, they don't think my diet is to blame. But my gut tells me it might just have something to do with it (pun intended). At the very least, what I eat could be exacerbating things. The trouble is, I think I eat pretty healthy.

Then again, I'm surrounded by the culture of the American diet, which, in the words of Michael Pollan, is edible foodlike substances arranged along the grain-heavy food pyramid.

How healthy do I really eat?

A Journey

I've found a doctor who is listening to me.

Of course, this doctor falls into the alternative medicine spectrum. Given my history, the alternative medicine doctors have done me the most good. Don't get me wrong -- I love my M.D.'s. I've found M.D.'s who listen to me, and work with me, and do their very best for me. They also respect my decision to assemble a health care team that includes my Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor (more than just acupuncture) and chiropractors.

Perhaps you've seen the ads from Dr's Brandon and Heather Credeur airing during the Oprah show, promising relief from low thyroid problems. Well, I called them, and went to see them. Everything they said makes sense to me, and is in fact what I've been asking for. They're testing me for food allergies, hormone levels, vitamin levels, cortisol levels -- more tests than I've ever had in my life. Their approach is to help figure out what is irritating my immune system, calm it down, and help me get back into balance, primarily through nutrition.


You should be.

I am, but I'm open minded. A dose of healthy skepticism is good (including skepticism of my M.D.'s, who view my conditions as separate collections of symptoms). I've been reading internet thyroid expert Mary Shomon's book "Living Well with Autoimmune Disease" and am even more convinced this is a better path than relying on synthetic thyroid hormone alone to fix things. I kind of view it as hiring a coach to lead me back to a healthier me. And since I'm in the unique position of having a platform here to speak from, you're all invited to take this journey with me.

So I'll occasionally report on my progress through this six-month program. It all begins with a cleanse, to detoxify my body. I've just weaned my baby, so I'm so ready for this.

- Mary Shomon's Thyroid Disease information at About.com (which is reviewed by doctors)
- "Living Well With Autoimmune Disease"

- Do you have Oprah's thyroid problem?

- Dr. Brandon Credeur


  • Anonymous said:  

    Bravo on continuing to be skeptical and asking questions of your doctors. Western MDs are fantastic and compassionate people. However, their medical training is based on treating symptoms rather than the source of health issues. Moreover, most Western MDs are specialist and view a health issue as separate and distinct. Complementing your treatment with alternative medicine - which society should rename - will focus on the whole system.

    For instance, have you ever watched a football game when the quarterback throws an interception? Immediately everyone blames him as the source of the problem. Then the color commentator provides an alternative analysis and describes that the left tackle missed his block which forced the ball to be thrown early. And the receiver ran the wrong route. A football team is a system that is very interrelated.

    Best of luck with you journey.

  • Anonymous said:  

    Seriously? A cleanse? If you have legitimate thyroid and/or antibody issues, diet is really not going to get to the core of the problem. I'm sure that eating healthier will help you feel more energized and less fatigued, but it really is not going to do anything for your thyroid.

    Doctors are not created equal, and I think it really pays in the end to search for an expert to handle your problem. I'm sorry you have to go through this, but please don't stop your problem solving with a cleanse.