My health journey started with my diagnosis of hypothyroidism in 2004, soon after my 28th birthday. I was somewhat relieved that day, since for the first time, someone had acknowledged that my body was indeed compromised. For years I had thought (and heard) that I was lazy and unmotivated. "You just need to get up and do it", I was told, every time I complained about how tired and depressed I felt. Now I finally knew why life was so much easier for everyone else around me. They were not walking around with a severely damaged thyroid like I was! My endocrinologist believed that taking my thyroid pills every morning was all I needed to get back on my feet. I was hopeful and excited for a normal life too, without the constant struggle and hardship.
Let’s forward to 2012. Depression and fatigue were still a routine part of my life, despite a healthy whole foods diet and regular exercise. My thyroid medications also needed constant adjustment and monitoring. These basics were helping me keep my head above water, but I was still slowly drowning.
New symptoms that would make anyone weep; like acne, insomnia and hair fall also creeped up over the years and continued to get worse, despite several medications, supplements and repeated visits to specialists. My public health background prompted me to ask if all my symptoms were related to my thyroid diagnosis of Hashimoto’s, but my doctors were not aware of the interrelationships, so I was repeatedly told “No, there’s no connection ”. Apparently I was just stuck with a myriad of seemingly unrelated health issues in my thirties. Most 60 year olds enjoyed better health.
According to my dermatologist, my acne was probably genetic since it actually got worse every time I came off repeated doses of antibiotics and even a round of Accutane. When I asked about diet I was told, "There is no definite evidence linking acne to any food in the scientific literature. Just eat a balanced diet." I’m still suffering from the terrible side effects of these medications and continuing to eat foods that I now know were damaging my gut, brain and thyroid. Even my liver and hormones ended up paying the price for several years of drug-assisted, gorgeous, blemish-less skin. For the depression, my psychiatrist tried antidepressants, but this route was short-lived because it just didn’t help, even after trying a few different cocktails. Counseling didn't help either. Exercise, although not the solution, seemed to work better. Then one day, desperate for some sleep after a long string of sleepless nights despite trying over-the-counter pills, I went to see a sleep specialist. He suggested I put time into organizing my life and start making lists to stop the mental chatter that kept me awake each night. Clearly I was extremely disorganized. I actually went home believing that lists were the cure for my insomnia. I am thankful though, that he didn’t just write me a prescription.
Please know that I’m not dissing my doctors, their knowledge or pharmaceuticals. I have and always will value medical expertise. I’m also aware that some medications or behavioral changes that didn’t work for me, might be the lifeline that many need and are thankful for everyday. However, I also know that there are vital gaps that are not routinely addressed in thyroid treatment today, which is what I want to highlight here with my personal story.
So why was my body continuing to produce more and more symptoms even though I was taking my thyroid pills every morning? Why was I frequenting doctor’s offices, taking so many medications and supplements and still not getting better? Why were all these efforts failing?
It boils down to two major gaps in the approach to standard thyroid treatment.
1) Replacing the thyroid hormone my body was not producing with artificial thyroid hormone was only a bandaid.
No one thought to ask the question we should all ask when we are diagnosed with a chronic illness, “Why? Why was my body not making thyroid hormone? Why was my immune system attacking my own thyroid?”. Only when you seek the answer to “why” in chronic illness, can you begin to treat the underlying imbalances and stop the progression of disease.
2) My doctors unfortunately did not see my body as an interconnected web of systems that actually worked together to create health - or in my case now - thyroid disease expressing itself as many different symptoms. Instead, they worked in isolation, each treating their respective organ system separately.
My endocrinologist focused on keeping my thyroid levels stable to compensate for an under active thyroid. Thyroid pills were prescribed. No discussion of the faulty immune system response on my thyroid. My dermatologist used her set of drugs for acne. Antibiotics, birth control pills, and Accutane were her solution. These pills only masked the underlying inflammation and impaired detoxification hidden inside my body. My psychiatrist unsuccessfully attempted to treat my depression by increasing the serotonin levels in my brain using SSRIs. Depression is not a serotonin imbalance...it’s just not that simple. He never brought up the gut-brain connection. My sleep specialist attributed my insomnia to stress, seemingly related to being disorganized. I was told to embrace lists. No mention of possible hormonal imbalances.
There are unfortunately severe limitations to looking at the human body and chronic illness through separate lenses, each focused on a specific organ or system, which is often done in traditional medical practice; just like in my case. Isolating and treating each organ/organ system separately as separate illnesses essentially keeps you permanently at managing the manifesting disease and trying to lessen the burden of symptoms by using band-aids (usually a pill), instead of addressing the underlying imbalances related to the actual root causes - which when addressed successfully removes symptoms, heals underlying causes, and prevents new diseases from emerging.
Of course, there’s no magic pill or pills that address these root causes. Unlike the every pill for every symptom approach, addressing the root causes of thyroid disease often takes major dietary and lifestyle changes in addition to medication and supplements. Is it worth it? You bet! These changes are also slowly incorporated and a skilled practitioner in the functional medicine and nutrition realm can guide and support you with proper implementation ensuring success.
I started implementing dietary and lifestyle practices targeted to fix the underlying imbalances at the root of my thyroid disease in 2014. My results have been amazing. Depression and chronic fatigue are history. Symptoms that weren’t even on my radar and that I wasn’t even targeting have also resolved: My weight is now always stable. Food cravings are rare. PMS seldom visits, and when she does, she’s tolerable and only stays for a day. Emotionally and spiritually there’s been a major shift. I’m more mindful and aware. I am able to set goals and priorities and enjoy my life with a much deeper understanding than ever before. My kind of icing on the cake!
While I’m still working on other symptoms, they are all significantly better and as I continue to make more dietary and lifestyle changes, the root causes will slowly dissipate. Of course, in some ways I’ll always be a work in progress, because my life keeps changing and I’m far from perfect.
Essentially, here’s why I’ve whole heartedly embraced this integrated, root-cause approach to my thyroid health: significantly reduced doctor’s visits, fewer medications and much lower dosages, and most of all...being intimately aware of and connected to how my body and mind works everyday. I like being in charge. 😊
You can take charge too.
Functional Nutrition Clinician