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  • Patricia Pearce, ND

Hypothyroid Symptoms: What To Do When Medication Doesn't Work

The following story is often familiar to people with hypothyroidism. Anne, a 42 year old mother of 3, has had symptoms of hypothyroidism for the past year, including weight gain, fatigue, intolerance to cold weather, and dry skin. When she initially went to her family doctor, she got blood work done but was told her TSH and T4 levels were normal. "Come back and get re-tested in 6 months," he told her, "It's possible that by then your levels will be abnormal and I can prescribe Synthroid." Anne, although frustrated, accepted her doctor's advice and returned in 6 months, praying her levels would be abnormal so she could get a medication that might make her feel better. After 12 months of dealing with these symptoms, she was absolutely at her wit's end! Sure enough, when her doctor called her with her results, he told her that her TSH is high and her T4 is low. "You have hypothyroidism," he says. She gets a prescription for the thyroid replacement medication Synthroid and was told to come back in another 6 months to get her levels checked.

For the first 2 months, Anne felt great on her medication, practically back to normal!

She was so happy to have energy again, plus, she had lost 10 pounds, and her libido was even coming back! "Thank God for modern medicine," she thought. But after that initial two months, Anne was surprised and disappointed to notice her original symptoms come creeping back. Slowly she put the weight back on. Her energy tanked, her hair thinned and started to fall out, and her digestive issues returned. She even had her doctor adjust her Synthroid dosage, to no avail. Anne was at a loss. She is missing a piece of her health puzzle, and she knows it. Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be anyone who is willing to help her figure out what is going on.

Why is this such a common scenario? It's a shame that it is. More than 10,000,000 people in the US suffer from hypothyroidism, which is a disorder that causes the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormone (T4) in insufficient amounts. Thyroid hormone is a crucially important chemical messenger that is involved in the function of every cell in the body and is vital for healthy metabolism, good energy, digestion, and much more. Hypothyroidism quickly gives rise to symptoms like those Anne was experiencing. It makes sense, then, that the primary conventional medical treatment for hypothyroidism is thyroid hormone replacement, right?

Well, not quite. Simply replacing thyroid hormone naturally made by the body with synthetic hormone isn't addressing the whole issue. This is because the disease process that causes hypothyroidism in 90% of people is an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. The following is very important to understand. Hypothyroidism in MOST people is not caused by dysfunction of the thyroid gland itself, but rather, dysfunction of the immune system! Due to a wide variety of underlying factors including genetic predisposition and lifestyle factors like diet, the immune system becomes confused and goes on the attack. Rather than attacking a foreign invader, however, it mistakenly attacks thyroid tissue. This thyroid destruction, in turn, leads to hypothyroidism.

People with hypothyroidism that are prescribed Synthroid might notice, like Anne, that the medication seemed to work for awhile, but then stopped having as profound an effect. This is because the medication only replaces the missing thyroid hormone, it does not address the underlying cause, autoimmunity. The immune system is left unchecked, and so continues to destroy thyroid tissue with a vengeance. Many people are left frustrated and without answers. They take to Google in a vain attempt to figure out what kind of natural remedies they can use to alleviate their symptoms, and before they know it, they are taking 25 different supplements of questionable quality, none of which seem to work.

This is the point where the care of a good Naturopathic doctor comes in. As an ND, it is my job to dig through the health history of each and every one of my clients with hypothyroidism and find out what modifiable underlying factors exist that are contributing to their symptoms and work to educate them about why these factors are important, as well as make recommendations regarding diet, exercise, sleep, hydration, and more, to correct the autoimmunity that is the source of their symptoms. Naturopathic medicine, which uses not only lifestyle coaching but also nutritional supplementation and botanical medicine, works synergistically with the conventional approach. This means that people who are already taking thyroid replacement medication notice it starts to work better, and those who have never been prescribed medication may feel they no longer need it.

When medications "aren't cutting it anymore," we must always endeavor to discover the underlying causes of disease and correct them, rather than seeking to simply mask symptoms.

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