When I was a kid I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease. It came about because though I was an athletic and vibrant child, I also got sick on a fairly regular basis. During a visit with my doctor, he noticed I had goiter in my neck (an enlarged thyroid gland) and suggested I get tested for a thyroid disorder. Sure enough my thyroid was underactive (called Hypothyroidism) and that I had an auto-immune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease.
There is a distinct difference between Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism.
What most people DON’T know (and doctors often don’t relay to patients) is that hypothyroidism is potentially treatable without medication. In many instances, a nutritional imbalance in one’s body can cause one’s thyroid to become underactive, causing hypothyroidism. Most doctor’s put patients on thyroid replacement hormone without doing more thorough blood work (and sometime stool) analysis to see how the body is functioning in other ways, but if a patient is knowledgeable and requests it of their doctor, it is something that can be addressed.
Hashimoto’s, on the other hand, is an auto-immune disorder where the body recognizes the thyroid as a foreign entity in the body and attacks it, slowly killing the thyroid gland and inhibiting its function over time. People who are diagnosed with Hashimoto’s can do things to mitigate flare ups (where the body goes into over-drive attacking the thyroid and rapidly worsening the degree of hypothyroidism), however hormone replacement therapy is necessary for the rest of one’s life.
When I was first diagnosed with Hashimoto’s I did not think much of it. I’ve always been resistant to taking medication of any kind (including over the counter drugs, vitamins and supplements) and am inconsistent at best in terms of remembering to take medication. I knew taking it was important to keeping me healthy, but at the same time, I didn’t feel as though it was a “life or death” situation, so I just wasn’t great about taking the medication.
My parents and my aunt used to BEG me to take my medication. Both my grandmother and my cousin were diagnosed with Hashimoto’s so it was a well-researched condition among my family members.
Throughout most of my childhood and early 20’s I would take my medication on and off, but continued to place a low value on the importance to my long term health. I think I mostly did it to appease my parents, who would also ask if I was taking my medication AND getting checked. Part of this was my own ignorance. I had done little to research what it meant to actually have Hashimoto’s and I also felt as though I didn’t really have the time or energy or desire (if am perfectly frank) to find out what it was all about.
Then in 2007 I was home for Christmas and my aunt Marcia gave me and her daughter Eliza some print outs about Hashimoto’s. She begged us to read them. I took them, hesitantly, but on my way home I did read the documents. One thing stuck – those who suffer from Hashimoto’s often have issues with fertility. For me, this struck a chord. While I was not in a place to be getting pregnant or having a baby, I had dreams of being a mother at some point in the future, and did NOT want to inhibit my ability to do so. From that day forward I began taking my medication consistently. Though that was about it – I only was tested 1x per year, and didn’t bother to learn much else about the disorder.
Fast forward to 2014 – I had gone through a dramatic shift in careers, moving from a finance executive on Wall Street to a professional triathlete specializing in iron-distance and half-iron-distance events. In January I began having some pain in my leg and by May it had progressed to a full fracture in my femoral neck. A BAD injury that left me non-weight bearing for 3 months and on crutches for 4 months.
When I received the diagnosis I was encouraged by both my doctors and my coach to get a comprehensive blood panel done as well as a bone density scan to see if anything was off. Sure enough – a LOT was. Normal TSH levels (the standard measure for thyroid function) is between .5 and 2.0 – my TSH levels were at 9.5, suggesting my body was working overtime to try to produce enough thyroid hormone for my body to function properly. My bone density scan also showed osteopenia – a precursor to osteoporosis – in my left hip and my forearms.
THIS is where things began to change for me with regards to learning about my thyroid. My doctors told me that an underactive thyroid can wreak havoc on bone density, and that my osteopenia was likely the result of how off my thyroid levels were. Thus – my fracture was likely due to the hypothyroidism. I was floored. I had no idea that the thyroid could have such a significant impact on your body like that. So I began reading, and learning.
I learned that the thyroid gland is a massive control center for your body. It controls your metabolism, your circulation, your fertility, your immune system; it has an impact on bone density, fatigue, menstruation, depression, inflammation, insomnia, hair loss and nail strength. There are SO many systems that are controlled and impacted by a functioning thyroid that when it is not functioning properly, your body goes into meltdown mode.
As I read through the typical symptoms of someone who suffers from hypothyroidism I was stunned at how I was raising my hand again and again and again. I struggle terribly with cold hands and feet and when my thyroid is way off, it is almost impossible for me to get warm. I struggle with fatigue (yes, I know I am an athlete, but this is something I have struggled with my whole life), terrible cramps and heavy flow when I have my periods, awful insomnia, a high rate of hair loss (thank goodness I have thick hair!) and big fluctuations in weight and inflammation.
As I consulted with my doctor she was amazed by how long I had been struggling with these symptoms, but more so that I had not identified that they were tied to my thyroid. As we began to get my thyroid levels under control, something else had to change: my diet.
My doctor explained to me that there is a protein in certain foods (such as gluten, dairy, soy as well as certain vegetables like Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts) that contains a protein that mimics the thyroid gland. When you enter these foods into your system, as someone with Hashimoto’s, your body suddenly thinks you have all this thyroid gland in your system and goes crazy trying to attack and kill it. Of course the gluten, dairy, soy and other foods are NOT the thyroid gland, so until they are out of your system, your body attacks the actual thyroid gland, expeditiously worsening one’s hypothyroid condition. It is during these “flare ups” when medication levels can be hard to manage and end up needing to be increased. What’s worse – it can take up to 6 months for these “bad” foods to fully clear your system.
By removing those foods from my diet, I would be in a position to control and avoid significant flare ups and slow down the decline of my thyroid function.
Other interesting facts I learned:
Most people who test positive for Hashimoto’s TYPICALLY also test positive for the celiac gene. I was tested and I DID test positive. That does not mean I have Celiac disease, but it does mean that at any point my body could begin expressing that gene and I could become Celiac.
If you DON’T have Hashimoto’s, a gluten/soy/dairy-free diet is not necessary unless you have some other unrelated intolerance to those foods. Eating these foods will not worsen your thyroid condition.
If you take too much thyroid medication and become HYPERthyroid, it can have a similarly negative impact on bone density. So being in that “normal” range is crucial.
When your body is in a Hypothyroid state, it can impact the uptake of key nutrients like iron and calcium. I often find when my thyroid is off, my iron levels are low and my calcium levels drop as well.
I look back now and I’m disappointed and actually embarrassed to admit that I didn’t take a health condition that I have had for most of my life more seriously. While on a day-to-day basis nothing about hypothyroidism is life-threatening, it is a serious condition that can ravage your body. I’ve had to overhaul my diet in a significant and non-negotiable way, and also be vigilant about being tested regularly. Not taking care of my thyroid means my body completely breaks down, causing things like stress fractures, which prevent me from doing my job.
So – If you struggle with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s, I’d encourage you to educate yourself and make any and all changes that are required to mitigate the condition as best as you can! Your body and mind will thank you!