Success Story – Recovery from Thyroid DiseaseMary Maciel Pearson April 1, 2016
How I Healed My Thyroid by Taking Charge of My Health
Every challenge creates an opportunity for growth and transformation. At the age of 31, I was diagnosed with thyroid disease while expecting my second child. Although my beliefs were such that the conventional medical approach did not completely resonate with me, awareness helped create change. The diagnosis was a blessing that has changed the trajectory of my life.
First a little background information. I grew up on an island (Sao Miguel, Azores) where we ate nutrient-dense, whole, naturally raised and prepared foods. When we were ill, we seldom saw a doctor or rushed to the nearest hospital. More commonly, mom would go out to the garden, gather some herb or spice to prepare a concoction, and use that to nourish us back to health. Food was our preferred, and often only, medicine.
We immigrated to Toronto in 1971. I was nine. I am sincerely grateful to be here. But since then, my family members have been diagnosed and treated with harmful drugs for a variety of ailments, including anxiety and depression, which likely stem from failure to adapt to a foreign environment. The need for a two-income household; lack of support from extended family; shift work; as well as easy access to convenient, calorie-laden food and drink worked to tax the adrenals and the thyroid. Fortunately, my early diagnosis of thyroid disease has guided me to make more informed lifestyle choices and spared me, over time, from the same predicament as other family members.
It was the summer of 1993, a few months into my second pregnancy. For someone who had always been an overachiever, I felt completely drained. Given the fact that my first child was merely a year old, that her birth had been extremely difficult (leaving me anemic), that she was highly active and did not sleep well, my fatigue made sense. Yet my obstetrician, caring enough to delve deeper, was astute enough to palpate my thyroid, and upon finding nodules sent me immediately to an endocrinologist.
Apparently my thyroid hormone levels were ‘normal’. But I had a cold nodule and there was concern that it might be cancerous. I do recall discussing possible treatment should the biopsy be positive: surgery, radioactive iodine, drugs for life. Fortunately, the biopsy came back negative for cancer, but my forward-thinking endocrinologist encouraged me to take thyroid hormone to prevent taxing the gland further. He also asked that I continue with semiannual biopsies.
I took Synthroid briefly and inconsistently, had one or two more biopsies, one having gone awry, and then announced that it was my sincere belief that I did not have cancer and that my thyroid would function normally without the drugs. The endocrinologist chuckled and cautioned me to be careful and continue being monitored with annual visits. I did that for a few years because I liked him, but eventually life got too busy, I felt fine, so I stopped.
In 2007, confronted with several high stress life events, I became ill. Initially I thought it was just strep throat, but was unwilling to get tested because I did not care to take antibiotics. The infection lingered for weeks. I was a full time student and mother too busy to prioritize my needs, struggling to voice my concerns and informed opinion.
My symptoms included neck pain, swelling, difficulty swallowing, insomnia, heart palpitations, nervous energy in the mornings, feeling completely drained by mid-afternoon, hot clammy skin, and loose stools. Yet I missed no school and carried on as usual until one day I ended up in the hospital. After taking my history, the attending physician immediately rushed me to an endocrinologist. That specialist initially believed I had Grave’s Disease, so she booked a radioactive iodine scan and sent me to the hospital lab for blood work. As I sat waiting for the blood tests, she came looking for me, having just found previous test results that lead her to believe it was cancer. She frantically insisted that we do a biopsy right away. I begged her to hold off.
Self Diagnosis Led Me In a New Direction
When I got home I did some research. Having identified what I believed I was suffering from, I called my original endocrinologist, who at the time only saw cancer patients. I had not seen him in 13 years. I told him what had transpired and that I believed what I currently had was not cancer or Grave’s Disease, but sub-acute granulomatous thyroiditis, which manifests in transient overactive and underactive thyroid function for months. I made it clear that I did not want to proceed with the invasive tests that the endocrinologist at the hospital had recommended. He said ‘Okay. You could be right. I’ll be away for a while. Let’s give it a month. We’ll re-test your thyroid levels when I get back.’
To confirm my diagnosis, and to prevent unnecessary invasive testing and treatment, my elevated thyroid hormone levels would have to come down. So, I started a daily practice of guided meditation. I talked to a naturopathic doctor, a former teacher, who prescribed some homeopathic remedies which I took for three weeks as recommended to help create balance.
I ate large amounts of raw, goitrogenic (thyroid-inhibiting) foods like broccoli, bok choi, and cauliflower to help suppress thyroid hormone production. A month later my thyroid hormone (T4) levels were down. My thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels went up (from less than 0.05 at symptom onset) because my pituitary gland began to sense lower levels of circulating thyroid hormone. As I’d hoped, this confirmed the subacute granulomatous thyroiditis diagnosis.
It was predicted that I’d likely end up with an underactive thyroid, but I believed otherwise. In fact, I suspected it was likely the unnecessary treatment and invasive testing (that patients with my symptoms are encouraged to undergo), that lead to thyroid damage and subsequent low function – hence my determination to avoid any unnecessary testing and treatment.
My thyroid levels went back to normal as the infection ran its course. Just to re-cap: Subacute granulomatous thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid gland likely caused by a viral infection. There is often low grade fever. It is often mistaken at first for a dental problem, or an ear or throat infection. The inflammation initially causes release of excessive thyroid hormone, resulting in hyperactive thyroidism (overactive thyroid) almost always followed by transient hypoactive thyroidism (underactive thyroid) until the infection runs its course which is at least several months. Unfortunately, it is not on the radar of endocrinologists or general practitioners anymore so it is often misdiagnosed and therefore not treated properly. Fortunately, I found this diagnosis myself and was able to convince my endocrinologist to consider it.
My Prescription for Thyroid Health
Mine is a story worth sharing, if only to help prevent invasive procedures for problems that often resolve themselves over time. I am grateful for the initial diagnosis because it led me to research the underlying cause of my susceptibility to thyroid related issues. Having grown up living by the ocean, eating iodine- and selenium-rich foods, likely means that my body did not have the ability to compensate for lack of these important nutrients in the Western diet of my adopted country.
Other tactics that I now use to keep my thyroid healthy include:
– Avoiding toxic halides including bromine, fluoride and chlorine (in tap water) and perchlorates (in commercial laundry detergents and drycleaning chemicals) which compete with iodine for absorption and interfere with countless biochemical pathways. In fact, I became actively involved in advocating for safe, halide-free, drinking water. To maintain thyroid health, I buy perchlorate-free laundry detergent and I seldom have any clothes drycleaned.
– I do not use Teflon cookware (see EWG’s report posted here). I avoid stain repellents and fire retardants. Using EWG’s Dirty Dozen, Clean Fifteen guidelines, I buy (or get from my parent’s garden) organic foods, so that I can avoid bromide- and fluoride-based pesticides.
– I use a water filtration system that reduces fluoride and other toxic elements like arsenic, but does not de-mineralize the water.
– I supplement with selenium or eat selenium-rich foods like Brazil nuts. I take vitamin C, which among other benefits helps neutralize chloramine. I season my food with Bragg’s organic sea kelp and eat other organic iodine-rich foods like raw cheddar, cranberries, and seafood. Iodine, in supplement form, tends to activate my thyroid excessively. I get safe sun exposure for natural vitamin D production; and supplement vitamin D with K2 when the sun’s UV is insufficient for natural production. I also supplement with magnesium, which gets depleted by halogens (we can’t avoid them all).
– Due to the chemicals found in many drugs, including antibiotics and antidepressants, I don’t take them at all.
Because I take no medications, I have noticed a tendency to feel slightly more hypothyroid (sluggish) in the fall and hyperthyroid in the spring. For comparable but more debilitating patterns, some of my family members have been diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. Any attempt on my part to intervene has been dismissed and ignored given their ‘normal’ thyroid-stimulating hormone levels, even though current science challenges the normal range. It is my sincere hope that someone in the medical field be inspired to investigate my theories.
From this health challenge, I have learned to share my informed opinion, question the experts and the science, and proactively take control of my health.
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Mary Maciel Pearson
Mary Maciel Pearson is a valued Vitality magazine contributor.