By Diana Hsieh
After months of being lethargic, confused, fat, pained, and cold from my hypothyroidism, I'm finally on the mend! Although I'm not yet 100%, the turn-around was remarkable. Within just a few days, my worst symptoms of mental fog and lethargy were alleviated by rejecting the conventional treatment of synthetic T4 (e.g. Synthroid, levothyroxine) in favor of desiccated porcine thyroid plus high-dose iodine.
(Desiccated thyroid is dried pig thyroid; it contains the full range of natural hormones produced by the thyroid, not just T4. High-dose iodine means supplementing with 12.5 to 50 milligrams per day.)
When I was diagnosed as hypothyroid in early November, my TSH was only 3.23. That's barely abnormal, but I was suffering from most of the standard symptoms of hypothyroidism. (TSH above 2.5 suggests hypothyroidism.) My doctor put me on 50 micrograms of Synthroid, a synthetic version of the T4 hormone. Two months later, in early January, my TSH was down to 2.28, but my symptoms were somewhat worse. Also, my Free T3 and Free T4 were the same, still on the low end of the middle range.
Undoubtedly, I could have increased my Synthroid, eventually reducing my TSH to my doctor's target of around 1.0. Would I have felt any better at that point? Based on my experience on the drug for those two months -- when my lab values improved but my symptoms worsened -- I strongly suspect not. Instead, if I'd stayed on Synthroid, I likely would have been mentally and physically disabled for the rest of my life.
I'm not exaggerating. During those two months, I was unable to work, travel, or pursue any substantive projects. My weekly trip to the grocery store exhausted me, and I often couldn't muster the energy to slowly walk around the pastures with Conrad. My IQ felt about 20 points lower; I could only think at a very surface level. I was most definitely not flourishing. My mind and body seemed to be slowly shutting down.
Sadly, that's not an uncommon response to the standard regimen of T4-only medication. TSH might fall to normal levels, but the many debilitating symptoms of hypothyroidism remain. From what I've read in countless forums, too many doctors seem concerned only to treat the problem of high TSH, not the underlying problem of hypothyroidism. In particular, many doctors seem to ignore the fact that the body might not effectively convert the storage hormone T4 into the active hormone T3 -- or that tissues might not effectively use T3. Many patients on synthetic T4 medication complain to their doctor about their persistently raging hypothyroid symptoms, only to be summarily dismissed. After all, if the TSH is normal, all those classic hypothyroid symptoms simply must be due to something other than a poorly functioning thyroid -- like aging or poor diet or even hysteria. Or so they claim. (Such doctors equate hypothyroidism with elevated TSH, just as analytic philosophers equate concepts with definitions.)
The consequences of that mis-treatment are tragic. People suffer the degradation of living as a quasi-corpse for years and decades, unless they discover desiccated thyroid. (Or, in some cases, they suffer unless they find a way to return to desiccated thyroid, after some new doctor switched them from it to synthetic T4, often against their express wishes.) It's heartbreaking to read these stories. I know that, without dedicated and tenacious people like Janie Bowthorpe of Stop the Thyroid Madness, I could have suffered the same fate. Instead, I got off pretty easy with only two months of living as a semi-corpse on Synthroid.
At the time of my diagnosis of hypothyroidism in early November, I was aware that Synthroid might not work for me. However, given that I developed my hypothyroidism at the very height of a government-induced shortage of desiccated thyroid, I was willing to try it. Well, I got my answer by early January: Synthroid didn't do squat for me, except lower my TSH.
Happily, my excellent family practice doctor, Dr. Heble, was willing to switch me to one grain of desiccated thyroid, to see whether that might help. (One grain is the standard starting dose for desiccated thyroid, but it was an increase for me, based on this conversion chart.) By that time, I'd found a local source: Wise Compounding Pharmacy.
Just as I was making that switch from Synthroid to desiccated thyroid, I also began taking high-dose iodine, plus selenium. As I indicated in my first post on my hypothyroidism, I suspected that I might be deficient in iodine for three reasons.
- Seafood is the primary natural dietary source of iodine, but I hated it until my mid-20s, and even now, I don't eat more than a serving per week.
- Nearby oceans supply the soil of the east and west costs with iodine, but I've lived in the "goiter belt" for the last decade.
- Then, perhaps tipping me over the edge, I switched from iodized salt to (low-iodine) sea salt when I began eating paleo in the summer of 2009.