Treatment for Life
The good news about hypothyroidism and other thyroid diseases is that they are treatable. When lifestyle changes fail to help (and in many cases, before they are tried), most doctors treat thyroid problems with both synthetic and natural prescription hormones.
The standard therapy for hypothyroidism is a synthetic hormone called thyroxine, sold under the brand name Synthroid. An alternative natural product, sold by prescription under the brand name Armour, is made of desiccated animal thyroid gland. It is popular among many alternative and complementary health practitioners because they believe it most closely resembles our body’s own natural thyroid hormone. There is little convincing evidence that one type of product is consistently better or more effective than the other: It just depends on the individual’s condition and body chemistry.
“There is no one best medicine for all low-thyroid sufferers,” says Shames. He explains that finding the right drug and the correct dosage can be a frustrating process of trial and error that can take doctor and patient months or longer to master. Sometimes a combination of two drugs is the optimal solution. Sometimes one drug works well for five years and then is no longer as effective.
There is one generalization that can be made, however: Once you start taking any prescription thyroid medication, you’ll probably have to keep on taking it. Most thyroid medications are designed to supplement or replace naturally occurring thyroid hormones – not to strengthen or “cure” the thyroid gland itself. Over time, thyroid medication effectively shuts down the thyroid gland, causing it to slow or halt production altogether, creating a lifelong dependence on supplemental hormones. This phenomenon has made thyroxine one of the most prescribed drugs in the United States. It’s also a consideration that encourages some hypothyroid patients to investigate alternative treatments, including naturopathic and Chinese medicine, before turning to prescription hormones.
In many cases, particularly when thyroid disorders are caught early enough, alternative and integrative methods prove very effective in rebalancing the body’s chemical and hormonal activity. In other cases, they don’t.
The key, according to Shames, is to listen to your body, respect your instincts and take charge of your health. “You need to be as active about your medical care as you are about going to the gym,” he says.
Shames encourages patients to do their research, weigh their options and come to their appointments prepared to talk openly about their concerns and priorities. “If you don’t feel like you are being listened to,” he insists, “fire your doctor!”
Fortunately, Heidi Raschke didn’t have to take Shames’s advice. After a few months of tinkering with her dosage, she found that Synthroid did the trick. Now an editor at a major metropolitan newspaper and the mother of a toddler, she’s busier than ever and feeling fine.
“It’s a minor issue in my life now,” she says. “Having a thyroid condition is awful when it’s not being properly treated. But for me, the medication was a miracle. It made me feel like myself again.”