I have sat down to write what I guess is the concluding story to my Hormone Hell series, many times. Writing about my thyroid disorder and adrenal issues is really difficult, where do I start? Of course my first thought is I should discuss diet, especially as what you will find when searching for help is a lot of people telling you to drink bone broth (yuck) and that being vegan is the reason you’re sick. An interesting thing always thrown at me in support groups that are predominantly Omnivore and Paleo! There are foods that may aggravate certain hormonal things, of course. If you eat really badly, eat a lot of refined foods, you will definitely feel better switching to whole foods, it’s not a tough one to figure out. But let me assure any vegan or plant based person reading this, you do not need to go back to eating animal foods in order to heal from endocrine disorders including hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. I’ll come back to diet later, but I felt I needed to start there because it is repeated so often when I was researching online and talking to others, in fact I get a LOT of grief in online support groups. But let me start at the point I realised my hormone problems were a bit more serious than I first thought.
Soon after I wrote Hormone Hell Part 2 in July 2014, I realised while some of the symptoms were gone and I no longer believed I was estrogen dominant, I was still experiencing symptoms and indeed some were far worse. This remained the case and started to concern me when my breathing became really difficult. I had been putting this down to losing some of my fitness and actually started exercising harder in that respect, something which proved to be a big mistake and contributed to my adrenal dysfunction.
In December 2014, some 11 months after symptoms first appeared, I was certain there was something really wrong with me because the breathlessness was now occurring at rest, I had chest pain, I constantly felt cold, my skin was dry, my hair was falling out more than usual and my exhaustion was seriously affecting my life. I went to see my GP, who ordered a complete blood count and ‘thyroid tests’. I would later find out that what they tested, TSH ( Thyroid Stimulating Hormone ) is actually a pituitary hormone and not a great indicator of thyroid disorder. My GP said I was low in iron, likely due to my heavy periods experienced after the pill, and recommended iron tablets ( I do not recommend they made me nauseous and can lead to GI tract damage). I felt this did not explain my symptoms and asked for a copy of my results. I recommend you do this every time you have any medical tests, you are entitled to see them. Thank goodness I did. I decided to look into what TSH tests meant and what indicated optimal levels and at what stage we should be concerned. This is how I discovered that in fact my TSH was a little high and in many countries it would be considered hypothyroid based on this alone, in the UK it is classed as subclinical hypothyroid. I should add none of this was explained by my GP, who after I requested further tests sent me an email saying it was only ‘fringe medical practitioners’ that did the tests I requested and it was a ‘slippery slope to quackery’. Appallingly disrespectful and actually incredibly inaccurate. The UK has a pretty dismal and extremely ineffective protocol when it comes to thyroid disorders. The result is many end up staying on medication that is inappropriate for their particular condition and therefore they remain sick, or if they are fortunate enough they have to go private. I am part of the latter, and this is the only reason I am now well on the road to recovery. I may have to manage this condition for the rest of my life, but I can only do that well when I have all of the necessary information.
You may have got this far and be thinking, well geez, it sounds pretty important but I don’t even know what a thyroid is or what it does! Fair enough too. The thyroid is part of the endocrine system which makes and controls hormones in the body. The thyroid is a little butterfly shaped gland in your throat. It is responsible for metabolism, and sends messages to every single cell in your body. Two of the important thyroid hormones are T4 and T3, the active hormone. TSH is a pituitary hormone, a hormone sent out by the pituitary gland which oversees thyroid function and lets the thyroid know what the body needs. Problems happen when the thyroid doesn’t send out enough, as in an under active thyroid or hypothyroidism, or too much as in over active thyroid or hyperthyroidism. This is a very simplified explanation of a complicated problem which is affected by the other parts of the endocrine system, and vice versa. For more details please see the Thyroid UK website. You will often see adrenal fatigue or dysfunction go hand in hand with thyroid disorder because the two are so closely linked. It is very important before starting Thyroid medication, that you check adrenal function by doing a saliva cortisol test.
So what are the symptoms of hypothyroidism? Well, there are actually over 300 symptoms! Sounds a little impossible, but think of the explanation above which tells you the thyroid sends signals and messages to every cell. What happens when it can’t send enough? When it can’t send any? It can affect the condition of your skin, it can make you feel cold even when the weather is warm, tired when you have just slept. It can affect absorption of nutrients, which is why I was low in iron or ferritin, a common problem with hypothyroidism, as is low B12, folate, low Vitamin D and more. Your stomach acidity is low and therefore it is difficult to take these essential nutrients from your food. Weight gain is extremely likely with hypothyroidism as your metabolism has slowed and no amount of exercise and healthy eating will affect this until your hormones are balanced again. I see a lot of women in particular, most people with hypothyroidism are women, who go on all kinds of diets with no affect on weight loss. In fact, it is very unwise to diet or lower calories and especially carbohydrates when dealing with hypothyroidism, it can slow metabolism further. Low carbohydrate diets are associated with lowering the active hormone T3, which is something you are trying to reverse in cases of hypothyroidism! Lots of people suffer with depression because of this too, anxiety, extreme and debilitating fatigue, muscle aches, brain fog and much much more.
Once I realised that I needed further tests, and that the NSH would not help me, I decided pretty quickly I wasn’t going to mess about and I needed to do this privately. I initially had a doctor I dealt with in my home country New Zealand via Skype. I later determined he did not have the approach I wanted and his dietary advice was pretty poor. But I did at least get good direction for what I needed testing. I had a full hormone profile which included all the important thyroid hormones, free T4 and free T3 ( what is available basically ), TSH and thyroid antibodies to check for Hashimoto’s, the auto immune condition responsible for 80-90% of hypothyroidism. I also had tested all my sex hormones, progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone and my adrenals, DHEA and cortisol via a 24 hour saliva test. In addition I had an iodine loading test. This involves taking a urine sample, then consuming a high dose of iodine, collecting urine for 24 hours and taking a sample of this. This will tell you if you are low in iodine and if you are absorbing or excreting it. Iodine is vital for thyroid function.
These tests were very revealing and I have never regretted the money spent on them. The results showed I did indeed have low free T3 and free T4, therefore I was hypothyroid. I did not have Hashimoto’s though, fortunately. In addition all my other hormones were incredibly low. I may have been estrogen dominant at one point, but I certainly no longer was. Progesterone and testosterone were also low- levels change with age. My DHEA was low and my cortisol levels were low all day and high at night, no wonder I had no energy! My doctor was surprised I got out of bed at all. The iodine loading test was also very interesting. I was low in iodine, but when given it I excreted most of it. This indicates something is blocking iodine absorption. Iodine is a halide and so is chlorine, fluoride and bromide, which can all block iodine if you are exposed to a lot of them. In my case, I was an avid swimmer and chlorine is easily absorbed by the skin. I also got a lot of new furniture around the time I got sick and bromide is used in the sprays on furniture. To reduce my exposure I stopped swimming in chlorinated pools, I got a shower filter ( my skin and hair improved so much! ), I covered my furniture and I started taking Lugols Iodine. I also did a special salt detox to help rid my body of the toxic halides. I drank 1/2 teaspoon of himalayan sea salt in a cup of water twice a day for 2 weeks. I noticed a change in how I felt just by addressing my iodine issue. My doctor also suggested a lot of other supplements, and you will see this advice a lot. One of the issues with hypothyroidism is that it lowers your stomach acidity, which means you can’t absorb nutrients very well. In this case, it can be necessary to support yourself with certain supplements temporarily. But ultimately you want to fix the root cause and not treat the symptoms. I did take selenium, magnesium, tyrosine, Vitamin C and B vitamin complex- which I still take and recommend for the whole recovery period . I did not take most of these for long and instead made sure I had ample in my diet. Brazil nuts are an excellent source of plant based selenium and I realised I was already eating plenty of magnesium. But as mentioned, when you’re sick you may need to look at supplementing and many with adrenal dysfunction or fatigue do this. For my low ferritin, I did iron infusions as that is really the best and quickest way to get your levels up and support you as you deal with the thyroid issue. I realise that financially this is not an option for everyone, Floradix liquid iron with Vitamin C is another option. I am glad I did get iron infusions not just because they made me feel significantly better very quickly, but I met a great Doctor, Dr Nathan Curran, who administered them and who has given me a lot of excellent advice along the way. Plant based food sources of iodine are sea vegetables. For a great video on iodine deficiency and how to avoid it, see here.
So what did I do about the low hormones? My doctor in New Zealand actually put me on NDT ( Natural Desiccated Thyroid ) which comes from pigs, not an option I am too fond of but if you chose to medicate a lot of patients find this the best method. When I did my research I concluded it was my best option. However, I do believe addressing my iodine issues may have resolved the thyroid issue and I will be taking myself off this soon, very slowly of course. My doctor also put me on progesterone cream, estrogen and testosterone cream, along with DHEA capsules. I was never comfortable with this and only reluctantly agreed because I was desperate and a little overwhelmed. I wish I had been given more information about side effects. Some of the side effects of too much testosterone that you might experience when taking it, will be masked if you are also using progesterone cream. I found I gained more weight, I got hormonal acne on my neck and generally I felt I was estrogen dominant again. I did tell my doctor this but he got frustrated with me and tried to get me to eat even less, I had already lowered calories and this is not a good idea. One of the other things to be aware of is DHEA can convert to estrogen and testosterone and if you chose to help your DHEA levels a better option to research is 7 Keto DHEA. As it turns out, when we did re-test, I was in fact too high in all those sex hormones, particularly progesterone. So I took myself off all the hormone creams and then decided not to use that doctor again, too much talk of protein! argh! Anyhow, I actually increased my calories, increased my carbohydrates and lowered fats and felt significantly better. I needed to eat! This doctor also advised I take adaptogens for my adrenal issues, but in my case of mostly low cortisol, people find Adrenal Cortex works best. Again, I had to ignore my doctor and when I changed my approach to the adrenal problem, the improvement was seriously amazing. At this point I started to feel more normal and could get up and stay up each day, I could work and do a bit of exercise too. I was always exercising but it was mostly light yoga and a bit of walking. After a month or so of addressing adrenals and eating more, meditating and making sure I relaxed, the improvements were enough to be able to exercise more effectively. But at the point the exhaustion is really bad, the best thing you can do is rest. Meditate. Let your body recover. You will get better quicker if you rest at the beginning. Now, some 4 months after I started testing and from the day I made the very first changes, I can honestly say I feel about 80% there, my energy is awesome and I am losing weight- finally! Guess what, it really isn’t calories in v calories out, your hormones can and do control a lot of it. My last test results showed huge improvement in all areas, my thyroid is now controlled and I take my daily temperatures to check how things are going ( a link on taking temperatures below ).
So what is my plan now? Will I be on thyroid hormones forever? I don’t believe I will need to be. A lot of people and most professionals, think once hypothyroid, always hypothyroid. It may be true for most people, but I do believe the root cause can determine this. My root cause, the Yasmin contraceptive pill and halide toxin exposure, means I think I can eventually get off thyroid medication. I will write about this again for sure. In terms of my adrenals, Adrenal Cortex is a temporary solution and you can’t take this long term. Again, addressing the root cause will ultimately be what heals your hormone imbalance, with support of course. A lot of people, probably most people, with these types of issues have gut problems too including leaky gut, which in the adrenal group I am in is really common. I don’t have this, so perhaps that is why I am healing faster than most people and certainly faster than doctors expected. But for anyone who has these issues or who thinks they do, you must investigate if you have a gut problem. I honestly believe most issues start in our gut.
I want to address diet a little bit here. As I said earlier, you will get a lot of people telling you that you must eat meat, you must increase protein. When you are told this, there are 2 questions I always ask. Firstly, can you show me the evidence that eating meat will cure adrenal fatigue or thyroid disorder? Secondly, can you show me the evidence that a higher protein intake than normal ( normal is 8%, the RDI now for decades ) will be essential to cure hormonal imbalances? As yet, I have not seen any evidence of either. It makes no sense when these issues happen in people who are already eating an omnivore diet high in protein- most of the population already eats a lot of both. The only thing people can show you is a lot of ‘thyroid/adrenal experts’ advocating these things and often promoting a Paleo diet. Most of the population, including doctors, eat animal products so its no surprise they recommend it. The only thing about a Paleo diet I like is the fact it does not include refined foods. Anyone will feel better removing refined foods and eating more whole foods regardless of a thyroid condition. That in itself is evidence of nothing other than junk food, which is what heavily processed refined food is, will make you feel bad and removing it makes you feel better. It’s really not hard to figure that one out! I have stuck to a whole food plant based diet, which I obviously believe is the best option. I was always gluten intolerant but would sometimes have it and get away with it. I have noticed most people with hormone problems feel better not eating gluten, but you have to be strict and not eat it at all. Bear in mind that not everyone needs to do this but it is worth trying for 3 months and seeing if it helps. Dairy is also not advised for these problems, brilliant as I didn’t eat it anyway! Many people will have food intolerances, sometimes a long list, when they have these problems because gut issues are often the root cause. Gut problems can be healed if you get the right advice. Ignore anyone that tells you that animal protein will heal you, its a nonsense theory by people desperate to hang on to their meat and finding any reason to do so.
I have spent many many hours reading as much as I can, talking to other people with these issues and trying to make myself as informed as possible. When I was really poorly and barely getting out of bed all I wanted was to walk into a doctors office and say, please help me and then get help. As much as I have studied and dedicated myself to taking care of my body for most of my adult life, when I was truly ill I just did not have the energy or focus to battle with mainstream medicine. I just wanted help. This is something I see repeated over and over. My background, my financial position and the support of my wonderful husband and my dear mother via hours of Skype calls, meant I started getting better and overcoming this hellish but invisible illness. But so many more women, and some men, are far less fortunate than me and this is the reason I want to write about it and campaign for better thyroid and hormone care. I will write regularly about all the things that helped me and continue to help me. I will share recipes and tips for anyone out there struggling as I did. But the unfortunate truth is, if you suffer or suspect you suffer with thyroid and adrenal problems, you will need to arm yourself with as much information as you can take in. Prepare yourself for the fact that most GP’s do not know much about either, do not recognise adrenal fatigue and, alarmingly, may offer you drugs for conditions that actually stem from your hormones. I myself was offered anti depressants, I was not even close to depressed, just extremely tired. You will encounter a lot of people, perhaps family and friends, who do not understand the way you feel and may even doubt you are sick. I had people comment on my weight, tell me they had friends who had hypothyroidism and it didn’t affect their life in any way, that perhaps it was my restrictive diet that made me ill… these are all not true and not important. Forget what other people think and say and focus on getting well again. Sometimes in very dark moments I just thought this was it, I would be like this forever. I speak to a lot of other people who thought or feel the same. But you can recover from this and you can enjoy life while you get there. If you chose to be vegan and/or plant based and you suffer from these hormonal problems, I hope you can see that healing is possible without eating our animal friends.
My Top Tips for healing Hypothyroidism and Adrenal Fatigue
1. Find the root cause, it is different for everyone. This takes time and lots of research.
2. TEST TEST TEST, see the links for recommended tests and then treat according to your own results and not other peoples.
3. Rest and Recover. No question, you will need time to heal and with hormones that means bed rest and lots of it. If you ever want to be normal again, rest.
4. Yoga and Meditation. These tie in with number 3 and will help your cortisol levels and your overall fatigue. I could not have done it without these.
5. No junk, at all. That means no refined breads, no refined sugar, no processed foods at all. They put pressure on an already weak system.
These are the places to start. In future posts I will share all the little things I have done which have helped me.
4. Temperature Graphs: how to use your temperature for thyroid and adrenal conditions
Disclaimer: In no way is this intended to replace medical advice. Should you have symptoms that concern you, please consult with your doctor or hormone specialist. This is just my story and my thoughts on hormone health.
I read this back to myself before publishing and was worried I made this sound simple or quick to deal with. Let me assure you, I felt utterly crap for a really long time. I looked it too. I had many months, even after my diagnosis, spent completely in bed with my computer- I still tried to work at least a little. It is without question, the worst period of my life so far and also the most isolating and lonely. It hasn’t been easy. I do think I have recovered quicker than most, probably because of my background, so don’t be discouraged if your recovery time is longer. It is important to remember that we are all different and some are affected more than others. I intend to write weekly about hormones so please send me any questions you might have.