hormone health: it’s all connected
I’ve recently completed an additional certification in health coaching for hormone health, and the content of the course brought back some memories….
When I was in graduate school, I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease—an autoimmune disorder that results in hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid. My father had had it in graduate school, too, and he was dismayed when I was diagnosed with it because he’d only recently been to visit me and completely missed the familiar symptoms: weight loss, diarrhea, tremors in the hands, Graves’ ophthalmopathy, heart palpitations, heightened anxiety, issues with my teeth, a crazy menstrual cycle (okay, he wouldn’t have known about that one)….
the thyroid that wouldn’t die
Well, my dad was not medically trained, so perhaps it’s no surprise; after all, a number of medical professionals missed the diagnosis as well. After seeing a few general practitioners and some specialists, I was lucky enough to meet with a psychiatrist, who after a few meetings and a prescription for Prozac, suddenly connected the dots.
I think I was complaining to her that I had my period—again, after just two weeks, what. the. hell.—when she said, “I’d like you to see an endocrinologist.” A what? In my early twenties, I’d never even heard of this specialty, which focuses on hormone health—and imbalances and dysregulation of our hormones.
Off I went to the endocrinologist for blood tests, and sure enough, my thyroid hormone levels were through the roof.
Graves’ disease is much less common than Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which causes hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), a more familiar diagnosis: Graves’ affects one of 200 people in the US; Hashimoto’s—five of 100 people.
Well, wasn’t I special? (Thank you, Dana Carvey for making that word so … special.)
Turns out I was even more special than I thought, since I was the one in 1,000 people who had a reaction to the antithyroid medication Propylthiouracil, which was supposed to bring my numbers down to a level at which the doctor felt more confident of other interventions. The medication apparently shut down my white blood cell production—a condition called leukopenia—and I landed in the hospital, unable to fight even a common cold.
There were moments during that hospital stay that I felt like E.T.—everyone around me had to wear hazmat gear (so familiar now, the PPE!), I wasn’t allowed visitors, etc.
Once my system was slightly improved, the endocrinologist decided to go ahead with a radioactive iodine treatment, which at first seemed to work: over a few months, my numbers dropped to a completely acceptable level.
But then a few months later, they were up to four times what they were originally. After a second treatment, they gradually dropped to the level where they have stayed for the past three decades.
Normally, the treatment is meant to kill off the thyroid, and then you face a lifetime of thyroid replacement hormones. Even after two treatments, my thyroid has stayed active—I did eventually have to go on replacement therapy, but the dose essentially hasn’t changed in 30 years.
My endocrinologist supervised a resident who wrote a paper about my case—I don’t recall the title, but it should have been, “The Thyroid that Wouldn’t Die.”
the endocrine system
It turns out that I wasn’t alone in my ignorance of the endocrine system and hormone health—it’s still a mystery to most of us, especially if we have one that functions relatively normally.
What is it exactly? It’s a system of glands (and a few organs) spread throughout the body that produce substances we lump together under the general title “hormones.”
And the topic of hormone health is not often brought up unless we are 1) going through puberty, 2) trying to get pregnant or carry to term, 3) going through perimenopause.
The major components of our endocrine system are:
- the pineal gland, hypothalamus, and pituitary glands (all more or less in the center of our brains)
- the thyroid and thymus glands (at the base of our throats and slightly lower in the upper body cavity, respectively)
- the adrenal glands (one atop each kidney)
- the pancreas (also near the kidneys)
- the ovaries and testes, which I’m sure you remember from sex ed class
Each one of these glands/organs produce chemicals—the hormones—that act as messengers between our brains and our bodies in an intricate feedback loop. For example, the thyroid gland produces a group of thyroid hormones that then regulate metabolism (how our body absorbs and uses nutrients and creates energy in the process), heart function, digestion, muscle control, brain development, and bone maintenance. And in cases of extreme dysfunction of the thyroid, the hormones can also affect the menstrual cycle.
Look at the correlations here between their function and my symptoms:
- metabolism: weight loss
- heart function: palpitations
- digestion: diarrhea
- muscle control: tremors
- brain development: anxiety
- bone maintenance: dental issues
- menstrual cycle: enough said
Yeah, hormone health is not a simple topic.
it’s all connected
And there I’d been going from one specialist (heart, GI, psychiatry, dentistry) to another … when it was all connected! I was reminded of this recently when a friend bemoaned the fact that she had seen a lot of specialists about a different set of symptoms and had to connect the dots on her own—by doing her own research, then questioning the specialists.
Don’t get me wrong—I think specialists have a place at the healthcare table, as do all practitioners along the spectrum from deeply conventional to radically alternative. And I was definitely fortunate to have run into a psychiatrist who knew enough about the symptoms of thyroid disease to recommend the endocrinologist who finally helped me get well.
If I’d known then what I know now, in the first place, I might have recognized earlier that all my symptoms were connected and, in the second place, known what food and lifestyle choices could have possibly (although not certainly) prevented the Graves’ disease from escalating to the point where I needed some serious interventions. I might even have learned that some of my lifestyle choices (like moving to a relatively high altitude for grad school) are now mentioned as possible contributing factors.
I consider this a possibility rather than a probability because one of my classmates from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition® suffered from Graves’ disease and managed to bring it under control without the extreme measures that I undertook and that her specialists were recommending—and we are bio-individual, so what worked for her might not have worked for me. (Interesting that she, too, developed the disease after moving to higher altitudes….)
It wasn’t until many years later after my health crisis that I became certified as a health coach, and even more years passed before I dove more deeply into the topic of hormone health. And because I am certified in Integrative Nutrition® health coaching, I tend to look at the larger picture when going over health histories with my clients: I sometimes see connections that you may not.
It’s beyond my scope of practice to diagnose, treat, or prescribe any diseases or conditions—and I can both suggest medical testing and support those who have a diagnosis and treatment plan from a licensed professional by helping clients discover what food and lifestyle choices can support their healing. Because I firmly believe that the food and lifestyle modifications I made myself have kept my thyroid functioning and paved the way for a fairly smooth transition to menopause.
make the connection
If you’re struggling with a bunch of seemingly unrelated symptoms and would like to talk through them, let’s chat! I may not be able to help you myself—and I can maybe connect some dots to point you toward someone who can! You can schedule a free call HERE.