Got Thyroid? This Doctor’s Unconventional Path

A doctor was diagnosed with thyroid disease 4 months after becoming a new mother. She was bed-bound for 6 months, housebound for 2 years.

Written by Cynthia Li, MD, ABIM

Specialist after specialist tossed me around like a hot potato. But wait. I was a doctor myself. It was time to try differently: for myself, for my patients.   

When I graduated from medical school and residency, I thought I knew a lot about chronic diseases. I was an internist, after all. A supposed expert in chronic diseases. 

But then I got sick myself. 

A few months after the birth of my first child, I developed autoimmune thyroiditis—the postpartum form of Hashimoto’s. Initially, my thyroid was overactive. Then it fell underactive. A year later, my thyroid numbers normalized, but my symptoms didn’t. I remained tired, wired, and dizzy. I was still functional, so I’d considered myself cured.

I was far from cured. In the coming years, this underlying inflammation and a second pregnancy would spiral me into mysterious, debilitating conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia—a dysfunction of the branch of the nervous system that controls largely subconscious, vital functions like blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and digestion. I was bed-bound for 6 months, housebound for 2 years. I baffled specialist after specialist. I also baffled myself. The black-and-white paradigm I’d been trained in didn’t translate to the messy experience of illness, which was gray, gray, and more shades of gray. 

Time to Try Thyroid Differently

With two young children and a marriage held together by a single thread, I set off on a solo odyssey from my living room couch, relearning the fundamentals of how diseases develop. I realized I knew a lot of information about risks of or treatment or diagnostic test. But I knew next to nothing about how to heal. 

Over the next decade, I lived my way into my answers. It was an experiment that was one part science, one part art, and one part faith. While my goal was simple—to get off the couch and live my life—I dared to imagine what a brave new medicine might look like.

First things first, I dug into the research of Hashimoto’s disease—not the clinical guidelines, but the published science. I learned that even though my TSH was “within the reference range”, it was on the higher end of the range (4-5). The optimal range, averaged from healthy adults, seemed to be between 1.5-2.0. Optimal thyroid function is necessary for vital bodily functions like digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, to name a few, so I started a low dose of Synthroid. I didn’t feel any better, so I tried various formulations: Nature-throid, Armour, Synthroid + Cytomel, basically everything short of compounded formulas, but everything except Synthroid made me jittery and anxious. So I stayed on it. 

During this period of trial and error, I was also diving back into my Pathology 101 textbooks, re-learning the basics of how chronic diseases develop. As much as I didn’t want to see it, the one-cause, one-effect model for disease management was unlikely to work. Chronic diseases are a culmination of many different factors over a long period of time. Years, sometimes decades. So it would take more than finding the right thyroid replacement to alleviate all my symptoms. I didn’t know it then, but I needed to learn how to heal, instead of just knowing what to treat. And after more than a decade, I feel more resilient in many ways than I ever have. I was also able to taper off my thyroid medication. 

Here’s what I lived my way into. 

My Unconventional Thyroid Path

1. Ask new questions.

Symptoms are your body’s way of saying something isn’t working anymore. We’ve dismissed them long enough, and now it’s time to pay attention and to change the questions. Instead of “What’s wrong with me?” asking “Why am I not well?”  

2. Reset your inner clock.

Each of our organs has its own circadian rhythm, turning on and off at different times in a twenty-four-hour cycle. Our days are governed by the rhythms of light and dark, among other forces. The more regular our eating and sleeping, the less stress on our bodies. To be healthy is to be in sync with our bodies and our environment.

3. Give yourself permission to receive.

The people and environment with which we surround ourselves can greatly support our journeys. But first, we have to open ourselves up to receive. Let go of shoulds and should-nots. Find a doctor you trust. Ask a friend to set up a meal train, or a neighbor to pick up your groceries one day. Let someone else drive the carpool. Reach out to a support group. 

4. Get a daily dose of nature.

Nothing calms the body’s stress system like nature. If getting outside is logistically challenging, bring in houseplants or fresh flowers. If you’re sensitive to plants and flowers, consider putting up images of calming nature scenes on your walls. 

5. Detoxify yourself.

We are what we eat, drink, breathe, touch, and whatever our bodies cannot eliminate. Help boost your body’s natural potential to deal with waste. Start the morning with lemon water. Get sweaty (exercise or sauna). Take some magnesium (400-600 mg daily of glycinate, citrate, or malate). 

6. Let intuition tell your thinking mind where to look next.

Intuition is like a second eye, and paired with our analytical minds, it allows us to see more clearly. What’s more, intuition can be developed, just like art or music. First, find your inner stillness; meditation is the key to settling the thinking mind. Next, hold a question in mind. See what images or bodily sensations arise. Third, make observations in hindsight. Intuition is a practice. It requires repetition. It requires honesty. It’s about seeing what’s true, rather than trying to be right. 

7. Change your thoughts, change your genes.

What we think can turn different genes on and off, as well as change the brain’s patterns from illness to healing. So if your genes are currently coding for an inflammatory response, change things up. Try writing with your non-dominant hand. Drive a new route. Sleep on the other side of the bed. Learn a musical instrument. Listen to music from the past that was life-affirming. 

8. Inhabit your body.

We can’t heal something we’re disconnected from. Instead of moving away from our symptoms, we need to be toward them. But in a manner to transform, rather than perpetuate them. The simplest way to promote healing is to stimulate the vagus nerve. Try gargling water in the deep part of your throat. Or sing from that same deep throat. Take a bite of your food, close your eyes, and chew slowly. Finish your next shower cold. Breathe from your belly. When you’re ready to go deeper, start a mind-body-spirit practice like qigong or yoga. 

9. Heal your gut.

There are many versions of a gut-healing, energy-boosting, anti-inflammatory diet. But here are features they all share: whole foods, rich in quantity and colors of vegetables, low in processed starches and sugars, high in healthy fats and protein, high in fiber that feeds healthy gut flora, or probiotic foods that support gut flora. Add bone broth. Connect to your food as life-giving energy and abundance. Gut health is the foundation for whole body health. 

10. Break old habits that no longer serve you.

Letting go is perhaps harder than adding things in. Write down some habits you know aren’t supportive of your healing, like bingeing on ice cream, pulling all-nighters, or smoking. Pick one you feel is most amenable to change. Find a new habit to replace the old one. Set up a calendar and give this new habit 30 days to replace the old. Consider repeating for another 30. Chances are, it’s a long-term change now. 

11. Practice pleasure. It’s serious work.

If you’re serious about healing, play needs to be a priority. It can improve immune function, help heal the gut, and release natural painkillers. Try funny videos or “laughter yoga” on YouTube. Fake a laugh if you need to. Healing happens anyway. 

12. Investigate hidden root causes.

Many causes of chronic disease are hidden in plain sight. The effects of dairy and gluten, for example, can be subtle, often only visible upon elimination for 30 days. Or “stealth” infections—harmful germs that don’t cause an obvious disease, but generate enough inflammation to cause trouble—like a parasite in the gut, or incompletely treated Lyme disease. For hidden root causes, consider working with a functional medicine doctor. 

13. Survive love and loss.

Grief and loss touch everyone. By bringing grief out of the shadows, we can lighten our existential loads and decrease inflammation. Try a simple two-person, 10-minute writing practice, either face-to-face or on the phone: start with a prompt like “I remember when…” or “I wish someone would…” or “My tears…” Write continuously without erasing or crossing out. When time is up, read aloud to each other. No cross-talk. No questions. Strict confidentiality. End the exercise with, “Thank you for sharing.” You are witnesses to each other without trying to fix or soothe, which is what grief needs to be released. 

14. Reclaim your purpose.

Look at what you love. Start with what’s in front of you: your children, small house projects, or a pet. If you get stuck, try 6. Let intuition tell your thinking mind where to look next, or 7. Change your thoughts, change your genes. Sometimes what we need isn’t more advice or more thoughts, but silence.

15. Find your story, the real one.

A story allows you to explore an experience that feels overwhelming or fragmented. Alternate prose with poetry. Write about the time someone took care of you. Or when you took care of someone else. The act of creating can allow you to get beyond false identities, including that of being “a sick person.” This is the deepest healing of all. 

a doctor got thyroid disease herself
This past summer, on a wilderness trip in the desert canyons of eastern Oregon

About Cynthia Li, MD, ABIM

Dr. Cynthia Li is a doctor of integrative and functional medicine in Berkeley, CA. She serves on the faculty of the Healer’s Art Program at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. She is the author of Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness.

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About Dana Trentini

Dana Trentini M.A., Ed.M., founded Hypothyroid Mom October 2012 in memory of the unborn baby she lost to hypothyroidism. This is for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for consulting your physician regarding medical advice pertaining to your health. Hypothyroid Mom includes affiliate links including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.

Comments

  1. Hi, my name is Sonya. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years ago. I never had thyroid problems before, anytime I was checked all my levels and functions were good. This was very strange to me being that I actually had thyroid cancer. I mean how can an organ function properly when being filled with cancer? After having my thyroid removed I was placed on Levothyroxine. I had some problems at first until the found what dosage worked for me and being doing good so far, but I feel so tired all the time. I really enjoy the information and posts on this blog and the information on your journey with Hypothyroidism. It is helpful to share stories so that you don’t always feel that you are the only one dealing with the struggles.

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