"Health is a vehicle, not a destination." - Joshua Fields Millburn
As a patient advocate and health coach for more than 20 years, there's one question that I regularly hear from my readers and clients: "Can my hypothyroidism be cured?" (As a thyroid patient myself, I asked that question many times after my diagnosis!)
It's an important question, but the answer is not as clear cut as we would hope. Let me explain.
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland that affects virtually every system in the body. The thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate the body's metabolism—the rate at which our cells convert food and oxygen to energy. When your thyroid hormone production drops, your body processes slow down and change. Untreated hypothyroidism increases your risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Sometimes hypothyroidism is permanent, and sometimes it's reversible. Permanent hypothyroidism can be effectively treated, though not cured.
Causes of permanent hypothyroidism
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. With Hashimoto's, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Over time, this autoimmune attack prevents the thyroid from producing enough hormones (hypothyroidism).
- Due to thyroid cancer, nodules, goiter, or an overactive thyroid, which causes hypothyroidism, part or all of the thyroid gland may be surgically removed.
- An overactive thyroid may be treated with radioactive iodine, damaging the gland and leading to permanent hypothyroidism. Radiation treatments for other head and neck conditions can have the same effect.
Causes of temporary hypothyroidism
Events like a viral infection or pregnancy can cause inflammation of the thyroid gland. Often, an episode of inflammation like this is temporary but may become permanent. Some medications can also temporarily suppress thyroid hormone production.
Hypothyroidism is relatively easy to diagnose with a panel of thyroid hormone blood tests.
Someday we may get a true medical "cure"–an artificial thyroid, thyroid transplants, or the ability to regrow a damaged thyroid gland. But for now, we can treat this condition with thyroid hormone replacement medications like levothyroxine or natural desiccated thyroid.
We take thyroid medication to restore hormone levels to the reference range. At that point, technically, we are no longer hypothyroid. The medical term for thyroid levels in the range is "euthyroid" (pronounced you-thyroid). Some health care providers consider a euthyroid patient receiving hypothyroidism treatment to be "cured" of the condition. According to the strictest medical definition, you are, after all, no longer hypothyroid.
So, voila! Problem solved.
But when patients ask about being "cured," they're often not talking about textbook definitions or test results. They are asking vital questions about their own lives:
- "Will I ever be able to lose weight?"
- "When will I stop feeling so brain-fogged and forgetful?"
- "Will this depression lift?"
- "Will my hair stop falling out?"
- "When I'm ready to be a mother, will I be able to get pregnant and have a healthy baby?"
- "When will I stop feeling totally exhausted every single day?
I know you've asked yourself, as I have: "Will I ever feel and look like myself and have a normal life again?"
You'll be happy to know that the answer is yes!
How to live well with hypothyroidism
Medication is a foundation
After my hypothyroidism diagnosis, there were times when my thyroid levels were in the normal range, but I still didn't feel well. Even though thyroid tests showed that my hypothyroidism was being treated—even "cured" by some definitions—I didn't feel back to normal. I was exhausted, gaining weight, and so brain fogged I couldn't remember what it even felt like to feel like myself!
Yes, thyroid medication was a start. But I had to muddle through and learn the hard way that, for me, the cure for my hypothyroidism requires more than taking a daily pill.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not downplaying the importance of taking thyroid hormone replacement medication; it's a foundation for hypothyroid patients. All of our cells, tissues, organs, and glands require thyroid hormone to function.
But if you're like me, it soon became apparent that it wasn't enough. And over time, I learned that other factors beyond thyroid medication profoundly affect overall wellness and quality of life with hypothyroidism.
The restorative power of sleep
For example, it turns out that no matter what's going on with my thyroid, if I "short sleep"—defined as less than 7 hours of sleep in a night—I pay dearly. After a few nights of short sleeping, I'm exhausted, fuzzy-brained, and my metabolism grinds to a halt. And I'm not alone. Research shows that short sleeping raises TSH levels, increases blood glucose levels, triggers cravings for sugar and carbohydrates, causes weight gain, lowers immunity to infection, and increases stress hormones. Now, I consider getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night to be as important a part of my thyroid treatment as taking my daily thyroid pill.
Food is a drug
What you eat also has a significant impact on day-to-day health. Like many others with autoimmune Hashimoto's disease, I am particularly sensitive to gluten and sugar. When I ate a diet that included liberal amounts of gluten and sugary foods, I was bloated, tired, and achy—and weight loss was nearly impossible. When I cut way back on my gluten and sugar intake—I used a modified form of the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet—these symptoms disappeared. Weight loss became much easier with a healthy diet and physical activity. Symptoms I had blamed on my Hashimoto's hypothyroidism disappeared!
Finally, it was a major eye-opener for me to discover how stress was affecting my health. When I was first diagnosed, I lived a fast-paced, Type A, on the go lifestyle, working 80 hours a week, getting by on too little sleep, and surviving on caffeine. I was rarely slowing down to give my body a much-needed break.
I'm here to tell you that non-stop stress and autoimmune thyroid disease do not mix! Even after I started thyroid medication, I realized that the more I pushed myself, the worse I felt.
I made a concerted effort to manage my stress and restore some balance to my life. I finally started to feel better and eventually back to normal. For me, managing stress—and inoculating myself against its health effects—required cutting back on my intense workload, avoiding unnecessary obligations, learning to say "no" more often (which is more challenging than I thought!), and, most importantly, incorporating daily stress reduction practices like guided meditation, gentle yoga, and breathwork.
So, yes, you can feel and live well with hypothyroidism. You can get back to normal. Optimizing your thyroid hormone levels with medication is a crucial first step. But lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and chronic stress can create a "perfect storm" for hormones and the immune system and get in the way of feeling like yourself again. So, to feel well, you have to do your part. Make it a priority to get quality sleep, eat well, and manage your stress. Soon, you'll be on your way to feeling your best!