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When Your Thyroid Medication Isn’t Working

Let’s start with two thyroid facts: 

The diagnosis of hypothyroidism (low levels of thyroid hormone) is missed by most physicians.Patients arrive with obvious symptoms of hypothyroidism every doctor learned in medical school, among them sensitivity to cold, weight gain, dry skin, fatigue, and constipation. The doctor listens, sometimes attentively, and then orders a TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) blood test. TSH does not come from the thyroid itself, but rather from the pituitary, a Wizard of Oz sort of gland that controls your thyroid from behind its curtain.

Understand that a high TSH test result indicates low thyroid function. Think of your pituitary churning out the hormone in an attempt to stimulate your thyroid. If your TSH is within normal range (currently 1.0 to 5.0), you’re told that low thyroid is not a problem and you’re sent on your (less than) merry way, tired, cold, sluggish, and depressed, thinking “I thought it was my thyroid.”

What your doctor should be measuring are your actual thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, and testing you for the common thyroid autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. She also should know that many endocrinologists now believe any TSH test result above 2.5 should be treated as an indicator of low thyroid. Probably 20% to 30% of adults drag around with their TSH higher than 2.5.

On the opposite end, patients themselves over diagnose hypothyroidism. If you go online and start reading websites devoted to the thyroid gland and underactive thyroid, someone somewhere has attributed every possible discomfort the human body can experience to low thyroid.

Take being overweight as an example. Let’s face it: a single daily thyroid tablet for weight loss would be a whole lot easier than eating healthfully and boarding your elliptical. It’s human nature to pray that the villain of your middle-age spread is an underactive thyroid rather than an overactive fork.

Early days
The first physician to point out that hypothyroidism was likely being badly underdiagnosed by doctors was Broda Otto Barnes, MD, a Rush Medical College-trained physician and professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Noting the consistently low body temperatures of low-thyroid patients, he standardized a basal body temperature self-test you can find here. Barnes drew the line at 97.8 (recently changed to 97.6) and felt that any temperature lower than that in a person who also had symptoms of low thyroid merited a trial of thyroid hormone treatment.

The Barnes self-test never caught on with a majority of physicians, mainly because TSH was discovered at about the same time and seemed more scientific. These days, an increasing number of you bring your basal temperatures to your doctors as evidence of self-diagnosed hypothyroid status. It’s likely your doctor hasn’t a clue about Barnes and his work, but to reassure you your doc may actually order a TSH test. If it comes back normal (below 5.0), you’ll hear “Your thyroid’s fine,” but in your heart you know better.

With perseverance, you’ll eventually locate a physician to write a thyroid prescription based on your symptoms and basal temperatures.

Ineffective thyroid replacement: what next?
But what happens when you take the prescribed thyroid replacement and nothing happens? Your hopes are dashed. You’re still cold, tired, and, worse than anything, you haven’t lost an ounce. What went wrong? Don’t give up! There are several avenues for consideration:

  1. Your dose isn’t high enough. A definite possibility, but don’t increase it on your own. Dose adjustment is not DIY healthcare. Let your doctor adjust your dose by listening to your symptoms and tracking the results of a full thyroid panel (TSH, T3, T4). Some patients feel best being a scoatch under hyperthyroid (a scoatch is slightly less than a smidgen), but going around in a self-induced overactive thyroid state (called factitious hyperthyroidism) is simply unhealthy.
  1. The thyroid replacement product isn’t right for you. Conventional physicians have been brainwashed to prescribe Synthroid/Levoxyl, a synthetic T4 that replaced Armour’s dried (desiccated) pig (porcine) thyroid in the 1960s (older Chicagoans still remember Armour as a meat-packing company). T4 triggers cells outside the thyroid to make T3, the active form of the hormone. Some people have better T4-to-T3 conversion systems than others. The original Armour thyroid was a blend of T4 and T3 and very similar to human thyroid. Several years ago, Armour was acquired by a Big Pharma company that changed the manufacturing process and bollixed it up.

The name of the best natural thyroid is easy to remember: Nature-Throid. Other excellent thyroids are WP Thyroid and ERFA. If your doctor adamantly refuses your request for NatureThroid, consider Liotrix, a blend of synthetic T4 and T3 in the same ratios as NatureThroid. Or find a different doctor.

  1. You may have an issue with T4 altogether and may need pure T3 (liothyronine, Cytomel) added to your T4 as a separate prescription. Since T3 is much more potent than T4, your initial dose will likely be quite small, on the order of 5 mcg (mcg stands for micrograms, one millionth of a gram or one thousandth of a milligram). If you’re prescribed Cytomel, never ever self-treat (“Oh, I’m feeling so fat today, I’ll just take a few extra Cytomel”). Yikes! Too much Cytomel can trigger very unpleasant side effects and potentially dangerous heart arrhythmias.
  1. You may be taking Cytomel (T3), but feel an afternoon crash. This is because T3 has a short half life and disappears quickly from the body. You might feel better if you spread your dose throughout the day–e.g., 5 micrograms three times daily. There are also capsules of slow-release T3 available, but you’d need to get these from a compounding pharmacist. It can be expensive and is rarely covered by insurance.
  1. You may have forgotten about your adrenal glands. Your thyroid and adrenals are both pituitary-controlled, stress-responding glands. When you’re under chronic stress, both can become fatigued. If you start treating for low thyroid, your increasing metabolism may place an extra burden on your adrenals. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue can mimic hypothyroidism. Take an adrenal support formula when starting thyroid hormone replacement. If you still feel thyroid symptoms and your lab tests are good, have your doctor order an adrenal test, which measures salivary cortisol throughout a single day.
  1. You may have overlooked selenium. It’s only recently been shown that diets low in selenium can induce hypothyroidism. You needn’t add another supplement for this. Just eat some selenium-rich foods—they’re all quite tasty. This first list is for meat and fish eaters, the second for vegetarians (pescetarians, please scan both).
  1. Familiarize yourself with Janie Bowthorpe’s website Stop The Thyroid Madness. The more I read her, the more I’m convinced she knows more about thyroid than 99% of physicians practicing in the US.
  1. Don’t increase your thyroid dose without professional supervision. I’m well aware of Denis Wilson, MD’s, work and his “Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome,” which is essentially Broda Otto Barnes revisited along with time-release Cytomel in place of desiccated porcine thyroid. But Cytomel is simply too powerful for you to play with on your own.
  1. Remember that fatigue is one of the most common problems people bring to their primary care physicians. There are dozens of causes of fatigue. If your pursuit of hypothyroidism doesn’t pan out, don’t give up. Keep researching, at our WHC blog and elsewhere.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Jodi edwards says:

    Very well written, positive, informative…thank you.

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