When the problem isn’t hypochondria, but hypothyroidism

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Growing up, Liza Bouchard rarely seemed to have the same energy as other kids on the playground. Plagued with allergies, asthma, bronchitis, and other ailments, she never excelled at sports. She was quiet and shy, a young introvert.

Now in her forties, Liza thinks it was clear even then that she had low thyroid function. But until she was 35 years old, doctors dismissed her concerns and told her she was fine — all her bloodwork came back as normal. Even after discovering that her thyroid gland had become enlarged, one endocrinologist told her that her weight and energy issues had nothing to do with hypothyroidism.

At the time, Liza weighed 179 pounds and stood five feet five inches tall. She’d always had dry skin, brittle hair, chronically cold hands and feet, and high cholesterol. She asked her doctor to allow her to at least try a therapy she’d read about, Armour, to replace the thyroid hormone her body needed to function properly.

The doctor had refused.

“I remember her telling me, ‘If you’re here because you’re overweight and you want a quick fix, I’m not going to give it to you,’” Bouchard paraphrased her doctor as saying. “She told me my problems were all in my head and that I needed a psychiatrist. I left her office crying. She really made me feel like I’d made it all up.”

Liza’s story is not unique. Many patients with hypothyroidism –a condition where the thyroid gland underproduces a critical metabolic hormone — have similar tales. While there are several underlying causes of hypothyroidism, including autoimmune disease, pregnancy and iodine deficiency, the most common treatment is to prescribe levothyroxine, a synthetic hormone.

In humans, the thyroid produces hormones known as T3 and T4. Levothyroxine contains only T4, allowing the body to convert it to T3, and works well for many patients. Armour, a thyroid extract prepared from animal glands, contains both T3 and T4. Liza had read about it online and was curious to learn more.

Searching near her home in Amherst, Mass., Liza found Dr. Charles Brummer. She worried that he, too, would accuse her of sneaking boxes of Oreos, but she worked up the courage to schedule an appointment. At her first visit, Brummer took her temperature and looked at her in surprise. Your body temperature is 95, he said. It’s July. That’s not normal. Did no one ever mention this?

After running full panels of bloodwork and putting Liza through extensive examination and questioning, Dr. Brummer agreed to let her try Armour. Within a couple of weeks she noticed a difference: her energy had increased, her thinking was clearer, her friends commented they never realized how much she had to say.

“I tell people it’s like changing the direction of a big ship,” Liza says. “Improvement should be slow and steady, and as long as I was feeling that, I knew I was on the right track. The hard part for a lot of people is knowing what good feels like if they haven’t felt that in a long time.”

Brummer helped Liza by adjusting her Armour dosage and eventually switched her to a T3-only therapy, the most common course of therapy for hypothyroidism. Life is greatly improved — while before a grocery trip would wife her out, she is now an avid Crossfitter.

Liza before thyroid replacement therapy and after.

But it’s still an evolving process. Liza started her own blog, Miss Lizzy, as a way to help others in similar situations. Snapshots of her face before and after thyroid treatment give searchers hope that there is a solution for them, as well. But it’s critical to find a doctor who will partner with you, Liza urges.

“Sometimes people feel badly asking their doctors for that much attention,” she says. “My doctor said, no, I want you to do this. I want to fly by your side. I wish all doctors made people feel that well received.”

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