Some 20 million Americans—or one in every 16—and one in 20 British people suffer from some form of thyroid disease. That’s a medical tragedy, no doubt, but the bigger tragedy is that almost two-thirds have no idea that they are affected—and in the majority of instances, nor do their doctors.
Exactly this situation happened to Georgia Lennard, a nutritional therapist in London, and even after a thyroid ‘storm,’ her doctor assured her there was nothing wrong with her thyroid because the tests showed otherwise.
Doctors often miss diagnosing an underactive thyroid because they are using the wrong tests to help them diagnose.
They still rely on a series of blood tests that don't tell them about the full state of a person's thyroid, only about the levels of thyroid hormone circulating in the blood. These tests also can't tell them how much thyroid hormone the body is able to use or how much is necessary to ensure an individual's health.
In Georgia’s case, despite having difficulty even getting out of bed in the morning, all her thyroid markers were in range.
To make matters even more complicated, a host of conditions and drugs can throw off a thyroid hormone reading. Even taking the Pill can give a false picture of the state of your thyroid.
And, as with Georgia, a number of other, seemingly unrelated situations can also create an autoimmune situation where your body begins attacking your thyroid—known as Hashimoto’s disease.
Overgrowth of the yeast Candida albicans, for instance, and a variety of other gut bacteria, like Helicobacter pylori, are just one cause of Hashimoto’s. Stress or any one of a number of foods, particularly the usual culprits like gluten or dairy, can set up a continuous autoimmune situation that goes unnoticed because the tests used don’t show what’s really going on.
Stung by the knowledge that they have missed so many diagnoses of thyroid illness, doctors have lately swung the other way, and now tend to diagnose a thyroid problem and hand out thyroid drugs as a first port of call. “This is a potentially enormous problem,” said a spokesperson for the British Thyroid Association, as many patients now have serious side effects from an excess of thyroid hormones.
Sorting out a thyroid problem requires far more detective work than a blood test and a prescription for levothyroxine, as Georgia discovered. But it starts with confirming that a thyroid issue is indeed the problem.
A simple test for thyroid
Nutritional practitioners like Barry Durrant-Peatfield in Britain have successfully diagnosed thyroid patients by relying on a simple, noninvasive test developed by Dr Broda Barnes, a thyroid expert, 30 years ago.
Dr Barnes, who believed many people have subtle thyroid disorders that don't show up on any blood test, publicized a simple, accurate test for both hypo- and hyperthyroid conditions that can be done at home in his book, Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness (Harper & Row, 1976).
Barnes' test involves recording your basal body temperature (BBT), the body's lowest temperature during its waking day, which is invariably when you wake up.
The test simply entails placing a thermometer under your armpit for 10 minutes first thing in the morning before you get out of bed for several days and recording the results. (Premenopausal women need to take the test on days two or three of the menstrual cycle.) A normal reading ranges between 97.8 to 98.2°F (36.6 and 36.8°C).
Anything markedly below this could signal that the individual has an underactive thyroid; anything markedly higher suggests an overactive one. Of course, a good doctor will also consider and exclude other causes of a low basal body temperature, and the BBT test is no substitute for careful and complete history-taking.
According to Durrant Peatfield, this test has been ignored or derided by many practitioners and authorities. Doctors used to diagnosing on the basis of a scientific reading, like a laboratory result, tend to suspect anything as simple as a thermometer reading.
The tragedy is that this reliance on gadgetry is blinding medicine to the simple wisdom of Peatfield's approach and instigating a witch hunt to round up all those doctors who refuse to diagnose thyroid disorders on the basis of blood tests. Dr Durrant Peatfield was one of those, hounded out of medicine for the crime of making countless thyroid patients well without relying on the usual drugs.
In Georgia’s case, it took a good deal of detective work and the help of a functional medicine practitioner to unearth all the various factors that were making her ill.
As with most areas of medicine, space-age equipment and high-tech lab results are no substitute for the lost art of traditional medicine: having a good look at a patient and listening to her story.