Thyroid Issue or Addiction Problem? The Wendy Williams Story
Sadly, Williams isn’t the first celebrity to twist the reality of thyroid disease — Oprah Winfrey and Sofia Vergara also gave skewed views of this issue that affects upwards of 20 million Americans — and their guidance to the thyroid community could do more harm than good.
As a thyroid coach, author of 10 books on thyroid disease, and a thyroid patient myself for more than 20 years, I naturally pay close attention when celebrities speak publicly about their own thyroid issues.
Recently, talk show host Wendy Williams returned to work on her show after a lengthy hiatus. An earlier statement said she would spend significant time in the hospital for a relapse of Graves’ disease, an autoimmune thyroid condition. A few weeks later, she revealed that she was being treated for an unspecified addiction. An anonymous source alleged to a newspaper that during Williams’ hiatus, she was not hospitalized for Graves’ disease, but instead was in rehab for her addiction. Just yesterday, according to The Daily News, Williams was taken back to the hospital and given IV fluids, supposedly after getting drunk when her husband’s alleged mistress had a baby.
The issue here, beyond everyone butting into her personal life? I’ve always applauded celebrities who publicly admit they have thyroid problems. It takes courage, because thyroid disease is often stigmatized. In the media, advertising, and comedy writing, “thyroid problem” is frequently used as code for “fat and lazy and looking for something else to blame.” And celebs who make their thyroid conditions public are sometimes treated derisively. (For example, the media unfairly speculated that Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Gail Devers had mental health issues, anorexia, or a drug problem, despite her thyroid diagnosis.) A willingness to at least speak about thyroid disease in public is, therefore, commendable.
But because it’s already hard enough for thyroid patients to be taken seriously, when celebrities or prominent people share confusing or misleading information about the disease, it makes it that much harder for all of us. I’ll explain more about Williams, as well as two other famous women with thyroid disease, Oprah Winfrey and Sofia Vergara.
Wendy Williams’ Graves’ disease relapse
Twenty years ago, Williams was treated with radioactive iodine for Graves’ disease. She was then treated with thyroid medication for the resulting underactive thyroid. During the past two years, Williams took two high-profile and lengthy breaks from hosting her talk show, the most recent running from December 2018 through February 2019. In both cases, Williams claimed that her breaks were due to complications from a recurrence of her Graves’ disease. During her second hiatus, her family released a statement saying that Williams needed hospitalization for her Graves’ disease relapse.
In early March, Williams opened her first show after the break with a vague accounting of her struggle with thyroid symptoms. She described in detail her doctor’s visits and blood tests, but she never mentioned specific complications that would require hospitalization — or even that she was in the hospital. Then, less than three weeks later, during her March 19 show, Williams revealed that she has been living in a “sober house” to deal with an unspecified recurring addiction. (In the past, she has admitted to a 10-year problem with cocaine.) The recent revelation was likely prompted by the publication of photos of her going in and out of a sober living facility, along with a story in The Daily Mail. In that story, an unnamed source alleged that during the hiatus, Williams had gone to rehab for alcohol and pill addiction, and that "her Graves' disease has never been an issue at all."
It’s not clear what was going on health-wise with Wendy Williams during the period of her break. Relapses of Graves’ disease are common, occurring in 10 to 40 percent of patients. Hospitalization, however, is another thing.
“Hospitalization for Graves’ disease and thyrotoxicosis is actually quite rare, and accounts for around 3 out of every 10,000 hospitalizations in the U.S.,” according to endocrinologist Jacqueline Jonklaas, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher and professor of endocrinology at Georgetown University.
Was Williams in the hospital for a Graves’ disease relapse? We may never know. Without more specifics, we’re left to wonder whether she may have used her thyroid issue as a smokescreen to hide her addiction treatment. If that’s the case, it’s not fair to thyroid patients.
Graves’ disease diagnosis is already complicated. Graves’ disease symptoms — like panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, and rapid weight loss — often lead doctors to misdiagnose patients. I have heard from dozens of teenagers and women who were misdiagnosed with anxiety, panic disorder, or anorexia — or accused of having a drug problem — long before their Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism were finally diagnosed.
Will some doctors now add “hidden addiction” to that misdiagnosis list? And what about a woman who is genuinely debilitated by Graves’ disease? If she needs sick time or disability leave, will her employer, friends, and family wonder if the woman is actually headed to rehab? In my opinion, because Williams has publicly spoken about her thyroid issues, she now owes her viewers — and the thyroid community — a more in-depth explanation.
Oprah Winfrey’s thyroid “cure”
Another celebrity who has muddied the public thyroid conversation is talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
As a thyroid advocate, for years I privately reached out to Winfrey’s producers to urge her to get her thyroid checked. Winfrey had openly discussed that she was gaining weight and finding it difficult to lose weight — a classic hypothyroidism symptom. I also noticed that, at times, her neck appeared to be enlarged, another typical thyroid symptom called goiter.
Winfrey’s show never shied away from most health issues, but surprisingly, they also never mentioned thyroid disease when covering topics such as weight gain, fatigue, infertility, menstrual problems, low sex drive, depression, and anxiety. Thyroid conditions are a common symptom — and cause — of all these health problems. In contacting Winfrey’s producers, I also encouraged them to include thyroid disease in their health-related shows.
Then, in 2007, Winfrey announced both on the show and in O magazine that she was hypothyroid. She said: “My body was turning on me. First hyperthyroidism, which sped up my metabolism and left me unable to sleep for days. (Most people lose weight. I didn’t.) Then hypothyroidism, which slowed down my metabolism and made me want to sleep all the time. (Most people gain weight. I did! Twenty pounds!)”
I had renewed hope. I was certain that after experiencing hypothyroidism herself, Winfrey would use her powerful platform to dramatically transform the public discussion and elevate awareness of hypothyroidism! She would do shows to highlight all the conventional and integrative treatment options and mind-body implications of hypothyroidism.
That never happened. Instead, she did one show, not with an endocrinologist but with cardiologist Mehmet Oz, M.D. On the show, Dr. Oz briefly explained that Winfrey had Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that was causing her hypothyroidism. Dr. Oz said it was like a “frat party in your thyroid.” Gynecologist Christiane Northrup, M.D., was also on that episode, explaining that, in her opinion, women’s thyroid problems were due to blockages in the throat chakra, a result of the inability to speak out openly and freely. One of Dr. Northrup’s solutions at that time was to drink lots of soy milk (despite soy being a goitrogen, a food that can slow down the thyroid and make hypothyroidism worse). She also recommended that thyroid patients take bubble baths and say affirmations to themselves in the mirror — as if one could will away thyroid issues with a bit of self-care.
A few months after announcing her thyroid condition, Winfrey declared herself officially “cured” due to fresh food and a month-long vacation at her Hawaiian retreat. Winfrey also said that she had decided not to take any thyroid hormone replacement medication, a decision most doctors do not endorse.
“Reducing stress, practicing affirmations, and eating healthy are all wonderfully positive things to do. Unfortunately, however, once someone has sustained damage to their thyroid gland from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the only thing that can restore thyroid hormone levels is thyroid hormone,” Georgetown’s Dr. Jonklaas tells HealthCentral. “I worry that individuals that try these approaches instead of taking thyroid hormone may continue suffering from hypothyroidism unnecessarily. I also tell my patients that if someone claims they cured a thyroid problem with a special diet or nutrition, meditation, or vitamins, for example, that person may have had a transient thyroiditis rather than hypothyroidism due to Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.”
Only Winfrey and her doctor know whether she had transient thyroiditis that she genuinely cured with a vacation and healthy eating. What we do know, however, is that she left us with the impression that hypothyroidism from Hashimoto’s is easily fixed with lifestyle changes, and that medication is optional. Meanwhile, the facts prove otherwise: Untreated hypothyroidism puts you at risk of weight gain, depression, infertility, miscarriage, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, among other problems.
Of course, Winfrey’s unconventional treatment approaches — particularly her decision to refuse thyroid medication — were her personal choice. But failing to publicly present all sides of the issue, and with an appropriate expert, was careless.
Sofia Vergara, following the script
Finally, there’s the Modern Family star. Sofia Vergara, who had thyroid cancer decades ago, signed on several years ago as a paid spokesperson for the “Follow the Script” campaign sponsored by Synthroid.
Synthroid is a brand of levothyroxine, and levothyroxine is one of several different treatments for hypothyroidism. In the campaign’s ads and in news and talk show interviews scheduled by Synthroid, the actress talked about how great she felt taking Synthroid for her hypothyroidism.
Most people who take thyroid medication like Synthroid are taking it for autoimmune hypothyroidism, not hypothyroidism after thyroid cancer.
In the many interviews she did, Vergara never mentioned that the drug is not necessarily the right choice for everyone. Some people need the levothyroxine drug Tirosint, because they have allergies or digestive problems and can only absorb this special hypoallergenic liquid form. Other patients have genetic or nutritional issues that call for an additional T3 drug, liothyronine (Cytomel), or a natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) drug like Nature-throid or Armour Thyroid. Of course, anyone paid by a company to shill that company’s goods will do just that, so it’s hard to throw shade at Vergara for that. However, the responsible thing would have been to mention that while Synthroid works for many people, it isn’t the one and only solution for hypothyroidism in general.
Meanwhile, many women with hypothyroidism take Synthroid but still struggle with a long list of unresolved symptoms, such as weight gain, fatigue, and depression. When we complain to doctors, we are frequently told that we’re lazy or should eat less, or we may be handed an antidepressant. Doctors frequently fail to consider whether another brand like Tirosint, or a thyroid treatment that includes T3, would be better choices to resolve our symptoms.
Vergara’s positive experiences with hypothyroidism and Synthroid are enviable, but they’re simply not representative of most patients’ experience — and they’ve made it more difficult for some of us to get proper treatment (I know a woman whose husband pointed to Vergara’s hourglass figure despite a thyroid condition and chastised his wife for not being able to get her weight under control — I mean, he’s clearly not in the running for husband of the year, but still…). While Vergara’s Synthroid campaign can’t fully be blamed for this, her message did reach millions.
For various reasons, Wendy Williams, Oprah Winfrey, and Sofia Vergara all willingly chose to make their own thyroid stories public. In my opinion, with that choice comes an ethical responsibility to share reliable information. It’s reckless to selectively share thyroid information that can create false impressions. It’s misleading to misrepresent a personal thyroid experience as somehow applicable to everyone with a thyroid condition. And it’s disingenuous to share a thyroid success story while selectively omitting crucial information or potential risks.
For instance, after Winfrey announced she was cured of her Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, hundreds of women emailed me, saying they intended to follow her lead and go off their thyroid medication. I urged them to first talk to their doctors, and to be aware that not taking prescribed medication could put them at significant risk. According to Dr. Jonklaas: “A health care provider who is familiar with the complexities of your thyroid condition and other medical conditions is the person best able to give you guidance.”
It is for reasons like this that I urge Williams, Winfrey, and Vergara — and any other celeb who goes public about their thyroid health — to please do better. My hope for the future is that when celebrities agree to endorse a drug, they approach their decisions with due diligence, and recognize the responsibility they share for the messages put forth in the campaigns. That way, fame can be used for good — to get out the full story and truly help everyone struggling with a thyroid condition.