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