In her "What I Know for Sure" column (page 380 in the magazine, or read it online), Oprah writes about why she needed to give herself a break this past summer. She explains:
"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!)"Oprah describes being exhausted and numb by the end of her show's season in May, but she needed to spend the month of June in South Africa with the students at the school she founded. She then cleared her schedule and spent the month of July in Hawaii, where, as she puts it, she "actively worked at doing nothing."
She describes her health regimen during that time. "I took vitamins. Drank soy milk. Munched on golden flaxseed. I ate only fresh foods..." According to Oprah, after 14 days, she started to feel her "self" returning, and by the end of the month, she was feeling better, and says her "physical health improved..."
What sort of thyroid problem does Oprah have? Is she getting the best possible treatment? What's next for Oprah? Find out my thoughts on Oprah's thyroid condition.
My Thoughts on Oprah's Thyroid Condition
While Oprah has not released information on her current thyroid diagnosis or treatment approach, what Oprah describes sounds very much like a classic flare-up of Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease, and the most common cause of an underactive thyroid. In Hashimoto's, antibodies slowly destroy the thyroid gland's ability to produce thyroid hormone, which is essential to metabolism and energy. With Hashimoto's thyroiditis, it's not uncommon for someone to go through a brief period of hyperthyroidism -- a "last gasp" of the thyroid, so to speak, as it is failing -- before the thyroid slows down for good and becomes chronically underactive (hypothyroid).
The onset of autoimmune thyroid problems and hypothyroidism is especially common in women who are, like 53-year old Oprah, in perimenopause or menopause. Unfortunately, many women in this age group are told that complaints such as fatigue, weight gain, and hair loss are symptoms of depression or menopause, instead of a thyroid condition.
I'm not confident, however, that Oprah is receiving the best possible advice for her health. First, I have to wonder how long Oprah may have had an undiagnosed thyroid condition. It's possible that her thyroid problems may go farther back than just this summer, given some of the health challenges she has shared, including her very public battle to control her weight. Difficulty losing weight is a well-known symptom of Hashimoto's thyroiditis, even in the early stages before it develops into full-blown hypothyroidism.
Also, Oprah describes in the magazine article that part of her health regimen is to drink soy milk. Actually, for someone suffering from autoimmune thyroid disease, many experts would caution against soy due to soy's potential for negative effects on thyroid health. Soy in concentrated forms can actually act as an antithyroid agent, slowing down the thyroid. U.S. Food and Drug Administratino (FDA) soy experts Drs. Daniel Doerge and Daniel Sheehan, protested the FDA's own health claims for soy, stating: "There is abundant evidence that some of the isoflavones found in soy, including genistein and equol, a metabolize of daidzen, demonstrate toxicity in estrogen sensitive tissues and in the thyroid...Additionally, isoflavones are inhibitors of the thyroid peroxidase which makes T3 and T4. Inhibition can be expected to generate thyroid abnormalities, including goiter and autoimmune thyroiditis." Many physicians would recommend that Oprah avoid soy given her thyroid condition, and if she wants to eat soy products, to use only fermented soy products like tempeh and miso. According to Michael Barbee, author of Politically Incorrect Nutrition, "the fermentation process alters soy in such a way that the natural toxins, antinutrients, and goitrogens are neutralized, and the isoflavones are made beneficial--or at least, less harmful."
More than four years ago, I urged thyroid patients around the nation to contact Oprah's producers and encourage them to put together a show on the epidemic of overlooked, misdiagnosed hypothyroidism in America's women. While thousands of letters and emails were sent, that show on thyroid disease never materialized. Meanwhile, Oprah has continued to cover topics such as fatigue, perimenopause, menopause, depression, low sex drive, infertility, fibromyalgia, anxiety, panic disorder, and weight gain at great length, without any mention of the major role a thyroid problem can play in each and every one of these health challenges that women commonly face.
Now more than ever, I urge Oprah to consider covering a topic that has become a very personal one for her -- hypothyroidism. It's no surprise to my readers that I frequently bemoan the lack of media attention for thyroid disease. And strangely, even though the woman referred to as "the most influential woman in the world" has now gone public with her own hypothyroidism, we STILL have an inexplicable lack of media interest in her announcement, as noted by Bob Condor in the Seattle Post Intelligencer today.
Meanwhile, millions of woman across America, and millions more around the world, struggle with exhaustion, depression, weight gain, low sex drive, PMS, high cholesterol, difficult menopause, body aches/pains, hair loss, infertility, and other life-sapping symptoms, without getting the proper diagnosis and treatment they deserve.
Oprah's own health situation presents her with an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. By dedicating even one episode of her powerhouse show to the problem of undiagnosed, undertreated or improperly treated hypothyroidism -- and hopefully, covering it in a realistic way, and not the breezy "easy to diagnose, easy to treat" mythology promoted by some doctors -- Oprah has it in her power to dramatically improve the health of millions of women worldwide -- and even save lives that will otherwise be lost to this condition and its debilitating side effects.
We have raised up our voices, pleading with doctors, experts, the media, and even Oprah herself, to give more attention to the plight of people with hypothyroidism. Oprah has received our letters and emails -- thousands of them. And she now knows first-hand the personal struggle involved in having a thyroid condition.
Let us hope that she will turn her struggle into an even more positive opportunity to increase awareness, and transform the health of millions. As for me, I am confident that Oprah will do the right thing.
Photo of Oprah Winfrey, June 2007: Peter Kramer / Getty Images