On the one hand, Oprah is doing women a service. She's providing an example for all women to never give up trying to "live your best life." She has shown us that overweight women can lose weight -- but will probably regain it without solid and consistent habits when it comes to diet, exercise, and stress management. She's publicly admitted that she weighs 200 pounds -- and who among us is brave enough to reveal our weight to millions? -- and she's getting back on track.
But on the other hand, there's a large piece of this story that isn't being told. Besides falling off the wagon of weight control, Oprah Winfrey has fallen off the thyroid treatment wagon. (And frankly, her decision to stop taking thyroid medication is one of six reasons Oprah doesn't have to weigh 200 pounds today, but does.)
And in falling off the thyroid treatment wagon, Oprah may, inadvertently and unfortunately, also be taking millions of American women along with her.
Millions of women listen to Oprah. They trust her...they believe that with her access, wealth, and clout, she is getting -- and in turn, sharing with her viewers and readers -- the absolute best medical advice available. And that's the problem. They trust Oprah to tell them exactly how it is. And she isn't.
Oprah herself is misinformed about thyroid disease, and she -- and her magazine and website -- are sharing misinformation about thyroid disease. Women may be tempted to follow Oprah's example. But that could be dangerous.
Here are some things that Oprah has said or published about thyroid disease that I urge women to reconsider!
First, in her January 6, 2009 show, Oprah, in talking about hypothyroidism, shared that her doctor told her "You must learn to embrace hunger, because you have a thyroid issue. Your metabolism is nothing." She then described her own reaction: "It was almost like some kind of sentence, a fat sentence, because I thought, now it doesn't matter. I've got a thyroid problem. Everything I eat is going to make me fat anyway. I might as well just eat whatever I want. I felt completely defeated. I thought ok, that's it."
What I first want to know is, who is this doctor? (Because this is a doctor who should be avoided at all costs!) And next, where was this doctor getting information about hypothyroidism? It's true that thyroid problems can cause weight gain, and make it harder to lose weight -- even with diet and exercise. But "embrace hunger?" "Your metabolism is nothing?" This is ridiculous, and for Oprah to have believed this nonsense, without doing any research herself, is surprising.
Second, Oprah claimed on her show that she is "cured of" her thyroid problem. She has never fully explained what specific thyroid problem she was diagnosed with, but suggested that it was hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism, like most thyroid problems, is rarely "curable." Thyroid problems are treatable -- but "curing" a thyroid condition? It rarely happens.
So if Oprah did have a thyroid problem, as she claimed, and it's now "cured," she owes the millions of American women who are still suffering from thyroid problems the secret to her "cure."
What is more likely is that Oprah is not cured. We know she was diagnosed with a thyroid condition, and that she has stopped taking prescribed medication. She is still battling a weight problem, and appears to have puffiness in her face and around her eyes -- classic thyroid symptoms. She may be refusing to take medication against medical advice -- and refusing to take prescribed thyroid medication can have a number of negative side effects. Oprah may have borderline test results that she has decided to ignore. Oprah may have a rare case of transient thyroiditis -- a form of thyroid disease that resolves itself over time. Or, Oprah may have autoimmune Hashimoto's thyroid disease that has gone into in temporary remission. (Hashimoto's also tends to get recur and worsen without treatment however.)
I'm concerned that millions of women who are struggling with thyroid problems will think, like Oprah, that thyroid problems are quickly and/or easily "curable," that thyroid problems develop in women due to an inability to speak out and that chakra balancing, speaking out, vacations in Hawaii and soy milk are thyroid "cures." I am also concerned that women will think that stopping prescribed thyroid medication is a viable option, when it rarely is.
Third, at her website, Oprah has a slide show, About Thyroid Health: Understanding Thyroid Problems. While it has some valuable information -- and let's face it, any visibility for thyroid disease is better than none! -- the slide show features some misinformation. For example, on the page titled How Is Hyperthyroidism Diagnosed? the too short list of hyperthyroidism symptoms fails to include two common ones -- two symptoms that Oprah herself was suffering: heart palpitations, and insomnia. (Click here for a thorough list of hyperthyroidism symptoms, or take the online, interactive quiz, Could You Be Hyperthyroid?)
Fourth, the slide show also erroneously claims that "Hyperthyroidism is easily treated" and ...hypothyroidism is easy to treat. With millions of people undiagnosed and improperly treated, the "ease" of treatment is a fiction maintained by the medical establishment. Oprah -- go ask some of your readers how easy it is to treat hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism! (Read Is Thyroid Disease Really So Easy to Treat?)
Fifth, on the page titled How Is Hypothyroidism Diagnosed?, the list of hypothyroidism symptoms NEVER includes weight gain -- the symptom many people suffer -- and that Oprah herself has experienced! The list also doesn't mention infertility, low sex drive, puffiness in hands, feet, face, hair loss, and menopausal problems -- all common thyroid symptoms. (For a comprehensive list, see the Hypothyroidism Risk/Symptoms Checklist, or take the interactive online quiz, Could You Be Hypothyroid?)
Sixth, the slide show asks Is It Thyroid Disease or Menopause? Well, Oprah...maybe it's BOTH! Given that many women develop thyroid conditions during perimenopause, it doesn't have to be either/or issue. See Drs. Richard and Karilee Shames, on The Thyroid/Menopause Connection.
Seventh, another slide with misinformation is How Is Hypothyroidism Treated? This page claims "Most people start to feel better within a week or two. Your symptoms will probably go away within a few months." Most doctors will tell you that you'll start to feel better not within a week or two, but more likely a month or two. And unfortunately, many thyroid patients require adjustment of their medication and dosage, and even when optimized, still suffer from symptoms long after "a few months."
Eighth, in a related Oprah slide show on the causes of fatigue, Fatigue Cause Number Six: Underactive Thyroid claims "Blood tests known as T3 and T4 will detect thyroid hormones. If these hormones are low, synthetic hormones medication can bring you up to speed."
The blood tests most commonly used are not T3 and T4, but the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) test. And when the individual thyroid hormones are measured, most experts agree that Free T4 and Free T3 (not T4 and T3) should be measured. (Read Blood Tests for Thyroid Disease.) And while synthetic hormones -- the generic name is levothyroxine, but most people know the brand names Synthroid and Levoxyl -- are the conventional treatment, some patients do better with natural thyroid drugs. In fact, some patients simply don't do well on the synthetic hormones. (Read What If Your Synthroid Doesn't Work?)
And finally, in Fatigue Cause Number Eight: Sleep Apnea it says that obesity and smoking are risk factors for sleep apnea, but it never mentions another common risk factor for sleep apnea -- hypothyroidism!
MORE ON OPRAH WINFREY'S THYROID AND WEIGHT CHALLENGES
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