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Running and Hypothyroidism

Posted Apr 25 2013 3:37pm
Imagine this. You go to the doctor for a physical. You tell him you are feeling really tired. Worn out. Beat down. The energy that you once relied on to get you through your tough training periods is MIA. You’re confused and a little worried.

So the doc says “lets take a look at your hormones.” More specifically your TSH, or thyroid stimulating hormone. He explains that TSH triggers the release of  thyroxine  (T4) and  triiodothyronine  (T3) which, in turn, stimulate the metabolism of almost every tissue in the body. When TSH is abnormally high it usually means something is wrong with the pituitary gland, the little gland just below your neck that is responsible for secreting these powerful hormones.

I don’t have to imagine this, because this was my world several years ago. My doctor sent me to get my blood tested for TSH level. The news that came back wasn’t good. My TSH level were off the charts. I don’t think I will ever forget the voice mail the nurse left me. It went something like this: “your pituitary gland is in bad shape, but don’t worry because if you take a pill everyday for the rest of your life everything is going to be OK!” Wait a minute. A-pill-everyday-for-the-rest-of-my-life? Everything-is-going-to-be-OK? Delivered by voice mail no less. Bedside manner at its best.

After listening to the message for the 7th or 8th time, reality started to rear its ugly head. For me, the thought of being dependent on a prescription drug made by a multinational pharmaceutical company was, well, a little revolting. I researched my options. What I learned wasn’t pretty.

I continued to inquire about the cause of the condition. My doctors responded like the well trained lab rats they had become: we don’t know what caused this, but it doesn’t matter because we have a treatment for it. A pill. In other words, forget what caused your condition, and just swallow a pill everyday for the rest of your life and we can treat the symptoms. God I love western medicine!

I chose to write this post because the Wall Street Journal recently published  an article  on elite runners with hypothyroidism. The jest of that article, unfortunately, is doping. The author alleges that many elite athletes that have been given thyroid medication to improve their athletic performance.

The message in the article conflicts with the fact that there is no evidence that thyroid medication enhances athletic performance. These medications are not banned by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) . According to Dr.Borenstein , an endocrinologist who works with hundreds of thyroid patients, the article misses a key factor - that “thyroid medication replaces  something natural to the body that's missing, something that is essential for basic functioning."

I’ve spent years of asking doctors and health experts what causes hypothyroidism, and I’ve never been given a logical answer, until now. Borenstein is saying something I have suspected all along - that intense endurance training could be a contributor. According to Borenstein, “endurance training can cause adrenal depletion and weaken adrenal function, and this in turn can inhibit thyroid function."

Despite having to take a pill once per day to treat my hypothyroidism, I still live a normal life. I've continued to train for and run ultra marathons for the last 8 years, and I get to go on bike rides and hikes with my daughters. I even go skiing and ride a skateboard once in a while. I'm pleased to know physicians are looking beyond just treating the symptoms of the hypothyroidism with drugs and are now talking about potential causes of the disease. But whatever the cause, I'm thankful for my health today. 

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