This is the first of a two-part article on my experience overcoming Graves Disease, a common thyroid problem, especially for women older than age 60.
I was 54 years old when I became an expert on Graves Disease through first-hand experience.
One of the key glands in the human endocrine system is the thyroid. Important metabolic functions like heart rate and energy levels depend on normal levels of the chemicals naturally secreted by the thyroid.
When these hormone levels stop being balanced and become too high or too low, moderate to severe health issues arise.
I am a survivor of Graves Disease – hyperthyroidism – where my thyroid was pumping out seven times the normal levels of thyroxine (T4) – the primary hormone produced by the gland – and triiodothyronine (T3) – the most active hormone.
Graves’ disease is an immune system disorder that was first described medically by Sir Robert Graves in the early 1800s. It is one of the most common thyroid problems and a leading cause of hyperthyroidism. My thyroid gland ramped up into hyper-drive and produced ‘way too many hormones.
My endocrinologist told me to cancel my travel plans and get immediate treatment. In fact, he booked my next diagnostic appointments without even consulting with me first. He explained that I would die without fast action. My first consultation was on May 9, 2009. I was rushed into treatment on May 12.
It had taken a while for my situation to become so urgent. My overall condition came on gradually for about three months. Since my health was not improving, I visited a family doctor who referred me to a specialist in endocrinology. (I didn’t have a regular doctor because I was never sick or health insurance because I was unemployed.)
I had so many different symptoms that I had listed them all on an Excel spreadsheet. My doctors said this was very helpful for them to help me. Several blood and urine tests later, the results came back clear as day.
My diagnosis that I had an advanced and severe case of Graves Disease came six months after the first symptoms appeared in December 2008.
I had never heard of Graves Disease but now know that I had many of the classic symptoms:
- My hands and fingers shook (tremors). My eyes bulged (Graves’ ophthalmopathy). I had become very weak and slept 18 hours in every 24 (fatigue).
- My heartbeat was rapid (tachycardia) and required a prescription medication to lower it. My doctor said I was at risk of a heart attack if I didn’t take the meds. He said this symptom was the worst threat to my health.
- I gradually lost the ability to climb stairs – I had to grasp the railing and haul myself up by my arms.
- I could drive but I couldn’t step into my car. I leaned over, used my hands to lift one leg into the car, leaned in, took hold of the steering wheel, and hoisted myself into the driver’s seat.
I was alert when I was awake and never experienced any pain. I never had any doubt that I would, eventually, get better. But that took three years and I wound up hypothyroidic – with low thyroid hormone levels.
Medical experts, including my doctors, claim that my thyroid can never recover because the nuclear medicine I ingested knocked back my thyroid levels to below normal because the living tissue was destroyed so it could no longer over-secrete.
Although I am a life-long holistic healer type of person, my condition was “grave” enough (sure, I can joke about it now) to warrant taking the extreme measure of a treatment that consisted of consuming radioactive material that targeted a localized organ: my thyroid.
My treatment consisted of two doses of radioactive iodine, taken orally, about two years apart. (The first dose lowered my thyroid hormone levels for a while, but then they climbed back up.)
The thyroid needs iodine to produce body-regulating hormones. The body does not make its own iodine which is why doctors recommend using iodized salt for cooking. A diet low in iodine may lead to a deficiency and enlarge the thyroid gland in the throat, a medical condition called a goiter.
An enlarged or overactive thyroid may be treated chemically as an alternative to invasive throat surgery. After my doctor explained the choices, I went with Door #1.
In order to figure out how much nuclear iodine to give me, I needed to have a radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) test which gauges thyroid function. This measures how much radioactive iodine is taken up by the thyroid gland in a certain time period.
In my case, the RAIU was paired with a thyroid scan. The Diagnostic Imaging lab techs instructed me to lie still on large body-imaging machines in a variety of pretzel shapes for five-minute exposures. Normally, this sort of stretching contortion wouldn’t faze me. But due to my extremely weakened state, these imaging sessions, which lasted about an hour, were very difficult for me physically. I was exhausted afterward.
Both the thyroid scan and uptake tests involved ingesting a very small amount of a radiotracer – radioactive material – to determine how efficiently the thyroid is operating.
This testing information was used to prescribe the correct dose of radioactive iodine, provided in a pill form to be taken by mouth.
Each time an oral dose was administered, the lab tech had to walk over to the Nuclear Medicine Department to fill out paperwork to bring back a capsule with radioactive iodine. Each time, the tech returned with a lead-lined canister which was opened by gloved hands. The pill inside was dumped into a disposable cup.
My doses of radioactive iodine were strong enough that the techs left the room after delivering the cup-with-pill into my one hand, along with a cup of water in the other.
Doctors consider an under-achieving thyroid the better option because the condition can be “managed” with prescription medicine. Although the pills are quite affordable, who relishes the thought of having to take meds for the rest of their lives? I certainly don’t.
Part 2 of this two-part series on over- and underperforming thyroid conditions, “Natural Thyroid Boosters,” will explore alternative-health ways to prevent the onset of goiters and Graves Disease – so stay tuned!