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Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: My Journey Back to Health

Jennifer Lutz shares a first person account of her efforts to reclaim a sense of well-being despite having a life-long autoimmune hypothyroid disease.

When I was finally diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder, Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, I was relieved. Having a diagnosis meant treatment, and after years of exhaustion, muscle aches, foggy headedness, anxiety, weight gain, and dry skin, I was ready for anything that would make me feel better. Unfortunately, when the doctor says the problem is autoimmune, treatment is not exact and certainly not guaranteed. I found myself trapped between two extremes: medical treatment and alternative treatment, knowing that better health was somewhere in between.

Feeling tired and foggy led this young woman on a journey to find answers that led to a diagnosis of hypothyroid disease.Adding exercise, especially yoga, helped Jennifer manage many symptoms of her Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

To make matters more difficult, my endocrinologist advised against trying any alternative treatments. My hypothyroidism was subclinical, meaning there was really nothing that could be done until my conditioned worsened, at which point I would be placed on synthetic hormones for the rest of my life. But I was sick, and I wanted to feel better.

Seeking a Diagnosis, Searching for Clearer Answers

I couldn’t understand why my doctor’s only solution was no solution at all. Frustrated and losing faith in my medical practitioners, I began to do some research about my condition. Shortly after, a friend gifted me a book entitled, Happy, Healthy Thyroid, by Andrea Beaman. The author mentioned harmful stressors that might affect my thyroid function, such as, “taking on too much”. The book was essentially fluff and empty promises—a wishing to well. It helped me to better understand why my physician had cautioned me about relying on alternative approaches, and it became clear that many alternative methods might get in the way of any valid treatments. There’s just so much information out there that it’s really hard to sort through what may help and what is likely to offer no benefit.

We are in a dangerous time in medicine because the line between preventative and curative is muddied with tons of well-meaning but unscientific, and often unproven, advice. It is the medical world’s version of fake news and it is diluting the influence of beneficial alternative therapies. I can now appreciate that thyroid disorders are disruptive and difficult to manage, and because of this, require a different level and style of self-care. The key, I have learned, is sticking to three principles: 1) do no harm, (2) trust in science, and (3) find what works for you.

As I delved into the research, I scoured medical journals and interviewed researchers from different countries. I could not accept doing nothing. More importantly, I could not accept staying sick. There is a lot of information out there, yet much of it is questionable. So I began to focus on my symptoms: what were they, what connected them, and when could science positively intervene?

Research into Low Thyroid Function and Insulin Resistance

I interviewed Layal Chaker, MD, MSc, an endocrinologist at the Rotterdam Thyroid Clinic in Amsterdam, and co-author of The Rotterdam Study, a population-based trial that explored the incidence of low to low-normal thyroid functioning and insulin resistance. The study findings indicated that even people with normal thyroid function who had lower levels of circulating thyroid hormones had decreased insulin sensitivity. In short, people with a thyroid condition may want to monitor their blood sugar, and consider a diabetes- style diet.

This didn’t appeal to me since I have a major sweet tooth and even healthy foods like fresh fruit could cause my blood sugar levels to spike. I read a lot about diet and interviewed nutrition experts, coming to recognize the value of three basic dietary strategies:

  • Monitor your glycemic index. A glycemic index gives you a measure of the food’s expected impact on blood sugar levels. For example, higher glycemic index foods will cause a greater rise in blood sugar, resulting in a greater insulin response. Here is a link to a quick and easy chart that lists the glycemic index of foods.
  • Plan meals by food pairing. Food paring can be as simple as combining a high glycemic index food such as a banana with a more complex (protein-based) food, such as almonds, which are rich in fat, protein and fiber. Try to eat only carbohydrates and combine them with proteins and fats to slow down sugar absorption and regulate your insulin levels. 
  • Consider nutrient timing. I found the concept of nutrient timing to be a bit tricky. I simplified this concept for myself by saving simple carbohydrates and sugars for after a workout.  Craving a brownie?  Have it after some high-intensity exercise, even a vigorous walk The more intense the workout, the more sugars your muscles will need to recuperate.

Equally important for me, of course, is exercising to feel better.  Science has given me some interesting insight into the relationship between exercise and hormones. Intrigued by the findings from The Rotterdam Study,1 I expanded my search.  Researchers in different fields were making pertinent discoveries that could have been informing each other but that’s not what was happening.

Recognizing the Link Between Exercise and Hypothyroid

 I interviewed Gabriela Brenta, MD, director of the thyroid unit at Cesar Milstein Hospital in Buenos Aires, Brazil. Dr. Brenta’s research examined how lowered thyroid levels could disrupt energy expenditure in muscle tissue.2 It seemed to me that if thyroid levels affected the muscle cells reacted, than exercise could affect thyroid function. These researchers agreed. In a study conducted in India, the researchers found that an hour of moderate physical activity daily could increase circulating thyroid hormones and decrease TSH levels.3 Another report published in Contemporary Endocrinology supported the positive effects of exercise on improved thyroid function.4

After reviewing these studies, I designed a new exercise program for myself based on the research findings, and informed by 10 years of working as a health coach.

My program reflected a three-pronged approach:

  1. Moderate intensity. I do some form of physical activity at a moderate level 5 to 7 days a week. Actually, I live and die by my morning yoga routine. It counts as moderate exercise and I can do it as I rock out to Mariah Carey. For other ways of adding moderate exercise, I alternate swimming, cycling and jogging. My bike rides are usually for transportation, and my swims are more leisurely. Think of moderate exercise as living life; nothing about it needs to be extreme.   
  2. Strength-training. Adding some resistance exercises became a key component of my workout routine. I lift weights three times a week, alternating between strength-training (typically 1-6 repetitions) and muscular endurance training (typically 15-20 repetitions).  Exercise science research from the University of New Mexico led by Len Kravitz PhD,5 supported these choices, suggesting that strength training could positively affect the same metabolic pathways that low thyroid hormones negatively effect. 
  3. High Intensity. I added in high intensity cardio bursts to my workouts.  For me, this consists of running stairs, jump-squats, mountain-climbers or jumping rope. This third prong came in response to research led by Kusat Karacabey, PhD, at the University of Gaziantep in Turkey.6  Scientists there found that working out for brief intervals at a high intensity (about 70% max heart rate, or even 90% if tolerable) acutely improves circulating levels of thyroid hormones. After just nine minutes of high-intensity exercise, participants showed and an increase in thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) levels. 

Most important, is to listen to your body. When I’m feeling particularly fatigued, I give myself a break and do just a gentle workout. I start with a circuit of jumping jacks, and if I feel well enough, I progress to climbing the stairs for even five minutes.

You can do the same—Pick a favorite exercise and begin with one-minute intervals to start. As you feel more ready, add to the time or increase your intensity. Find what works for you since there is no right or wrong, just a good fit for you. What’s important is that you do something, anything. Getting your heart rate up for even a brief time can help clear a foggy head and warm up cold hands and feet. That’s motivates me on the hard days.

Adding Regular Exercise Led to Improved Thyroid Symptoms

Yoga become an important factor in Jennifer's managing her Hashimoto's thyroiditis.Including yoga in Jennifer's daily routine helped her to manage her Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

I began to feel better. Two changes were most surprising—I was less fatigued and I felt less foggy-. My days began to improve. I turned another corner when I began to sleep better because my muscles stopped cramping every night. After the first month of my new exercise program, I noticed feeling less dizzy, less anxious, and less swollen. The weight loss was a definite added bonus.

I am convinced that increasing my level of exercise was a very important part of making my thyroid healthier. It’s fair to say that increasing your physical activity won’t hurt. If you can’t run, and if walking feels overwhelming, embark on a gentle stretching routine or try a basic yoga class to unwind and relax tender muscles. If you want to add a little Mariah Carey (or your favorite music) to your yoga routine, so much the better.

Fitness is also a great way to combat the anxiety and depression that often accompanies autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. While being physically active may be an all-around best mood enhancer, finding the motivation when you’re feeling low can be a challenge. In anticipation of this, schedule an exercise class or neighborhood walk with a friend, commit to a local walking group, or join a team. You might even want to keep a journal of how you feel before and after each fitness session to provide motivation when you don’t feel like it but remember how much better you feel after you’ve pushed yourself to get up, out and move.

Becoming the Boss of Your Thyroiditis  

I will always have Hashimotos Thyroiditis, but at least now, I feel empowered by my own self-care. I found a doctor who works better for me and we work well together.  She usually ends my visits saying, “there is just still a lot we don’t know.”  I’m okay with that. Living with an autoimmune thyroid condition may be a challenge but this is your life. Some days will be harder than others but some will be better too. Remember—Do what you can when you can.