April 25, 2013

Running and Hypothyroidism

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 gist 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. 


Julie said...

Glad you got diagnosed and are feeling better, able to train hard and do all the things you want to do. One of my best running buddies was just diagnosed with hypothyroidism a few weeks ago and I'm going to send her this blog post. Since I have a lot of these same symptoms I'm going to call my doctor and get some blood work done too..just in case!

Thanks for writing about it, I'm sure this will help a lot of people.

Will said...

Julie...thanks for your comment. I've been meaning to write about this since it was such major issue in my life, but has been resolved (sort of) through medication. The WSJ article kind of triggered me. I hope you get to the bottom of your symptoms and feel better soon.

Adam Lee said...

Hi Will, I just read your article, it is clear from thyroid problems are a concern of many people. All problems are the cause. Do not worry, I have a blog to share about "How to treat hypothyroidism naturally?" you can see more information.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will. Thank you for writing this blog. My doctor always monitor my thyroid level, it was normal for the last 2 lab works. I started to be active, join the gym and started running. 3 5k's after, my doctor left me a voicemail saying i have mild hypothyroidism..are you kidding me? Im just frustrated for now.. Im glad i saw your article about this.

Laura Augustine said...

Thank you for writing. I was just diagnosed, and the only research I'm finding is on performance enhancers. I'm tiring out very quickly during runs. Did you experience this? If so how did you combat this?

Heidi said...

Thank you for post. The same thing happened to me the past February and I just found out my numbers are through the roof again:( Just finished my first Half Iron and suppose to be doing a 50 k in a couple weeks. Apparently coming close to off meds wasn't realistic as an endurance athlete.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this post! I have just been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I have gone from easily training hard 6/7 days a week to being able to train 2 days a week and feel like I've been hit by a train after. Started my meds 2 weeks ago so fingers crossed. Please, please could you write another post like this on how you train and if there is anything you have changed in your routine. Info on the web on super active people with hypothyroidism is pretty non existant.