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Thyroid Power

Is there more to the gland than we think?


FAMILY PRACTICE The Shameses, Richard, Karilee and Georjana, specialize in that little bowtie in your neck.
  • FAMILY PRACTICE The Shameses, Richard, Karilee and Georjana, specialize in that little bowtie in your neck.

Amanda Wongsonegoro felt like a shadow of herself. The normally fit and trim massage therapist and former competitive swimmer was suffering from alternate exhaustion and hyperactivity, muscle soreness, dry hair and skin, memory loss, weight gain and low libido. Only 29 years old, she felt much, much older.

After being diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, she spent three and a half years seeking an effective treatment, cycling through seven different endocrinologists and general practitioners, and surviving a bout of overmedication that nearly resulted in a heart attack. Nothing worked. Then, in 2005, she went to a talk given by Dr. Richard Shames about his newest book, Feeling Fat, Fuzzy, or Frazzled? (Penguin; $16), and the very next day made an appointment that she says changed her life.

Together with his wife, Karilee, Dr. Shames has spent the past 35 years researching and treating thyroid illness. A small gland that wraps around the trachea like a bow tie, the thyroid produces hormones that regulate everything from heartbeat to cognitive functioning. "The thyroid," Shames tells me, "is like the gas pedal of the car," which, in addition to the adrenal and sex glands, forms the holy trinity of metabolic function.

A shocking one in 10 Americans have some degree of metabolic gland imbalance. In their latest book, Thyroid Mind Power: The Proven Cure for Hormone-Related Depression, Anxiety, and Irritability (Rodale Books; $17.99), the Shameses argue that thyroid imbalance is often the underlying cause of emotional and psychiatric illnesses, including depression, anxiety, memory loss, sleep disturbances and addiction.

The Shameses, who live in Sebastopol, met in 1976 when Karilee, a young nurse, began volunteering at the Holistic Health and Nutrition Institute in Mill Valley that Richard had started a few years before. Karilee's own struggles with thyroid issues led her into a professional, and then personal, relationship with Richard. In what Richard calls "the most divine collaboration of my life," he and Karilee have spent the past three decades treating patients with thyroid imbalances.

According to psychiatrist Russell Joffe in a recent New York Times article, "in the early 20th century, the best descriptions of clinical depression were actually in textbooks on thyroid disease, not psychiatric textbooks." Research indicates that 25 to 40 percent of depression diagnoses are linked to the thyroid—meaning that for some, natural remedies like vitamin D and rosemary, which cost just pennies a day, could be more effective than the antidepressants often prescribed by the mainstream medical community. "We might not die from it," says Dr. Shames, "but this illness is ripping off both our resources and our vitality."

Thyroiditis comes in two forms. An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) results in anxiety, restlessness and heart palpitations. But 85 to 90 percent of the time, problems result from an underactive thyroid (known as hypothyroidism) that leaves people feeling tired, depressed and sluggish. Although 30 million Americans, most of them women, have thyroid imbalance, it remains a misunderstood, misdiagnosed epidemic.

"It's a classic example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish," says Shames, who argues that because of cost, HMOs often skimp on the necessary testing to determine thyroid conditions. In addition, many people suffer from low-grade imbalances whose effects are not understood by physicians. As a result, scores of people are being treated with expensive, often ineffective medicines that, "like dirty band-aids," make things worse by failing to treat the root cause of the problem.

After doing a saliva test, Shames found that Amanda had an underlying adrenal fatigue issue that was exacerbating her thyroiditis. Using an integrated medicine approach that emphasizes the connection between mind, body and emotion, Shames put her on an adrenal supplement and suggested she start keeping a daily journal chronicling her diet, exercise and mood.

"Two days later, the fog had lifted and I felt a bit better," Amanda says, noting that it took another nine months of prescription medicine and lifestyle change (including a mostly vegetarian diet and a healthy divorce) to rebuild her endocrine system. "Modern medicine tries to obliterate symptoms," says Shames, "but we try to match symptoms with products, encouraging the body to heal itself."

Now 38 years old, Amanda is a role model for wellness whose hormone levels are in the perfect zone. Following Shames' advice that "you must always have energy in the bank," she gets enough rest and has "stopped trying to be superwoman."

"I went from feeling half-alive," she marvels, "to feeling like someone turned on Christmas lights inside of me."

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