Clinton’s Health: What You Should Know About Armour Thyroid

Attacks on Armour Thyroid raise concerns for thyroid patients

Mark Makela / Stringer / Getty Images News

Thyroid treatment options could become a high-profile casualty of the 2016 presidential campaign.

In 2015, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack, released a letter that documented Secretary Clinton’s health status. The letter stated: “Mrs. Clinton is a healthy 67-year-old female whose current medical conditions include hypothyroidism and seasonal pollen allergies..." Of particular interest was the line in her doctor's letter that states:

"Mrs. Clinton's current medications include Armour Thyroid..."

The letter was not a topic of major media or public interest until late summer 2016, when questions regarding Secretary Clinton’s health became a focus of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, his campaign surrogates, supporters, and some members of the media.

Medical ethics generally preclude physicians commenting on or publicly diagnosing patients who are not in their care. Still, in a recent radio interview, Dr. Drew Pinsky—known to radio listeners and reality television viewers as “Dr. Drew” of "Loveline" and “Celebrity Rehab”—made some widely disseminated and controversial comments regarding Secretary Clinton’s health care, and in particular, her thyroid treatment.

In that interview, Dr. Pinsky stated that he and another doctor, Robert Huizenga, known to viewers of reality television weight loss show “The Biggest Loser,” had reviewed the 2015 letter from Secretary Clinton's doctor, and as a result, they were “gravely concerned about her health care.”

Appearing on KABC’s McIntyre in the Morning radio show, Dr. Pinsky stated:

I’m very concerned about journalists, people with no medical training making or even discussing this issue, they need to bring physicians in. ... I called a friend of mine, Dr. Robert Huizenga, who’s an excellent internist/pulmonologist. ... We were gravely concerned about her health care. ... She’s receiving sort of 1950-level care by our evaluation. ... She’s being treated for hypothyroidism with something called Armour Thyroid, which is very unconventional, and something that we used to use back in the 60s. And both he and I went, “hmm, that’s weird.” And by the way, wow, Armour Thyroid sometimes has some weird side effects...

Dr. Pinsky also discussed Secretary Clinton’s past blood clot and her doctors treating her with the anticoagulant drug Coumadin. Dr. Pinsky said that other, newer drugs were more popular and that “Coumadin is not being used anymore.”

Pinsky also said:

What’s wrong with her coagulation system? Has that been evaluated? And oh, by the way, Armour Thyroid? Associated rarely with hypercoagulability. So, the very medicine that doctors are using may be causing this problem, and they’re using an old fashioned medicine to treat it. What is going on with her health care? It’s bizarre. Maybe they have their reasons, but at a distance it looks bizarre. ... Hillary may be fine with all of this, but it’s dangerous, it’s concerning. … You gotta wonder...

Dr. Pinsky’s comments and links to the interview and articles summarizing his statements were widely shared on social media for more than a week and gave rise to a great deal of speculation and misinformation not only about Armour Thyroid and natural desiccated thyroid drugs, but hypothyroidism as well.

Some of the most concerning comments on social media include these Twitter posts:

  • "One of Hillary's meds, Armour Thyroid, bad side effects."
  • "Hillary Is Being Treated with Armour Thyroid to Help with Her Constant Fatigue"
  • "Hillary Clinton received porcine thyroid hormone. Curious."
  • "Hillary Clinton's on Armour Thyroid? Is she stupid?"
  • "Hillary Clinton takes 'natural' Armour thyroid: dried-up pig thyroid, not recommended by endocrinologists "
  • "An out of whack thyroid like Hillary's messes with your mind and body. It's why she has trouble walking too."
  • "Hypothyroidism. This is what Hillary is going through. Not Fit To Be President"
  • "Hillary: Why did you go the wacky route for thyroid treatment?"

This line of attack should be of bipartisan concern to anyone with an underactive thyroid, and especially, to physicians who prescribe natural desiccated thyroid drugs like Armour and to the millions of hypothyroid patients who take these medications.

The Negative Messages

Whichever candidate you support, there are negative and incorrect messages being widely disseminated about hypothyroidism and natural desiccated thyroid drugs that should be of concern. 

First: Treated hypothyroidism does not impair physical and cognitive abilities to the extent that a patient is incapable of functioning or unfit.

There is simply no evidence that when treated, hypothyroidism constitutes such an impairment that it makes a patient physically or cognitively unfit.  

Second: Treatment with natural desiccated thyroid drugs like Armour Thyroid is not old-fashioned, archaic, out-of-date, “1950s care,” stupid, wacky, weird, bizarre, curious, dangerous, or questionable.

As many as 27 million Americans have a thyroid condition, and the majority of diagnosed thyroid patients are prescribed levothyroxine—the synthetic thyroid hormone replacement drug preferred by conventional physicians and endocrinologists. Still, Armour has been on the market for more than 100 years and is still being prescribed by thousands of physicians, with millions of prescriptions written each year for a subset of patients who have better resolution of their thyroid symptoms and management of their hypothyroidism with these drugs.

2013 study summarized in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in 2013, conducted at the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed Medical Center, reported that natural desiccated thyroid drugs like Armour Thyroid are a safe and effective alternative to levothyroxine. In that study, almost half the patients studied preferred the natural thyroid.

While conventional physicians and official guidelines label Armour Thyroid as unconventional, it is a legal, FDA-regulated, and legitimate alternative to levothyroxine drugs like Synthroid.  

Third: Armour Thyroid does not have “weird side effects...”

Thyroid hormone replacement drugs actually have very few “side effects,” as traditionally defined. Most of what are considered side effects are actually hypothyroidism symptoms related to underdosage, or hyperthyroidism symptoms associated with overdosage, or allergic reactions to fillers and dyes in various formulations. That said, whether you are taking levothyroxine or natural desiccated thyroid drugs, most potential “side effects” are almost identical.

Fourth: Dr. Pinsky also suggested that Armour Thyroid is a cause of coagulation problems.

The truth is that having a thyroid condition is associated with changes in sensitivity to anticoagulant medications. Prescribing instructions for the conventional thyroid medication levothyroxine, as well as for natural desiccated thyroid drugs like Armour Thyroid, both carry the same warnings that “hypothyroidism decreases and hyperthyroidism increases the sensitivity to oral anticoagulants.” Prescribing instructions recommend that patients be monitored frequently to determine if the dosage of oral anticoagulant drugs need to be adjusted.

Fifth: Coumadin is still in widespread use.

While this is not thyroid-related, it speaks to the credibility of Dr. Pinsky’s medical information. He said that the blood thinner Coumadin (the generic name is warfarin) is “not being used anymore.” Yet, it’s estimated that 33 million Coumadin prescriptions were written in 2016 alone. Dr. Pinsky suggested that there’s no reason to use Coumadin when there are some newer anticoagulants such as Pradaxa, Eliquis, and Xarelto on the market. Verywell’s Heart Disease Expert, cardiologist Dr. Richard Fogoros, has explained that while there are some clear benefits to these newer NOAC (novel oral anticoagulant) drugs, there are several valid reasons why Coumadin is still being prescribed.  

The Bottom Line for Thyroid Patients

Thyroid conditions affect as many as one in 10 Americans, so it may be damaging for anyone—doctor, political surrogates, or members of the public—to suggest that treated hypothyroidism makes anyone physically or cognitively incapable of functioning. If this sort of attitude prevails and gains a greater foothold, millions of Americans with hypothyroidism could face systematic discrimination, as people assume we are incapable of mental or physical functioning as employees or parents, for example.

How your hypothyroidism is treated, and which thyroid medication is best for you, is unique to you. The best thyroid medication is the one that safely and best resolves your symptoms. For some patients that is a levothyroxine drug like Synthroid, others benefit from a synthetic T4/T3 combination therapy, and still others do best with natural desiccated thyroid drugs like Armour Thyroid.

Whether motivated by politics, pharmaceutical company influence, financial incentives, or ignorance, misinformation will only make it that much harder for thyroid patients to have the access to all legitimate treatment options that we deserve.

Update: On August 25, 2016, CNN announced that "Dr. Drew," the show that aired on CNN sister network HLN, was being cancelled. The final episode of "Dr. Drew" airs September 22, 2016.