An Open Letter to Oprah's Viewers About Thyroid Disease

Your Thyroid Condition is NOT Your Own Fault

Dear Oprah Viewer:

I have important information for you if you watched Oprah and her guest Dr. Christiane Northrup, talk about health problems, including a condition that both Dr. Northrup and Oprah suffer from: thyroid disease. (A recap of the show, "The Big Wake-Up Call," is online.)

If you have not yet been diagnosed with a thyroid condition, but heard Oprah and Dr. Northrup mention various symptoms -- including weight gain, insomnia, inability to lose weight, fatigue and exhaustion, anxiety, hot flashes, heart palpitations, depression, hair loss, and changes in sex drive -- you may be thinking, "That's me!" And while I don't wish thyroid problems on anyone -- I'm hypothyroid myself, so I know -- if you recognized yourself in these symptoms, and that inspires you to go see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment, then that is a truly positive outcome from today's show.

You deserve to feel and live well. And to that end, I welcome you here to my site for information, and am happy to be of help to you in your journey toward wellness.

But if you do end up getting diagnosed -- or, if you already have a diagnosed thyroid condition -- and you also heard Dr. Northrup say that "your symptoms are actually your soul's way of bringing deeper issues to your attention," then I'm here, as a thyroid patient advocate, to tell you that your thyroid disease is NOT your fault, despite what Dr. Northrup says. And while good nutrition, exercise, and self-care are certainly part of overall good health, they are not likely to cure your thyroid condition. (It may have worked for Oprah, but then, she was able to take a month-long vacation at her tropical Hawaiian estate, stop working entirely during that time so she could, as she put it, "actively do nothing," while eating only fresh foods.

I doubt most of us could ever aspire to such a luxurious recuperation.)

Ultimately, in claiming to advocate for women's health, Dr. Northrup and Oprah both have inexplicably embraced an extreme -- and, frankly, quite unsympathetic -- view that blames women's lifestyle and emotional life for our health problems, hormonal imbalances, and symptoms.

Here's what else Dr. Northrup has to say about thyroid disease:

"In many women thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of 'swallowing' words one is aching to say. In the name of preserving harmony, or because these women have learned to live as relatively helpless members of their families or social groups, they have learned to stifle their self-expression....It's no coincidence that so many more women than men have thyroid problems. Thyroid disease is related to expressing your feelings..."

Why Christiane Northrup Needs a Wake-Up Call About Thyroid Disease

While Christiane Northrup may be, as the site says, "the woman Oprah calls for help," Northrup is the one who clearly needs a wake-up call. It is irresponsible of her to suggest that an inability to express yourself is somehow responsible for a woman's thyroid condition. Christiane Northrup is doing a serious disservice to women's health by trying to blame women for an already misunderstood health problem.

Is it any wonder that doctors across America fail to take women's thyroid conditions seriously? Because on one end of the spectrum, we have dogmatic doctors claiming that we women are just stressed, depressed and PMSing, in need of an antidepressant or tranquilizer to solve all our problems. On the other end, we have Dr. Northrup -- with Oprah's glowing endorsement -- telling us our lives and emotions have run amok, we're unable to speak out, we're stifling our self-expression, and therefore we're developing thyroid problems as a result.

And Northrup's theory on thyroid problems also overlooks very real, and very serious cause-effect relationships. Thousands of women, for example, developed thyroid problems because they lived downwind of the Chernobyl nuclear plant after its accidental release of radiation. Were those women stifling their self-expression? What about women exposed to thyroid-damaging perchlorate by drinking contaminated water here in the U.S. Are they swallowing their words, or swallowing contaminated water? Many women develop thyroid conditions after having a baby. Are those new mothers unable to express themselves, or are their out-of-whack post-partum hormones expressing themselves? What about women with thyroid cancer? Will exercise, nutrition and sex fix their thyroid problem?

Here's my wake-up call to women everywhere: Thyroid disease is NOT your fault. Thyroid disease results when heredity and genetics, autoimmunity, environmental exposures, viral infections, and hormonal shifts come together in a perfect storm to trigger a dysfunction. And while emotional and physical stress, as well as nutrition and lifestyle, can play a role creating a climate receptive for -- or fighting against -- most diseases including thyroid conditions, these factors are only part of a larger, complicated puzzle.

Women are more susceptible to thyroid disease, as well as most of the more than 80 autoimmune diseases, for a variety of reasons, including the balance of our hormones. Times of hormonal change -- i.e., pregnancy, post-partum, perimenopause and menopause -- are key trigger points for the development of thyroid disease.

Another factor that can affect your thyroid is overconsumption of soy. In an official letter of protest to the FDA, Drs. Daniel Doerge and Daniel Sheehan, formerly the FDA's two key experts on soy, contradicted soy's health claims -- which were approved by the FDA -- saying:

"...there is abundant evidence that some of the isoflavones found in soy, including genistein and equol, a metabolize of daidzen, demonstrate toxicity in estrogen sensitive tissues and in the thyroid....Additionally, isoflavones are inhibitors of the thyroid peroxidase which makes T3 and T4. Inhibition can be expected to generate thyroid abnormalities, including goiter and autoimmune thyroiditis. There exists a significant body of animal data that demonstrates goitrogenic and even carcinogenic effects of soy products. Moreover, there are significant reports of goitrogenic effects from soy consumption in human infants and adults."

Dr. Northrup, however, dismisses the opinions of these experts, as well as the many journal articles on the issue, and instead points to the soy industry's own studies as evidence of soy's safety for women.


What's Really to Blame for Your Thyroid Problem?

Oprah has made it no secret that she's menopausal, as is Dr. Northrup. And the shift in hormones that occurs at menopause is thought to be a key trigger for thyroid problems in women. By the time we're 60 -- Oprah's 53 -- an estimated 20% of all women have a thyroid condition. What do you think? Are Oprah, Dr. Northrup, and the millions of other aging women somehow becoming unable to speak up for themselves? Or is it more likely that the hormonal shifts of perimenopause and menopause are responsible for triggering many thyroid conditions?

Oprah is the richest and most powerful women in television, one of the richest women in the world, and has a humanitarian and media platform that reaches billions. She is, to many, the ultimate example of an empowered woman. And Dr. Northrup is a best-selling author and "celebrity" doctor on television. What do you think? Did Oprah and Dr. Northrup each develop thyroid disease because they have spent "a lifetime of swallowing words" and stifling "self-expression?" Or are millions of talented, successful and outspoken women like Oprah and Dr. Northrup developing thyroid conditions because of imbalances and fluctuations in hormones, and a likely tendency toward autoimmune disease?

Oprah also has adopted Dr. Northrup's recommendations, and become, like Dr. Northrup, a regular user of soy. Both women are now hypothyroid. What do you think? Is soy helping Oprah's health and is it just pure coincidence that she has developed a thyroid condition, just like Dr. Northrup? Or did Oprah -- as well as Dr. Northrup, and other women who add a heavy dose of soy to their diet -- develop a thyroid condition because too much soy had a negative effect on her thyroid function?

America's women watching Oprah are getting a mixed message -- yes, thyroid disease is common, and overlooked -- but, if you believe Oprah and Dr. Northrup, it's also your fault -- and by the way, don't forget to add soy to your diet!

My Message

I can't make it any clearer: Thyroid disease is NOT your fault. It is a result of autoimmunity, environmental exposures, genetics/heredity, and hormone shifts. Yes, stress and diet can play a part in disease-- in fact, thyroid problems are, as noted, sometimes triggered by overconsumption of soy. And there are a number of things you can do that will help prevent thyroid problems -- not smoking is one that comes to mind.

But here's a major wake-up call for Dr. Northrup: a woman can be flawless in her diet, stress management, and self-care, and STILL GET THYROID DISEASE. And it's still NOT her fault!

I don't care if Oprah herself has embraced Dr. Northrup's theory. That is still no reason for any woman to believe that she is to blame, much less that blowing kisses to herself in the mirror, and taking a hot bath before bed will resolve her hormonal imbalances, as Dr. Northrup suggested on the show.

Do NOT accept the blame, and don't think that serious medical problems can be treated by reading romance novels and eating protein at breakfast, as Dr. Northrup advised.

We've lived long enough with the myth that thyroid disease is just an excuse middle-aged women use for being overweight. (A myth, by the way, that is also espoused by another Oprah "expert," Phil "Dr. Phil" McGraw.) We've lived long enough with fatigue, weight gain, depression, hair loss, low sex drive -- all the while being told we're stressed, depressed, and menopausal -- and NEVER getting a thyroid test or treatment until we demand it.

Right now, as many as 59 million Americans -- the majority of them women -- have thyroid disease, and less than 20 million are actually diagnosed. Oprah was one of the undiagnosed -- and who knows who long that was going on before she actually was diagnosed. Yet Dr. Northrup proudly stated on Oprah, that "This show is real preventive medicine. It does far more than all those tests and screening."

Actually, explaining the symptoms of a thyroid condition, what women can do to reduce their risk of developing thyroid problems, explaining how women can get tested, giving them the confidence and courage to insist on testing even if their doctor, HMO or insurance says no, and then explaining how to interpret the confusing results -- THAT would be doing what America's women really need.

Thyroid disease is complicated, hard to diagnose, and no one except the sufferers ourselves seem interested to learn more. But one thing is certain: it's definitely not your fault, and you didn't develop thyroid problems because you failed to speak up or had your self expression stifled.

If you suspect you have a thyroid condition, or you've been diagnosed, the way to be empowered, speak out, and find your voice is to first, abandon any guilt. Then, learn everything you can about your thyroid, find a great doctor who truly understands thyroid disease, get properly treated, take good care of yourself, eat well, manage stress, and get support from people who understand what you're going through.

And remember, take the advice you get from doctors on television talk shows with a big grain of iodized salt...

Live well,

Mary Shoman

P.S. And Oprah, if you're reading -- my wish for you is that someday, you realize that your thyroid condition is truly not your fault. And please reconsider all that soy!

Photo of Oprah Winfrey, June 2007: Peter Kramer / Getty Images

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