Avoid This Dangerous Weight-Loss Trend
By Paige Dorkin
The thyroid – in its sluggish state – has long been linked to excess padding. Now, it’s also at the centre of an alarming weight-loss trend.
When she was just 16, Jesse Ann Addicott, a beauty therapist from Pietermaritzburg, discovered she’d gained a few kilos and felt constantly lethargic. At first, her doctor suspected she had chronic fatigue syndrome (aka “yuppie flu”), but blood tests set the record straight: Jesse had hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid gland.
A rather pretty, bow-tie-shaped organ in your neck, your thyroid plays a starring role in the regulation of your metabolism. It sits just in front of your windpipe and produces two main hormones – T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (triiodothyronine) – essential for the conversion of oxygen and kilojoules into energy. So when it plays up, it can have a nasty effect.
“I was always tired and under the weather, with absolutely no drive or energy,” remembers Jesse, now 26. Her doctor put her on a low dose of Eltroxin, commonly prescribed for hypothyroidism. It took a full year for her thyroid levels to normalise and she’ll probably have to the take the meds for the rest of her life. Some nine years after she was first diagnosed, she still goes for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) tests every six months. None of which sounds especially enviable. Yet, women have been known to fake Jesse’s condition – not because they want to seem more worn and lacking in volition, but to get their hands on her drugs which, they believe, have the power to supercharge their metabolic rate. In other words, underactive thyroid medication has become the new diet pill. Word on the street is that taking “hypo” meds like Eltroxin, despite having a perfectly normal thyroid, is how many celebs manage to shed centimetres so quickly. Some favour a cocktail of “Clen” (that’s Clenbuterol, prescribed for asthma) and Cytemol (synthetic T3) for really spectacular results.
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But tempting as it might seem to pop a pill that revs up your body’s ability to burn fat, there’s little doubt this is a very dangerous trend and, it seems, no longer limited to Hollywood’s skinny set…
Who’s Popping What?
“It’s probably more common than we realise,” says Cape Town-based endocrinologist Dr Joel Dave. Dr Craige Golding, a specialist physician from Johannesburg, says he, too, has encountered the phenomenon, but that this kind of chemical tampering with the metabolism usually crops up among female bodybuilders.
It’s true – extreme fitness websites host elaborate discussions of the “correct” dose of thyroid hormones for a tighter, leaner physique (needless to say, none of the contributors are doctors). Yet the extent of the habit is tricky to gauge. In South Africa, we don’t even have prevalence stats for bona fide hypothyroidism (although it’s very common – estimated to affect two percent of women and 0.2 percent of men), let alone the fraudulent strain.
Lerato*, 32, an events planner from Durban who has battled for years to stabilise her weight, confides she’s sorely tempted: “Straight diet pills are a bit too trashy, too Requiem For A Dream, but something that would tweak my hormones a bit? Hell, I’d give it a try!” Since hypothyroidism is established by a blood test, Lerato would probably have to get her sugar – or, rather, the meds that promise to burn up the sugar – from a less-than-kosher source.
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Technically, it is possible to influence the results of a TSH test. But, says Golding, you’d probably have to be willing to ingest heavy metals and pesticides: a highly toxic liver is known to slow thyroid function. Even then, thyroid shutdown would be gradual, over a period of years. And if the meds aren’t coming from a dodgy doctor (some over the Internet), they’re probably being gleaned off genuinely hypo friends and family.
Shades Of Hormonal Grey
But there’s more to the trend than blackmarket bargaining. A Google search turns up extensive forums on the apparently widespread problem of misdiagnosed hypothyroidism. The argument is that the condition often goes undetected by the standard blood test, which only measures TSH. This, agrees Golding, isn’t the full picture.
If you’re adrenally exhausted from chronic stress, your lack of adrenal hormones could interfere with the ability of T4 to send its message to your cells (and stimulate your metabolism). In that case, your results might show up normal, even if you’re lacking in T4.
Which is why some doctors give more weight to symptoms than to tests. Since lethargy, for example, is relative and subjective, this opens the door for misuse of the drugs; anyone can reel off the textbook list of warning signs. Other doctors are reluctant to test in the first place, believing the thyroid is too often unfairly blamed for weight gain. “Most people who are overweight have a normal, functioning thyroid,” explains Dave. “Addressing poor dietary habits and inactivity is difficult and time-consuming, so blaming your thyroid can be an easy way out.” Thanks to the ambiguity in testing and scepticism around the “thyroid excuse”, many who would benefit from responsible treatment don’t get it. Back in 2000, the Colorado Thyroid Disease Prevalence Study concluded that as much as 10 percent of the American population suffers from undiagnosed thyroid conditions.
READ MORE: What Is Messing With Your Hormones?
For the most, though, treating subclinical hypothyroidism (the type that doesn’t show up on the test) remains controversial. “Unfortunately, accurate information on thyroid disease is not widely available,” says Dave, who now runs a thyroid course to give patients up-to-date scientific evidence on which to base their decisions (visit www.thyroidclinic.co.za for info). What we do know, however, is that taking thyroid meds for weight loss is a very, very risky game.
Firstly, warns Dave, swamping a healthy body with thyroid hormones is bad for your bones, putting you at risk for osteoporosis. Secondly, it can cause an irregular heartbeat, which puts you at risk for a stroke and/or heart failure. “Apart from the long-term problems, it can cause irritability, moodiness, sweating, irregular periods and diarrhoea.”
But wait, there’s more… “Studies are inconclusive as to whether thyroid hormones do increase weight loss. In some studies, people have actually gained weight,” says Dave. And not only does dishonest use of the meds open you up to serious damage, using them could cause the disorder you originally faked. “Long-term ingestion of thyroid hormones will most probably lead to diminished natural production of the hormones,” says Golding.
You might lose weight in the beginning, but eventually your thyroid will slow down production. When that happens, weight loss – even by healthy means – will only be harder.
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