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Do You Want a Natural Thyroid Treatment?

Some people with low thyroid gland activity report that they feel better on a natural thyroid treatment than on synthetic thyroid hormone, levothyroxine.

Thyroid problems are far more common than you might guess. Pharmacists dispense approximately 120 million prescriptions each year for levothyroxine (Levoxyl, Synthroid, Tirosint, Unithroid). People whose thyroid glands do not work well need to take this hormone to provide what their own bodies do not. However, not everyone thrives on a synthetic hormone. Some people find that a natural thyroid treatment is better for them. But many are worried that the FDA might make it harder to get natural thyroid medication.

What Will the FDA do About Armour Thyroid and Other Natural Thyroid Products?

This reader points out that the FDA is making some worrisome noises:

Q. I read recently that the FDA is changing the classification of natural desiccated thyroid extracts. They will now be considered “biologics.” I fear that this will increase the price a lot, even though these medicines are not expensive to produce.

The company that makes Armour Thyroid is not objecting to this change. To my mind, that could mean they stand to benefit financially. Can you enlighten your readers about what is going on?

A. The FDA appears to be skeptical about the value of desiccated thyroid extract (DTE). Even though a major pharmaceutical company (AbbVie) makes both synthetic levothyroxine (Synthroid) and Armour Thyroid, the FDA cites safety, effectiveness and quality issues with natural thyroid extract.

The FDA has classified DTE as a “biological product.” That means the agency could require a special license for these medicines. Whether the agency will ban natural thyroid remains to be seen.

To understand more about synthetic and natural thyroid products as well as testing for thyroid problems, you may wish to consult our eGuide to Thyroid Hormones. This online resource is available under the Health eGuides tab.

Are You Looking for a Natural Thyroid Treatment?

Q. I have been taking Synthroid since my thyroid was removed two decades ago. I’m not happy with it and have been hoping to lower the dose. But my last test showed an elevated TSH so my doctor wants to increase the dose. I would prefer a natural treatment. Is that possible?

A. With no thyroid gland of your own to produce thyroid hormone, you have to take it in pill form. Doctors usually prescribe synthetic levothyroxine (T4). However, some are willing to prescribe desiccated pig thyroid (Armour Thyroid, Nature-Throid). This dried gland provides T3 as well as T4.

The Story on a Natural Thyroid Treatment:

Many people prefer desiccated thyroid gland (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, May 2013).  However, your doctor may not be familiar with its use. Investigators reviewed records for 100 patients of a Pennsylvania endocrinology clinic for more than two years. They found that people do equally well on synthetic and natural therapies (Southern Medical Journal, June 2018). Some people do appear to have fewer symptoms when they are taking a combination T3 and T4 treatment, whether it is synthetic or natural.

On the other hand, a recent review (International Journal of Clinical Practice, Feb. 2018) of several studies concluded that

“Current clinical evidence is not sufficiently strong to support LT4/LT3 combination therapy in patients with hypothyroidism.”

What Readers Say About Natural Thyroid Treatment:

As you might expect, some people do extremely well on this treatment, while others experience side effects. Here are a few comments we have received:

Cindy reported:

“There are a huge number of us that benefit from natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) like Armour, NP Thyroid,etc. I was on T4 only medications for over a decade and kept telling my doctor I still had the symptoms of hypothyroidism despite their testing results that read out normal. Many doctors don’t listen and treat your lab results and not you! Finally I found a doctor who would listen–ran the right lab tests and prescribed NDT. I am feeling so much better now. I also had to educate myself so I could speak fluently about this topic and insist on what is good for me and not the stockholders of levothyroxine!”

Jen had a similar experience:

“I have been on Armour for most of twenty years prescribed by my family doctor. Several years ago went endocrinologist, and she put me on Synthroid immediately. It was horrible. All kinds of symptoms. Most endo doctors are Synthroid only. I found a new family doctor (DO), as my old one had moved. Back to Armour. Endo doctors like whatever Big Pharma likes. Big Pharma can’t make $$ off of NDT as it’s all natural.”

Aya cautioned:

“Armour Thyroid does not work for everyone, however. It made my heart race. There might be other options such as adding some low-dose T3 to the Synthroid treatment.”

Learn More:

You can learn more about Armour or other desiccated thyroid in our online Guide to Thyroid Hormones. Endocrinologists may be more willing to prescribe desiccated thyroid as they become aware that people taking this natural thyroid treatment are, in general, more satisfied with their medication and their physician than those on levothyroxine alone (Thyroid, June 2018). You may also want to consult Mary Shomon’s blog, www.mary-shomon.com. She is an extremely well-informed patient who offers information from the patient perspective.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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