For decades doctors have recognized synthetic thyroid hormone known as levothyroxine or brand name Synthroid, as the undisputed choice for treating hypothyroidism (low thyroid function). By virtue of hypothyroidism being extremely common levothyroxine has been the most prescribed medication in the U.S.. According to key medical organizations in this country, the only acceptable treatment of hypothyroidism is the use of levothyroxine alone. Using any other form of therapy is not recommended. Pointing to a significant number of patients receiving levothyroxine who continue to complain of symptoms of hypothyroidism health advocates have been calling for recognition of alternative treatments. One such alternative with a small but enthusiastic following is extract of pig thyroid (desiccated thyroid extract). All of the major organization of endocrinologists fail to recommend this form of treatment but in particular the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologist or AACE in the US has flatly stated this form of therapy should never be used. Physicians and their patients remain deeply divided on this issue. Continue reading
If Hypothyroid and Unhappy, Which Came First?
By Gary Pepper, M.D.
Medical specialists increasingly accept that some patients being treated for hypothyroidism continue to be symptomatic and “unhappy”. The degree to which patients experience this problem while on conventional treatment for hypothyroidism with levothyroxine (Synthroid, Levoxyl, Unithroid, T4) has motivated many specialists to look for other approaches to treatment such as adding T3 (Cytomel, liothyronine) or switching to desiccated thyroid extract (Armour, WPthyroid, Westhroid
Not all experts are convinced looking for new treatment options for hypothyroidism is the right approach. Continue reading
“I have been on Armour Thyroid for 15 years and it has changed my life. For three years prior I was on synthetic thyroid medication and I felt horrible. My doctor even tried a medication that was specifically for T4 so I could get what I was missing. I was having such horrible migraines. Now I am doing so much better. I know how physically traumatic it is to adjust thyroid medication or to go without it and it can be life threatening for certain individuals. Like myself. People are individuals not objects and they have different reactions to some medications. There are a group of people who desperately need to continue taking Armour please do not substitute the ingredients or take it off the market. I feel the adjustments that have been made in the medication since Armour was taken off of the market for almost a year. I had to resort to buying my medication from Canada!“
Quote from Kathleen, a signer of the petition to Ensure Continued Supply of Armour; Read over 125 comments from other Armour supporters at ipetitions.com
Armour Thyroid, the most popular form of desiccated thyroid hormone replacement in the U.S., has been the center of controversy for decades in the medical community. Despite over 100 years of successful use, the major endocrine specialty organization in the U.S. called for a prohibition on its use. Medicare dropped its coverage of this medication in 2008. Forest Pharmaceuticals, the company that manufactured Armour for decades ran in to regulatory issues and was recently acquired by a succession of larger pharmaceutical companies, the latest being Allergan. Meanwhile, the public continues to demand access to this medication many thousands swear by as the best treatment for hypothyroidism.
Users of Armour have noticed that the price of the medication is increasing steadily. Some are paying three times what they did a few years ago. There is no restriction on what a pharmaceutical company can charge for a medication and within the past years companies such as Turing Pharmaceuticals have tested the limits of just how outrageous the cost increases can be. We therefore initiated a local and on-line petition, to place Allergan on notice that there exists a large and very active advocacy group insisting on continued fair access to this medication. Combining both the on-line and hard copies of signatures, I am proud to say that as of today we have surpassed our goal of 500 signatures to support this effort.
The next step is to present the petition to the corporate leadership of Allergan in such a way as the voices of those who need the medication most will be heard. There is still time to add your name and comments to the on-line petition at ipetitions.com.
On April 11, 2016 an article, Doctors Hear Patients’ Calls for New Approaches to Hypothyroidism, appeared in the Wall Street Journal regarding the growing influence of patient preference on treatment selection for hypothyroidism (sluggish thyroid). The article was written by the WSJ health columnist Melinda Beck. I might have missed it but thanks to a motivated patient I received a copy within a week after its publication. With a glance I knew this report could be a highly significant addition in the on-going debate between specialists treating hypothyroidism (endocrinologists) and advocates of alternative approaches. Continue reading
By Gary Pepper, M.D.
According to experts, 10 to 20% of hypothyroid individuals fail to respond completely to T4-only (levothyroxine, Synthroid) treatment. Dr. Anthony Bianco, the president of the American Thyroid Association, and his associates believe this is due to genetic variations in the way thyroid hormone is converted in the body from T4 into T3. T3 is the much more potent form of thyroid hormone and unless the cells of the body receive enough T3, normal function cannot be achieved and symptoms of low thyroid such as fatigue, mental fogginess, constipation, muscle aches etc, persist. Based on the research conducted by Dr. Bianco and colleagues it is thought that in those with the genetic trait making T4 treatment ineffective, blood tests would show low T3 levels. Continue reading
Why Patients Aren’t Receiving the Most Effective Treatment for Hypothyroidism
By Gary Pepper, M.D.
For the past 3 to 4 decades endocrinologists worldwide have adhered to the belief that only synthetic T4 (the most abundant of 4 thyroid hormones produced by the thyroid) is appropriate therapy for a sluggish thyroid even though it is known that a substantial number of those treated with T4 only continue to suffer from persistent symptoms of the disease. This may be because under normal conditions the thyroid produces two principle hormones T4 and T3. In 2013 an NIH study showed that 50% of those with hypothyroidism preferred treatment which includes T3 and our group reported that 78% of a subgroup of patients preferred T3 containing medication to treat hypothyroidism . Continue reading
by Gary Pepper, M.D.
According to government estimates, 4.6% of the US population aged 12 or more has hypothyroidism (low thyroid function). Based on treatment guidelines published in 2012 by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), only synthetic thyroid hormone (levothyroxine, Synthroid, Levoxyl) is an appropriate therapy for this condition. According to these guidelines, the biologic product Armour Thyroid, is unfit for this treatment purpose. Armour Thyroid, an extract of porcine thyroid, has been available as a treatment for hypothyroidism for about 100 years. It was first used in the U.S. to treat hypothyroidism in 1892, a year after it was introduced into the United Kingdom. The impact of the AACE guidelines is more than symbolic Continue reading
Early in May 2014 a patient being treated with Armour Thyroid (desiccated thyroid) for hypothyroidism reported that her pharmacy service would not refill her prescription for Armour Thyroid because it was an “illegal” drug. We were both very distressed to learn of this, but for different reasons. My patient was rightfully concerned that she might be receiving a wildly inappropriate medication, while I was concerned that I might not be able to prescribe a medication I knew to be extremely helpful and safe. Continue reading
The 2013 guidelines issued by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American Thyroid Association reiterated their long standing opinion that only a single hormone, T4 (Synthroid, levothyroxine) is advised for treatment of hypothyroidism. These key organizations
A few weeks ago a new patient arrived at my office to discuss treatment for her thyroid disease. She was diagnosed with an under active thyroid several years prior but treatment with Synthroid was unsuccessful. She stopped using the medication on her own, at least a year ago. Blood tests obtained by another doctor a month before her visit with me, were diagnostic of hypothyroidism (low thyroid levels with elevated TSH) . During our session she described typical symptoms of hypothyroidism including fatigue, feeling unusually cold, dryness of the skin, brittle nails and puffiness around the eyes. On exam her thyroid was enlarged and had a gritty texture typical of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Her sister and mother also had thyroid disease, increasing the likelihood of the diagnosis of Hashimoto’s. Since her latest thyroid blood tests were only a few weeks old I felt comfortable beginning her on thyroid hormone replacement, in this case, Armour Thyroid, which I prefer due to its excellent clinical effectiveness.
My new patient was also on a number of supplements and vitamins including a non-prescription “metabolic complex” given to her recently by her chiropractor. By law in the U.S. supplements like these do not possess thyroid hormone and, in my experience, have no impact on thyroid hormone levels, either to increase or decrease them. As a precaution, we obtained a new set of thyroid hormone levels along with the test for Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (anti-thyroid antibody panel).
Several days later, the patient called complaining she was “allergic” to the Armour Thyroid, developing jitteriness, anxiety, feeling flushed and a rapid heart rate. My first thought was she received the wrong dose of medication but a quick check of her records indicated this was not the issue. I called the lab and was surprised to learn the TSH at the time of her visit was already low, indicating excess thyroid levels or hyperthyroidism. What could have caused the sudden switch from hypo to hyper thyroidism? Rarely, patients with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis can convert to hyperthyroidism, an event I call the Zombie Thyroid because the thyroid comes back from the dead. More likely was that one of her supplements contained actual thyroid hormone, so I asked the patient to get me the labels from these products. In the meantime, I instructed her to stop the Armour Thyroid and the supplements until I could figure out what was happening. Her allergic symptoms resolved in a few days.
Examination of the supplements’ labels indicated that one manufactured in New Zealand did in fact have thyroid extract in it. It had so much thyroid hormone in it that the patient was already becoming hyperthyroid at the time she first came to the office. Signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism didn’t develop until she started taking Armour Thyroid along with the supplement. The mystery was solved but I am left feeling much less secure that my patients will not injure themselves with products obtained from outside the country either via the internet or from practitioners who provide it, perhaps unwittingly.
As I have in the past, I urge everyone to avoid medications and supplements produced outside the country which can contain active ingredients with potential health hazards. Always check with a physician before beginning a supplement which is obtained from the internet or mail order.
Gary Pepper, M.D.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice or treatment. Some details of this case have been altered to protect the patient’s identity.