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Mind-body techniques for treating an underactive thyroid

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Forty-nine-year-old Marilyn Devonish from Watford, England, is used to hearing those words when she meets people now. But 17 years ago, it was a very different story.

“I would sleep 12 to 15 hours a night and still feel tired,” said Marilyn. “I was also clinically obese, combover bald, constipated, very forgetful, pimply and covered in eczema… and after all of that, somewhat depressed!”

Marilyn developed her long list of symptoms shortly after receiving radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, when the thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormones. “I was fainting all the time and feeling nauseous. Blood tests showed I had an overactive thyroid, so I was prescribed beta-blockers. But they didn’t work, so I was given radioactive iodine treatment to damage the thyroid.”

Marilyn felt fine after her first round of treatment, but was “bulldozed” into having a second dose of radioiodine, which completely destroyed her thyroid gland. She was prescribed the thyroid hormone replacement drug levothyroxine to compensate, but she developed typical symptoms of hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid.

“I’d been a natural size eight all of my life, but I suddenly started to put on weight,” said Marilyn. “It was like someone was using a balloon pump on me.”

Marilyn also went from having clear skin and healthy hair to having eczema, acne and bald patches. But even worse was the brain fog, memory loss and extreme fatigue that made working in an investment bank and studying for her chartered accountancy exams almost impossible.

“I was getting ‘unclassified’ in my exams. I never had a problem with exams before.”

Marilyn had regular blood tests to check her thyroid function, but they came back normal. When she went to see her consultant, he told her the treatment was a success.

“I asked him why I was getting worse, not better, and he told me I was obese because I was eating too much, I was tired because I had a busy job, and my hair was falling out because ‘hair grows in cycles.'”

Marilyn thought this was “madness” and insisted on seeing a dietitian to at least prove that her eating habits weren’t part of the problem. “I kept a meticulous food diary, and she told me what I already knew: that I wasn’t eating too much.”

The dietitian also ran some fitness tests on Marilyn and told her: “Your response rate is what we’d expect in top athletes.” However, Marilyn’s resting heart rate was abnormally high.

“The dietitian told me she couldn’t explain what was going on, but said it probably wasn’t my fault.”

Detective work

Marilyn decided to start doing her own research into thyroid problems and began to suspect that perhaps her body was struggling to convert thyroxine (T4), supplied by her medication, to the more active thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3). In this case, standard thyroid tests, which often don’t test levels of T3, could still come back as normal. And it could explain why she was suffering with symptoms of a severely underactive thyroid despite taking the T4 replacement drug.

One endocrinologist’s name kept cropping up in her research, a Professor J.P. Monson, so Marilyn decided to make an appointment to see him privately. “He actually listened to me,” said Marilyn, “And he allowed me to take a combination of T3 and T4 instead of just T4 alone.”

He also told Marilyn he thought she should have never had the radioactive iodine treatment in the first place, as she is someone who functions best “at the high end of the ‘normal’ range.”

“I burst into tears when I heard that,” said Marilyn.

“It was such a relief to get confirmation that this wasn’t all my fault.”

Marilyn took the combination T3/T4 medication for a while and noticed several symptoms improve. “It got rid of my chronic constipation, my hair stopped falling out and my heart rate calmed down.”

But her other symptoms remained, including her extreme fatigue, and her forgetfulness got worse. “It wasn’t just my studies I was having trouble with. I couldn’t even remember what was on TV one night after reading the TV Guide. At work, I had to write everything down when people asked me questions or I’d completely forget.”

Marilyn went to see her doctor, who said her symptoms sounded like early-onset Alzheimer’s, but that there was nothing he could do for her – apart from write her a certificate that would allow her extra time in her accountancy exams.

“I just accepted it,” said Marilyn. “I thought, ‘This is my lot in life,’ and I carried on as best I could.”

All change

But around three years later, everything changed. Marilyn went on a seven-day personal development course for work, and by the end of it, she felt like a different person.

“I actually didn’t want to do it as I found out it was about the ‘mind-body connection,’ which I thought was a load of nonsense… and I felt I didn’t physically have the energy to go. But I couldn’t get a refund, so I went. I’m so glad I did.”

The course went through several mind-body techniques such as visualization and breathing methods to boost confidence and reduce anxiety and stress, which Marilyn found helpful. She was also introduced to neurolinguistic programming – a type of therapy and approach to personal development that aims to alter behavior by reprogramming unconscious patterns of thought – as well as something called ‘Time Line Therapy,’ which is based on the idea that you can improve your life by resolving negative emotional issues from the past and getting rid of self-limiting beliefs.

“I started to put the pieces together, and I thought: there’s something in this,” said Marilyn.

The course was meant to help Marilyn advance professionally, but she discovered that many of the techniques could benefit her health.

One of the first exercises she tried was changing the way she thought about her energy. “I used to imagine that my body was like a battery and that my energy used to drain away and ‘run down’ during the day. I would often start the day half full or even running on empty. When I realized that was my perception, I changed it and created a visualization
where my energy became a self-replenishing source, like the ocean.”

This simple technique had a dramatic effect, Marilyn says. “In just a few days I was like the Duracell bunny. Lots of people were commenting on my ‘crazy energy.’ Seventeen years later, it’s still working.”

Marilyn also stopped what she calls “programming” her tiredness. “People would invite me out and my stock response was: ‘I can’t go out on Friday night because I’ll be too tired.’ I suddenly realized that I was most likely contributing to speaking my situation into existence by predicting my tiredness in advance and therefore expecting it, and on some level talking my body into it. I changed that immediately.”

Besides changing her programmed thoughts and behaviors, Marilyn also started meditating for 10 to 15 minutes a day on the train to work, visualizing herself with “energy and radiance.” Deep breathing, too, became part of her daily routine, specifically a technique called ‘Huna Ha Breathing,’ an ancient Hawaiian technique (see box, page 69), which she would do in the shower.

Another key part of the process was resolving negative emotions from the past, such as guilt, anger, sadness and fear. “I had a lot of emotional baggage,” said Marilyn, “but with Time Line Therapy you visualize events in your life in a linear manner and change the way you feel about them, and let go of limiting beliefs like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not capable.'”

Marilyn was so “blown away” by the effects of these simple techniques on her mind and body that she decided to quit her job and her accountancy studies and train in neurolinguistic programming, Time Line Therapy and Huna instead, as well as hypnotherapy and something called ‘PhotoReading,’ a learning technology that involves entering a ‘relaxed state’ to allow readers to absorb information at a much faster rate than normal.

“When I studied PhotoReading, the brain fog and memory problems went away,” said Marilyn.

At this point, Marilyn was feeling so good that she decided to “do a little experiment.”

“I just wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t take my medication,” said Marilyn. “I definitely don’t recommend doing this. But that’s what I did.”

Marilyn tried it for a few months and felt fine, then six months passed and she still felt fine – all the while using the mind-body techniques she’d mastered. She continued to be medication-free for several years, but then eventually did start to take thyroxine again after a Harley Street specialist “begged” her to.

“He ran the usual blood tests and couldn’t believe my thyroid function was so low. He called me an alien and said there’s no way I could have the energy and physical function I have with these results. It reminded me how powerful the mind can be.”

Back in balance

Today, Marilyn is free of the long list of symptoms she suffered with for years. She’s a healthy weight, with enviable waist-length hair, and says she feels fantastic and full of energy. She’s a certified practitioner of some 20 different mind-body healing modalities and has even found the time to take up ballet in between seeing clients, running workshops, holding teleseminars and public speaking.

“For me, ballet really symbolizes everything I’ve been through,” says Marilyn. “You have to have such an awareness of your body, everything needs to be in balance and you need to integrate your brain in order to perform. It’s a perfect example of the amazing things the mind and body can do.”

The thyroid gland

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck that plays an essential role in the body’s metabolism. It produces two main hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which regulate vital bodily functions like breathing, heart rate, temperature, body weight, muscle strength and menstrual cycles. If the thyroid produces too much or too little of these hormones, it can cause a long list of symptoms, from weight loss, palpitations and anxiety (overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism) to weight gain, fatigue and depression (underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism). The usual treatment is the synthetic T4 drug levothyroxine for hypothyroidism and beta-blockers or radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism.

Two techniques to boost your energy

Here are two techniques, a breathing exercise and a visualization exercise, that Marilyn uses to reduce stress and feel energized.

Huna Ha breathing

1) Take a deep breath in through the nose and allow the stomach to naturally expand.

2) Breathe out through the mouth, making a continuous “haaaaaaaaaaaaa” sound and allowing the stomach to gently and naturally contract.

3) Make sure the out-breath lasts twice as long as the in-breath.

4) Repeat the process for 30-60 seconds, getting into a continuous circular flow with the breathing.

Energy replenishment visualization

1) Imagine drawing energy up through your feet.

2) Have the energy rise up through your body. Flow the energy out of the top of your head, like a fountain or waterfall.

3) Have the energy cascade down and throughout your body.

4) Create a circular flow of energy.

Marilyn’s health hacks

Marilyn strongly believes that changing the way you think about your health and your body can affect how you feel. Here are some of her top ‘mind hacks’ to put you on the road to better health.

1) Put your health into perspective. If your perception of your body and your health is less than positive, find a new thought. You can start with the basic fact: ‘I am still alive,’ then transition into realizing that: ‘My body is an amazing feat of human engineering.’ If that is too much, think about what you can do and start with: ‘At least I can…’

2) Count your blessings. If you are currently suffering from an illness, come up with at least one silver lining. For example, Marilyn says, “If I hadn’t become ill, I most likely wouldn’t have the amazing hair that I have now, discovered the power of the mind-body connection and be
come such an avid explorer and researcher of alternative solutions.”

3) Set an intention for your health. Think of a word that describes what you want your health to be. It might be to be ‘radiant,’ ‘vibrant,’ ‘effervescent’ or ‘self-healing.’ Try to create a mantra or visualization that you can keep coming back to.

Useful contacts and resources

Marilyn Devonish, Trance Formations:

Thyroid UK:, for general information about thyroid disease

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