Is thyroid disease the new hysteria?

A New Age doctor blames hypothyroidism on women's behavior.

Published October 25, 2007 2:30PM (EDT)

Last week's news of Oprah Winfrey's hypothyroidism received the expected rash of snide and serious responses, but the most incisive came from thyroid patient advocate Mary Shomon. In addition to criticizing Winfrey's vague discussion of her treatment involving a month of leisure, reading and fresh produce at her Hawaiian estate, Shomon took special aim at Winfrey's invited guest, menopause guru Christiane Northrup, who also suffers from thyroid issues. On the show, Northrup listened to a panoply of women with a range of physical and emotional symptoms: exhaustion, high blood pressure, unhappiness, palpitations, weight gain (some of which can be thyroid related), then "prescribed" a smorgasbord of lifestyle changes and self-help tips. She never mentioned going to a doctor or getting tested for hypothyroidism or any other disease.

Thyroid disorders, which according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists afflict more than 25 percent of all women, often go undiagnosed, since they manifest through a variety of symptoms common to other ailments, peri-menopause and certain psychological disorders. Hypothyroidism is defined as underactivity of the thyroid gland, resulting in a "slowing down" of bodily functions. There's some debate around what causes it in otherwise healthy women, and its relationship (or lack thereof) with mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder; there's also a raging debate about drugs prescribed to treat it. Even in the storm of controversy and opinion, Northrup's New Age gloss on the disease seems particularly egregious. On her Web site's page devoted to hypothyroidism, following a more medical definition of the disease, she writes:

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. These women may, in fact, have struggled to have their say, only to discover that it doesn't make any difference -- because in their closest relationships they have been defined as insignificant. In order for this complex, entangled state of affairs to be resolved, a woman might need to take not only supplemental progesterone and thyroid hormone, but also an unblinking look at what parts of her life and interpersonal relationships need to change.

As much as it would be nice if a healthy dose of feminism could solve a disease that affects millions of women, the theory seems leaky at best. For one thing, why would this disease strike the very embodiment of self-expression, Oprah Winfrey? I can't help thinking of Northrup's empower-yourself prescription as the politically correct analogue to Victorian treatments for hysteria. Northrup's "prescriptions" are no doubt healthier than insisting that those excitable hysterics take bed rest in isolation, but the underlying suggestion that women are to blame for their health problems is basically the same. Yes, no doubt there are deep connections between our bodies and our minds, but isn't it time to disentangle the notion that women's physical ailments are a result of their behavior?

Here's a prescription for Northrup: Reread Susan Sontag!

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

MORE FROM Carol Lloyd

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Health Love And Sex Medicine Oprah Winfrey