The hypothyroid athlete

December 2nd, 2011

Marisol Aponte plays roller derby and is a fitness coach who has learned how to train effectively despite hypothyroidism.

Competitive athletes seem unlikely candidates for hypothyroidism, a disease that frequently causes fatigue, depression, and malaise.

But some athletes are surprised to learn their dwindling performance and failure to build muscle stems from improperly managed hypothyroidism.

The fact that athletes are typically fit and slender makes it easy for doctors to overlook their symptoms. And like 90 percent of Americans with hypothyroidism, most athletes have Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune condition that thyroid hormone medications alone do not properly address. As a result, performance declines until the athlete may be forced to stop competing and participating in a lifestyle she loves.

Studies show hypothyroidism affects athletic performance in a number of ways. It creates more muscle weakness and cramping, impairs cardiac function and blood flow, and hampers the ability of muscles to use fatty acids for energy, thus limiting endurance.

Athletes should avoid over training

Athletes set themselves apart by their ability to push themselves physically and mentally when most people would give up. However repeatedly pushing the body too far can produce negative health consequences.

What I commonly see in athletes, particularly endurance athletes, is adrenal fatigue, excess inflammation, and sometimes a form of anemia caused by the breakdown of red blood cells, another consequence of over training. These factors could lend a hand in triggering an autoimmune thyroid condition in someone genetically predisposed, and they can certainly exacerbate and existing thyroid condition.

I have seen many athletes boost flagging performance by adapting changes that include:

  • Lightening up their training schedules
  • Managing adrenal imbalances
  • Eliminating foods to which they are intolerant
  • Repairing inflamed and permeable guts
  • Managing any autoimmune conditions

What’s required to modulate adrenal function and tame inflammation will be different, but most see improved performance and more enjoyment from their sport after tending to these issues.

Taking more thyroid hormones is not the answer

It may be tempting to take very high doses of thyroid hormones to boost metabolism and hence performance, but this is a trap. Too much thyroid hormone can cause resistance to the thyroid and hypothyroid symptoms. Also, studies show taking excess thyroid hormone can overstimulate the production of dopamine, which could predispose one to a dopamine deficiency. In fact Muhammad Ali took very high doses of thyroid hormone during his fighting career and later developed Parkinson’s disease, a disease of dopamine deficiency. Although we don’t know the thyroid hormone overuse caused his Parkinson’s, it may have played a role.

It’s more important to address the underlying cause of the thyroid imbalance and address that. For most that will mean managing an autoimmune attack on the thyroid gland. For some athletes, due the high amount of stress they subject themselves to, it could mean lowering stress and supporting the body’s stress-handling mechanisms. It is best to work with a qualified practitioner and read Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? to learn the best way to manage your thyroid condition.

Following are some stories from athletes with hypothyroidism, and what they have learned about working with their condition.

Hypothyroid health coach says key is to avoid over training

Marisol Aponte plays roller derby, is a kettle bell instructor, and competes in triathlons. Because she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism as a child, she has had many years to finesse a training regimen that allows her to stay active without worsening symptoms. She finds she cannot train as hard as someone with a healthy thyroid because of the adrenal fatigue it causes. To keep her endurance strong without taxing her adrenals, she gets her cardio workouts from sprint interval training, long-duration low-intensity activities such as swimming, and weight-bearing exercises such as kettle bell training.

She has found supporting her digestion with an enzyme supplement helps her assimilate protein better to ensure muscle building, and she eats a healthy diet that is strictly gluten-free. Since adapting a healthier diet and modifying her training regimen she has been able to halve the dosage of her thyroid medication.

Hypothyroid cyclist can’t keep up

Lorraine, 46, didn’t think there was such a thing as exercising too hard. She lifted weights, cycled regularly, and rode in the Triple Bypass, a 120-mile bike ride up and over three of Colorado’s 11,000-foot mountain passes. She routinely did training rides of 80 miles, however when her health began to fail she struggled to make it 10 miles. She also noticed she was unable to lift much weight at the gym, and that she couldn’t build muscle. A doctor diagnosed her with hypothyroidism and after about six months on thyroid hormones she felt better, until her performance began to decline again. Then the doctor increased her dose and the cycle repeated itself. All along her TSH was normal, leading her doctor to dismiss her symptoms.

“Basically my doctor called me a liar,” says Lorraine. “I wanted to commit hari kari because I kept being told nothing was wrong with me. It’s criminal.”

Fortunately Lorraine began working with Shane Steadman, DC, DACNB and read Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? She follows an autoimmune protocol, has eliminated gluten, dairy, nuts, and nightshades from her diet, and uses nutritional compounds to support her fatigued adrenal glands. Dr. Steadman explained to her how over training can exhaust the adrenal glands, and Lorraine has cut back on the intensity of her workout schedule, a formerly foreign concept.

“I always pushed myself through exercise because I felt I should be able to do it,” she says.

As a result she shed some unwanted pounds and her performance has improved significantly. She is back to building muscle at the gym and has seen her endurance return. But because she suffered for so long with adrenal fatigue, she knows it will take time to fully rebuild her strength, and that she must be vigilant to temper the intensity of her workouts.

Long distance swimmer questions hypothyroidism

Linda, a reader living in England, believes her recently diagnosed autoimmune thyroid condition started in 2006, the same year her performance as a long-distance swimmer began to suffer. She managed her second swim across the English Channel that year, although it was “touch and go,” and since has met with dwindling success in other long-distance swims. Nevertheless, she is training to swim the Catalina Channel in California this summer, although the effects of her improperly managed thyroid condition distress her. It has prevented her from swimming the English Channel a third time thanks to severe cramping and crippling pain that caused her to fall short of her target by five miles. She also struggles with other thyroid symptoms, chronic anemia, and repeat respiratory infections.

It wasn’t until she read Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? that she began to question whether her thyroid condition was sabotaging her success, even though she takes thyroid hormone medications. When she brought up intestinal permeability, the role of gluten, and other concepts in the book with her endocrinologist, he dismissed them as irrelevant and said thyroid hormone medications were the only way to manage an autoimmune thyroid condition.

Linda will begin working on her thyroid condition long-distance with a U.S.-based practitioner, which will hopefully boost her swimming performance to previous levels.

Hypothyroid runner must be careful not to overdo

Troy is a runner in his twenties who has Type I diabetes in addition to Hashimoto’s. Although he enjoys staying active, he says it can be a struggle to balance his desire to train regularly without triggering hypothyroid symptoms.

“I can’t train consistently because of my Hashimoto’s,” says Troy. “I also can’t train too hard or I can’t recover and I get hypothyroid symptoms. I’m still trying to find the right balance. When I was able to get into a good routine that’s when I got my best time for a 5K. I don’t compete a lot but I feel like some of my times are pretty good for having two autoimmune diseases.”

Finding the right balance

Hypothyroid athletes must train a little differently than their peers. Although they may not train as hard or as long, some find they can still be just as fit and competitive through prudent training, a careful diet, and by listening to their body instead of blindly pushing themselves too hard.

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