Desiccated thyroid extracts, often simply referred to as desiccated thyroid or thyroid extract, are a medication derived from the thyroid glands of animals, usually pigs. They have been used for over a century to treat thyroid disorders, especially hypothyroidism. In this article, we will delve into what desiccated thyroid extracts are, how they work, and their pros and cons.
What are desiccated thyroid extracts?
Desiccated thyroid extracts are medications that are usually prepared from porcine thyroid tissue, that is, from the thyroid glands of pigs. Other animal sources of the extract include cows and sheep. The thyroid glands are dried and powdered and then processed to remove impurities and excess hormones, leaving behind a concentrated source of thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped organ located in the neck that plays a crucial role in regulating the body’s metabolism by producing thyroid hormones, primarily thyroxine and triiodothyronine. These hormones are essential for various bodily functions, including energy production, temperature regulation, and maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails.
How do desiccated thyroid extracts work?
We now know what these thyroid extracts are, but how exactly do they mediate their therapeutic effects? The simple is that they somewhat mimic normal thyroid function with the two main thyroid hormones at play, as desiccated thyroid extracts contain both T4 and T3 hormones. When ingested, desiccated thyroid extracts release T4 and T3 into the bloodstream. T4 is an inactive form of thyroid hormone, which the body can convert into the active T3 as needed. This helps in addressing thyroid hormone deficiencies more effectively. This also therefore implies that desiccated thyroid extracts can be regarded as a more comprehensive treatment option compared to synthetic alternatives, such as levothyroxine, that often only contain T4.
What are some of the arguments for and against the use of desiccated thyroid extracts?
Synthetic thyroid medications, such as levothyroxine and liothyronine, have become the standard treatment for hypothyroidism due to their consistent dosing and well-documented safety profiles. However, before the advent of these medications, desiccated thyroid extracts were the primary treatment for hypothyroidism. Today, desiccated thyroid extracts are used much less frequently than they used to be many years ago.
Even though many endocrinologists do not recommend the use of thyroid extracts, some patients report that these extracts manage their symptoms better than synthetic thyroxine (levothyroxine). In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers found that desiccated thyroid extracts yielded generally comparable results among patients. Also, almost half of the patients in this clinical trial preferred desiccated thyroid extracts to levothyroxine for the treatment of hypothyroidism.
However, opinions are divided on whether or not these extracts should be used, as opposed to synthetic thyroid medication, for the treatment of hypothyroidism.
Here are some of the benefits of desiccated thyroid extracts:
- Desiccated thyroid extracts present a potential for the improvement of symptoms in some patients with hypothyroidism.
- The presence of T3 in desiccated thyroid extracts can be beneficial to patients who cannot effectively convert T4 to T3.
On the other hand, desiccated thyroid extracts have some drawbacks, some of which include:
- Variability: The hormone content in desiccated thyroid extracts can vary from batch to batch and brand to brand, making it challenging to maintain consistent dosing. This can also result in varying therapeutic effects. (The use of these extracts therefore need to be rigorously regulated and their production standardized to the same degree as synthetic thyroid medication).
- Allergic reactions: In rare cases, individuals may be allergic to animal-derived thyroid extracts. The allergic reaction may present as a swelling of the mouth, rashes, itching, or blistered skin, among many other signs.
- Potential overdose: As these extracts contain both T4 and T3, there is a risk of overdose, which can cause thyrotoxicosis and result in symptoms of hyperthyroidism, including palpitations, anxiety, and weight loss. Also, for healthy euthyroid individuals who use desiccated thyroid extracts solely for the purpose of weight loss, this can be fatal.
Kindly note that…
Desiccated thyroid extracts may be considered for individuals who do not respond well to synthetic thyroid medications or who prefer a more “natural” approach. However, it is important to also note that their use is somewhat controversial, and not all healthcare professionals endorse them. If you are considering desiccated thyroid extracts, consult with your healthcare provider who is qualified to help determine if they are the right choice for you. Currently, desiccated thyroid extracts are available under various brand names such as Armour Thyroid and Nature-Thyroid.
- Desiccated thyroid extracts work by supplementing the levels of thyroid hormones in the body.
- Desiccated thyroid extracts offer an alternative treatment option for individuals with hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), particularly those who do not respond well to synthetic T4-only medications.
- While they provide a more natural balance of thyroid hormones, they come with potential side effects and require careful monitoring.
- Some drawbacks include variability and lack of standardization, potential overdosing, and allergic reactions.
- Not all individuals with thyroid disorders are suitable candidates for desiccated thyroid extracts, and treatment decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
- In the modern medical landscape, synthetic thyroid medications are more commonly prescribed due to their reliability and precise dosing.