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Wendy Williams: Learning to Stay in Remission for Graves' Disease

Following a much publicized health scare and time off to get her hyperthroid disease under control, the talk show host who is known for her signature “How ya doin?” greeting has only one request of her fans: Please don’t ask her how she’s doing; she’s fine.

After a three-week medically mandated hiatus, to deal with her out of control hyperthyroidism, and diagnosis of Graves’ disease, Wendy Williams triumphantly returned to the Manhattan studio of her eponymous talk show to a standing ovation from an audience full of loyal fans. During that show, with guest Mehmet Oz, MD, Williams, who had been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease in 1999, explained what led up to her forced vacation.

Even though she hadn’t been feeling like herself for months, she’d canceled two or three appointments with her endocrinologist. Ignoring her body's SOS, which was trying to warn her that her thyroid hormone levels were off the rails.   

Wendy Williams has Graves' disease that required closer treatment to reverse symptoms that forced her to step away from her showWendy Williams is feeling great now that her hyperthyroid condition is back in check.

“I was a mess,” she said echoing what she’d told her audience when she announced that her doctor had insisted that she step away from her show for three weeks. “My thyroid has been totally catawampus,” she said. She ticked off other symptoms she’d been experiencing: irritability, anxiety, sleep troubles, and unplanned weight loss. She felt very out of sorts “like there are birds swimming around my head—you know like [a] cartoon,” she said. And she explained as she has before, that Graves’ disease was the reason for her bulging eyes. Known as exophthalmos in medical parlance, this eye condition can be a telltale sign of this thyroid condition. “Scary stare” is how Williams describes it.

During her hiatus, she had a full medical workup and learned that in addition to her overactive thyroid, she had a serious vitamin D deficiency (the lowest level her doctors had ever seen, she said). While vitamin D deficiency is fairly common, affecting up to 70% of people in the United States by some estimates, in some people, it can lead to “mood problems,” Dr. Oz explained. To get her levels back to normal range, Williams is taking 50,000 units of supplemental vitamin D weekly.  

The Lowdown on Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism is an endocrine disorder caused by an overproduction of thyroid hormone. When the thyroid gland is hyper- or overactive, the body’s processes speed up and this acceleration may cause nervousness, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, hand tremors, excessive sweating, weight and hair loss, and sleep problems, among other symptoms. “In addition, some individuals might experience problems with memory, focus, and depression,” says endocrinologist Angela Leung, MD, assistant professor of medicine David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California/Los Angeles.

And while hyperthyroidism has a number of causes, the most common condition is Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the thyroid as it would a virus or bacteria. As a defense, this small butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of the throat fights back by overproducing the hormone thyroxine. If not treated, Graves’ disease can eventually cause heart damage, muscles aches, and erratic behavior due to negative effects on the brain.

Graves' disease represents 50–80% of cases of hyperthyroidism.  It runs in families and is more common in women than men.  

The Course of Treatment for Hyperthyroid

The recommended treatment for hyperthyroidism “depends on the cause of the hyperthyroidism, as well as other factors such as the person’s age, other medical problems, size of the thyroid gland, and presence of any thyroid eye disease,” explains Dr. Leung, adding, “The goal of the treatment is decreasing the high levels of circulating thyroid hormone, as well as minimizing the effects of having too much thyroid hormone.” Treatment options include “oral medications such as methimazole and propylthiouracil that are effective in decreasing [or blocking] the production of thyroid hormone, but patients taking these should be aware of the potential side effects. Two other therapies, which are more permanent and will likely result in actual thyroid hormone underproduction, are a dose of radioactive iodine and/or thyroid surgery,” says Dr. Leung.  

After her original diagnosis of Graves’ disease, Williams decided on a single dose of radioactive iodine taken orally to destroy the misbehaving thyroid cells. Afterward, she was allowed to go home but had to steer clear of other people–including her husband—for 48 hours to protect them from possible exposure to the radiation.

With this treatment, the thyroid often goes from overactive to underactive (hypothyroid) meaning it doesn’t produce an adequate amount of thyroid hormone. “It is possible that radioactive iodine is able to destroy the overactive parts of the thyroid gland to result in normal thyroid hormone levels, but frequently, the result is hypothyroidism,” says Dr. Leung.  “Once hypothyroid, patients are required to take thyroid hormone replacement to maintain normal thyroid hormone levels,” she adds.

That’s what happened to Williams. Under the care of her endocrinologist, she was put on a daily dose of thyroid hormone. And for close to 20 years, all went well. Until recently, when it didn’t.

When Graves' Disease Returns After Remission

While Wendy Williams didn't share the specifics of her downward spiral, there are many reasons why someone's thyroid levels might fluctuate, sometimes, as in Ms. Williams case, wildly. 

Most people whose hyperthyroidism treatment leads to hypothyroid take levothyroxine, as Ms. Wililams has for years. It is possible that over time, or for a variety of reasons, her dose may have been too high and without regular check-ups and adjustments to her thyroid hormone medication, her thyroid levels likely continued to climb.

Other reasons that thyroid levels may rise: weight changes (she lost weight), hormonal shifts during menopause (she’s in perimenopause), taking hormone replacement therapy, change in medication (such as going from Synthroid to a generic brand or a different generic can cause levels to fluctuate because absorption rates and bioavailability vary among generics), dietary changes, taking vitamins or foods with iron or calcium at the same time as the levothyroxine is likely to interfere with thyroid hormone levels .

Other than speculating, there is no way to say exactly what might have caused  Wendy Willams levels to go wonky.

Williams says that the “perfect storm” that led to her recent health crisis has been a wake-up call and a very clear reminder that like so many other women, she needs to pay attention to her body and make time to take care of her health. Now that she’s been given a stern warning from this health crisis, she won’t be skipping appointments with her endocrinologist or any of her other doctors. She hopes, too, that her experience helps to motivate other women to take control of their health and to resist the urge to ignore symptoms best brought to the attention of the doctor.

Williams appreciates the support she’s received from her fans, and the outpouring of concern they’ve shown toward her. And even though she’s famous for telling her audience how she feels about other people, pop culture, and celebrities, she’s asked her fans to refrain from asking her how she’s feeling. Her health status is now good with her hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease under control. She’d like to get back to focusing on others rather than dwelling on her medical status. 

Heed this warning—When You Don't Feel Right, Call Your Doctor

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Radioactive Iodine Considered Optimal For Graves' Disease

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