Mad Women: Understanding Betty’s Thyroid Issues –
I am major fan of Mad Men and I was intrigued when Betty had a thyroid lump in Episode 3 of Season 5. Betty is Don’s ex -wife who has gained some major pounds since season 4 and it is revealed that she has thyroid problem. I want to discuss some of the factors that may be contributing to her condition based on the show and my experience with thyroid issues. Some of Betty’s lifestyle factors are a perfect storm for thyroid dysfunction and many doctors ignore these influences.
She actually found out she had a thyroid tumor after visiting the doctor for a diet pill prescription. At first they suspected that she had cancer but it was later found to be benign. Betty definitely had an inflamed and swollen thyroid which is commonly caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. It is estimated that 35% of people with thyroid cancer also have Hashimoto’s but many people are unaware that they have the condition because most doctors do not address the autoimmune component of thyroid disease. Western practitioners often do not order the proper tests for thyroid antibodies. Most people with low thyroid, up to 90%, actually have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis where the body is attacking it’s own tissue by mistake.
Mad Women: Understanding Betty’s Thyroid Issues
Some Important Factors Contributing to Betty’s Thyroid Issues:
Stress: Betty had some major trauma leading up to Season 5 including the revelation that Don was cheating on her for years. She dismantled her family and moved them into a large ominous house with a new father figure. Going through a major life change can be so stressful that it can spark thyroid irregularities. Stressful events in life increase cortisol production which weakens the GI tract setting the stage for leaky gut and autoimmune dysfunction.
Processed Food: In the 1950’s many women cooked at home like we saw on The Donna Reed Show, making meat loafs and pot roasts but in the 1960’s the trend was to embrace convenience foods. The scene in this episode where Betty is chomping on some Bugles, which were first introduced in 1966, tells us a lot about the era and her habits. High carbohydrate snacks like chips and cookies are often filled with rancid oxidized vegetable oils and hard to digest gluten/ grains which both increase intestinal permeability, setting the stage for Hashimoto’s. When someone has an inflamed and porous gut lining it can stimulate a thyroid autoimmune (self) attack.
Blood Sugar Balance: We often see Betty restricting her food on the show to lose weight. The problem is that low fat and low calorie diets usually lead to high carbohydrate consumption which produces blood sugar fluctuations. These highs and lows are very harmful for the adrenals and thyroid function because cortisol is over produced. People in the 1960’s started to abandon traditional foods like bacon and eggs in favor of cereal, pop tarts, and biscuit mixes. These sugary foods spike blood glucose which drag down hypothalamic signaling for proper thyroid and adrenal function. Protein and fat combined at meals are crucial to keep insulin in a healthy range which supports a healthy thyroid.
Yo- Yo dieting: In season 5 Betty visits Weight Watchers numerous times, commonly skipping meals and often expresses how hungry she feels. Betty is a former model who may have used diet pills or laxatives for many years and that behavior can catch up eventually. When someone is overweight, fatigued and depressed like Betty, it is often an adrenal fatigue issue as well as a thyroid problem. Adrenal hormones assist in the conversion of T-4 to active T-3 which help with weight regulation and energy production. Excessive dieting will cause adrenal burnout inhibiting thyroid hormone production. Many people don’t worry about how yo-yo dieting affects their long term health until it is too late and their thyroid and metabolism is damaged.
Lack of Healthy Fats: If you notice in the end of the episode Betty finishes her daughters ice cream sundae once Sally leaves the room. This behavior is innate because when we starve ourselves of saturated fat the cravings will be so strong that well will give in sooner or later. Our brain must have animal fat to function properly so the signals to binge are out of our control if we are not getting enough. It is much healthier to eat rich meats and fat like ghee or coconut oil than down a carton of sugar laden ice cream. We also need saturated fat from animals and coconut for healthy thyroid functioning because our hormones are made from cholesterol.
Toxins: More chemicals and plastics were introduced during the 1960’s which can negatively affect thyroid function. Cleaning products and beauty care items are full of hormone disruptors called xeno-estrogens. The use of these beauty and home care products have only increased since Betty Draper’s heyday. Betty also smokes which increases storage of heavy metals like cadmium that can slow down liver function and active thyroid hormone conversion. In the show there is copious amounts of alcohol which can also cause hypoglycemic reactions adding to thyroid/adrenal stress and leaky gut. Liver function is very important for clearing toxins but when the thyroid slows liver detox pathways become clogged.
Gluten and other grains: The immune system is always on guard against potential threats and it has an amazing memory for invaders like gluten and other grains. The problem starts when undigested food gets into the blood stream and creates havoc in the body. It is estimated that 80-90% of hypothyroidism is caused by an autoimmune reaction where the body attacks its own gland after the gut becomes porous, which leaks undigested food particles into the bloodstream. Gluten proteins resemble thyroid tissue so the immune system becomes overactive every time we ingest gluten containing grains. Another problem is that molecules of wheat and other grains are so similar that the immune system can not tell the difference. All grains may cause a cross reaction according to many thyroid experts. In Betty’s case she eats gluten all day long which is keeping her immune system on high alert and it is over active, attacking it’s own thyroid tissue. Learn more about how to be grain free here.
Soy: Okay, this was probably not a factor for Betty’s, because at that time soy had a negative reputation as food for communist or vagabond hippies. But soy can be a major player because it has tons of lectins and phytates that block important minerals from being absorbed like selenium and zinc for a healthy thyroid. Soy is full of goitrogens which can also suppress thyroid hormone production. Soy is very hard for the body to break down so it adds to leaky gut syndrome and increase inflammatory response of the body against it’s own precious thyroid. Many people make the mistake of using soy as a vegetarian protein substitute but they do not realize until it is too late that is can ruin thyroid function. Read more about soy dangers here.
Depression: Betty has been to therapy several times for her bizarre behavior (like crashing the car into a mailbox on purpose), mood swings and depression. Low thyroid function can make many people feel like they have low energy which can make people feel depressed. Many experts agree that there is major link between the gut dysfunction and mood/behavior. The feel good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are made in the gut but when it is inflamed from attempting to digest nutrient poor food there will be less of these important chemicals produced. When the gut heals through an elimination diet people usually feel less depressed pretty quickly. Removing dietary stressors like grains, inflammatory vegetable oils and soy will help the thyroid and adrenals heal themselves which will give people more energy and boost mood.
Constipation: Constipation is very common symptom of lowered thyroid function. Betty seems very stuck in her life and seems to be unable to release old pain. According to Louise Hay’s book You Can Heal Your Life, constipation is caused by refusing to release old ideas and being stuck in the past. One factor with constipation is that a lack of thyroid hormone slows intestinal motility and transit time. Another issue is that when people are not having regular bowel movements hormones like estrogen will be reabsorbed increasing risk for breast cancer.
Grass Fed Girl’s Commentary on Betty’s Condition:
Things have not changed much in conventional treatment of thyroid problems and just like the 1960’s there is much to be desired in Betty’s care plan. She is sent home literally and figuratively with a band aid on her neck. She is told she does not have cancer and just to go on with normal life. Just like now, most conventional doctors do not see the connection between stress, nutrition, environmental factors and thyroid function. Most treatment protocols do not recognize the importance of healing the immune system (linings of the gut, lungs and brain) to slow the bodies attack on the thyroid.
If you suspect you have low thyroid seek out care from a practitioner who understands that there is more to the problem than TSH tests and synthroid (t-4 only replacements). If you have a low thyroid it is important to sleep well, manage stress, follow a grain free diet, and get some holistic care from an integrative doctor. It is also important to get tested for thyroid antibodies to figure out if you have autoimmune condition.
Sources and Resources:
One of the great thyroid books:
Testing without your doctor’s permission needed: