Autoimmune disease are complex diseases with a variety of possible causes or triggers. First, we will address the role of the thyroid in the body, what are autoimmune thyroid conditions, and how do they develop, and what treatment issues need to be addressed.
Second, we will look specifically at the role of gluten in autoimmune thyroid conditionsand why being gluten free is a significant part of treatment for autoimmune thyroid disorders like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
Don’t be one of these millions of people who have poorly managed or undiagnosed autoimmune conditions causing years of frustrating and life impacting symptoms.
You deserve to feel great and to have a practitioner who can help you do that.
The first step is understanding thyroid conditions and working with a practitioner, like the functional medicine specialists at LifeWorks, who can comprehensively treat your condition specific to your unique needs. Let’s understand thyroid disorders a little bit more together now.
What Is The Thyroid?
The thyroid itself is an organ in the body. It is butterfly shaped and is located in the base of the neck, kind of right below the Adam’s apple. It’s about two-inches long and the two lobes lie on either side of your windpipe. Picturing it now?
Thyroid function affects:
– weight loss/gain
– heart rate
– body temperature
– menstrual cycles
– cholesterol levels
– sleep and so much more…
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system, and kind of like the motherboard. It releases hormones that control a whole bunch of different processes in the body. If you don’t remember anything else about thyroid function, remember that thyroid function is complex and involves so much more than just a TSH and T4 level. It is a multi-step system and every step needs to be considered even when overt symptoms are not present, but especially when symptoms are present.
The endocrine system produces, stores, and releases hormones into the bloodstream so the hormones can reach the body’s cells. The thyroid gland itself make two main hormones:
- Triiodothyronine (T3)
- Thyroxine (T4)
It is important that T3 and T4 levels are not too high or too low. Two glands in the brain—the hypothalamus and the pituitary communicate to maintain T3 and T4 balance.
The hypothalamus produces Thyroid Releasing Hormone (TRH) that signals the pituitary to tell the thyroid gland to produce more or less of T3 and T4 by either increasing or decreasing the release of a hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).
- When T3 and T4 levels are low in the blood, the pituitary gland releases more TSH to tell the thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormones.
- If T3 and T4 levels are high, the pituitary gland releases less TSH to the thyroid gland to slow production of these hormones.
There’s more to the T3 and T4 conversation, but for our purposes we will leave it there.
That may sound pretty straightforward, but there are many ways in which that system gets thrown off course, making it more complex than just a medication and lab tests a couple times a year.
What Are Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions?
An increasingly common cause of thyroid disorder is autoimmune reactivity leading to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s and Grave’s disease. It is estimated that 10 million people have autoimmune thyroid conditions with seven times more of those being women than men. In the case of thyroid autoimmune conditions, the complex chemical messaging system between the pituitary gland, thyroid gland and all other associated hormones malfunctions when the immune system produces antibodies that cause the body to misread the signals and damage its own tissue.
Hashimoto’s Disease (hypothyroidism)
Hashimoto’s disease is the most common form of hypothyroid, but not detected as autoimmune thyroiditis unless thyroid antibodies are present. The presence of antibodies can confirm that hypothyroidism is due to an autoimmune condition where body is producing antibodies to destroy its own thyroid tissue. Without the presence of antibodies, hypothyroidism may actually be low production of thyroid hormone or what is called, secondary hypothyroidism which is where the thyroid production is off because of other hormones. Namely low progesterone can cause secondary hypothyroid and when the progesterone is improved, the hypothyroid resolves as well. Some practitioners don’t bother with checking for antibodies because they feel the treatment will be the same in providing supplemental thyroid support in the form of T4 or T3. However, the treatment of Hashimoto’s should go far beyond simply having a TSH level within a standard lab reference range to prevent further damage of the thyroid gland and the development of more advanced autoimmune conditions in the future.
Grave’s Disease (hyperthyroidism)
Graves disease is the other autoimmune thyroid condition characterized by an overactive thyroid. In this case, too much thyroid hormone is produced causing hyperthyroidism. When there is a breakdown in normal communication between the pituitary gland and the thyroid gland, abnormal amounts of antibodies released to mimic TSH. This results in too much thyroid hormone being released into the bloodstream.
How Do They Develop?
Autoimmune diseases of the thyroid are on the rise and what triggers autoimmune disorders is complex and multifaceted. Known contributing factors include: genetic susceptibilities, stress, viruses, medications, pesticides, nutritional deficiencies, food chemicals, heavy metal exposure, and endocrine disrupting plastics.
The issues listed above can contribute to the development of both Hashimoto’s and Grave’s disease. Both conditions are the result of immune system dysfunction. There is not one specific cause that can be attributed to the Hashimoto’s or Graves disease, but rather an accumulation of stressors on the immune system that cause the signaling to go haywire.
The American lifestyle (or the Western world at large) is a prime environment for autoimmune conditions to be triggered. As stress levels increase, food quality decreased, chemical exposure increases in potency and duration of exposure, and more and more generations are exposed to these issues in the womb, the rate at which autoimmune conditions are being diagnosed continues to climb. The way we eat, sleep, work, play, and connect with people around us is truly at the core of our health and the American health crisis.
What Does Treatment Look Like?
The degree to which thyroid disorders, particularly autoimmune thyroid conditions are mismanaged, is staggering. Thyroid conditions are often misunderstood by the medical community not only in their complexity, but in the vast ways in which symptoms can change from person to person. Trust us when we say that if your doctor is managing your thyroid medications with only a TSH level or ignores you when you communicate you still have symptoms of hypothyroidism, your thyroid disorder is not being supported as well as it could be.
There are 2 main ways thyroid management can be lacking:
- Only considering TSH
- Not addressing lifestyle factors and underlying imbalances
The reality, although sobering, is that many doctors simply have not learned how to do these things. The danger in only managing thyroid conditions with a TSH level is that, in the presence of autoimmune conditions, the driving source of the condition is not being addressed. It would be like having a gas leak in your car, but instead of fixing the leak, you just stop and put gas in your car every 15 miles. It keeps your car working, but not the way it was intended. Not to mention the safety risk of a gas leak. That’s a bit what it’s like to prescribe medications and draw a TSH level every 6-12 months. This approach is not considering the malfunction of the immune system and what negative effects this can have on other systems in the body over time.
Additionally, standard lab reference ranges are designed to be levels to prevent illness, not promote vitality. With thyroid disorders, it is not uncommon for a person to feel misunderstood, disregarded, and belittled by their doctor when they communicate they are experiencing low thyroid symptoms despite a TSH level in the normal range. The variety of other aspects of the thyroid that could be out of balance and contributing to remaining symptoms is well beyond what a TSH level can tell us. A practitioner who hears and responds to your clinical symptoms, comprehensive lab data, and addressing underlying imbalances is where people really get breakthrough.
Lifestyle factors and underlying issues absolutely must be addressed in the presence of autoimmune conditions of any kind. It is not uncommon for someone to want their condition “fixed” without making any changes to the lifestyle that developed the condition in the first place. This would be like having a garden infested with bugs that were destroying the plants to which the gardeners response was to give more food, more water, and move to a sunnier spot in hopes the plants would grow better. What is really needed is the source of the damage of the plant to be removed – the bugs. Then the plants can freely utilize the food, water, and sunlight to thrive.
Lifestyle factors include:
- interpersonal relationships
These will be addressed a bit more, but managing stress levels is a significant issue to note since studies have shown that 80% of people with autoimmune conditions classify themselves as having high stress levels. The physical toll that mental, physical and emotional stress has on our body is largely disregarded as well as not fully understood.
Possible underlying imbalances include:
- increased heavy metal and chemical exposure
- genetic predispositions
- gut dysbiosis
- leaky gut
- hormone imbalances.
Each of these areas when out of balance not only add stress to the body but also influence the ability for chemical messengers needed for thyroid function to signal properly.
The crux of treatment for autoimmune thyroid disorders is to get to the source of the imbalance rather than just mask or suppress symptoms as is done with only using synthetic medications. This is not to say medications will not be needed to optimally manage thyroid conditions, but the types and ways in which they are utilized needs to be specific to your needs and followed closely.
Not addressing underlying imbalances and lifestyle factors in order to calm down the immune response leaves someone with autoimmune thyroid conditions susceptible to not only more more damage to the thyroid gland, but also at a much higher risk for other types of autoimmune conditions down the road.
At LifeWorks Integrative Health in Shawnee, we want you feeling great. We don’t want you suffering from the symptoms of poorly managed autoimmune thyroid conditions.
Our functional medicine specialists at our Overland Park Clinic may have the answers you need.
Don’t be one of these… we can help!