Autoimmune disorders are a growing issue in the US. The most common autoimmune disorder, I see in my practice is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Many of my patients who already have a thyroid issue, namely hypothyroidism, don’t even know that they actually have an autoimmune disorder.
How does an autoimmune disorder develop?
There are three essential factors that need to be present for a person to develop an autoimmune disorder according to Alessio Fasano, MD (world-renowned pediatric gastroenterologist and research scientist).
- A genetic predisposition or triggering. A genetic predisposition on its own will not express into a disease; there are other factors as presented in numbers two and three below.
- Gut disorders. With over 70% of the immune system located in the gut, there must be some sort of gut disorder involvement. It can range from intestinal permeability (due to various factors) to abnormal bacteria, parasites and viruses, and food allergies and/or sensitivities.
- Trigger(s). Lastly, there must be a trigger involved. This means that you may have the above factors but if there is nothing to push your system over the threshold, the autoimmune disorder won’t be activated. Such triggers may be a virus such as reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, exposure to some sort of toxin such as mold, or intense emotional stress. It could also be triggered by giving birth to a child (not the typical way we think of stress, nonetheless it is a “stress” on the body and there is a much higher need for certain functions). These are just a few examples.
There are over 100 autoimmune disorders, which is alarming and worrisome. The good part is that at the root, even though they can affect different organ systems in the body, they all have one thing in common and one root to solve – the immune dysregulation. So then the goal is to find a way to correct that.
It’s You Against Yourself
In autoimmune disorders your body is attacking itself. There are various reasons for this. One of the theories of why this happens is molecular mimicry. Every time there is some sort of “enemy” or invader, your body remembers its imprint. However, the immune system can get confused and starts attacking a different entity that looks similar to the invader. In the case of Hashimoto’s it attacks the thyroid.
Dr. Amy Myers has a wonderful little skit in one of her articles. Imagine a movie of mistaken identity; the thyroid gets arrested and it yells back, “You’ve got the wrong gal!” The police, in this case the antibodies, say “Yeah, sure, they all say that!” So, until we find out the real culprit, the thyroid suffers.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis symptoms
Many of my patients have symptoms related to sleep, anxiety, depression and all sorts of hormonal imbalances. Thyroid problems very commonly arise with these patients. Hypothyroidism is more common in women than in men and over 90% of the people suffering from low thyroid function have an autoimmune disorder, which is commonly Hashimoto’s disease.
What is confusing for people is that those with Hashimoto’s may experience symptoms of BOTH hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. The thyroid cell can be destroyed at different rates depending on various factors. As a result, the stored hormone amount released in the body can cause sudden shifts and imbalances that will be experienced as both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. A little bit of a yo-yo effect. Not fun!
Here are some of the thyroid symptoms in Hashimoto’s:
- Mental fogginess
- Insomnia, or too much sleepiness
- Weight gain
- Paleness, puffiness
- Swollen and/or pale tongue
- Constipation and all sorts of gut symptoms
- Feeling cold easily
- Trouble conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy
- Thinning of hair, brittle nails
- Joint pain
Treatment for autoimmune disorders and thyroid issues such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
To treat any autoimmune disorder we have to consider the three factors listed above. Looking at the genetics of a person can highlight higher needs of certain nutrients and certain consideration that apply to that person in particular.
Second, we will assess where is the gut affected. Some people have obvious symptoms, others can be asymptomatic. So a stool test can give in-depth information about the health of your gut.
Then, we have to identify the trigger(s). For some people it was a one-time trigger, so then it is more about healing the gut. For others there are ongoing infections or stressors.
Essential nutrients for thyroid health that may be depleted, such as selenium, can help improve the health of your thyroid as well.
Acupuncture looks at the whole person and customized treatments are given. There are several patients that I helped with acupuncture and herbs only who had to lower their thyroid meds. Acupuncture helped them optimize their thyroid function and when they got retested by their medical doctor, it was concluded that a lower dosage was advised.
Testing for thyroid issues
A few years ago, I found out through a routine test that my thyroid antibodies were elevated. My other markers were normal, especially by conventional standards. Normal thyroid peroxidase antibodies (TPOAb) values are under 35. Mine were at around 400. Some people may have that number in the thousands and still have normal TSH. Others, with values around 100, have altered TSH and can barely function day to day.
These values can be all relative from person to person, but the reality is that there are antibodies attacking the thyroid. Over the years, the thyroid function will be affected and then eventually you will have to rely on medication. The attack can go on for many years, even 10 years or longer. If you find out that those antibodies are elevated but the thyroid function is normal, “wait and see” is not the best plan. You should treat the immune system.
Of course, medication is truly life saving when the disease has progressed to the stage where it’s needed. Regardless what stage you are in and whether you take medication or not, it is very important to look at the autoimmune component.
If you suspect a thyroid problem here are the tests to help assess complete thyroid function:
- Free T3 and T4
- TPOAb, TgAb
- Thyroid ultrasound
Some people have the TPOAb and TgAb elevated, some have one or other other, and in others, neither are elevated. But the ultrasound is the most accurate way to see thyroid changes that reflect Hashimoto’s.
One autoimmune disorder, more can follow
The reason why it’s crucial to get treated when you find out your thyroid antibodies are elevated is because, once you have an autoimmune disease, it’s more likely you can develop another one. I don’t know about you, but the sound of that doesn’t excite me at all. So that’s why I did all I could to heal.
The last few years, I have been on a journey to completely heal my thyroid and lower those antibodies so my system can stop the attack on my thyroid. Some of the conventional practitioners will tell you there is nothing you can do, except to “wait and see” or take the thyroid meds. I say there is much you can do and I can help you figure out the root of your autoimmune disease.