According to the American Thyroid Association, “More than 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime. An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.” This is a staggering number! The real question is why? This is one of many diseases in the United States that seems to be growing at an astronomical rate. What few people understand, even many of those who have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, or high TSH levels, is that 90% of all hypothyroid cases in the United States are technically autoimmune conditions and not a primary condition of the thyroid. This is a very important thing to understand. I have had numerous people in my functional medicine programs that have been hypothyroid for many years and have never heard the term Hashimoto’s. Hashimoto’s disease is a condition in which your immune system attacks your thyroid. Again, if you are in the United States and have hypothyroidism, then you have a 90% chance of actually having Hashimoto’s. This is crucial to understand because the protocols used to help with this condition are completely different than if you had true primary thyroid disease.
With primary hypothyroidism the thyroid itself is dysfunctional and medical doctors must treat the thyroid itself, many times with medications. This means that there is an underactive thyroid despite the body telling it to produce hormone. However, the other 90% have an autoimmune condition. In this case, the thyroid itself is fine, it is the immune system that is dysfunctional. Wouldn’t it make sense to then address the immune system? This is not what is typically done. Either the patient doesn’t know if they Hashimoto’s, or they know they have it and still the sole means of treatment is addressing the thyroid. Many times these patients have similar comments:
- My thyroid labs are normal, but I still feel terrible!
- Since being diagnosed my doctor keeps increasing the dosage of my medication.
- Sometimes I have hypothyroid symptoms and sometimes I have hyperthyroid symptoms.
All three of these comments are typical and occur when the immune system is not being addressed. As is with everything in functional medicine, you MUST address the cause of the problem and not bandage the symptoms. Hashimoto’s disease is similar to a building on fire. When the building is on fire there are symptoms of smoke, ash, and flames. The building doesn’t have an issue that needs to be addressed, the source of the fire needs to be stopped. The fire is put out temporarily (medication) and the symptoms (fire, smoke, ash) cease. However, nobody thinks to pay attention to the person that lit the fire and so he does it again and the building once again is on fire. Should we just continue to put the fire out each time he lights it? Or should we figure out who is lighting the fire and then stop him from lighting it? I think most people would agree the latter is the best solution. Same goes with the thyroid. Let’s stop just putting a bandaid on the thyroid and figure out what keeps lighting the fire that is irritating the thyroid.
In autoimmune diseases it is crucial to figure out what is causing the immune system to be up-regulated. We all want an immune system that works effectively, but when it becomes too aggressive it can cause many problems. If we can keep the immune system from being irritated then we can keep this response low and the thyroid will not be attacked. The trick is to figure out exactly what things are irritating your immune system. Some common irritants and food, bugs, and other stressors. If you are eating foods that are causing inflammation and increasing immune system activity, then you thyroid is a likely target that will be impacted. Uncovering your specific triggers is important to do as soon as possible so that you can restore normal function and stop damaging your thyroid. Many of these triggers are common, but each individual can vary. There are many lab tests that can help determine some of these triggers, but also addressing nutrition, sleep, and stress management prove to be helpful as well. In essence, creating a completely healthy lifestyle that is customized to you is the answer. This will not only alleviate thyroid symptoms, but will provide you will the best possible chance for a life that is long and full of vitality.