Many are aware that the gut contains over 70% of the body’s immune system. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that intestinal function is closely related to autoimmune activity.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 23.5 million people in the United States suffer from autoimmune disease. A significant portion of this group is composed of patients suffering from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease. These two autoimmune disorders have a significant impact on thyroid activity and subsequently overall bodily function.
Interestingly, recent research suggests that appropriately treating the gut may significantly improve or resolve autoimmune dysfunction, thereby protecting the thyroid. Knowing more about autoimmune thyroid disorders and their relation to the gut may lead to better treatment and wellness.
The Thyroid and Autoimmune Dysfunction
The thyroid is a small gland responsible for numerous bodily functions including energy level, brain activity, and weight regulation. Two of the leading causes of thyroid disease are the autoimmune disorders Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease. As with all autoimmune disorders, these conditions involve the immune system turning against the body and attacking healthy tissue with the use of antibodies. Each condition causes immune malfunction resulting in distinct damage and dysfunction.
When the body suffers chronic physiological stress, infection, or intestinal dysfunction, there is an increased risk that the immune system will malfunction. In the case of Hashimoto’s, the immune system misidentifies the thyroid gland as a threat to the body. In response to this event the immune system produces thyroid antibodies to attack and attempt to destroy the thyroid gland.
Hypothyroidism caused by Hashimoto’s can be difficult to identify. Hashimoto’s patients often experience fluctuating symptoms that alternate between indicators of hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. This is because, as tissue is destroyed by antibodies, thyroid hormone is released in bursts that cause temporary hormone spikes. However, the ultimate outcome is thyroid deficiency that cannot stabilized except through appropriate treatment.
Early stage Hashimoto’s may be accompanied by few symptoms but as the condition progresses symptom intensity can become more severe. Common symptoms of Hashimoto’s include:
- A hoarse voice, problems swallowing, or a tight feeling in the throat
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Difficulty tolerating heat or cold
- Hair loss
- Irregular periods
- Muscle and joint aches or pains
- Swelling of the feet, hands and face
- Unusual weakness and fatigue
- Weight fluctuations
Because of the non-specific nature of these symptoms, many Hashimoto’s patients are misdiagnosed with other conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, PMS, and chronic conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder like Hashimoto’s. However, unlike Hashimoto’s, Graves’ causes an increase in thyroid activity. This is caused by excessive production of thyroid antibodies in the form of thyroptin receptor antibody (TRAb). TRAb has an effect similar to thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in that it promotes thyroid hormone production. As TRAb and TSH become increasingly prevalent, the thyroid works harder to keep up with demand for additional thyroid hormone resulting in thyroidal fatigue.
In addition to physiological fatigue, increased thyroid hormone production causes a significant hastening in metabolic function. The result is hyperthyroidism and inefficient burning of nutrients. This causes a variety of symptoms including:
- Changes in menstruation
- Erectile dysfunction or reduced libido
- Heat intolerance
- Increased appetite
- Muscle pain and weakness
- Racing heart
- Sudden weight loss
A hallmark indicator of Graves’ disease is Graves’ ophthalmopathy. This can be identified through great swelling or bulging of the eyes. Those suffering from Graves’ ophthalmopathy often have difficulty closing their eyelids and moving their eyes. Swelling of the eyes can put pressure on the optic nerve and if left untreated may result in changes in vision and potentially blindness.
A Quick Look at Treatment
Thyroid disorders always require an individualized approach and if the immune system is involved, effective treatment demands further specificity and optimization. In the case of Hashimoto’s, a patient may receive thyroid replacement hormones to help offset the loss of hormone production. Whereas those with Graves’ disease often receive thyroid inhibitors to aid in the regulation of thyroid activity and limit the risk of excess thyroid hormone. In either case, the autoimmune portion of the condition must be resolved. The process of restoring immune function almost always begins with healing the gut.
Guarding the Gut to Protect Body
Autoimmune disorders typically involve multiple systems throughout the body and requires that each one be optimized to fully resolve the issue. Most autoimmune disorders and chronic conditions involve gut. As harmful bacteria become more established in the gut, the risk of developing an autoimmune condition increase. By limiting the prevalence of dangerous gut bacteria, it may be possible to prevent immune malfunction that contributes to the development of autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Yale University in New Haven, CT, found that bacteria in the small intestine may escape and travel to other organs, which triggers an autoimmune response. The study focused on a specific bacterium, Enterococcus gallinarum, which can traverse from the gut to the spleen, lymph nodes and liver. When vaccines or antibiotics for this specific strain were administered, the autoimmune reaction in the test population of mice was suppressed and the bacterium did not continue to grow. Further research is being conducted to see if it is possible to intercept or block escapee bacteria to limit the development of autoimmune conditions.
Locking Up Autoimmune Dysfunction
The immune system is an essential part of thyroid function and overall wellness. If this critical system malfunctions numerous issues may develop including autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease. Because the gut plays an important role in the efficacy and proper function of immunity it is possible that through protecting and supporting the gut, the risk of autoimmune dysfunction may be significantly reduced. Protect your thyroid and the body as a whole from autoimmune dysfunction by making a healthy gut a priority.
1. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Holtorf Medical Group. https://www.holtorfmed.com/hashimotos-disease/
2. Could targeting gut bacteria prevent autoimmunity? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321157.php