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thyroid gland with Hashimoto's disease

What is Hashimoto's Disease?

Millions of people suffer from low thyroid disorders (hypothyroidism) brought on by a variety of factors. The most common cause is Hashimoto’s Disease. Here we’ll explore Hashimoto’s possible root causes, symptoms and a functional approach to testing and treating it.

Hashimoto’s Disease is an autoimmune disease of the thyroid.  Like other autoimmune conditions, a patient’s own body mounts an immune response targeted at its own tissues or glands — in this case the thyroid gland — in the same way it would against a virus or other invader.  Antibodies directed against the thyroid lead to chronic inflammation and eventually impair the gland’s ability to produce the hormones necessary for regulating metabolism, staying warm and maintaining function of the brain, heart, muscles, and other body organs.

Having thyroid autoimmune disease can drastically affect a person’s quality of life, but there are a number of different lab tests available through functional medicine that can both reveal the stage and the underlying causes of the disease’s progression.

Research shows that 90-95 percent of people with Hypothyroidism (low thyroid) also have Hashimoto’s Disease, but may not even know it because, when their low thyroid issue was discovered, the root cause for the problem wasn’t. Knowing the cause behind a dysfunctional thyroid is important because proper treatment protocols are determined by it.

In the case of Hashimoto’s, the problem is actually not a thyroid issue at all, but rather one of the autoimmune system, so it must be treated from an autoimmunity perspective. That’s because individuals who suffer from one condition of autoimmunity are more likely to suffer from others, such as arthritis, diabetes, lupus, and celiac’s disease.

Symptoms of Hashimoto's Disease

Hashimoto’s Disease is an autoimmune response where an individual’s immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, altering its ability to produce the hormones necessary for regulating, or helping to regulate, some of the body’s most vital functions. These include heart rate, energy levels (metabolism), digestion, and mood, among others, including many that are related to your appearance – such as the condition of hair, skin, and nails. We are seeing an influx of Hashimoto’s cases right now, as a reaction to the adrenal stress response to the current events.

Hashimoto’s Disease can cause symptoms like excessive fatigue, unexplained weight gain, constipation, increased sensitivity to cold, dry skin hair and nails, and low mood disorders.  Because of the similar symptoms, it is often mistaken for hypothyroidism.  The only way to tell the difference is to run the appropriate antibody tests.

Low thyroid disorders, including Hashimoto’s, have many common symptoms:

  • excessive fatigue/low energy
  • sensitivity to cold temperatures, particularly in the feet and hands
  • low body temperature
  • pale, dry skin
  • brittle hair and nails
  • excessive hair loss
  • low mood
  • trouble sleeping
  • unexplained weight gain
  • digestive issues including constipation and acid reflux
  • nutritional deficiencies due to poor diet or low absorption rates
  • muscle aches and joint stiffness
  • adrenal insufficiencies
  • others

There is great crossover of symptoms among patients, but the combinations of symptoms and degrees of severity can vary so greatly from person to person that effective treatment of Hashimoto’s requires a highly individualized approach — one that often requires time, patience, and more than a little detective work.

Because functional medicine is designed around patient-specific treatment plans, it is the ideal way to not only treat Hashimoto’s Disease, but guide it into remission. Once diagnosed, the first step in tackling Hashimoto’s involves identifying and removing triggers of the autoimmune response.

Additional testing can reveal potential triggers related to diet, such as nutrient imbalances or deficiencies, systemic inflammation, and microbial imbalance in the small intestine from food sensitivities or leaky gut. Determining which foods nourish you and which ones cause you harm is one of the first — and most important — things you can do to improve your health.

Comprehensive functional medical tests can also reveal disfunction elsewhere in the body that might be contributing to low thyroid.

Along with testing, we like to have our patients establish a rough timeline of their health history to track seemingly unrelated events that potentially triggered the condition. These include viral and bacterial infections, extended use of antibiotics, antacids, or oral contraception, and overexposure to environmental toxins. Because symptoms tend to come on slowly and worsen over time, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when the problem started, but it is often possible to guesstimate when you first noticed digestive issues like IBS or acid reflux, an abundance of hair loss (maybe your hairdresser commented or your husband noticed in the shower drain,) or you went from being a morning person to ….. not. All of these things together can reveal a lot about the onset and advancement of your condition.

After getting the results from comprehensive testing and a thorough review of changes in a patient’s health history, the foundation is laid for developing an individualized treatment plan for your Hashimoto’s Disease.

How Body System Interaction Affects Autoimmunity

Functional medicine is based on wellness and disease prevention, however, when disease is present, we use a patient-centered approach to isolate the root cause of illness with the understanding that the cause can be based on many factors. That’s because dysfunction in one body system has a domino effect on others due to inherent interactions between all body systems. This is often the case with Hashimoto’s Disease.

The Adrenal/Thyroid Connection

The adrenals are the glands responsible for managing the body’s fight-or-flight response, which they do by releasing certain hormones in times of physical, mental, or emotional stress. They also produce other hormones similar to those of the thyroid that have a major effect on the body’s metabolic processes – energy level, blood pressure, digestion, immunity, and others.

In certain situations, one system response is deemed by the body to be more important and overrides the others, effectively shutting them down. In times of stress, the fight-or-flight survival instinct causes all energies to be redirected towards the stressor in front of you, dramatically slowing other processes like digestion, immunity, and thyroid production.

Normally, the stress passes and things return to functioning normally. However, with chronic stress or illness, the adrenals are constantly producing hormones and can become overworked (adrenal fatigue). The lengthy slow down of the body’s other metabolic process causes thyroid hormones to become majorly imbalanced resulting in the symptoms common among low thyroid patients: low energy, weight gain, dry skin and brittle nails, hair loss, sleep problems, etc.

It’s very important to know if you have an adrenal component to your thyroid disease, because if so, both systems must be treated concurrently for you to see the health improvements you want.

The Gut/Thyroid Connection

Overall wellness almost always begins with gut health, and studies show this is true with Hashimoto’s. In fact, autoimmunity very often exists alongside the presence of leaky gut, a condition of intestinal permeability caused by inflammation. In a leaky gut, partially digested food, bacteria, and other toxins from the digestive tract “leak” into the bloodstream through cracks in the intestinal lining. This activates an immune response – especially in those with a genetic predisposition. Healing leaky gut, while concurrently working to increase thyroid production can dramatically help put — and keep —many autoimmune conditions into remission.

Inflammation in the gut is caused by a number of things, including stress, illness, and a diet low in fiber and high in sugar, the wrong kind of fats, and alcohol, among other things. Unknown food sensitivities also play a role. While most people think they would know if they had a food sensitivity that was causing symptoms, this isn’t always true. Unlike a food allergy, sensitivities to foods often don’t show their effects for several days after consumption. It’s only when one eliminates these foods that results become obvious. Hashimoto’s patients tend to be especially sensitive to gluten, dairy, soy, eggs.

There are many diets recommended for autoimmune patients, including: the Root Cause Paleo Diet, the Autoimmunity Diet, and the Anti-inflammatory Diet, all of which are based on nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods with varying degrees of exclusions.

While the “right” diet and supplementation plan for Hashimoto’s is often patient specific due to individual sensitivities that contribute to their autoimmunity, commitment, and experimentation enables many to assist in lowering or eliminating thyroid antibodies with nutrition.

It’s very important to assess all body systems that may be contributing to low thyroid issues to effectively send Hashimoto’s into remission.

Hashimoto’s and Hair Loss

Of all the symptoms associated with autoimmune thyroid disease, hair loss is often the most troubling, especially for women, who make up the majority of Hashimoto’s patients. Unlike other symptoms of low thyroid, hair loss is often visible to everyone, and the inability to hide it can have a dramatic effect on your self esteem.

In fact, hair loss is often the reason many people finally get to the doctor and discover they have a low thyroid condition. However, stopping the loss of your locks is not always as simple as getting treatment for your Hashimoto’s. While hair loss is a symptom of low thyroid, it can be primary or secondary to your condition. If the cause of hair loss is independent of your thyroid condition, simply treating your thyroid will not fix it. Other possible causes to consider are:

Your Thyroid Medication:

When thyroid medication is effective, patients can see improvement, however, if you’re taking meds for Hashimoto’s and still noticing dramatic hair loss, it’s possible the problem is the medication itself.

  • Your dose may be too low or too high
  • You’re taking it at the wrong time of day for your physiology (or with the wrong foods and beverages)
  • You’d be more receptive to another class or combination of thyroid medication
  • You’re unable to convert your T4-only medication to Free T-3
  • You have a sensitivity to dyes or fillers in your current medication
  • Your test results on thyroid medication are normal, but not optimal. (You can still have thyroid dysfunction with “normal” TSH and T4 levels)
  • Hair loss is a side effect of the medication

Take note of whether your hair loss increased when you started or last adjusted your medication and discuss this with your doctor. Adjusting the dose, switching the class of medication, and/or adding T3 to your thyroid protocol, might yield better results.

You Have Another Autoimmune Condition

Having one autoimmune condition increases your chances of having another, and hair loss is a common symptom of many of them. Hashimoto’s, Lupus, Crohn’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and others can result in a noticeable loss in hair. In fact, approximately 12% of Hashimoto’s patients also have Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune condition that results in circular bald spots (generally) on the scalp.

By working systematically to identify and remove your triggers to the autoimmune response, autoimmunity can be put into remission. The most common causes/triggers are leaky gut, chronic infection, food sensitivity, toxic overload, and stress. Functional medicine has variety of ways to test and track triggers to the autoimmune reaction.

You Are Nutrient Deficient

Proper nutrition is very important to managing autoimmunity. Having thyroid disease increases your risk of being iron deficient, due to the way your body metabolizes and absorbs iron in a low-thyroid state. Consequently, low iron leads to low stomach acid, which is necessary for the absorption of iron, so checking iron and ferritin levels is always a good place to start.

Other nutrient deficiencies that can contribute to hair loss are selenium, ferritin, biotin, zinc, the Vitamin B-12 and L-Lysine, an amino acid. Restoring these nutrients to adequate levels with specific dietary changes and bioavailable supplementation can help your medicine work better and support any autoimmune protocol.

Your Sex Hormones Are Imbalanced

There’s a proven interaction between thyroid autoimmunity and testosterone in women, especially after menopause. Increased testosterone and androgen levels can cause women to experience hair loss in the same way some men do (male-pattern baldness.)

Both hypothyroidism and some of the medicines used to treat it can cause an imbalance in testosterone levels, so a complete thyroid treatment plan should include testing and monitoring of the sex hormones.

The good news is, absent a genetic predisposition, the majority of patients can stop or even reverse hair loss triggered by Hashimoto’s, autoimmunity, and lifestyle and environmental factors. The trick is having a doctor that will work in partnership with you to find out the root cause of your hair loss and then individualize a therapy to stop it.

We specialize in treating Hashimoto’s and related conditions with inclusive protocols tailored to the individual patient. Contact us if your hair loss or other autoimmune symptoms are not responding to treatment.

Testing: Finding the Real Issue

Unlike conventional medicine, which uses lab work to detect the presence of disease, functional medical testing focuses on the trend toward disease with the intention of slowing or stopping autoimmune progression before the gland ceases to function.   This is extremely valuable since the symptoms come on so gradually, and may not seem related at first.  Some functional testing options include:

  • Blood chemistry analysis using functional medical ranges that highlight low- and high-normal readings vs. the diagnostic lab range typically used in conventional medicine that only triggers alarm if outside a more narrow “normal” range.
  • Adrenal function and/or hormone testing that can determine if the patient has imbalances or trouble producing or metabolizing certain hormones that may be negatively affecting thyroid health.
  • Food or environmental sensitivity testing to alert doctors to food, chemical or metal substances that trigger an inflammatory immune response.
  • Microbiome evaluations that can reveal whether or not poor gut health, such as leaky gut, bacterial or yeast overgrowth, or the presence of intestinal parasites may be contributing to autoimmune disease of the thyroid.

The appropriate test or tests often depend on a patient’s individual symptoms, as well as their health and family histories. If you are experiencing symptoms of thyroid autoimmune disease, it’s important to receive proper testing to determine the underlying cause and to prevent further thyroid damage. Talk to a specialist at Infinity Wellness Center about functional diagnostic and treatment options.

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