Is my thyroid problem an autoimmune disease??

The prevalence of autoimmune disease is rising, with more individuals being diagnosed yearly with conditions such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Celiac disease, and other conditions in which an individual’s immune system reacts and attacks their own body.  These conditions each have implications of lifelong management with medications such as insulin or immunosuppressive medications with significant and potentially devastating long-term side effects.  Thyroid disorders such as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are also most often due to autoimmune diseases in the United States (Hashimoto thyroiditis and Graves disease). However the actual autoimmune aspect of this is often undiagnosed, particularly with hypothyroidism.

In individuals with an autoimmune thyroid disorder, the incidence of other autoimmune diseases is between 10 – 15%.  This means that these individuals are more likely to have an additional autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (commonly known as Lupus or SLE), Celiac disease, and vitiligo - http://tinyurl.com/mesq3dg.  These conditions have a wide variety of systemic effects which include chronic pain, organ failure, malnutrition, as well as a decreased life expectancy.  Autoimmune diseases are much more common in females, and are one of the top 10 causes of death in women up to 64 years of age (American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc).

Because autoimmune conditions are related to an abnormal immune response in the body and are worsened by overall inflammation, individuals who practice naturopathic medicine manage conditions such as hypothyroidism due to Hashimoto thyroiditis and hyperthyroidism due to Graves disease much differently than a primary care physician.  The approach of a primary care physician will only focus on normalizing thyroid hormone levels and other symptoms of these conditions, but will not address the aspects of inflammation and immune balance as primary mediators of these disease conditions.  Individuals who practice naturopathic medicine have a far different approach, as the management of inflammation and immune system balance is of equal importance, primarily in decreasing the risk of inflammation related health consequences and additional autoimmune diseases.

To assess for an autoimmune thyroid condition as well as an appropriately functioning thyroid in general, the labs which primary care physicians commonly assess are often inadequate.  The laboratory parameters should assess levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) as well as the markers of free thyroid hormones T3 and T4.  To assess for thyroid autoimmunity, there are multiple thyroid antibodies which should be assessed.   Primary care physicians often only assess the levels of TSH, however free thyroid hormone (particularly T3) is a better marker for adequate levels of thyroid hormone in the body.  Thyroid antibodies, while rarely measured by primary care physicians, are utilized by naturopaths on an ongoing basis to assess how well inflammation and autoimmune activity is being managed in the body.

Many nutritional supplements and herbs are useful for decreasing inflammation and managing immune system balance.  This includes things like probiotics, fish oil, vitamin D, and herbs such as turmeric.  There are also herbs which direct the immune system back to balance, and appropriate or inappropriate selection of these herbs may dramatically affect symptoms associated with autoimmune conditions.  Management of other contributors to inflammation – diet, intestinal flora balance, stress – also are important in the management of autoimmune conditions.  Each of these things should be addressed when supporting holistic health.

If you have a thyroid disorder, particularly if you feel unwell despite taking medication for this condition, you may find that seeking a holistic medical practitioner such as a naturopathic doctor is of great benefit.  In seeking a naturopathic doctor, it is best to assess their medical certifications, as many individuals who claim this position in Wisconsin and other locations do not have the thorough medical certification that individuals who are associated with the Wisconsin Naturopathic Doctor Association (http://www.wisconsin-nd.org/) will have.  Naturopathic doctors who are a part of this association have been thoroughly trained in assessing and addressing the causes of disease and appropriate medical management.  When considering health, it never hurts to seek a second opinion as so much can be done naturally to support health and disease prevention!