What is Thyroid Autoimmunity?
Around 90% of underactive thyroid issues are due to an autoimmune condition - where the body's immune system is attacking the thyroid gland and enzymes producing thyroid hormone. The most common of these is is called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. The immune system destroys the thyroid tissue over time which leads to the thyroid not being able to produce enough hormone which leads to impacts on the metabolism. If you are taking thyroxine medication for underactive thyroid and still experiencing lingering symptoms, autoimmunity could be affecting you.
Although your GP can measure your thyroid hormones (usually TSH and T4) and provide thyroid hormone replacement such as Levothyroxine. The actual reason that the thyroid production is low in the first place is not something that is well understood or addressed by conventional medicine.
90% of the time, the reason for low thyroid hormone production is due to an autoimmune response – your body’s immune system attacking the enzyme that produces thyroid hormone (Thyroid Peroxidase – TPO)
There are tests available – via the GP or through private laboratory testing e.g Genova Diagnostics. That assess for antibodies targeting the thyroid and steps that you can take using diet and lifestyle to help support balanced immune system function.
Does this sound like you?
Lack of energy and general sluggishness
Difficulty losing weight
Taking thyroid support medication but still not feeling right
Hair loss or thinning hair
Why is my immune system attacking my thyroid?
Autoimmunity is a complex process which has a genetic component to it so it maybe that your mother or father had the genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s or other forms of autoimmunity.
There are then three aspects which need to be in place for the autoimmune condition to become expressed:
1. Gut barrier permeability (aka ‘Leaky gut’)
The intestinal lining where the gut meets the blood stream is a barrier which is semi permeable to allow nutrients and molecules to pass into the blood stream as required. However, it is often the case due to factors such as stress, yeast overgrowth, use of various medications, alcohol consumption that this barrier function becomes compromised and particles such as undigested proteins, bacteria or yeasts can pass unchecked into the blood stream and cause an inflammatory response. This is a fundamental factor which drives the autoimmune process.
2. A Trigger
If you have the genetic susceptibility then the condition can be triggered. There are several ways in which this can happen:
Food triggers: Common food triggers include gluten, dairy, soy, shrimp
Pathogen triggers: viruses, bacteria, parasites or yeast can act as triggers
Chemical triggers: there are 1000’s of chemicals in our environment which can be associated with autoimmunity. The most common ones are BPA (from plastics); formaldehyde (from glues, carpets); benzene (from petrol fumes, cigarette smoke)
3. Immune system dysregulation
You want the immune system to be able to react when needed and then return to baseline state. For people with autoimmunity, the immune system tends to be on constant alert which causes the immune system cells to be dysregulated, react against things that it doesn’t need to.
If you have Hashomoto’s, it’s important to understand the biological drivers. There are tests available to help to understand this. We can look at the diet to see whether you are eating the right types of foods. Processed foods – wheat, sugar, dairy, unhealthy fats will not be helpful. Whereas a diet which supports good blood glucose balance and provides healthy fats will be more supportive.
What Can I do about this?
Although there is not yet a cure for autoimmunity, there is a lot that you can do using the Functional Medicine approach to help regulate immune function and slow or even halt progression of the condition. Although results vary quite a lot between people and what works for one person may not work for another so a personalised approach is best. It is often a case of investigative testing, trial and error to ascertain what is most helpful for you.
The diet which has shown to be the most effective at reducing antibodies and improving remission in autoimmunity is the Autoimmune Paleo diet. This way of eating is based on good amounts of protein from meat, poultry, fish, eggs and other protein sources, alongside a rich variety of vegetables and fruits. Gluten is to be avoided and often dairy too. Sometimes also grains and nightshade vegetables. For more information on eating to support balanced immune function see The 'Formula for Health' page.
Avoiding trigger foods is important, there are tests available to help ascertain which foods are provoking an immune reaction when you are exposed to them. There are also tests available to investigate chemical and pathogen triggers. See Functional Tests for more information