This article is part of a special report on Thyroid Disorders. To see the other articles in this series, click here.
An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. Up to 60 percent of these people are unaware of their condition. One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime. Levothyroxine, a synthetic form of thyroid hormone, is the 4th highest selling drug in the U.S. 13 of the top 50 selling drugs are either directly or indirectly related to hypothyroidism. The number of people suffering from thyroid disorders continues to rise each year.
Hypothyroidism is one of the most common thyroid disorders. One recent analysis suggested up to 10% of women over 60 have clinical or subclinical hypothyroidism. It is characterized by mental slowing, depression, dementia, weight gain, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, cold intolerance, hoarse voice, irregular menstruation, infertility, muscle stiffness and pain, and a wide range of other not-so-fun symptoms.
Every cell in the body has receptors for thyroid hormone. These hormones are responsible for the most basic aspects of body function, impacting all major systems of the body.
Thyroid hormone directly acts on the brain, the G.I. tract, the cardiovascular system, bone metabolism, red blood cell metabolism, gall bladder and liver function, steroid hormone production, glucose metabolism, lipid and cholesterol metabolism, protein metabolism and body temperature regulation. For starters.
You can think of the thyroid as the central gear in a sophisticated engine. If that gear breaks, the entire engine goes down with it.
That’s why people with hypothyroidism experience everything from weight gain and depression to infertility, bone fractures and hair loss.
One of the biggest challenges facing those with hypothyroidism is that the standard of care for thyroid disorders in both conventional and alternative medicine is hopelessly inadequate.
The dream of patients with thyroid disorders and the practitioners who treat them is to find that single substance that will magically reverse the course of the disease. For doctors, this is either synthetic or bio-identical thyroid hormone. For the alternative types, this is iodine.
Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases neither approach is effective. Patients may get relief for a short period of time, but inevitably symptoms return or the disease progresses.
So what’s the problem? Why have replacement hormones and supplemental iodine been such dismal failures?
Because hypothyroidism is caused by an autoimmune disease.
Studies show that 90% of people with hypothyroidism are producing antibodies to thyroid tissue. This causes the immune system to attack and destroy the thyroid, which over time causes a decline in thyroid hormone levels.
This autoimmune form of hypothyroidism is called Hashimoto’s disease. Hashimoto’s is the most common autoimmune disorder in the U.S., affecting between 7-8% of the population. While not all people with Hashimoto’s have hypothyroid symptoms, thyroid antibodies have been found to be a marker for future thyroid disease.
Most doctors know hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease. But most patients don’t. The reason doctors don’t tell their patients is simple: it doesn’t affect their treatment plan.
Conventional medicine doesn’t have effective treatments for autoimmune disease. They use steroids and other medications to suppress the immune system in certain conditions with more potentially damaging effects, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
But in the case of Hashimoto’s, the consequences – i.e. side effects and complications – of using immunosuppressive drugs are believed to outweigh the potential benefits. (Thanks to conventional medicine for a relative moment of sanity here.)
So the standard of care for a Hashimoto’s patient is to simply wait until the immune system has destroyed enough thyroid tissue to classify them as hypothyroid, and then give them thyroid hormone replacement. If they start to exhibit other symptoms commonly associated with their condition, like depression or insulin resistance, they’ll get additional drugs for those problems.
The obvious shortcoming of this approach is that it doesn’t address the underlying cause of the problem, which is the immune system attacking the thyroid gland. And if the underlying cause isn’t addressed, the treatment isn’t going to work very well – or for very long.
If you’re in a leaky rowboat, bailing water will only get you so far. If you want to stop the boat from sinking, you’ve got to plug the leaks.
Extending this metaphor to Hashimoto’s disease, thyroid hormones are like bailing water. They may be a necessary part of the treatment. But unless the immune dysregulation is addressed (plugging the leaks), whoever is in that boat will be fighting a losing battle to keep it from sinking.
What the vast majority of hypothyroidism patients need to understand is that they don’t have a problem with their thyroid, they have a problem with their immune system attacking the thyroid. This is crucial to understand, because when the immune system is out of control, it’s not only the thyroid that will be affected.
Hashimoto’s often manifests as a “polyendocrine autoimmune pattern”. This means that in addition to having antibodies to thyroid tissue, it’s not uncommon for Hashimoto’s patients to have antibodies to other tissues or enzymes as well. The most common are transglutaminase (Celiac disease), the cerebellum (neurological disorders), intrinsic factor (pernicious anemia), glutamic acid decarboxylase (anxiety/panic attacks and late onset type 1 diabetes).
In the next post we’ll look more closely at why Hashimoto’s can’t be treated successfully without addressing the autoimmune component, and why both the conventional and alternative approaches to treating hypothyroidism are destined to fail from the start.