This article is part of a special report on Thyroid Disorders. To see the other articles in this series, click here.
In the last post I explained that, for the vast majority of patients, hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease. This isn’t just an academic distinction. It’s the reason both conventional and alternative treatments are so often ineffective.
In this post I’m going to show you why taking replacement thyroid hormones without addressing the underlying immune imbalance is doomed to fail.
The ultimate effect of hypothyroidism, whether it’s caused by iodine deficiency or autoimmunity, is to decrease the amount of thyroid hormone available to the body. The conventional approach is to simply replace these hormones with either synthetic or bio-identical forms.
On the surface it seems like a reasonable approach. Patient doesn’t have enough hormones? Give more hormones. Simple, right?
Not so much.
Once again the conventional approach falls short because it ignores the underlying cause of the problem. It’s like taking Advil when you’ve got a pebble stuck in your shoe. It might work for a little while, and might even be necessary to dull the pain. But you’d be a lot better off if you took the pebble out of your shoe. Right?
Let’s take a closer look at why thyroid hormones often don’t work, or stop working over time. The following diagram illustrates how autoimmunity affects thyroid metabolism:
Immune dysregulation is another term for autoimmune disease. We still don’t know exactly what causes it, but most researchers agree it’s a mixture of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors such as iodine (excess), infection, pregnancy, diet and intestinal permeability.
In autoimmune disease the body attacks itself. It does this the same way it attacks foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses: with T-cells, B-cells, natural killer cells, and cytotoxic T cells. The immune response also involves proteins called cytokines, chemical messengers that pass messages between cells.
This self-attack by the immune system increases inflammation. And inflammation has a profound effect on all aspects of thyroid metabolism and physiology.
First, inflammation suppresses the hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis. One study showed a single injection of the inflammatory cytokine TNF-alpha reduced blood levels of TSH, T3, free T4, free T3 and TRH for 5 days. This shows inflammation disrupts the production and regulatory mechanisms of thyroid hormones. Thyroid medication will increase the levels of T4 (and possibly T3), but it doesn’t address the other effects of HPT axis suppression.
Second, inflammation decreases both the number and sensitivity of thyroid hormone receptors. If there aren’t enough receptors, or they aren’t sensitive enough, it doesn’t matter how much thyroid medication we take. The cells won’t be able to use it. It’s like when my grandpa used to turn down his hearing aids while he was watching the football game. It didn’t matter how much my grandma yelled at him – he couldn’t hear a word she said.
Third, inflammation decreases the conversion of T4 to T3. T4 is the inactive form of thyroid hormone. The body has to convert it to the active T3 form before it can be used. Most synthetic hormone medications on the market are T4. If you give a T4 medication (like Synthroid, Levoxyl, Unithroid, etc.) to someone with inflammation, it’s not going to work because they can’t convert the T4 to T3.
Patients who don’t convert T4 to T3 well do better on bio-identical hormones like Armour, because it contains both T4 and T3 (in a 4.22:1 ratio).
Inflammation disrupts thyroid metabolism in several other ways, but I think these three examples make the point.
Now let’s review.
Inflammation causes HPT axis disruption, decreased receptor function, and decreased conversion of T4 to T3. Thyroid medication only increases the levels of thyroid hormone (usually T4) in the blood. No matter how much we take, it’s not going to restore HPT axis coordination, improve receptor function, or increase conversion of T4 to T3.
The only way to do that is to address the problem at its root by regulating the immune system and decreasing inflammation. Unfortunately, this is rarely done in either conventional or alternative treatment of thyroid disorders.
Before I sign off, I just want to make one thing clear. I’m not saying thyroid medication isn’t necessary or useful. In fact, I think it’s an important part of treating Hashimoto’s – especially when TSH is consistently elevated and T4 and T3 are consistently low. My point is thyroid medication is only one piece of the puzzle, and it won’t be effective on its own unless the autoimmunity and inflammation are addressed.
If thyroid medication is the fantasy magic bullet of conventional medicine, iodine is the equivalent in alternative medicine. In the next post I’m going to explain why supplemental iodine may cause more harm than good in Hashimoto’s patients.