Resting below where your Adam’s apple is located (imagine this if you don’t have one), is an amazing bowtie-shaped structure called the thyroid gland. Your thyroid gland uses iodine (mostly obtained from your diet) to produce thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are responsible for incredibly important functions in your body such as the regulation of metabolism, growth and development, and body temperature. Thyroid hormones also play a role in stimulating the contraction of heart muscles and regulating the utilization of various nutrients by your cells. In essence, your thyroid gland is a protector of your overall health which makes a lot of sense that it was named to mean “shield” in Ancient Greece.
Unfortunately, there are approximately as many as 30 million Americans with thyroid diseases, of which more than half are undiagnosed. Women are five times more than men to be diagnosed with inadequate or low functioning thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) and incidences increase with age. There are several different causes of hypothyroidism in adults including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lymphocytic thyroiditis, thyroid destruction from radioactive iodine or surgery, pituitary or hypothalamic disease, medications, and severe iodine deficiency.
Of all the causes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is by far the most common. It is estimated that there are 3-5 cases per 10,000 people every year but the numbers are increasing over time as better diagnostic techniques are developed and family members are also tested as this is an inherited condition. What makes Hashimoto’s thyroiditis a talking point is that because it is an autoimmune disease, the diagnosis and management of it is a bit more involved.
An autoimmune disease is characterized by pathological functioning of the immune system in which it produces antibodies that attacks its own tissues. This is a scary ordeal when your immune system is constantly misidentifying your own cells as foreign invaders so that often times significant tissue damage and destruction result. In the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the body attacks its own thyroid gland. This is similar to another autoimmune condition like Type 1 diabetes in which the body attacks its own pancreatic cells so that insulin is not produced.
The symptoms of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis include:
In order to diagnose Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, thyroid autoantibodies must be detected on a blood test. These autoantibodies are not a part of usual thyroid function screening tests so your doctor would have to specifically order them. The tricky part here is that most doctors do not order these additional tests because the rationale is that the allopathic treatment would not change. In both hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the conventional treatment would be to prescribe thyroid hormones (synthetic or natural).
However, from a naturopathic and functional medicine viewpoint, Hashimoto's thyroiditis and hypothyroidism are technically different. Hypothyroidism is the insufficient functioning of the thyroid gland and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid gland happens to be the point of tissue destruction. Cohsequently, managing these two conditions similarly becomes a hit-or-miss because the replacement hormones would help those with hypothyroidism but not so much (in the long run) for those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. The key to successfully improving the quality of life and overall well-being in a person living with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is to focus treatment on first restoring his/her immune system. While an autoimmune condition is life-long, suffering from it does not have to be.