Millions of people are walking around with impaired metabolisms, carrying extra weight that won’t budge, suffering from depressive tendencies, inflammation, chronic pain, dry skin, brittle hair, persistent insomnia, and debilitating fatigue. What if I told you that for some people, all of these life-altering symptoms were due to a single disease? And what if I told you that in many this disease regularly goes undiagnosed for years, or is misdiagnosed by medical professionals who often don’t run the correct lab tests which could save people years of frustration, exhaustion, and mounting health problems?
The disease that I’m talking about is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, or autoimmune hypothyroidism. Your thyroid is a hormone-producing gland that sits at the base of your neck and is shaped similarly to a butterfly. It is sometimes referred to as the “butterfly organ.” The thyroid’s primary responsibility within the endocrine system is to produce thyroid hormones T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). Together, these hormones regulate the body’s metabolism, and the metabolism in turn has a strong impact on the cardiovascular system and the digestive system.
The thyroid is a powerful but easily misguided gland. By that I mean that all endocrine or hormone-producing glands are touchy. Hormones respond and react to each other in a very delicate balance. When one or more begins to be over- or under-produced, the rest will soon join the chaos. The thyroid can both start trouble and react to trouble, but in a number of cases, thyroid hormone production begins to decline due to a stressor or a trigger from somewhere else in the body. When this happens, symptoms of hypothyroidism appear.
Enter the immune system, the good guy, the germ fighter, the one wearing the cape and running off the scoundrel viruses and bacteria that invade your otherwise pristine body. But for some, the caped crusader of immunity is actually a well-intentioned but misguided vigilante. When the immune system becomes sensitized to its own body, autoimmunity occurs. Instead of destroying outsiders, it begins to attack organs and cells that aren’t really bad at all. The thyroid, unfortunately, is a common site of autoimmune attacks.
Hashimoto’s is autoimmune hypothyroidism. This means that the thyroid begins to be attacked by the immune system for one of many possible reasons, and as a result, output of thyroid hormone suffers. As the body receives less and less thyroid hormone, things begin to slow down, the metabolism gets sluggish, and a whole plethora of irritating and life-altering symptoms begin to appear. This process can take months or years, though, and because the symptoms can overlap with so many other conditions, sometimes it’s the last thing that doctors look for. Sometimes, too, people are so used to being tired and stressed out that they don’t even realize their thyroid is to blame.
Have you been told that you’re hypothyroid because your doctor ran a TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) blood test, and it was too high, indicating that your thyroid wasn’t being told to make enough hormone? This is a fairly common diagnosis. Your brain isn’t sending the message to the thyroid to do its job, your doctor discovers this via a simple and super common blood test, and you’re prescribed Synthroid or some other form of thyroid hormone medication. You fill the prescription and take the meds, and sometimes, you improve.
But sometimes, you get worse, or nothing happens at all. Sometimes you go back to the doctor saying, “I still don’t feel right. I’m tired. Are you sure this medication is helping?” So the doctor runs your TSH again, and this time, it’s “normal.” Your doctor tells you that you’re fine, and that you’re probably just too stressed, not sleeping enough, or not eating well.
The thing is, you might actually be feeling no better (or worse) because your immune system is pounding away at your thyroid, and even though your brain thinks you have enough hormone, you’re in the middle of an internal civil war, and it’s making you feel like crap.
Symptoms of Hashimoto’s are broad and this list isn’t complete, but the most common symptoms can include:
Here’s the kicker: many times when someone has Hashimoto’s, there are often other thing going on. But did Hashimoto’s cause the other conditions, or did the other conditions cause the thyroid disease, or did they all happen for unknown factors?
Some common conditions associated with Hashimoto’s disease include:
This list is far from exhaustive. While these are diagnosable conditions, there are other physical situations that can make the body more prone to developing thyroid disease. Some of the primary associated problems are:
For the purposes of this blog post, we’re going to talk about two things that are integral to Paleo and Hashimoto’s thyroid disease: addressing leaky gut and digestive problems.
Leaky gut can contribute to autoimmune problems by essentially opening the door to the immune system’s vigilante notions. Particles that aren’t meant to be in the bloodstream enter by way of the tight junctions of the small intestine and the immune system “finds” them, targeting what it deems to be the source of such rogue materials. Unfortunately for us, certain bacteria, viruses, food particles, and toxins can resemble tissue in organs or other parts of the body. In the case of thyroid disease, here is how the progression can work:
Once the immune system has turned on its own body, and autoimmune disease has developed, there is no going back. The damage done to the thyroid will be permanent. However, damage can be halted, and you can enter long-term remission and even restore quality of life in many areas. For some whose disease is diagnosed after years of autoimmunity, thyroid hormone replacement may be required if the thyroid is so damaged that it can no longer keep up with basic hormone production.
Sadly, most cases of Hashimoto’s are diagnosed after it is too late to prevent organ damage. But as more awareness is raised, it is my hope that all hypothyroid cases will be screened for Hashimoto’s, and that the disease may be reversed before destruction of the thyroid gland has begun.
I’ve had Hashimoto’s for more than a decade (I’m 32), and it took me years of floundering before I landed on the right diagnosis and was able to start reversing the plethora of symptoms. I ate my way into remission using a Paleo diet, a health-supportive lifestyle, and some focused supplement support to speed the process.
While every individual case of Hashimoto’s will be slightly different, these are some basic supplements that will be applicable for almost everyone. Keep in mind that if you’re pregnant and you have Hashimoto’s, you need to get any supplements approved by your OB-GYN, and you also need to have extra monitoring for fetal growth and development.
An herb that is referred to as adaptogenic for its ability to help the body adapt to stressful circumstances, ashwagandha is beneficial for the thyroid because it aids in converting the inactive form of thyroid to the active, usable form. It also promotes restful sleep, can help to calm anxiety, and can benefit healthy digestion.
Selenium is a trace mineral, meaning that it is only required in the body in “trace” or tiny amounts, that functions as an antioxidant. It helps the body recover from inflammatory or stressful circumstances, and many with Hashimoto’s aren’t getting enough in their diets, or they aren’t absorbing it well in dietary form, so additional supplementation can be helpful.
Many will turn to zinc, another mineral, in times of sickness because it’s reputed to help boost the immune system. Zinc helps with thyroid function because it helps convert inactive thyroid hormone to active form, and it helps support a confused immune system.
Most wouldn’t know that iron is critical for thyroid function, but without proper iron levels, thyroid hormone can’t be produced or converted. If you’re relying on medication, your body still needs iron to properly convert the thyroid hormone and to absorb it into the tissues that put it to work. Many with Hashimoto’s are anemic or running on low-average iron stores. The Paleo diet is a rich source of natural, dietary iron, but it can still be beneficial to add in an iron chelate supplement for a short time or until ferritin levels are tested and confirmed to be normal.
Even if you eat a Paleo diet rich in salmon and other wild-caught fish, taking a fish oil supplement can be extremely beneficial since EFAs help to revitalize the thyroid tissue itself, crucial for an organ that is under attack from the immune system.
The sunshine vitamin is well-associated with depression and seasonal affective disorder, and it also has close ties to thyroid health. Most who have active Hashimoto’s disease will be experiencing suboptimal vitamin D levels, and by balancing this crucial nutrient, the immune system will be tamped down, hormone production will be optimized, and remission can become a reality. Optimal blood levels, according to integrative and holistic medicine, are between 50 and 70 ng/mL.
A mineral that is fabulous for muscle cramps, magnesium also increases cellular energy production, which means that it can help revitalize the thyroid’s ability to do its job. Magnesium also helps the body cope with some unpleasant symptoms associated with hypothyroidism, like insomnia and muscular aches and pains, so it’s a win/win supplementation scenario.
Evening primrose oil should be on the radar of every woman suffering from Hashimoto’s because not only can it help to boost skin, hair, and nail health (often hit hard from thyroid disorders), but it can also help to boost reproductive hormone production, especially progesterone. There’s an intimate connection between progesterone deficiency and thyroid hormone deficiency, and evening primrose oil helps to optimize production of both.
Speaking of progesterone, vitex (also known as chastetree berry), when taken regularly, can help to naturally increase the body’s production of progesterone without having to use creams or prescriptions. In women battling infertility, it can also help to lengthen a luteal phase that is too short. When progesterone levels are optimized, an equilibrium is found between estrogen and progesterone. When progesterone levels are low, estrogen runs high, and estrogen dominance can perpetuate symptoms of thyroid disease and can place extra strain on an imbalanced endocrine system.
As mentioned above, the thyroid is sensitive. Removing foods that trigger leaky gut is priority one, but the next thing you’ll want to do is help your food fully digest so that there aren’t undigested particles to enter the bloodstream. A quality digestive enzyme can aid in this process. In an age of antacids, many of us actually come up short with the right amount of stomach acid to fully digest our food. Digestive enzymes can not only help digest food, but as that process optimizes, stomach acid production will also increase, removing the need for antacids in the first place (unless you’re pregnant — you’ll be hard pressed to find a permanent fix for pregnancy-induced heartburn since no amount of enzymes will lessen the size of the stomach-squishing uterus until, well, the baby comes out).
To summarize: Hashimoto’s thyroid disease is an increasingly common disorder, but when properly diagnosed, there are numerous dietary, lifestyle, and supplemental supports that can have a dramatic impact on reversing the disease. Paleo is an excellent therapeutic food plan for Hashimoto’s thyroid disease — I know, because it changed my life forever, and helped me eat my way into remission.
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