The thyroid got a lot of attention in the media back in 2007 when Oprah Winfrey announced she had a thyroid condition which, she believed, was the cause of her inability to lose weight.
The problem is that over 90% of people conventionally diagnosed with hypothyroid are, in fact, suffering with something else: Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Though related to hypothyroid, Hashimoto’s is actually a very different condition and requires a very different approach.
Hypothyroidism is a problem with your thyroid gland; Hashimoto’s is a problem with your immune system. In Hashimoto’s– as in all autoimmune diseases– the immune system gets confused and mistakenly attacks a part of your own body, kind of the metabolic equivalent of “friendly fire”. In this case, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, ultimately destroying thyroid tissue and leading to a reduction in thyroid hormone.
Why do conventional doctors often miss Hashimoto’s? It has to do with the standard testing for thyroid function, a blood test called the TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone). When TSH levels are high, thyroid hormones are low, and conventional docs will generally prescribe synthetic thyroid hormone and consider the condition treated.
But the TSH test doesn’t tell the whole story- far from it. When your immune system attacks the thyroid, thyroid tissue is destroyed and thyroid hormones can randomly get dumped into the bloodstream. Even though your TSH levels may be “normal”, at any given time you might actually have elevated levels of thyroid hormones (with the accompanying symptoms of anxiety and increased heartbeat). “I’ve seen people mis-diagnosed with bipolar disorder, panic attacks, anxiety attacks—all because thyroid hormones can really put you on an emotional roller coaster”, says Dr. Izabella Wentz, author of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding the Root Cause.
All this should point to the importance of getting a thorough evaluation. Any treatment for an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s should take a hard look at food sensitivities, diet, stress, sleep, digestion, nutrient deficiencies and inflammation, all of which can cobble the immune system in significant ways.
Take stress, for example. When you’re under stress, your body secretes a hormone called cortisol, which can actually save your life in an emergency. But cortisol has a dark side. High levels of cortisol directly impair the functioning of the immune system, so a treatment plan for Hashimoto’s should always include a plan for managing the stressors in your life. Constant stress weakens the immune system at exactly the time you need to be strengthening it.
Diet matters as well. In a study published just this year, Italian researchers put 180 overweight people with Hashimoto’s on either a low-carb diet or a low-calorie weight loss diet. After only 21 days, those on the low-carb diet saw a significant drop in their thyroid antibodies, while those on the low-calorie diet saw their thyroid antibodies rise. In this study, diet reduced thyroid antibodies by a whopping 40% or more.
Deficiencies of nutrients—particularly selenium— can have a big effect on both thyroid hormones in general and Hashimoto’s in particular. Several studies have shown significant reductions in thyroid antibodies after supplementation with 200 mcg of selenium.
Hashimoto’s can be managed with the right treatment plan– your life can be put back on track. (Just ask the well-known biohacker, entrepreneur and athlete Dave Aspery– inventor of Bulletproof Coffee– who’s had Hashimoto’s all his life.)
But first it needs to be correctly identified. Because naturopathic physicians are trained to look well beyond the standard TSH test, they are uniquely qualified to identify and treat difficult and multifaceted conditions such as Hashimoto’s. (You can find a licensed naturopathic physician at the Institute for Natural Medicine website here.
The way conventional medicine treats Hashimoto’s—as a thyroid problem rather than an immune system problem—is one of the big systemic screw-ups of conventional medicine, akin to treating heart disease as a statin deficiency, or treating obesity as a problem with calories.
If you’ve ever suspected you’ve had an underperforming thyroid, or you know anyone who does, you owe it to yourself to watch the 9-part documentary series, “The Thyroid Secret” where you will hear interviews with some of the leading lights in functional and naturopathic medicine. You’ll come away learning about the thyroid, about autoimmune disease in general, and about why conventional medicine rarely gets it right when it comes to conditions that can’t be fixed by a single pill.