Sadly, most doctors don’t know how to manage autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s low thyroid — a condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Yet, researchers say autoimmune diseases have become an epidemic, affecting more Americans than heart disease and cancer together. The insurance-based health care model also argues autoimmune disease is mysterious and largely genetic, but again research tells a different story — numerous studies trace autoimmune diseases to the tens of thousands of toxic chemicals we encounter in our daily lives.
Because of medicine’s lack of education in managing autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s, it’s estimated it takes the average person five years and visiting at five different doctors before receiving a proper diagnosis. In the meantime, patients suffer, and their symptoms gradually worsen. This continues to happen despite the abundance of peer-reviewed studies about autoimmunity. Unfortunately, it’s uncommon for medical doctors to know how to recognize symptoms of autoimmunity, screen for it, or appropriately manage it.
Quite frequently, Hashimoto’s patients are prescribed antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications instead of having their thyroid and their autoimmunity treated. They are told they need to exercise more and go on a diet. As most autoimmune patients are women, they are also commonly accused of making up their symptoms. More than 75 percent of people with autoimmunity are women, which points to the sexism studies show still exists in medicine today.
If doctors diagnose autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s, it is usually after the disease has progressed to the point of almost completely destroying the affected tissue. At this point, they are able to prescribe steroids, chemotherapy drugs, or surgery. In the case of Hashimoto’s, they prescribe thyroid medication but do not treat the underlying immune imbalance.
In addition to Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, other common autoimmune diseases include lupus, multiple
sclerosis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and vitiligo.
Researchers have identified about 100 autoimmune diseases so far but believe there are many more. This is because the immune system can attack any cell or tissue in the body.
Why autoimmunity has become so common
Autoimmunity rates have been exploding in the last 20 to 30 years. For example:
- Type 1 diabetes went up 23 percent between 2001 and 2009 in the US
- Crohn’s disease skyrocketed 300 percent in 20 years in the UK
- Inflammatory bowel disease continues to rise more than 7 percent every year in Canada</li
- Israeli research showed autoimmune rates are rising worldwide
Autoimmune rates are highest in developed nations and lowest in the least developed countries.
“Developed” seems to have come to mean “toxic” – we live with approximately 80,000 chemicals that haven’t been tested for safety and 5,000 new ones are added every year. Studies show we all have dozens, if not hundreds of these chemicals in our bloodstream — the known quantity is limited by which ones are tested. In fact, one study of fetal cord blood found almost 300 different chemicals in 10 newborn babies from around the country.
Many studies link various chemicals to specific autoimmune diseases. For instance, mercury has been shown to trigger lupus, pesticides are linked to rheumatoid arthritis, and BPAs are linked to Hashimoto’s.
Skyrocketing autoimmune rates are also linked to unhealthy diets high in processed foods and low in plant fiber. This worsens the quality of the gut microbiome, or gut bacteria, which is linked to poor immune function.
Low vitamin D levels, high chronic stress levels, chronic infections, hormonal imbalances, high sugar consumption, and sedentary lifestyles are other reasons underlying the autoimmune epidemic.
Functional medicine, autoimmune disease, and Hashimoto’s
When it comes to autoimmunity and Hashimoto’s, functional medicine is an outstanding approach.
For starters, we listen to our patients’ symptoms and believe them. We know you are not crazy, making things up, or looking for attention. Autoimmunity has many different types of symptoms, no rhyme or reason to its patterns, and is difficult to treat. We know how frustrating this can be.
The type of symptoms you have depends on the tissue being attacked, however there are some common symptoms among all autoimmune disorders. These include fatigue, malaise, pain, brain fog, depression, and times when you “crash,” or your energy has sunk so low you can’t function.
In functional medicine we use lab tests that test for many different autoimmune disorders at once. This gives us the ability to catch an autoimmune reaction happening that may not be far along enough yet to cause distressing symptoms. This information gives us an opportunity to halt or slow its progression.
We also screen for which foods or chemicals are triggering your autoimmunity, such as gluten, or chemicals such as benzene. Avoiding these triggers can help you recover.
Managing autoimmunity is primarily about managing an imbalanced immune system. The immune system is complicated and ever changing, but new research is continually guiding us clinically. Although thyroid medication and thyroid management may be a necessary part of treating Hashimoto’s, ultimately, we want to address the immune system, so it stops attacking the thyroid.
In fact, some of our autoimmune patients have even said their Hashimoto’s or other autoimmune diseases have showed them how to live more balanced, healthy, and happier lives.
Ask my office for more information about how to manage your Hashimoto’s low thyroid or other autoimmune condition.