Written by Alexandra Preston
Hashimoto’s disease and Grave’s disease are both conditions where the immune system damages the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that helps regulate metabolism. This is known as autoimmunity (auto = “self”). Grave’s disease features an overactive thyroid, and commonly causes heat intolerance, nervousness, fatigue, weight loss, and heart palpitations. Hashimoto’s disease causes an underactive thyroid, and typically features cold intolerance, weight gain, fatigue, constipation, dry skin, and hair loss. As both conditions are distressing and can be dangerous, the question is, how can we prevent and treat them using natural or integrative therapies?
What Causes These Diseases?
Both conditions are caused by a combination of genetic, immune and environmental factors, so even if you have a family history of Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease, there are ways to reduce your risk of developing them. As Scott Brown, our nutritionist and bio-energetics therapist, explains:
“Humans are essentially an ecosystem. Our individual inborn genetic variances can set us up for them, but are only typically expressed when the ecosystem comes under stress from its environment."
Certain environmental and lifestyle factors are indeed linked with autoimmune thyroid issues. Cigarette smoking can double your risk of Grave’s disease, while chronic excess iodine intake may increase risk of Hashimoto’s disease. Some chronic viral infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus and herpes simplex, can overstimulate the immune system. If you have a history of these, ensure they are addressed. Additionally, exposure to some chemicals may put you at risk for autoimmune thyroid disorders, in particular persistent organochlorine compounds, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Optimal vitamin D levels are another great concern, as it modulates the immune system. Studies have shown that people with autoimmune thyroid disorders are more likely to be vitamin D deficient than healthy volunteers, and that severity of the harmful response is related to severity of the deficiency. We produce vitamin D with moderate sun exposure, and obtain it from a few foods such as oily fish and some mushrooms.
Our gut bacteria also play a key role in maintaining a balanced immune system. Sam Gill, one of our chiropractors, agrees, explaining that “Studies have shown that immune dysregulation may start in the gut, and up to 70% of your immune system is located there, so it's important that we look after our healthy gut bacteria”. In fact, research has found that mice raised in sterile environments have lower counts of various immune cell types compared to those in normal conditions. Some bacteria, such as Salmonella enterica, increase inflammation and drive excessive immune responses; others, like many Lactobacillus species, can calm overactive immunity. Besides probiotics, a diet rich in whole, plant-based foods can help shift gut bacteria populations to an anti-inflammatory profile.
Integrative Treatment Options
If you have already received a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease, is there one “best” treatment option, or do we need a combination of therapies? As Scott Brown explains:
“There is no single best integrative treatment option available, but rather a collection of valid treatments that, when intelligently formulated by a united team of integrative professionals with the individual in mind, health recoveries can be facilitated and the return to true wellness achieved in time.”
A holistic intervention for autoimmune thyroid conditions often involves treatment by a naturopath or integrative GP, who will identify and address any sources of chronic inflammation. These include food intolerances, allergies, intestinal dysbiosis, and toxin exposures. Anti-inflammatory nutrients and herbs, such as flavonoids or turmeric, are typically indicated, and any nutrient deficiencies are addressed. For example, iron deficiency impairs thyroid metabolism, but poor absorption is common in patients with Hashimoto’s Disease. Selenium is another particularly important mineral for thyroid health, largely because it is needed for the production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant which protects the thyroid against damage.
Another integrative therapy that may help is low-level laser therapy (LLLT). In a pilot study, fifteen patients with autoimmune hypothyroidism received ten LLLT treatments over several weeks. After nine months of follow-up, the average requirement for thyroid hormone replacement fell by half, and the patients’ thyroid glands became more reflective on ultrasound scans. However, more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a different interpretation of autoimmune thyroid diseases, and may also have much to offer patients suffering from them. Acupuncturist Josh Leishman explains:
“Hyperthyroidism is seen as heart meridian heat due to kidney water or yin qi deficiency, while hypothyroidism is seen as a cold and deficient state of the kidney heart and spleen. The inflammatory state of the thyroid is normally seen as liver heat.
Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease are disorders I’ve had some experience and successes with, but they may take several months to improve. In one case of Graves’ disease, the patient is currently in remission and very good health after a year on medication and acupuncture. I never recommend discontinuing medication, but I have treated some milder cases of Hashimoto’s with TCM alone, using classical acupuncture and/or herbal treatment. They can be monitored through blood tests.”
Josh is not alone in his experience, as clinical research has also shown acupuncture to be an effective part of treatment for thyroid disorders. In a study of 27 women with subclinical hypothyroidism, their levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone normalised and quality of life became comparable to that of people with normal thyroid function.
The right pathway to treatment or prevention of these autoimmune thyroid diseases depends on you, the individual. If you have been diagnosed with either Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease, or suspect that you have or are at risk for developing these conditions, feel free to schedule an appointment with us here.
6: Hechtman, L, 2014, Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, Churchill Livingstone.