Autoimmune disease can manifest in several ways. There are currently over 100 known autoimmune diseases, thyroid autoimmunity being one of the most common. A normal functioning immune system is designed to fight off foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses, however prolonged exposure can lead to overactivity. This overactivity leads to the immune system attacking one’s own healthy tissues. In the case of the thyroid, the most common autoimmune disease is called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. In essence, the thyroid is simply the victim of this process. Sufferers of thyroid disease know how difficult day-to-day function is when the thyroid is under-active and one’s quality of life can be dramatically affected. The same is true for someone who suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis and is pain all day.
Your immune system uses small protein molecules known as cytokines to signal cells in the presence of invaders and other molecules that enter your system. One of the most powerful protein molecules is referred to as NF-kB. When NF-kB is signaled, it produces inflammatory cytokines and creates a powerful cascade to destroy the intruder. Unfortunately, the regulation of NF can become overactive and ultimately result in a perpetual cycle of destruction. This overreaction is similar to using a SWAT team to give out a parking ticket. Your body does have protective mechanisms in place to minimize the collateral damage of these inflammatory cytokines. These include natural barriers like your gut lining and the use of antioxidants such as glutathione – the most important of all antioxidants in your body. Glutathione is made by the liver and is typically deficient in those with autoimmune diseases, compromising another layer of defense.
The most widely accepted theory in understanding autoimmune disease is referred to as the “triad theory”. There are three components that are said to initiate an autoimmune process. The first is genetics. A number of individuals that develop thyroid disease have a genetic predisposition. Secondly, there is an autoimmune trigger of some sort. This can include dietary triggers, hormonal imbalances, pathogenic organisms, chemicals, medications or stressful events. Lastly, a person will have a compromised gut barrier leading to intestinal hyper-permeability (also known as Leaky Gut Syndrome). Let’s take a closer look.
Factors That Affect Autoimmunity
The exact mechanism that causes a normal immune system to lead to an autoimmune condition still remains unknown, however specific contributing factors have been identified. According to research, individuals with a genetic predisposition are more likely to have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or an autoimmune condition. In these individuals, autoimmunity can be triggered by environmental triggers such as high stress, hormonal imbalance, viruses, bacteria, heavy metals, and methylation issues. There are over a dozen factors that can contribute to thyroid disease.
It is important to remember that just having a gene for an autoimmune disease does not guarantee that you will develop the respective condition. Gene regulation is widely influenced by your environment. This field of study is known as “epigenetics”. As mentioned in the triad theory of autoimmune disease, other factors also contribute to the expression of a gene.
- Intestinal Hyper-permeability (Leaky Gut Syndrome)
Another key contributor that can trigger Hashimoto’s disease and other autoimmune diseases is intestinal hyper-permeability better known as “leaky gut syndrome”. Your gastrointestinal tract is a natural barrier and is selectively permeable to molecules the body needs. The lining of the gastrointestinal tract is razor thin and is made up of a single layers of cells that are held together by tight junctions.
In a healthy digestive tract, these tight junctions hold together like a zipper. With prolonged inflammation, the tight junctions become damaged and start looking like a picket fence compromising this barrier and granting foreign molecules open access to the rest of the body. These molecules can be bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles. Once these particles make their way into the body, the immune system has no choice but to deem them as foreign and label them to be attacked. This creates an inflammatory cascade that not only creates more permeability but also systemic inflammation.
It is important to remember that this does not happen overnight and can be caused by years of inflammation and provocation. As the GI tract gets damaged, the cells become unable to fully digest food. This can lead to food sensitivities, malnutrition, bacterial/yeast overgrowth, and an immune system constantly on the attack. Research suggests that a leaky gut may be the primary vehicle for the onset of autoimmune disease. This vicious cycle can be difficult to unwind unless strategic dietary and nutritional strategies are employed.
What causes leaky gut?
Several factors have been found to contribute to a leaky gut.
- A diet high in processed foods, sugars, dairy, gluten, and alcohol
- Certain medications: antibiotics, corticosteroids, antacids
- Pathogenic organisms: parasites, yeast, overgrowth of bad bacteria (dysbiosis)
- High stress lifestyle
How to heal leaky gut
The way to fix your gut is multifaceted and typically focuses on reverse engineering the process that caused the leaky gut in the first place. The initial priorities include “stopping the fire from getting bigger”. This includes removing the fuel for the fire by testing for food sensitivities and getting rid of any pathogenic gut infections.
Once the initial fire is tamed, you can incorporate a healthy anti-inflammatory diet full of clean sources of fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrates. You can further assist the healing process by implementing specific supplements depending on your case and finally reinoculating the gut with healthy bacteria to rebalance your intestinal flora.
Stress is rampant in our society and most people underestimate how stressed they really are. One of the biggest problems with stress is that many causes of stress are not considered stressful by traditional definitions. Most individuals will perceive a situation as stressful either physically (such as bodily injury) or emotionally (such as the loss of a loved one). However, the chemical component of stress is often ignored. Our food, water and air supply are contaminated with chemical stressors that are harmful on a daily basis. We are further exposed to cellphone and radio signals that produce harmful electromagnetic field radiation. On our commutes to work we are exposed to exhaust fumes and in our homes, we are exposed to chemical cleaning agents and off-gassing from newly painted rooms and furniture.
No matter the specific cause of the stress, the result is the same: the body reacts to stress by releasing hormones such as catecholamines and cortisol. While these are a natural part of our stress response, chronic exposure to stress leads to pathological outcomes. Cortisol is responsible for thinning the lining of the gut and can lead to leaky gut. Stress can also activate our immune system to be persistently active, leading to overactivity.
One clinical sign I carefully monitor is if an individual has lost the ability to handle environmental stressors such as exhaust fumes, the perfume section in a store, gas stations, or cleaning supplies. This acts as a huge red flag indicating this individual may also be losing tolerance to their own tissues.
Stress reduction is paramount in recovering from thyroid disease or any other autoimmune condition. This can be done through exercise, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and simply doing things you love. Furthermore, by addressing blood sugar regulation issues and hormonal imbalances, the body can decrease its overall stress and focus on the repair process.
Your Autoimmunity Plan
In order to regain your health and recover from the debilitating symptoms associated with your autoimmune condition, a multileveled approach is necessary. It is important to remember that conventional treatment involving specific drugs may be a necessity when you are first diagnosed but the underlying root cause must be addressed as well to prevent the collateral fallout.
The first step is to extinguish the systemic inflammation present in autoimmune conditions. Research has shown several herbal agents can be used to dampen inflammation such as curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) and resveratrol. The consumption of essential fats, vitamin D supplementation and supporting glutathione levels is also integral to success.
Exercise is another step one can use to decrease inflammation. However, there is a fine line between anti-inflammatory exercise and catabolic overtraining. In order to better deal with stress, yoga and meditation can be great tools.
Undergoing functional testing can help navigate the rough waters of autoimmunity and provide specific actionable steps to restore health. Getting tested for leaky gut, food sensitivities, gut infections, hormonal and blood sugar imbalances, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and adrenal health can help paint the full picture of why an individual does not feel optimal.
Once the specific root causes have been addressed, rebuilding a healthy immune system can be carried out. Approximately 80% of our immune system resides in our gut and healing the gut is similar to laying the foundation for a new building. If the gut is not functioning optimally, the first storm of stress may be enough to crack our foundation and knock us over.
As you can see, the thyroid, joints, muscles, and other tissues are ultimately a victim of systemic inflammation and a conglomerate of imbalances, infections and deficiencies. Even though your lab work may tell you that your thyroid is “normal”, functional medicine can provide real answers to why you don’t feel well and what you can do to address it.
Schedule your free discovery call to learn about the Vital You Approach and how it can help you in your healing journey.