Autoimmune disease is on the rise. Some estimates say that almost 16 percent of Americans suffer from some sort of autoimmune illness. Hashimoto's thyroiditis, a disease in which the immune system attacks the thyroid, is extremely prevalent in the United States, and also common in Europe and Asia. This disease strikes women much more frequently than men. In my practice, it's entirely common to see women coming in with a host of symptoms -- fatigue, hair loss, depression, dry skin, weight gain -- that we ultimately attribute to elevated thyroid antibodies, indicating Hashimoto's.
Researchers acknowledge that this rate of increase in autoimmune thyroiditis is just too fast to be attributed to merely genetics. Environmental factors -- pesticides, tobacco smoke, and heavy metals -- all have contributed to an uptick in the inflammation that drives Hashimoto's. Thyroid hormone plays an integral role many parts of the body including the gut, cardiovascular system, creation of red blood cells, and liver function, to name a few. When triggers such as viruses, stress, intestinal permeability, certain drugs and poor diet team up with genetics and environmental factors, Hashimoto's is often the result.
As with all chronic illness, the goal of a naturopathic doctor in treating Hashimoto's is to uncover the reasons why the body is responding in an oppositional way. There are a number of avenues to explore. Is the gut imbalanced? Are heavy metals and PCBs too present in the body? Are the adrenal glands overworked and outputting excess cortisol, which can negatively affect the thyroid? Are you eating gluten, which has been show to be a thyroid interrupter? Are you eating your food sensitivities, which can also trigger autoimmunity? Are your hormones like estrogen and progesterone imbalanced?
In addition to appropriate diet, stress reduction, detoxification, gut healing, hormone balancing, supplementing with thyroid hormone cofactors, and thyroid hormone replacement (if indicated), herbal medicine is a foundational part of my approach to treating Hashimotos's. Herbs offer a gentle, natural, and nutritive approach to healing and supporting the thyroid, with no side effects.
Here are my top picks for herbs that support thyroid function in my Hashimoto's patients:
1. Bladderwrack: Also known as the seaweed fucus, bladderwrack is rich minerals. In particular, it provides natural iodine, which the thyroid needs to function. Bladderwrack also acts as a powerful antioxidant. Some research points us to evidence that iodine, in appropriate dosages, it helpful for the treatment of autoimmune thyroid disease. While bladderwrack is a wonderful source of natural iodine, it's important to have your doctor test you for iodine deficiency before using it in a treatment protocol.
2. Guggul: This Ayurvedic herb has been studied for decades for its pro-thyroid properties. It enhances enzymatic activity in the thyroid and helps the gland to use iodine. In addition, it helps convert thyroid hormone T4 to its more bio-active partner T3.
3. Ashwagandha: Chronic stress puts strain on the all-important HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) system, which results in suppressed thyroid function. Because so many of my Hashimoto's patients come to me with a history of chronic stress, I often recommend this herb, which takes strain off the pituitary and hypothalamus, thereby stimulating thyroid activity.
The first key with treating autoimmune disease is to uncover the cause of the problem; proper testing can accomplish this. Once your naturopath has done that, he or she can discuss specific dosages and combinations of herbal medicines, along with other treatment protocols, to help heal and rebalance your thyroid. Hashimoto's thyroiditis need not be a life sentence. As with all chronic disease, with some perseverance and proper guidance and support, restoration of your health is within reach.