Let’s talk Hashimoto’s triggers! But, before we can talk about triggers, we need to understand what Hashimoto’s is and how autoimmunity occurs.
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is the most common autoimmune disease in the United States and is the leading cause of hypothyroidism, affecting women more than men. Clinical research suggests that 90% of those with hypothyroidism have Hashimoto’s and many go un-diagnosed for years.
Autoimmunity occurs when the body’s natural defense system (the immune system) gets confused and cannot recognize friend from foe. When this happens, the immune system begins to attack the body’s healthy cells and organs causing an autoimmune disease. With Hashimoto’s, the immune system begins to attack the thyroid tissue causing impaired thyroid function which leads to hypothyroidism (low thyroid function/high TSH).
Roughly 70% of my nutrition and functional medicine practice is women with Hashimoto’s and the question is always, “What triggered my Hashimoto’s?” This can be a tough question to answer because it is usually not just one trigger, but a build-up of triggers in the presence of genetics that can turn that autoimmune switch on. However, the most common triggers that I have seen in working with those with Hashimoto’s include:
Gluten, food sensitivities, and intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
Gluten, especially in the United States can irritate the lining of the small intestine causing intestinal permeability which then increases the chances of developing food sensitivities. What is not well understood about food sensitivities is that most food triggers are a result of poor gut function and healing the gut often results in reduced food sensitivities.
Viral Infections, especially Epstein bar virus (EBV)
Viral infections, including EBV, create a pro-inflammatory immune reaction in the body that if left unchecked can trigger Hashimoto’s and other symptoms like chronic fatigue, joint pain, and adrenal dysfunction. EBV is known as the kissing virus and is transferred via saliva (kissing, sharing drinks, etc.) and roughly 80% of our population has contracted this virus. For most of us, our immune system can contain that virus but in the presence of other triggers or a major stressful event, this virus can flare and cause a host of symptoms, including triggering an underlying autoimmune disease.
Dysbiosis is a state where there is an imbalance of microbes in and on our bodies. Most dysbiosis occurs within the gut but other areas of the body can be affected as well. Dysbiosis can cause overgrowth/undergrowth of bacteria and/or yeast and these alterations can impact the way our immune system functions. 70% of our immune system resides in the gut so, if gut health is impaired, then immune function is altered promoting autoimmunity.
Environmental toxicants are man-made products that are introduced into our environment due to human activity and can contaminate our ecosystems, such as our water supply, land, and air. Examples of environmental toxicants include pesticides, herbicides, pollution from gas and other industrial practices, and more. It is impossible to avoid environmental toxicants but, we can protect ourselves by eating a detox friendly diet, avoiding exposure as much as possible, and taking supplements that support removal of toxic substances from out bodies.
Stress can impact the body’s natural physiology and lead to inflammation that impacts the way the immune system behaves. The presence of long-term stress in conjunction with other triggers and a genetic predisposition to autoimmunity can be the perfect recipe that triggers an autoimmune condition.
Emotional and/or physical trauma
Trauma, whether emotional or physical (car accident or head injury) creates a cascade of metabolic imbalances in the body that promotes inflammation, digestive disorders, and hormonal imbalances that can trigger an over-active immune reaction promoting Hashimoto’s.
During pregnancy, the immune system shifts in a way that protects the fetus from being seen as a foreign invader. Very quickly after childbirth, the immune system shifts back to its “pre-pregnancy” state. These shifts in the immune system can be very drastic and can cause the immune system to remain over-active causing autoimmunity. In my practice, I see this being one of the biggest triggers for women developing an autoimmune disease, especially Hashimoto’s.
When working with women with Hashimoto’s, it is not about identifying the one trigger or just going on a gluten free diet. There is NEVER just one trigger, but multiple triggers. The goal then is to identify and address as many of these triggers as possible. In addition, we can use different nutrients and herbs that will help balance the immune system while working on gut healing, identifying problem foods, and addressing proper detoxification and lifestyle factors all at the same time. Although we cannot fully get rid of an autoimmune condition, when we address all the factors above, Hashimoto’s can be managed, you can heal and live a fulfilling and healthy life!
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