Question: Lately I have been hearing about autoimmune thyroid illness. What can you tell me about it?
Dr. Brownstein's Answer:
Autoimmune thyroid illness, which includes Hashimoto’s and Graves’ diseases, is occurring at increasing rates. In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that up to 5 percent of the American population (over 15 million people) may be suffering from an autoimmune thyroid illness.
However, my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues points to a much higher number. In fact, my estimate is that 20 percent of the population is suffering from an autoimmune thyroid illness. I am always amazed at how many new patients test positive for an autoimmune thyroid illness, especially Hashimoto’s disease, in which the body produces antithyroid peroxidase antibodies that cause inflammation of the thyroid gland. Graves' disease, when the thyroid gland is attacked by the body's antibodies, also causes inflammation and swelling of the thyroid gland.
Why is the incidence of autoimmune thyroid illness increasing?
One underlying factor is iodine deficiency. As iodine levels have fallen over 50 percent in the last 30 years, autoimmune thyroid illness has increased at epidemic rates.
There are many conventional doctors who believe that use of iodine supplements is responsible for the development of autoimmune thyroid illness. However, research does not support this theory.
In fact, researchers cannot induce autoimmune thyroid illness in animals unless a goitrogenic agent (a substance that suppresses thyroid gland function by interfering with iodine uptake) is given to those animals along with iodine.
A radiographic procedure known as X-ray fluorescence scanning can measure the iodine content of the thyroid gland. Using this procedure, researchers measured the iodine content in the thyroid gland of a group of normal subjects alongside another group of people with autoimmune thyroid disorder.
If excess iodine were the causative agent for the development of autoimmune thyroid disease, one would expect that those suffering from the disease (as compared to subjects with a normal thyroid gland) would show excess iodine during scanning of the thyroid gland.
But researchers found that the subjects with autoimmune thyroid disorders had much less iodine in their thyroid glands — 50 percent less than the normal group. And those with hypothyroidism and autoimmune thyroid disease had nearly 80 percent less iodine in their thyroid gland.
Numerous studies have cited a link between autoimmune thyroid disease and gluten sensitivity. One study found 43 percent of celiac disease patients also have thyroid involvement.
Celiac disease is a condition in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged and absorption of nutrients from food is prevented. The damage is often caused by eating gluten, which is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and oats.
Every patient with an autoimmune thyroid disease needs to be tested for gluten sensitivity. Conversely, every patient with gluten sensitivity (or celiac disease) deserves a test for autoimmune thyroid disease.
I have successfully treated countless patients for autoimmune thyroid disease simply by correcting their nutritional imbalances and advising them to avoid gluten. You can find more information about gluten-free diets in my book, "The Guide to a Gluten-Free Diet."