Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) are two types of conditions that occur when your thyroid isn’t functioning properly. (Read more about hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism in my blog, “Thyroid Dysfunction: Are You at Risk?“)
Yet there’s one more condition that can affect your thyroid, and chances are your doctor may not be doing anything about it.
What is Hashimoto’s disease?
Hashimoto’s disease, also known as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the thyroid gland.
It affects more than 10 million people in the U.S. and in some people, it may be genetic. It’s seven times more common in women — usually those who are middle-aged – than in men.
If you have Hashimoto’s disease, your immune system actually starts to attack your body, and as a result, the thyroid gets inflamed.
There are two factors that are vital for thyroid function:
- Thyroid peroxidase: an enzyme in the thyroid that helps make the thyroid hormone.
- Thyroglobulin: a protein that carries thyroid peroxidase to the cells.
So when the immune system is in attack mode, your body doesn’t have a sufficient, functioning amount of thyroid peroxidase. When antibodies to these components are elevated, the diagnosis is Hashimoto’s disease. Like any blood values, the antibody levels can fluctuate in and out of normal range. Having an absence of elevated levels does not necessarily rule out the possibility of Hashimoto’s disease.
Complications of Hashimoto’s disease
Aside from the symptoms of Hypothyroidism, there are some complications that can occur:
- One or several goiters, or an enlargement of the thyroid gland
- Heart problems
- Myxedema (extreme swelling)
- In pregnant women, birth defects in their babies.
A threat to immunity
Let’s get a better understanding of what happens in your body if you have Hashimoto’s disease.
Your immune system is like your body’s home security system. It offers constant surveillance, ensures things are safe and releases the dispatch team to do damage control when intruders make their way in.
T regulatory cells, TH1 and TH2, are also an important part of your immune system.
- TH1 is like the swat team in your body that responds to threats with a quick immune response.
- TH2, on the other hand, is like your immune system’s detective that identifies threats.
- Our bodies need a balance of both TH1 and TH2, but when one is more dominant, it can throw your immune system off course.
When the thyroid functions properly, it’s like a smooth operating conveyor belt system. The brain sends TSH to the thyroid, which then sends the hormones T3 and T4 to your cells. Yet when your immune system starts to go on an attack, it trips up the belt and causes the process to slow down.
To make matters worse, TSH can swing up and down within days. Because your immune system is so fickle, the thyroid slowly gets weaker and weaker as it continues to be attacked. Over time, your hypothyroidism becomes full-blown Hashimoto’s disease.