By Dr Karen Coates
PART ONE: THE THYROID GLAND
Over the past fifty years a group of medical conditions once thought to be very uncommon has created debilitating symptoms in millions, almost exclusively in developed countries.
Auto immune illness occurs when the body’s own immune system starts to produce proteins that identify and attack specific organs in the body, treating that body part as if it were a dangerous germ needing to be eliminated.
These proteins, called immunoglobulins or auto-antibodies, will commonly target organs such as the thyroid (your metabolic gland which is found at the base of the neck), the kidneys, skin, pancreas or joints. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Coeliac Disease – you may recognise the names of these medical disorders, but may not realise that they all come under the banner of auto-immune disease.
Immunoglobulins may be detected circulating in the blood years or even decades before irreparable damage is done to the body. I have been increasingly aware of a huge increase in the number of women who have antibodies that have the potential to attack and destroy the thyroid gland. Although it has been traditionally thought that this disorder occurs in only about 5% of the population, 40% of the women in my practice have been identified with thyroid auto-antibodies in their blood, some with established hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid), but all these women were unwell in some way.
Mainstream medicine would argue that the presence of these proteins does not indicate true thyroid disease until the thyroid gland itself is so damaged that it is unable to produce the thyroid hormones. This would commonly result in hypothyroidism which may also be associated with a goitre (literally, a swelling of the thyroid gland). Most mainstream doctors would not test for the presence of these antibodies, because in the medical model there is no specific treatment until the thyroid gland fails.
When these antibodies are active in the body they can produce symptoms identical to the feeling one gets just before coming down with a cold or flu virus. The only difference is that the runny noise and sore throat doesn’t eventuate, and fatigue, sore joints continue day in, day out.
Diagnosing an underactive thyroid relies on a very unreliable test called the TSH, or Thyroid Stimulating Hormone. This is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain, in very large amounts if the body isn’t producing enough thyroid hormone. It whips the poor inflamed thyroid gland into making more of the hormone until the gland cannot compensate further and fails. By the time the TSH is raised, symptoms of underactivity can be quite advanced: low body temperature, weight gain, constipation and overwhelming fatigue. A more reliable test for measuring the efficiency of your metabolism is to take your Basal Body Temperature. Consistently low levels (below 36 degrees) when taking your temperature first thing in the morning would indicate low thyroid function. If your blood test also showed the presence of thyroid auto-antibodies, then thyroid support should result in much improved level of well being.
By looking at this condition from a naturopathic model, we can manage the underlying auto-immune assault before irreversible damage is done, delaying or even preventing the development of hypothyroidism. This can and does make a difference.
Most doctors practising integrative medicine will be able to guide you through this information to see if your symptoms are indeed the result of this 21st century epidemic. Next time I will let you know about the role stress plays in triggering off these genetic time bombs called autoimmune disease.