To say I have been diligent in the three years since my diagnosis with the autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis would be an understatement. I have completely changed the way I eat, the supplements I take and my approach to overall health and wellness.
This autoimmune disease broke my thyroid gland. It also regularly lit my skin up with hives, made my digestive system wonky, left me with fitful sleep, and my hair falling out. So as it goes in traditional medicine, my endocrinologist’s remedy is a lifetime supply of prescription thyroid hormone. That one tiny pill taken 365 days a year props up my thyroid, forces ‘normal’ test results and presumably all is well. Not so much.
I’m diving into a series of articles with the hope that my experience with autoimmune mysteries and hypothyroidism will help others. This is the first of that series.
Autoimmune Disease Mysteries
The statistics for autoimmune disease are staggering and growing. The National Institutes of Health report between 14.7 and 23.5 million Americans are affected by one or more than 80 types of autoimmune disease. They are among the most prevalent diseases in this country, and 75 percent of those affected are women.
In addition, an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease – not all autoimmune related – and about 60% of those people are totally clueless that they even have a thyroid condition, according to the American Thyroid Association. Again, women are much more likely to develop thyroid issues than men.
But the headlines that shout out to me more than any other are that the causes of autoimmune diseases and thyroid diseases are unknown. That humungous question mark leaves me unsettled and digging for answers, poring over research, studies, websites, articles and anything I can find that might lead me to an ‘aha’ moment. I want to know what broke my thyroid and immune system and do whatever I can to minimize future damage.
What on Earth?
After three years on thyroid medication, I admit I feel better, less fatigued. But I still have recurring bouts of symptoms, and the last time I was hit with the stomach flu, the hives returned for a week. Basically, whenever my immune system is overloaded, it goes into hyper-attack mode and does some crazy things.
Our immune system is complex. Its job is to defend us from germs and foreign invaders. In order to do that job, it’s essential for our immune systems to make the distinction between our own body tissue and foreign bodies. When things go awry, autoantibodies that mistakenly attack normal cells. Our T cells can’t keep our immune system in line, and a misguided attack on our body is launched. This is the essence of an autoimmune disorder.
So what on earth drives our immune systems to essentially cannibalize our own bodies? The answers, I am discerning, have everything to do with what is here on earth – more than we know.
Finding the Right Private Eye
My first step – and perhaps you’ve already been down this path – was to find a doctor willing to think outside the traditional box. No disrespect to my Western medicine endocrinologist (he’s a great guy), but I want to understand WHY my thyroid gland is broken.
A random Facebook ad for a Hashimoto’s/autoimmune workshop was the ticket I was looking for. I registered, showed up and met Dr. Peter Kan of Hope Integrative Wellness Center in Gilbert, Arizona. Dr. Kan is an outspoken chiropractic neurologist who specializes in autoimmune disorders. I had a feeling he was going to have a strong opinion about traditional approaches to autoimmune diseases.
“Thyroid symptoms are usually secondary to something else going on in the body,” he says. He refers to in-the-box treatments that address only the thyroid gland and that the bigger picture is consistently missed in this approach. “The box is what you’re getting right now. You have to get out of the box to figure out what’s really happening.”
So what does that mean? Remember, I’m talking with a neurologist. Dr. Kan responds, “When people come in with a thyroid problem, I’m evaluating the brain first. And when you have a low thyroid, especially in women, you have twice the risk of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.” That got my attention.
As Sherlock Holmes Said …
My light bulb moment came when Dr. Kan asked me point blank if I thought my deficient thyroid was the cause of my Hashimoto’s Disease or the symptom. Hmmm, I thought for a moment. It’s the symptom, I say out loud to the group of ladies in the room.
Bingo. My thyroid is merely the victim in a biological attack launched by my immune system. In this scenario, more victims may come under fire if we can’t find the attacker. As Sherlock Holmes once said, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” How could I have missed it!
Functional medicine, Dr. Kan says, is a way to think about the mechanism in the body that is causing the symptom. Think of it as a giant connect-the-dots puzzle.
“My goal is to put the autoimmune disease into remission,” he says. “We need to diagnose where the breakdown is. And functional medicine is all about asking the right questions and paying close attention to your personal history. It’s more like a being a detective,” Dr. Kan explains, adding, “Ninety percent of people with low thyroid symptoms have Hashimoto’s as the root cause.”
I left that evening a woman on a mission. I have known about my Hashimoto’s for three years, and thankfully I have more good days than bad. That’s not typical, however, for most people suffering from autoimmune disorders.
Next steps require an investment of money, time and patience. For the most part, functional medicine testing and treatments are not covered by insurance – and it can be expensive. The end result will not only identify the root cause of the autoimmune disorder, but also address the underlying antagonists.
Before consulting with Dr. Kan, I provide a detailed written account of a lifetime of activities, the places I have lived, industries in which I have worked, viruses, illnesses, surgeries, medications and more. I’m sure I’ve missed a few details – summarizing 59 years of life history is daunting.
By the following week, the doctor runs me through a battery of neurological tests, asks a lot of questions based on the information I have provided, and orders blood and urine tests from three separate labs – one traditional, two non-traditional. We’re looking for everything from environmental toxins and chemicals to gluten sensitivities and viral infection patterns.
While I don’t have the answers I’m looking for quite yet, I feel confident I’m hot on the right trail. For those of us who battle daily with autoimmune diseases, I also hope to shed some light on answers – not only answers to satisfy my need to know, but also answers that may point you in the right direction also.
Next Up: Test Results Shed Light on Long-Forgotten Places