Did you know that over 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid dysfunction? According to the American Thyroid Association, up to 60% of those with thyroid disease are unaware that they have the condition. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid disease and one in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during their lifetime.
So what exactly is the thyroid and why might its function go awry? The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland that sits in the middle of your neck. Although this gland is relatively small in size, it produces hormones (triiodothyronine and thyroxine) that influence every cell and organ in the body. Hypothyroidism is a condition where the thyroid produces too little hormone while hyperthyroidism is a condition where the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, brain fog, constipation, fatigue and mood disorders to name a few. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include nervousness, unexplained weight loss, palpitations and heat intolerance.
In fact 90% of cases of hypothyroidism are actually autoimmune in nature. What is important to note is that autoimmune hypothyroidism- called Hashimoto's thyroiditis- is not purely a problem with the thyroid gland. It is actually a problem of the immune system. The immune system is attacking the thyroid gland causing it to under produce its hormones which in turn slows down all of the body's metabolic processes. But why does this happen?
We know that autoimmune thyroiditis has genetic underpinnings. But as we now, our genes are not necessarily our destiny. As I tell my patients quite often, our genes may load the proverbial gun, but our environment pulls the trigger. Let's take a closer look...
We know through the pioneering work of Dr. Alessio Fasano, Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Mass General Hospital, that in order for an autoimmune disease to take hold, we need three things: 1) a genetic predisposition 2) a trigger from our environment and 3) intestinal permeability or a " leaky gut". When the tight junctions in our intestinal wall become loosened ( due to a multitude of reasons including inflammatory foods, stress, medications, environmental toxins and infections to name a few) things like undigested food particles, microbes and toxins enter our bloodstream and set off an inflammatory or immune response to deal with the invaders. Unfortunately our own tissues may get caught in the crossfire and if the genetic predisposition is there, an autoimmune disease may take hold.
So once this train has left the station, what can we do to quell the autoimmune process? Here are some actionable tips:
1) Heal your gut - 80% of your entire immune system is located in your digestive tract. To help halt and reverse the autoimmune process, we should work on restoring healthy gut function by removing inflammatory foods and infections, replacing enzymes needed for healthy digestion, reinocculating our gut with healthy bacteria from probiotics and probiotic rich foods and repairing the gut lining with nutrients.
2) Optimize your diet - eat a diet rich in whole, phytonutrient rich foods and avoid processed, inflammatory foods.
3) Eliminate toxins in your environment - by filtering your water, avoiding chemical laden body products and household cleaners.
4) Heal infections - a number of infections have been associated with autoimmune disease including Epstein Barr Virus and Yersinia Enterocolitica to name a few. Work with your doctor to see if you may have an infection that may be contributing to your autoimmune process.
5) Relieve your stress- find what works for you. Proper thyroid and immune function depends on healthy adrenal glands. Send your body a signal of safety and decrease stress hormone production through practicing yoga, meditation, journaling or perhaps going on nature walks.
The interplay between the endocrine and immune system is a complicated web. It can take some time to figure out your own personal autoimmune triggers that led to the diagnosis of Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Figuring out your root causes and triggers, finding the right supplementation and medications may take some time. Work closely with your physician to dig deep to achieve your optimal wellness!
Ahhh The Matrix... Many of us know the late 90's blockbuster movie. Red pill...Blue pill... Which one? The term "The Matrix" however, has a much different meaning for physicians who practice Functional Medicine. You may have heard of the term Functional Medicine, but what exactly is it and what is the Matrix as it pertains to health and wellness?
Functional Medicine is a science based approach to health that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease rather than just treating the symptoms. One condition or diagnosis may have many causes and one cause may actually produce many conditions. For example, if we look at the diagnosis of depression, we see in the image below that depression may have many causes. Likewise, a cause, such as inflammation, may lead to a number of diagnoses including depression. One person's cause of depression may be different from another person's. So perhaps the reason why your SSRI is not helping to resolve your depression is because your unique cause is not being addressed.
The beauty of the functional medicine approach is that it takes the focus off of the name of the illness and instead allows the physician and patient to work together to find the underlying cause unique to each person in a truly personalized approach. Whether the diagnosis is anxiety, ADHD, acne, eczema, autoimmune disease, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine... it is important to look beneath that name and see what got you to the point at which you were given your diagnosis. Naming the issue is just the beginning! Getting to "the why" is where the magic happens. It is only then that we can achieve long term sustainable health without perpetually suppressing symptoms.
The Functional Medicine Matrix helps physicians to organize patient information and guides them where to begin treatment. The matrix shows how diverse symptoms may be linked and helps to determine which systems need the most support first. It allows for looking more deeply into where the imbalance for each individual may lie and where precipitating factors, triggers, and perpetuating factors keep the disease process going on. Looking at the "Functional Medicine Tree" is a great way to illustrate this process.
Rather than focusing on the branches and leaves at the very top of the tree which represents symptoms and diagnosis, the functional medicine model begins at the roots. The traditional medical model tends to focus in the branches and leaves. In order to keep a tree healthy, you need to support its very foundation- the roots and the soil. If a tree is not healthy, the first place you should look is at these same foundational elements. During the patient interview, these foundational issues ( sleep, exercise, nutrition, stress, relationships, genetics, etc) are examined and addressed along with predisposing factors ( antecedents), events ( triggers), and ongoing physiological processes ( mediators). These influences may then result in the core imbalances that we see in the trunk. The symptoms that patients experience are due to the body's response to these functional core imbalances. Symptoms are in essence the body's attempt to reestablish balance and restore health. A comprehensive medical history and physical examination conducted through the lens of this matrix along with diagnostic laboratory testing allows the physician to ask two very important questions which guide therapy:
1) Does this person need to be rid of something such as allergens,toxins, infections,stress or poor diet?
2) Does this person have an unmet need that must be filled for optimal health and function such as vitamins, minerals, nutrients, protein, fat, carbohydrates, hormones, sleep, relaxation, community, purpose?
The aim is to answer these complex questions and work in therapeutic partnership with the patient and perhaps their family to remove the impediments to health and replace the unmet needs to restore the patient to optimal function. Not only does this approach help to tease through causes of symptoms and disease, it is also a very powerful tool for preventative medicine and overall health and well-being. In fact, In October 2019, a study was published in JAMA which demonstrated that the Functional Medicine model of care achieved better health related quality of life scores than standard medical care in a traditional family health center.
The conventional model of healthcare divides body systems and medical specialties into silos such as endocrinology, neurology, dermatology and gastroenterology. The human body, however, is wonderfully connected in an infinite web. If you would like to climb down from the canopy of leaves, dig into the soil and get down to the roots, perhaps the Functional Medicine approach is for you. Take a walk through the Matrix. You may be surprised with what you find.