a stack of colorful potatos in bags

What Is Hashimoto’s, and Why Is That Gorilla In Your Yard?

Everyone knows someone with a hypothyroid condition. It’s fairly common. What isn’t commonly known is that about 90 percent of patients with hypothyroid symptoms have them due to Hashimoto’s disease, which is an autoimmune condition. True hypothyroid, where there is something inherently wrong with the gland, is fairly uncommon. Another striking fact is that of all people with autoimmune conditions, about 75 percent are female.

There actually exists a wealth of information about Hashimoto’s, much of it based on newer research. As a patient, the more you know about the condition, the more empowered you will be to attain the treatment you need. Here I’ll go over some of the basics. Keep in mind, there is much more to learn.

Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune condition where the body creates antibodies that strive to destroy the thyroid gland. It is the most common cause of hypothyroid symptoms. Although the symptoms present as thyroid-related, and much damage happens to the thyroid due to the ongoing autoimmune attack, a Hashimoto’s diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean there is something inherently wrong with the thyroid gland itself. A misunderstanding of this fact has been at the root of inadequate thyroid treatment for many years.

Historically, both true hypothyroid and Hashimoto’s have been treated identically; solely by giving thyroid hormone replacement. In the case of Hashimoto’s this is an attempt at relieving symptoms without looking at the actual cause – an autoimmune condition fueled by systemic inflammation. Most traditional doctors are trained to think that Hashimoto’s will inevitably destroy the thyroid gland; unabated, it most certainly can. The thinking is that it makes sense to supplement with added hormone until it withers and dies, and then it’s taken out. At that point the patient is dependent on hormone supplementation for life. There is no other treatment given, as it is considered a hopeless situation.

Although the body needs thyroid hormone, limiting treatment to hormone replacement does not address the actual source of the problem – an autoimmune condition fueled by systemic inflammation, which no amount of thyroid hormone will stop. Although many symptoms are indeed related to low thyroid function due to damage from the autoimmune attack, Hashimoto’s can cause a whole chain reaction of issues that will persist regardless of thyroid supplementation. Many thyroid patients know that even though their lab numbers look “fine”, they don’t feel fine at all. What follows is the need for a revolution in hypothyroid treatment. It is happening, albeit slowly. One of my favorite sources for understanding all of this is the groundbreaking book by Dr. Datis Kharrazian, called Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms… When My Labs Are Normal?

You might wonder about that mouthful of a book title, but it speaks volumes to what many thyroid patients express as their main frustration; despite “proper” treatment and “normal” lab results, they live in a state of constant symptoms. I highly recommend reading the book. It’s available in paper and e-format.

With current research into autoimmunity, we are seeing that there are more options for dealing with Hashimoto’s than previously believed. A serious look is being taken at autoimmunity, and all the related issues associated with it. What many have realized, yet the larger medical community is slow to embrace, is that there are ways to work with Hashimoto’s as an autoimmune condition, rather than a hypothyroid condition, which can help slow down or stop the attack on the thyroid, enabling a person to live a more functional, healthy life. Hormone replacement is a necessary piece of the picture for many, as the thyroid struggles with functioning well in the face of the autoimmune attack, but there is a lot more that one can do to help the body function well. Functional medical practitioners are embracing this view, and by looking at and treating for the cause behind the symptoms, many are working with patients in ways that are producing positive, life-changing results. Here we enter the autoimmune arena. But before we jump in, here’s a fun analogy about Hashimoto’s for those who are more visually oriented.

About That Gorilla

a stack of colorful potatos in bags

no thanks!

Imagine there is a big gorilla in your front yard (work with me here), who only likes bananas. He lives there. Getting rid of him isn’t an option. You feed him oranges, and he doesn’t like that so he throws them through your window. Guys in trucks with toolbelts and chaw come and fix the window. Next day, you feed the gorilla potatos and he throws them through the window. It breaks… rinse, repeat, over and over. You have a gorilla in your yard who just wants bananas, but you keep feeding him oranges and potatos. If you don’t take care of the gorilla and give him what he wants, your problem persists, and the windows keep breaking … over and over. But – if you gave that gorilla bananas, what would he do? Probably lounge around in the yard grooming himself and eating ants off blades of grass while humming happy gorilla tunes. Even though the window was what kept getting broken, and you put a lot of energy into fixing it, it wasn’t the source of the problem.

The scenario above is like treating Hashimoto’s strictly with hormone replacement. Added hormones can help a body continue on with its cellular metabolism, which is very important, but it does not change the source of the problem; there are antibodies marked for your thyroid that are waging war on that organ, day and night, and at the same time, inflammation is causing problems throughout the body. This destruction can take place quickly or over many years. Once thyroid tissue is destroyed, there is no re-building it. Taking positive steps to slow this damage is important if you hope to keep your thyroid your whole life, and especially if you want to feel well and be functional.

Our roadmap comes to a roundabout here – there are multiple factors at work that fit together like a puzzle. What is behind this antibody attack? The umbrella explanation is inflammation, which is a common thread in most autoimmune conditions. In future posts, I’ll address inflammation, and how it relates to Hashimoto’s, successful treatment, and feeling well. For now, know that if you are being treated for hypothyroid, and you still feel awful, you are not crazy; you stand with thousands of other thyroid patients who are demanding a revolution in treatment.