Hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s Disease)
Many people have been diagnosed with having an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) after their thyroid hormone levels dropped. The thyroid controls the body’s rate of metabolism, so symptoms of low thyroid hormone can include: feeling chilled or feeling tired much of the time, as well as constipation, depression, and/or weight gain.
The standard medical approach to the disorder is to supplement the low thyroid hormone levels with synthetic thyroid hormone to bring them back up into normal range.
If you think about it, we really should be asking why our thyroids are underactive. There are important reasons why the thyroid starts under-producing and we shouldn’t gloss over the problem and settle for life on a prescription. Low thyroid is a big clue that something has gone awry. It can also suggest things are about to go further awry. We should try to understand and fix the source of the problem.
In modern life, most cases of hypothyroidism are Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s immune system has been primed by a trigger, and mistakenly begins attacking its own cells if the cells resemble the trigger. In the case of Hashimoto’s, the body is attacking its thyroid cells.
(Other examples of autoimmune disease include multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease, to name just a few. There are over 100 identified autoimmune diseases, and many others including autism and ADHD are suspected to be autoimmune in nature.)
It’s worth mentioning that once autoimmune disease has set in, other conditions can begin to crop up as well. For example, many women who have Hashimoto’s also develop polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Why one person gets an autoimmune disorder while the next person doesn’t is a matter of genetic susceptibility combined with environmental exposures (toxins or infections for example) and lifestyle factors. So we control what we can.
In the case of Hashimoto’s, the best approach is an autoimmune protocol or autoimmune paleo (AIP).
Here is a very tip-of-the-iceberg summary of how to tweak your lifestyle to give yourself the best possible shot at preventing, controlling, or, like many people, reversing autoimmune disease:
• Avoid toxins: These include: cigarette smoke (first and second hand; including rooms and surfaces where smoking has occurred in the past), heavy metals (including occupational exposure, toy or jewelry-related exposure, etc.), and drugs (reduce or eliminate street, over-the-counter, and prescription drugs to the greatest degree you can (work with your prescriber)). Also try to limit your exposure to pesticides and food additives.
• Natural movement: Our modern relationship with movement tends toward 3 pitfalls: not enough (e.g., the desk jockey or couch potato), too much (e.g., the marathoner or aerobics junky), or both (e.g., the marathoner with the desk job). Our bodies expect natural, enjoyable movement across the day at a level that elevates heart rate without pushing it into the high zone. Movement influences biochemical activity in the body and changes gene expression in ways that affect the immune system, so do not underestimate the importance of this factor.
• Sleep: If you aren’t getting enough, take immediate action to address the cause. That might mean you have to get screens out of the bedroom. It might mean you have to change jobs if you’re on shift work. It might mean giving up alcohol. It might mean buying blackout curtains. It might mean eliminating sleep apnea (which is best done by following an ancestral way of eating).
• Get enough sun: Every animal needs sunlight. Lack of sunlight is a serious form of stress that many Canadians suffer from. Canadians also have high rates of autoimmune disease. Get your rays. You can’t make up for sunlight deprivation with vitamin D pills. Even in winter, taking a walk outdoors will put sun on your face. (In certain cases, autoimmune disease of some types have been triggered or aggravated by sun exposure. These are the rare exception.)
• Avoid stress: Stress is what we tend to think it is (evil bosses, petulant children, work deadlines) and also things we might not think of as “stress” that actually tax our bodies in chronically catastrophic ways: sleep deprivation, cigarettes, alcohol, shift work, constantly high carbohydrate intake, chronic nutrient deprivation, etc, etc, etc.)
• Eat an ancestral diet: This is just another way of saying eat the foods that humans are supposed to eat. Humans actually have greater dietary diversity than pretty much any other animal so this should be easy! But instead most humans today are living on a steady diet of grass seed. So get off the grass seed (i.e., grain! — grains are the seeds of the monocot grasses and they are especially troublesome for autoimmunity) and get back to the foods your body wants and expects: whole food from high quality sources: grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish and game, pastured eggs, fresh organic local vegetables, nuts, certain seeds, and a little bit of organic fruit. Steer clear of GMOs, sprayed food, processed food, sugar, vegetable oils, grain, legumes, and industrial dairy. Even if you do not have autoimmune disease, this is the healthy way to eat and to prevent disease.
• Follow the AIP: The AIP goes a step further than the ancestral diet, to eliminate additional foods that could be potential autoimmune triggers, and then add them back in one at a time to see what blows up. This helps people identify which foods are friends and which should be off the xmas card list. If you have diagnosed Hashimoto’s disease, do yourself a huge favour and buy The Paleo Approach.
• The Paleo Approach, and cookbook, by Sarah Ballantyne (easily the best AIP book on the market); also see Sarah’s website
• Bre’anna Emmitt’s website and cookbook
• Autoimmune Wellness
• Wellness Mama
• Chris Kresser’s website
A word of caution: there are some truly bogus books, cookbooks especially, that claim to be AIP, mostly self-published. So stick to authoritative sources. Once you learn the ropes, you’ll easily spot imposters.