Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune condition that affects a surprisingly large number of Americans, especially women. It is also underdiagnosed and undertreated. Hashimoto’s is the cause of hypothyroidism in approximately 80-90 percent of patients. It is often missed because a common thyroid screening test, which evaluates TSH levels in your blood, is generally interpreted as normal (based on laboratory ranges) when it already indicates that your thyroid is struggling. As a result, more extensive testing falls by the wayside, and symptoms of thyroid dysfunction may be dismissed.
This condition is also referred to by several different names including Hashimoto thyroiditis, autoimmune thyroiditis (which includes other forms) or, simply, Hashimoto’s. It is important to recognize that we are not dealing with a primary malfunction of your very important thyroid gland but with a dysfunction of the immune system. The immune system is a complex network of tissues, cells and chemicals in our bodies to recognize and eliminate threats to our health, for example pathogens like bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites, as well as cells that don’t function normally and could develop into cancer. The cells of the immune system are able to distinguish foreign invaders from the body’s own cells.
What is autoimmunity?
Autoimmunity develops when the immune system loses its ability to make this distinction and begins to attack the body’s own tissues. Again, this is a very complex process. It is usually insidious, meaning that it can take quite some time until damage accumulates and causes signs and symptoms. There’s also a very wide range of different autoimmune diseases, they are not always easily distinguishable, and more than one can occur in the same person over time. Diagnosis is often difficult, and conventional treatment options are generally limited to pharmaceutical drugs such as anti-inflammatories and immunosuppressants.
In the case of Hashimoto’s, the immune system attacks and destroys functional tissue of the thyroid. The standard medical treatment is lifelong supplementation with synthetic thyroxine (T4) in the form of levothyroxine (e.g. Synthroid). Not only does this approach not work for every Hashimoto’s patient, it also doesn’t do anything to address the underlying autoimmune condition.
Looking for root causes
As a doctor of Chinese medicine and naturopathic practitioner, I have a keen interest in finding root causes of illness and help my patients regain the upper hand through natural approaches. And I’m happy to say that in the integrative medicine field, we have been learning a lot over the last 15 to 20 years about what these root causes are and how to address them.
It’s no surprise that autoimmune conditions have been on the rise because the toxic chemicals accumulating in our environment find their way into our bodies through our food, water, skin care products and the air we breathe, including airborne toxicants released in our homes, cars and offices. These chemicals have many different (and often hard-to-detect) ways of interfering with our bodies’ natural processes. For example, so-called xenoestrogens that mimic important hormones in the body are implicated in obesity, breast cancer and other diseases.
The foundation of a natural approach to healing autoimmunity and supporting the thyroid is therefore to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and find ways to eliminate them from the body through cleansing and detoxification. This is a delicate process you should pursue under the guidance of a knowledgeable health care provider. Providing the body with optimal nutrition is another cornerstone of healing autoimmunity such as Hashimoto’s. The standard American diet can really undermine your health. We use an approach to wholesome nutrition that is more suitable for your health and wellbeing and focuses on eliminating allergens, reducing inflammation and providing nutrients in a balanced way.
The role of Chinese medicine in healing
After what your physician has told you, you may be surprised to hear that there are indeed other options for treating autoimmunity. Chinese herbal medicine has been used and researched to support patients with autoimmunity for some considerable time. In modern practice prescriptions of herbal medicinals are used to alleviate the wide range of signs and symptoms of Hashimoto’s and other autoimmune conditions, as well as to support the body’s regeneration and resilience. We use a sophisticated diagnostic process in Chinese medicine and integrate information from your laboratory evaluations. We then prescribe herbal therapies in conjunction with conventional pharmaceutical drugs, at least initially, but research and clinical experience have shown that many patients are able to heal and eventually live without medications for long stretches of time. This is especially rewarding in the case of Hashimoto’s because no one is eager to get off thyroid medication and risk the return of symptoms and deterioration of longterm health.
In addition to appropriate nutritional supplements that have been shown to support gut healing and benefit the immune system, we use highly personalized combinations of Chinese medicinals to reduce inflammation and pain, improve circulation, heal tissue, relieve fatigue, and modulate the immune system naturally. This is a process that takes time and may involve ups and downs along the way. It is important to work closely with your practitioner to monitor and adjust your treatment to your needs.
Healing Hashimoto’s is a worthwhile effort. You may be able to regain your health and vitality, pursue new goals, enjoy activities you had to scale back, and again be more involved with your family, friends and community.
© 2023 Christiane Siebert