Autoimmune Thyroid Disease and Your Immune System

Strategies for Supporting Your Body's Defenses

Some common thyroid diseases, including Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the most common cause of hypothyroidism, and Graves' disease, a common cause of hyperthyroidism, are autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune conditions occur when the body's immune system attacks healthy tissue, causing dysfunction and damage—in these cases, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland.

​Ellen Lindner / Verywell

Management of an autoimmune thyroid condition takes the immune system into account.

Where the Immune System Goes Wrong

The main function of the immune system is to protect the body from infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.

It does this by producing white blood cells and antibodies that attack infectious organisms. The process brings on symptoms such as fever, fatigue, and inflammation.

In the case of an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks otherwise healthy tissues.

Thyroid autoimmune conditions can cause either:

  • Inflammation and chronic damage impair the thyroid gland's ability to produce adequate amounts of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism).
  • The thyroid gland may produce too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism).

It's thought that heredity may play a role in autoimmune diseases. Another theory is that infection by a virus or bacterium triggers the response.

Strategies for Immunity Maintenance

Most scientists agree it isn't possible to "boost" the immune system, largely because it has many moving parts that must work together. As a resource from Harvard Medical School explains: "It's especially complicated because there are so many different kinds of cells in the immune system that respond to so many different microbes in so many ways."

There are things you can do to help your immune system function at its best. The most important way to keep the immune system strong and balanced is to maintain a healthy lifestyle overall. This is true even for people who are living with a thyroid autoimmune disease.

These strategies can help support your immune system.

Follow a Healthy Diet

Dietary factors can affect your immune system. Your diet can provide you with the nutrients needed to build immune cells and proteins, and your diet can also expose you to harmful chemicals that damage your immune system.

Tips include:

  • Eat as few processed foods as possible.
  • Steer clear of products made from trans fats, including certain kinds of margarine.
  • Replace high-glycemic carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, and sugar-laden foods (baked goods, sweetened fruit juices and soda, and so forth) with whole grains and no-sugar-added snacks and beverages.
  • Limit your intake of saturated fat.
  • Eat plenty of fish that's rich in omega-3 fats such as mackerel, wild salmon, herring, tuna (including canned and pack in oil), and halibut. The American Heart Association recommends most people eat at least two 3.5 ounce servings per week.
  • Fill your plate at meals and snacks with fresh whole fruits and vegetables, including those that are being studied for their potential to directly augment the immune system, including garlic, mushrooms (in particular, maitake and shiitake), broccoli, cabbage, and kale. Be careful not to overdo cruciferous veggies, however.
  • Olive oil is a healthy fat for cooking and in salad dressings.

Limit saturated fats and sugars to no more than 10 percent of your total calories each day.

Feed Your Microbiome

Research has found that the billions of healthy bacteria that live in the gut work directly with the immune system to help to support and regulate the immune response.

There's much to be learned about this complex relationship, particularly as it might apply to preventing and treating specific diseases, such as autoimmune thyroid disease.

It's safe to say that including foods that contain healthy bacteria, such as yogurt with live cultures and fermented foods like kombucha and kimchi (Korean pickled vegetables) may be helpful for the immune system.

Stay Active

Getting plenty of exercise is essential to overall health and it may help immune system cells move through the body more efficiently.

There has been some concern that too much exercise might interfere with the immune system, but this is not a concern when it comes to moderate amounts of exercise.

Get Enough Sleep

It's no secret that sleep deprivation can take a toll on a person's health, including how well the immune system works.

Sleep deprivation is associated with impairment of the immune system, while adequate sleep has been shown to help support immune system functioning.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults under age 65 get between seven and nine hours of good quality sleep each night.

Deal With Stress

While it's unlikely that the immune system will take a hit after a single anxiety-provoking situation or event, scientists looking at the relationship between stress and immunity note that chronic stress may take a toll on the immune system over time. For this reason, if you're under ongoing tension, —at work or in your relationships—it may be advisable to find healthy ways to manage it.

What will relieve stress for one person may not do the same for another, but there are many options to explore, including meditation, deep breathing, exercise, and hobbies.

Immune-Enhancing Supplements

There are a variety of supplements and herbal products that claim to support or improve the immune system.

The best-known examples are:

  • Products that contain immune-enhancing mushrooms, such as MGN3 and Grifron Maitake Caps or extract
  • Products with IP6 and inositol
  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin D
  • Iodine (but not more than 250mcg/day),
  • Aswhaghanda
  • Sterols and sterolin products
  • Other immune-enhancing herbs such as olive leaf extract

Important

Some have been shown in studies to alter the immune system, but none have been found to actually improve or boost immunity in ways that prevent illness or infection. In addition, some herbs and supplements may interfere with the medical management of your condition as well as your thyroid function. Do not use them without first checking with your healthcare provider.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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