Autoimmune Thyroid Disease and Your Immune System

Strategies for Supporting Your Body's Defenses

In This Article

Like all autoimmune diseases, Hashimoto's thyroiditis (which is responsible for the majority of cases of hypothyroidism) and Graves' disease (the leading cause of hyperthyroidism) result when the immune system attacks a healthy part of the body—in these cases, the thyroid gland. The same mechanisms your body would call on to prevent infection by a virus, bacterium, or another pathogen are at play with these autoimmune thyroid conditions, meaning your defenses against general illness, like the common cold, are compromised.

In considering the overall management of your condition, it's important to support your immune system to stay as strong as possible.

Where the Immune System Goes Wrong

The main function of the immune system is to protect the body from infection-causing antigens (besides bacteria and viruses, these can include fungi and parasites) and to destroy any such pathogens that do get in to prevent illness. It does this by producing antibodies—proteins in blood that recognize specific antigens and combine with them. The process brings on symptoms we're all familiar with, such as fever, fatigue, and inflammation.

In the case of an autoimmune disease, the immune system directs its efforts toward otherwise healthy tissues. When the thyroid becomes the focus of such a misguided attack, one of two things can happen:

  • The inflammation that results leads to chronic damage that impairs the thyroid's ability to produce adequate amounts of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism).
  • The mistakenly-produced antibodies stimulate the thyroid to produce too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism).

Scientists aren't certain why a person's immune system would seem to turn against itself in this way. It's thought that heredity may play a role for many people who develop autoimmune diseases, which in addition to Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and multiple sclerosis, among others.

Another theory, according to the Mayo Clinic, is that infection by a virus or bacterium triggers the response. This means, of course, that it's important to do all you can to keep your immune system in peak working order if you're just genetically predisposed to autoimmune thyroid disease, but haven't been diagnosed.

Smart Strategies for Immune System Health

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."

Even so, 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 simple and straightforward strategies will go a long way toward making sure your immune system is as supported as possible.

Follow a Healthy Diet

It's likely you've heard these tips for eating well, but they bear repeating—and following—especially in this context:

  • Eat as few processed foods as possible.
  • Steer clear of polyunsaturated vegetable oils and products made from them, including margarine. When in doubt, olive oil is a healthy fat for cooking and to use in salad dressings.
  • 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 of 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.
  • Limit saturated fats and sugars to 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 and important relationship, particularly as it might (or might not) apply to preventing and treating specific diseases, such as autoimmune thyroid disease. However, it's safe to say that including foods that contain healthy bacteria, such as yogurt with live cultures and fermented foods like kombucha and kim chi (Korean pickled vegetables), may be helpful for the immune system.

Stay Active

Getting plenty of exercise certainly is essential to overall health. How physical activity might affect the immune system, in particular, isn't well-known. One hypothesis is that the improvement in blood circulation that results from regular exercise 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 even if this is proven to be the case, it will likely only affect elite athletes.

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. Older folks often need a little less (between seven and eight hours).

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 do suspect that chronic stress may take a toll on the immune system over time. For this reason, if you're under ongoing tension, say, 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.

A Word About 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)
  • Royal Camu-Camu and Royal Cat's Claw (made from Amazonian rainforest herbs thought to combat viruses and build an immune response)
  • Organic germanium
  • Sterols and sterolin products
  • Other immune-enhancing herbs such as olive leaf extract

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 doctor.

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