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The Body Divided: Understanding Autoimmune Thyroid Disorders
Despite all of the significant medical advances that have been made in recent years, the mystery of autoimmune disorders continues to confound researchers. For reasons that are still largely unknown, autoimmune disorders cause the body literally to attack itself as if it were an invading germ, bacteria, or virus.
Although not all thyroid disorders follow this pattern, several of the most common thyroid-related illnesses have autoimmunological components. This week, we’ll take a deeper look at these puzzling illnesses and the way that they negatively impact the thyroid health of millions of men and women.
What are Autoimmune Disorders?
The immune system is a complex, sophisticated defense against outside invaders that could cause illness, injury, or disease. If our body is attacked by anything that might imperil our health, whether it’s the common cold or a splinter, the immune system springs into action. In most cases, the body fights back against germs with strategies such as fever and dispatching white blood cells and other helper cells.
However, for reasons that have not yet been fully explained, the immune systems of some individuals lose the ability to differentiate between the body’s cells and invading outside germs, bacteria, and viruses. In these cases, the body’s immune system may begin to attack its own cells, tissues, or organs, just as it would a cold virus or a bacterial infection. Some of the most common autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, scleroderma, Guillain-Barre syndrome, celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
What is not as widely known is that two of the most common causes of thyroid disorders -- namely, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease -- are also classified as autoimmune disorders.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder that is believed to be the leading cause of hypothyroidism in North America. Women between the ages of 45-65 are at greatest risk of developing thyroid disorders as a result of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
In this disorder, the immune system somehow loses the ability to recognize the thyroid as part of the body. Instead, the immune system begins to attack the thyroid as if it were an invading pathogen. As a result of this immunological response, the follicles on the thyroid gland sustain damage. This, in turn, impedes the thyroid gland’s ability to function at a normal rate, which in turn can result in a wide variety of other adverse health outcomes.
Although this disorder was first identified by Japanese physician Hakaru Hashimoto in 1912, its origins and causes remain mysterious. However, recent research has indicated that there may be a strong genetic component linked to a patient’s risk of developing Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Individuals with a family risk of chromosomal disorders such as Turner's syndrome, Down syndrome, and Klinefelter's syndrome are at greater risk of developing this thyroid disorder.
Although Graves’ disease is also an autoimmune thyroid disorder, it is linked to hyperthyroidism, rather than hypothyroidism. Because patients with Graves’ disease suffer from an unnaturally rapid rate of thyroid functioning, they also experience many of the classic symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism, including increased appetite, weight loss, anxiety, nervousness, hot flashes, excessive perspiration, tremors, palpitations, weakness, vision problems, digestive difficulties, and menstrual dysfunction.
In Graves’ disease, the immune’s system inappropriate response to the thyroid gland is different than the pattern which is associated with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Most significantly, it results in the inflammation and enlargement of the thyroid gland, which in turn prompts the thyroid to produce an excess amount of the hormone thyroxine. This hormonal surplus sets into motion the classic symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Although the precise causes of Graves’ disease have not yet been uncovered, researchers suspect that a genetic component may be involved. Like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, women appear to be at greater risk for developing the condition than their male counterparts. However, Graves’ disease is much rarer than Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, affecting only an estimated five out of every 10,000 men and women.
Because scientists still have not unraveled the mysterious origins, causes, and mechanisms of autoimmune thyroid disorder, no “cure” exists for either Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Graves’ disease. However, most of the thyroid-related symptoms associated with these disorders can be reduced or eliminated with a prescribed regimen geared to correct the rate of thyroid function. As a result, the overall prognosis for both disorders is good, although patients must be prepared to comply with a life-long course of treatment in order to keep symptoms at bay.
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