Category: Autoimmune Disorders
Thyroid Autoimmune Disease: Could Asbestos be a Factor?
One of the most mysterious and hard-to-treat class of illnesses, autoimmune disorders occur when the body's illness defense system begins to attack itself. For reasons that remain largely unclear, the immune system goes haywire, raising its defenses against its own organs and tissues.
Diagnoses of thyroid autoimmune disorders have increased in recent years. In diseases like Graves disease and Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the body fails to recognize the thyroid as one of its own glands, and instead begins to attack it as if it were a foreign intruder. As result of this onslaught from the immune system, the thyroid's ability to function properly is impaired. The result is either a sluggish or hyperactive thyroid. This, in turn, can cause a whole host of related health problems.
The mystery of what causes autoimmune disorders has puzzled doctors and scientists for centuries. What prompts the body to fail to recognize its own tissues or organs? Over the last few decades, dozens of theories explaining this strange phenomenon have been developed and tested. However, no conclusive answer has yet been found.
One of the most plausible theories that have been advanced to explain autoimmune disorders contends that environmental factors may interfere with the body's ability to recognize its own tissues and organs. According to this theory, environmental pollutants and contaminants may play a major role in autoimmune disorders. One of the chief suspected culprits is asbestos, a compound long used for insulation in building and construction.
Some recent research appears to support this account. This week, we'll review the results of a study that explored a possible connection between asbestos, autoimmune disorders, and thyroid health.
The study, which may prove to be one of the most significant breakthroughs in the decades-long quest to uncover the origins of autoimmune disorders, was published in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed health journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.
Conducted by researchers at the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Montana, the study involved in-depth assessment and health profiling of approximately 50 residents in the community of Libby, Montana. As the result of years of vermiculite mining, manufacturing, storage, and distribution, the town is so severely contaminated with asbestos that is received official designation as a federal Superfund site in 2002.
The thorough health assessments that were performed on the 50+ Libby residents who participated in the study were consistent with many of the known problems that are linked to long-term asbestos exposure. For example, over 75% of the study's participants displayed evidence of asbestos-related lung problems and respiratory disorders.
However, in addition to the long-known health problems associated with asbestos exposure, the researchers also identified a number of lesser-known risks. The most significant finding was that over 25% of the asbestos-exposed participants had elevated levels of antinuclear antibodies in their bloodstreams. These antibodies are often found in people who suffer from autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, thyroid autoimmune disorders, and many others.
The longer an individual had been exposed to environmental asbestos, the higher the level of bloodstream antinuclear antibodies they were likely to have. It was also found that people with more severe asbestos-related lung problems had significantly higher rates of the antinuclear antibodies in their bloodstream.
The researchers acknowledged that these findings represented just one small part of the larger autoimmunity puzzle that has been confounding researchers for years. However, the potentially groundbreaking implications of the incontestable link between asbestos exposure and autoimmunity risks cannot be ignored. Still, additional studies are necessary in order to confirm and expand upon these results.
The next phase of the study, which will continue to be coordinated through the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Montana, will seek to measure the rate of autoimmune diseases among Libby residents who have a history of asbestos exposure. The findings drawn from the ongoing research will help clarify whether a causal relationship between asbestos exposure and autoimmunity does, in fact, exist.
If you're concerned about the way that asbestos exposure could impact your thyroid function and your overall health, talk to your doctor for a personalized risk assessment. Please be sure to check back each week for more of the thyroid health news you need.
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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