Hashimoto's thyroiditis is the most common autoimmune disorder.
If you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, there is a high likelihood that you have Hashimoto's and don't even know it.
It's important to be tested for Hashimoto's if you have symptoms of low or high thyroid or both!
If you have an autoimmune disorder, you should also be tested for Hashimotos.
In this article, I will discuss the common symptoms associated with Hashimoto's thyroiditis - in the early stages, middle stages and late stages - and how to make the diagnosis by showing you what tests you will need to request from your doctor.
I discuss the best natural treatments for Hashimotos in this article.
Here we go...
Hashimoto's Thyroiditis (from now on I will refer to it as Hashimoto's) is an autoimmune disorder. In other words, something causes your immune system to go rogue and start attacking your thyroid gland.
It was first described by a Japanese physician, Dr. Hakaru Hashimoto, in 1912.
It is common in Japan because of their heavy fish consumption. Fish contain a lot of iodine, which when found in high amounts is a common cause of autoimmune thyroid disease.
It is the most common autoimmune disorder in the US and its incidence is increasing rapidly.
In fact, in my office I typically diagnose one to three new patients every week with Hashimoto's!
The next obvious question is - why?
Most physicians think that it is almost purely due to our genes. However, that is only part of the story.
In a study of identical twins with an autoimmune disorder, only 50% of their twins also had an autoimmune disorder.
While that shows a strong link to genetics, there is obviously something else at play as well or that percentage would be higher.
There appear to be several factors that contribute to the development of Hashimotos:
All of these factors may create a situation where the immune system attacks a part of your body (in this case, your thyroid) instead of just the foreign invaders that they are designed to attack.
Up to 10% of the US population has Hashimoto's, and it occurs more often the older we get.
It is much more common in women. In fact, 7 women are diagnosed for every 1 man that is diagnosed. Some experts estimate that it may be present in up to 20% of women!
It is more commonly seen around the times of puberty, pregnancy and menopause, which seems to show that hormone fluctuations may play a role in the development of Hashimotos.
If appears to be more common in Caucasians and Japanese individuals.
So what are the common symptoms of Hashimotos?
Hashimoto's is by far the most common cause of hypothyroidism, or low thyroid. In fact, some researchers believe up to 90% of hypothyroidism is due to Hashimoto's!
Hashimoto's causes hypothyroidism because the antibodies produced by our confused immune system cause inflammation in the thyroid cells. That inflammation will damage the cells and eventually destroy them.
2 factors cause the variation in symptoms in Hashimoto's:
The level of inflammation can wax and wane, which can cause the severity of symptoms to vary as well.
Think of an arthritic knee. At times the inflammation is not too bad so the symptoms are mild. At other times, the inflammation is increased which also worsens the symptoms.
At times, the inflammation can cause an increased release of thyroid hormone which can result in symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
That is because as the thyroid cells are being destroyed, stored hormones can be released into the blood stream, causing a toxic load of thyroid hormone.
Enough thyroid cells will eventually be destroyed that the thyroid will no longer be able to produce adequate thyroid hormone to keep up with the demands of the body. Hypothyroidism then develops.
By the time that most Hashimoto's patients are diagnosed, they have probably had the condition for years.
However, the thyroid was not damaged early in the disease to the point of causing enough symptoms to make the patient seek medical help. Or they may have blamed the symptoms on something else.
Early symptoms of Hashimoto's are typically mild symptoms. These include:
If you have any of these symptoms, it is important that you get your thyroid antibody levels checked.
At this point, if the inflammation is reversed, it is possible to avoid permanent damage to the thyroid gland.
Over the next several years, people with Hashimoto's can fluctuate between hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
This is because the thyroid antibodies will attach to the thyroid gland and cause increased inflammation.
This inflammation may trigger the thyroid to release a surge of thyroid hormone which will cause symptoms of hyperthyroidism. These symptoms can be even worse if the person is already on thyroid medication.
Symptoms that indicate an increased level of thyroid hormone include:
Not all Hashimoto's patients will have these episodes of hyperthyroidism.
Some folks just have a progressive decline in thyroid function and have classic symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Eventually, if the Hashimoto's isn't found and addressed, all thyroid stores will be depleted and hypothyroid symptoms will occur.
The typical symptoms of a patient with advanced Hashimoto's include:
I discuss a more extensive list of symptoms of hypothyroidism in my article found here.
Even in the advanced stages, patients can still have "flares" during which their symptoms are much worse.
These symptoms can include worsening fatigue, jitteriness, sudden weight gain, brain fog, and GI symptoms.
If this happens, it is important to see your doctor for further evaluation and labwork.
Your healthcare provider may also notice an enlarged thyroid gland on exam (called a goiter). The majority of goiters are caused by Hashimoto's.
In fact, people with Hashimoto's are 3 times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than people without Hashimoto's.
If your thyroid is enlarged, you need to see a doctor to get a definitive diagnosis. Enlargement can also be caused by other conditions, including thyroid cancer.
Hashimotos can be diagnosed in 3 ways:
The vast majority of patients are diagnosed with Hashimoto's by finding elevated levels of thyroid antibodies on blood testing.
I will occasionally discover an enlarged thyroid on physical exam, but that is usually only a handful of times per year.
Hashimoto's will not be diagnosed without a complete thyroid panel.
A TSH, which is typically the only thyroid test ordered by most conventional doctors, will not diagnose autoimmune thyroid disease. The TSH typically will not become permanently elevated until the Hashimoto's has become advanced.
90% of Hashimoto's patients have elevated TPO antibodies. 80% have elevated thyroglobulin antibodies.
If either the TPO or thyroglobulin antibodies are >35 ng/ml, the diagnosis of Hashimoto's can be made.
A small percentage of Hashimoto's patients will have normal antibody levels, but their ultrasound will be abnormal or their thyroid biopsy will show evidence of the disease.
It is also recommended that all patients with elevated thyroid antibodies should have a thyroid ultrasound. If it is normal, the ultrasound should be checked every 2 years. If it shows evidence that the thyroid is growing, a repeat ultrasound should be performed every 6 months.
It is also a good idea to monitor the level of inflammation in your body if you have Hashimoto's.
Inflammation itself can worsen thyroid function by reducing T4 to T3 conversion.
It can also worsen insulin resistance and adrenal dysfunction.
All of these issues can lead to worsening fatigue, weight gain, and other symptoms that can worsen the hypothyroid symptoms that are already present.
Inflammation can be evaluated by checking the following lab tests:
If these levels are elevated, it is a sign that inflammation is increased in the body and your thyroid gland may be under assault and being damaged.
One study showed that up to 5% of patients with Hashimoto's have celiac disease. Another study showed up to 50% of celiac patients have Hashimoto's.
Therefore, it is recommended that all patients who are diagnosed with Hashimoto's should be tested for celiac disease.
Statistically, if a patient has an autoimmune disorder such as Hashimoto's, they have a higher risk of having a second autoimmune disorder. These include Type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, Addison's disease, and others.
Many Hashimoto's patients may be misdiagnosed with mood conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
One study also showed that people with these conditions have a higher prevalence of anti-thyroid antibodies.
Because of this, any person with anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders should have a complete thyroid panel checked.
Instead of taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications, they may need their thyroid issue treated!
Most conventional doctors are taught that Hashimoto's is an irreversible, inevitable disease that will eventually kill the thyroid.
They are taught that patients should just have periodic thyroid levels checked and thyroid medication should be prescribed once the levels are abnormal and the patient becomes hypothyroid.
They don't believe anything else can be done.
Of note, one study showed that up to 20% of patients with Hashimoto's can have spontaneous recovery of their thyroid function.
Just like in other autoimmune diseases, I believe (and the literature supports this belief), that the course of Hashimoto's can be slowed or even reversed with proper lifestyle interventions.
I will discuss many of those interventions in my treatment article found here.
Hypothyroidism does not have to be inevitable in Hashimoto's!
Hashimoto's thyroiditis is the most common autoimmune disorder.
90% of all hypothyroidism may be due to Hashimotos.
Early in Hashimoto's, the symptoms may be mild and not recodgnized as being due to a thyroid issue.
In some patients, their symptoms may vacillate between hypothyroid and hyperthyroid because of fluctuations in inflammation levels.
If Hashmoto's has been present for years, it will eventually destroy the thyroid gland which will cause typical symptoms of hypothyroidism. Thyroid medication will be required.
Hashimotos is typically diagnosed by having a TPO antibody and/or thyroglobulin antibody level >35, or with a positive thyroid ultrasound or biopsy.
Inflammatory markers should also be tested.
All patients that are diagnosed with Hashimotos should have a thyroid ultrasound and be tested for celiac disease.
With appropriate lifestyle interventions, the progression of Hashimoto's can be slowed or even reversed.
Now it's your turn...
Have you been diagnosed with Hashimotos?
What symptoms did it cause in you?
Leave your comments below.
Dr. Whelchel is a family physician who specializes in functional medicine, especially hormone optimization. He has over 20 years experience in private practice managing patients with various medical issues. His passion is helping patients reach their full potential of wellness and quality of life. He grew up in the Texas Panhandle where he currently lives. He is married and has 3 awesome children.