Healthy gut, healthy thyroid, you say? How can part of the endocrine system be related to part of the digestive system? The thyroid gland to the intestinal tract? Are the two systems not totally different?
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck. It produces hormones that regulate your body’s energy use, along with many other important functions your body performs.
As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid gland makes and stores hormones that help regulate the body’s metabolism in the form of blood pressure, blood temperature, and heart rate.
When your thyroid hormone production drops, your body processes slow down and change. This underactivity is called hypothyroidism, and it can significantly affect your body.
Untreated thyroid disease puts patients at risk for other ailments, such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and infertility.
What we like to call the gut is a cute name for our gastrointestinal tract, which is a massive internal organ system responsible for turning the food you eat into nutrients, giving those nutrients to the body to use for energy, and expelling any leftover waste. The mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines are all part of this system.
Our amazing human bodies work synergistically. That is, everything is connected. So, while the gastrointestinal tract is responsible for complete digestion of food into energy, the thyroid regulates the speed at which your body uses this energy.
The biggest connection between the tiny thyroid gland and the massive digestive system is the complex immune system.
Research suggests that 70% of our immune system (our body’s defense system) resides in our gut, so it’s important to keep her healthy!
We know that nearly all adult cases of hypothyroidism in the US are due to an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s disease. Alternatively, hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, is often caused by Graves’ disease, another thyroid autoimmune condition.
For an autoimmune condition (including Hashimoto’s or Graves’), not only is it important to strengthen the immune system with a diet rich in fruits & veggies, regular movement, and proper sleep hygiene, but also to address intestinal permeability (colloquially known as leaky gut).
Intestinal inflammation and/or genetic predisposition can lead to the weakening of “tight junctions” in your intestines. Normally, healthy tight junctions create a watertight seal between two adjacent cells with the purpose of keeping liquid from escaping. When microorganisms escape from these tight junctions and get into your bloodstream, your immune system attacks them thinking they are foreign invaders.
Interestingly, leaked gluten in the bloodstream closely resembles the thyroid hormone, which is believed to be part of the reason for the autoimmune attack of the thyroid gland in Hashimoto’s disease.
Many experts think that leaky gut could be one factor that predisposes a person to an autoimmune condition. The theory, then, based on preliminary research, is that if we are able to reduce intestinal permeability, autoimmune disease might be prevented and overall health improved.
Stomach acid typically helps to make sure that enough nutrients are absorbed from the food that we eat. Those with Hashimoto’s Disease commonly suffer from low stomach acid, which can often cause fatigue that can exacerbate thyroid symptoms.
In addition, 10-40% of those with Hashimoto’s also have some form of a gastric disorder that affects the stomach.
When considering treatment plans, restoring stomach acid levels with the help of food and supplements may be one way to improve energy and overall health.
No one wants undigested food particles hitching a ride in their bloodstream, so how do you prevent (or reverse) this intestinal permeability?
In the world of functional medicine, we like to follow the 4R program:
Of course, when determining a prevention or treatment plan that’s right for you, it’s best to work with a qualified healthcare professional who can offer personalized and relevant care based on your symptoms and history.
Unaddressed digestive concerns can stop you from feeling like your best self, and often make hypothyroid symptoms even worse. Digestive concerns are also easy to ignore, yet should be put at the forefront for thyroid health. Tackle this one foundation to proper thyroid health, and you will be one step closer to feeling more energized!
Please note: this blog article is not a substitute for medical advice nor nutritional counseling. Speak to your doctor before making any changes to your health or supplement regimen.
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Mori K, Nakagawa Y, Ozaki H. Does the Gut Microbiota Trigger Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis? Discovery Medicine. 2012;14(78):321-326. http://www.discoverymedicine.com/Kouki-Mori/2012/11/27/does-the-gut-microbiota-trigger-hashimotos-thyroiditis/. Accessed June 28, 2019.
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