I invited Michelle Bickford of Thyroid Change to share her thoughts and research she has found on the connection between celiac disease and autoimmune thyroid diseases. If you haven’t read her article on PCOS and Hashimotos then you will want to here. If you are concerned about your thyroid health, please visit thyroidchange.org for lots of great info.
GUEST POST By Michelle T. Bickford
Celiac Disease (CD) is an autoimmune disease, which is triggered by eating gluten and over time, damages the small intestine making it unable to absorb nutrients efficiently (Symptoms).[i] CD is associated with other autoimmune diseases such as insulin dependent diabetes, Sjogren’s syndrome, Addison’s disease and thyroid diseases.[ii] It is believed that exposure to gluten in a CD patient can trigger the onset of these related diseases. Furthering the relationship, treatment for CD can improve the symptoms from these triggered diseases.[iii] In 1999, Italian researchers actually went so far as to say that all autoimmune thyroid patients should be screened for celiac disease due to its prevalence within the autoimmune thyroid community that they studied. (Just a note: this prevalence was not found in patients affected with non-autoimmune thyroid disorders)[iv] The two most common autoimmune thyroid diseases (AITD) are Graves’ disease, and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.[v]
Graves’ disease (GD) is an autoimmune disease, which causes an overstimulation of the TSH receptor, and results in an overabundance of thyroid hormones (Symptoms). The excess creates a whole host of symptoms for the GD patient who then becomes hyperthyroid. The treatment for hyperthyroidism is to take anti-thyroid drugs, radioactive iodine or remove the thyroid gland completely. Each choice can render the GD patient hypothyroid, which then requires hormone replacement therapy for life.[vi]
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (also known as Hashimoto’s disease, chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis and simply, Hashi) is an autoimmune disease, which causes your body to attack its own thyroid gland (Symptoms). Similar to the small intestine of a CD patient, the thyroid of a Hashi patient becomes increasingly inflamed and unable to function properly. Hashi is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.[vii] The treatment for the resulting hypothyroidism is detailed in this article regarding the prevalence of this disease in the PCOS population. Mainstream medical practitioners only treat the resulting hypothyroidism, however, when you examine alternate medical professionals, you can see where there is once again a cross over with AITD and CD.
Functional and Integrative physicians believe there is a deeper connection between all autoimmune diseases, and gluten. As we discussed earlier, autoimmune diseases are related on the genetic level, and due to environmental exposures, they activate and attack. The study of celiac disease first examined specific genetic markers, and a specific environmental trigger, gluten. Through the examination of this interaction, they discovered that the stomach or gut was a factor. You need not only an environmental trigger and a genetic predisposition, but need a way for these to interact. So, the gluten creates irritation in the stomach or gut, which causes “leaky gut” (intestinal permeability). Leaky gut is a term that describes when an irritant makes it past the cellular wall of the stomach. This leakage of foreign substance from the gut into the body activates the immune system and triggers an autoimmune response. Gluten is a believed to be an irritant and trigger of leaky gut and a threat to others beyond CD patients. Individuals who suffer symptoms due to gluten exposure are called “gluten intolerant.” A person with intolerance suffers many symptoms that are triggered by gluten exposure however there is less inflammation and damage to the small intestine as seen with CD.[viii] This intolerance is not necessarily picked up in testing, but does have an impact on intestinal permeability.
Now that you understand the term “leaky gut,” there is an even deeper connection between autoimmune thyroid disease and celiac disease due to the phenomena. We have already identified that many CD patients have autoimmune thyroid disease and vice versa. Well, these patients who have gluten intolerance and autoimmune thyroid disease and NOT on a gluten free diet are theoretically: 1) irritating their gut with gluten 2) creating irritation and a leaky gut 3) gluten molecule exits the stomach into the body. Guess what? The thyroid molecule and the gluten molecule are similar, similar enough to set off an autoimmune reaction on the thyroid. Gluten may just perpetuate the destruction of the thyroid gland in Hashi or the overstimulation in Graves’.[ix]
So, there you have it. Celiac disease and autoimmune thyroid disease are connected. Those of us with AITD should be screened for CD and vice versa. Even better, since there is no laboratory test for gluten intolerance, and it has a direct impact on those of us with autoimmune thyroid disease, all Hashi’s and Graves’ patients should consider giving up gluten with our CD sisters and brothers. It can be difficult to make such a major change in your diet. Go 100% gluten free for one week. If that doesn’t motivate you to stay gluten free, then at least you gave it a whirl. On the other hand, you may never doubt the connection again.
Michelle T. Bickford is NOT a doctor. She is a Hashimoto’s thyroiditis patient, a thyroid patient advocate, and Co-Founder of ThyroidChange (www.thyroidchange.org). Please use this information to have an educated discussion with your physician regarding your health.