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What is an Auto Immune Thyroid Disease (AITD) and how can TCM help?

15 Feb 2024

By: Lee Hui Min

What is an Auto Immune Thyroid Disease (AITD)?

Autoimmune thyroid disease, also known as autoimmune thyroiditis or autoimmune thyroid disorder, refers to a group of conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, leading to inflammation and potentially affecting its function. The two main types of autoimmune thyroid disease are:

  1. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: This is the most common form of autoimmune thyroid disease. In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the immune system produces antibodies that attack the thyroid gland, leading to chronic inflammation and eventual destruction of thyroid tissue. As a result, the thyroid gland becomes unable to produce enough thyroid hormones, leading to hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).

  2. Graves’ disease: In Graves’ disease, the immune system produces antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland to produce excessive amounts of thyroid hormones. This leads to hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) and can cause symptoms such as weight loss, rapid heartbeat, tremors, and anxiety.

  3. Autoimmune thyroid disease can have various symptoms depending on whether it causes hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Treatment typically involves managing the symptoms and may include medications to regulate thyroid hormone levels, such as thyroid hormone replacement therapy for hypothyroidism or medications to reduce thyroid hormone production for hyperthyroidism. In some cases, surgery or radioactive iodine therapy may be recommended to treat severe cases of hyperthyroidism.

AITD and Fertility

Autoimmune thyroid disease, particularly when it leads to thyroid dysfunction such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, can potentially affect fertility in both men and women. In women, hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism can disrupt ovulation and menstrual cycles, leading to irregular or absent periods (amenorrhea) and thus affecting fertility. Thyroid hormones play a crucial role in regulating the menstrual cycle, and low levels or high levels of thyroid hormones can interfere with normal ovulation. In men, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can affect sperm production and quality, leading to reduced fertility. Autoimmune thyroid disease itself, regardless of thyroid hormone levels, has been associated with an increased risk of fertility issues. Autoimmune disorders can cause inflammation and immune system dysfunction, which may affect reproductive organs and processes.

How is AITD managed?

Autoimmune thyroid disease, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease, is typically managed through a combination of western medication, lifestyle modifications, and, in some cases, surgical interventions or radioactive iodine therapy. Treatment aims to alleviate symptoms, regulate thyroid hormone levels, and minimize autoimmune-related inflammation. The specific approach to treatment depends on the type and severity of the autoimmune thyroid disease. 

A balanced diet rich in nutrients, including iodine and selenium, is important for thyroid health. Some individuals with autoimmune thyroid disease may benefit from dietary modifications, such as avoiding excessive iodine intake or following a gluten-free diet if they have coexisting autoimmune conditions like celiac disease. Regular exercise and stress management techniques can help support overall health and may positively impact thyroid function. 

Individuals with autoimmune thyroid disease require regular monitoring of thyroid hormone levels and thyroid antibodies to assess treatment response and adjust medication dosages as needed. Follow-up appointments with healthcare providers, including endocrinologists, are essential for ongoing management and optimization of treatment strategies.

What is TCM perspective on AITD?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers a unique perspective on autoimmune thyroid disease, viewing it as a manifestation of imbalances within the body’s energy systems rather than solely as a malfunction of the thyroid gland itself. In TCM theory, autoimmune thyroid disease is often associated with patterns of disharmony involving multiple organ systems and energetic imbalances. Here are some key aspects of the TCM perspective on autoimmune thyroid disease:

Energetic Imbalances: TCM views autoimmune thyroid disease as a result of disruptions in the flow of Qi (vital energy) and Blood, as well as imbalances between Yin and Yang energies within the body. These imbalances can affect the proper functioning of the thyroid gland and contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions.

Organ Systems Involved: According to TCM, the health of the thyroid gland is closely connected to the functioning of other organ systems, including the Spleen, Kidney, Liver, and Heart. Imbalances in these organ systems can contribute to the development or exacerbation of autoimmune thyroid disease.

Patterns of Disharmony: TCM practitioners diagnose autoimmune thyroid disease based on patterns of disharmony, which may include:

Spleen Qi Deficiency: Weakness or dysfunction of the Spleen, which may lead to poor digestion, fatigue, and accumulation of Dampness in the body.

Kidney Yin Deficiency: Insufficiency of Kidney Yin, which may manifest as heat symptoms, night sweats, and dryness in the body.

Liver Qi Stagnation: Impaired flow of Liver Qi, which can result in emotional imbalances, stress, and stagnant energy in the body.

Heart and Kidney Yang Deficiency: Weakness or depletion of Heart and Kidney Yang energies, leading to cold intolerance, fatigue, and fluid retention.

How can TCM help manage AITD?

The management of autoimmune thyroid disease through TCM aims to rebalance the body’s energies and address the underlying patterns of disharmony. Treatment modalities may include:

Acupuncture: Acupuncture points are selected to stimulate Qi flow and promote balance within the body’s energy systems.

Herbal Medicine: Chinese herbal formulas are prescribed to tonify deficient energies, clear heat, resolve stagnation, and harmonize Yin and Yang.

Dietary Therapy: Recommendations for dietary modifications may be provided to support digestion, nourish Yin, and avoid foods that exacerbate Dampness or heat.

Lifestyle Recommendations: TCM often emphasizes lifestyle factors such as stress management, adequate rest, and regular exercise to support overall health and balance.

Individualized Treatment: TCM treatment is highly individualized, with practitioners tailoring therapy to address each patient’s unique pattern of disharmony and constitution.

Conclusion

It’s important to note that while TCM can offer complementary approaches to managing autoimmune thyroid disease, it should not replace conventional medical care. Individuals with autoimmune thyroid disease should work with qualified healthcare providers, including TCM practitioners and conventional medical doctors, to develop comprehensive treatment plans that address their specific needs.