According to the American Thyroid Association, 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. Up to 60% of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition. The thyroid gland is involved in an all organ systems; therefore, a compromised thyroid gland can lead to multiple health issues. Read more about signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism here.
The incidence of thyroid cancer has risen from 2% to 5% per decade since the 1980s. If this trend continues, thyroid cancer may become the fourth most common cancer in the United States by 2030. It is already the fastest growing cancer in women. Research continues to confirm that environmental factors have a profound influence on thyroid health, thus explaining this alarming increase in prevalence.
Eliminating specific environmental factors in one’s life may be critical to eliminating symptoms associated with thyroid disease. This is especially important for individuals with autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s disease. Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your thyroid. Pin pointing a “root cause” as to why your immune system is attacking itself is critical in the management of Hashimoto’s disease.
Top 3 environmental “root causes” of hypothyroidism/Hashimoto’s disease:
1. YOUR DIET
A well-balanced diet is essential to a well-functioning thyroid. Although diet changes alone will not cure hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s, food intolerances or nutrient deficiencies that go undiagnosed may continue to exacerbate your symptoms, as well as cause additional health issues. Research suggests that certain foods cause inflammation and a “leaky gut” which has been identified as a root cause of most autoimmune diseases.
Gluten is a protein found in rye, barley and wheat. It is a common cause of thyroid dysfunction because it frequently triggers autoimmune responses that are responsible for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Gluten can also damage your small intestine causing leaky gut syndrome. This causes unabsorbed food particles to enter the bloodstream, and as a result your body’s immune system attacks these foreign particles. Your body then produces antibodies against these particles/gluten. Research has identified that the protein structure of gluten and thyroid tissue are similar. Therefore, when the body’s immune system identifies gluten, it haphazardly begins to attack the thyroid gland, thus resulting in thyroid disease.
By eliminating gluten, you may directly decrease your body’s malfunctioning gut and immune response, as well indirectly affect improve the thyroid’s function by reducing inflammation and increasing absorption of vital nutrients for the thyroid to function.
Like gluten, dairy sensitivity is extremely common in people with autoimmune and thyroid diseases. The protein in dairy called casein has been found to increase inflammation in the thyroid gland and digestive tract. This limits your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and heal itself. Dairy can also promote the growth of harmful microbes in your digestive tract such as bad bacteria, yeast, and fungi.
Excess consumption of sugar causes excess inflammation in your body. Like gluten and dairy, sugar can also compromise gut lining causing “leaky gut syndrome,” which is connected to the development of autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s. Additionally, sugar causes insulin spikes and overtime can cause insulin resistance and potentially type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Sugary food also affects absorption of vital vitamins that can in turn cause other diseases.
2. STRESS and FATIGUE
Chronic Stress can cause hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s disease. Research and many personal stories reveal that many individuals can pin point the onset of their symptoms to a specific difficult/stressful life event. When you experience stress, a signal is sent from your pituitary gland to your adrenal glands (small glands on top of your kidneys that produce sex hormones and hormones that respond to stress) to release stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. In the case of chronic stress, your adrenals are working overtime due to stressful event after stressful event. The elevated cortisol levels have a negative impact on thyroid function, immunity, hormonal balance, etc. Adrenal fatigue is often found alongside thyroid disease.
Interestingly, many individuals manage stress with exercise which could be worsening their symptoms. Exercise is critical for our health and wellness, but in the presence of adrenal fatigue, high intensity or long duration workouts may continue to raise cortisol to levels that exhaust the adrenals and thus exacerbate disease states and symptoms. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I highly recommend individually-tailored exercise programs that take a person’s entire medical and functional profile into consideration. Exercise should never hinder our health and wellness.
3. ENVIRONMENTAL CHEMICALS/TOXINS
Environmental toxins play a role in thyroid disease and the development of autoimmune disease. Toxins in the air and the environment are possibly to blame for irritating an autoimmune response, further causing inflammation in the body.
Factors such as radiation exposure, increased iodine intake, selenium, vitamin D deficiency, cigarette smoke, heavy metals, and chemical contaminants found in daily products can disrupt thyroid function.
Environmental toxins are obviously everywhere and difficult to avoid. Some would argue that exposure to these chemicals at a low dose is safe. However, research supports that low doses of many chemicals can be very harmful.
Six harmful chemicals that are found in products we use daily:
Chemicals used to prevent contamination-an antibacterial agents in cosmetics and personal care products or fragrance in cosmetics, body washes, antibacterial soaps, kitchenware, tissues, clothing and toys. Health implications: These chemicals are associated with altered reproductive and thyroid hormone levels. Read more about health implications linked to harmful chemicals found in cosmetics and personal care products here.
Found in food, chemical pesticides and fertilizer. Health implications: Multiple studies show the link between pesticide exposure and thyroid gland hormone production.
Found in food, although very rare in the developed world a dietary deficiency in iodine can cause hypothyroidism and enlargement of the thyroid “goiter.” Health Implications: Iodine is essential nutrient that we must obtain from our diet. If the body’s iodine levels fall hypothyroidism may develop, since iodine is essential to making thyroid hormone.
Found rocket fuel, air bags, fireworks, plastic packaging leading to contaminated food, etc. Health implications: Perchlorates prevent the production of thyroid hormone which can lead to hypothyroidism. A recent study shows significant increases in perchlorates contamination in food. According to the FDA, infants are consuming 34 percent more—and toddlers’ 23 percent more—perchlorate than they did in 2005.
Found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant clothing and carpeting, drinking water, food packaging and other consumer goods. Health Implications: Studies suggest increase risk of developing testicular, ovarian, kidney, prostate, bladder, and thyroid cancer. People with the highest 25% of PFOA concentrations (above 5.7ng/ml) were more than twice as likely to have thyroid disease than those with the lowest 50% of PFOA concentrations (below 4.0ng/ml).
Found in drinking water and tooth paste. Health Implications: Fluoride acts as an endocrine disruptor. It has also been proven to act as a trigger in inducing thyroid cell death, as well as lead to the development of thyroid inflammation and autoimmune thyroid disease like Hashimoto’s. In a study published in 2018, studying the impacts of drinking water on thyroid hormones reveals that TSH values are higher with a higher fluoride concentration in the drinking water, even for generally low fluoride concentrations.
*If you have been diagnosed with a thyroid disease or Hashimoto’s disease it is critical to carefully consider your environment in the treatment of your disease. Relying solely on medication management to improve your symptoms is just not enough.
What YOU CAN DO:
- Find a healthcare professional that will identify the root cause of your thyroid disease and treat your disease holistically: medication management, stress management, food pharmacology, hormonal health, gut health, and identifying/removing environmental toxins.
- Make mindful decision about your personal care products, food choices, use of plastic container/bottles, drinking water, medications, etc.
WiltshireJJ et al. Systematic review of trends in the incidence rates of thyroid cancer. Thyroid 2016;26:1541-52
Kheradpisheh Z, Mirzaei M, Mahvi AH, et al. Impact of Drinking Water Fluoride on Human Thyroid Hormones: A Case- Control Study. Scientific Reports. 2018; 8:2674. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-20696-4.
American Thyroid Association: https://www.thyroid.org/
American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/thyroid-cancer.html
Myers, A. The Toxin, Heavy Metal, and Thyroid connection. Accessed: https://www.amymyersmd.com/2015/07/the-toxin-heavy-metal-and-thyroid-connection/Neltner, T.FDA finds more perchlorate in more food, especially bologna, salami and rice cereal. http://blogs.edf.org/health/2017/01/09/fda-finds-more-perchlorate-in-more-food/