5 Causes of Graves’ Disease and 5 Solutions for It
It is estimated that between 3 and 10 million people are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism or an overactive thyroid.1 The most common form of hyperthyroidism is the autoimmune condition known as Graves’ disease.
I was diagnosed with Graves’ during my second year of medical school, and in my book, The Autoimmune Solution, I share my personal experience with Graves’ disease and how conventional medicine failed me. I never want anyone to go through what I went through, so it is my mission to empower as many people as I can with the information they need to use a healthier and more natural way to recover from Graves’ and other forms of hyperthyroidism.
What is Graves’ Disease?
Your thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck, produces hormones to help regulate body temperature, heart rate, growth, energy production, and brain health. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. When thyroid hormones are too high, energy metabolism will speed up, causing the body to burn through nutrients too quickly. This can result in malnutrition and chronic illness. While I combatted Graves’ I ate everything in sight and went from a size 4 to a size 0 in a matter of months.
The thyroid can become overactive for many reasons, yet it is commonly a result of the autoimmune condition Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease accounts for roughly 60-80% of all hyperthyroid cases.2 Normally, thyroid function is regulated by the pituitary gland, a tiny gland responsible for secreting TSH, which signals the thyroid to produce thyroid hormones T3 and T4. In Graves’ disease, an antibody known as thyrotropin receptor antibody (TRAb) can mimic pituitary hormones and completely override the system, inducing an overactive thyroid. You can also develop Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO) antibodies or Antithyroglobulin antibodies. I only had antibodies to TPO, which I frequently saw in my clinic as well.
Two other forms of hyperthyroidism which are not autoimmune conditions are known as toxic multinodular goiter and toxic adenoma. Toxic multinodular goiter involves the growth of independently functioning nodules on the thyroid gland itself. These nodules are able to stimulate the thyroid without the use of TSH, creating havoc in your thyroid hormone process, and provoking an overactive thyroid.
Toxic adenoma is a benign tumor consisting of thyroid follicular cells, which produce excessive amounts of T3 and/or T4. The excess thyroid hormones produced by toxic adenomas can suppress the function of remaining healthy thyroid tissue, leading to hyperthyroidism.
Graves’ Disease Symptoms
- Hot flashes, sweating
- Unintentional weight loss
- Frequent stools, loose stool or diarrhea
- Difficulty sleeping and insomnia
- Anxiety, irritability, or constant fatigue
- Elevated heart rate
- Changes in menstrual cycles
- Reduced libido
- Bulging eyes
- Thick red skin on shins or feet
- Increased appetite
- Hand tremors
- Muscle weakness
How is Graves’ Disease Diagnosed?
1. Blood testing your thyroid hormone levels is the first step. In hyperthyroidism, the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) will be very low and the Free T4 and Free T3 will be elevated. In autoimmune conditions, you will see elevated levels of antibodies as well.
2. Radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) is the next step in diagnosing a thyroid imbalance. An RAIU using a small dose of I-131 will determine how much iodine the thyroid takes up. A high iodine uptake is indicative of Graves’ disease. This test can be helpful in ruling out other possible causes of an overactive thyroid.
3. Ultrasound (US) of the thyroid is a helpful step to look at nodules on the thyroid. Your doctor may request for you to have a fine needle biopsy to confirm that the nodules are not cancerous.
The Roots of Hyperthyroidism
Gluten is a huge concern for many people because it has been hybridized and modified, and it’s in everything! Worst of all, gluten can wreak havoc on your gut and set you up for a leaky gut. Once the gut is leaky, gluten can get into your bloodstream and confuse your immune system. The building blocks of gluten share a similar molecular structure with those of your thyroid gland, so the immune system can mistakenly attack your own cells in a process known as molecular mimicry.
2. Leaky gut
In order to absorb nutrients, the gut is somewhat permeable to very small molecules. Many things including gluten, infections, medications, and stress can damage the gut, allowing toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles among other things to enter directly into your bloodstream. Leaky gut is the gateway for infections, toxins, and inflammatory food particles to trigger the systemic inflammation that leads to autoimmunity. You must first repair your gut before you can reverse uncomfortable symptoms.
Mercury is a heavy metal capable of altering or damaging the cells of various bodily tissues. Your immune system can mistake damaged cells for foreign invaders and begin attacking your organs. Studies show that individuals with higher mercury exposure have an increased risk of developing autoimmune thyroid disease.3
Infections such as the herpes family of viruses (HSV) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) have been implicated as a potential cause of autoimmune thyroid disease through inflammation and molecular mimicry.4,5
Iodine status is a bit controversial. It seems that too little iodine can cause goiter and hypothyroidism and too much can cause hyperthyroidism. When the body detects an increased availability of iodine, this can trigger the thyroid to produce more thyroid hormone. If someone with a relatively low intake of iodine suddenly consumes a very iodine-rich diet, then over time that individual can produce an excessive amount of thyroid hormone, resulting in an overactive thyroid.
Conventional Treatment for Graves’ Disease
Conventional medicine only focuses on treating symptoms, not on getting to the root cause of the disease. Medications, radiation, and surgery only treat the overactive thyroid gland in hopes of reducing symptoms of the disease. In order to truly address the condition and repair your thyroid and immune system, I recommend a functional medicine approach to help find the underlying cause of the imbalance. I personally tried two out of three of these conventional treatments, and it’s my biggest regret in life. Please do not make the same mistake I did.
Propylthiouracil (PTU) is an antithyroid drug that interferes with the production of thyroid hormones. If you look at these medications on a search engine, you will see a long list of dangerous side effects, one being the destruction of your liver. I took PTU when I had Graves’, which devasted my liver. I was confined to bed rest until my liver healed. It nearly cost me my life and medical school.
Methimazole is another antithyroid drug administered for hyperthyroidism. This drug can actually result in hypothyroidism, requiring the careful monitoring of TSH and Free T4 levels. Side effects include rash, hair loss, vertigo, jaundice, aplastic anemia, lupus-like syndrome, and hepatitis.
This approach uses a large dose of radioactive iodine (I-131) to permanently destroy thyroid gland cells. After this procedure, you must use thyroid hormone medication for the rest of your life. After getting toxic hepatitis from the PTU, there was no choice other than to do this treatment myself. I truly believe that if I had discovered functional medicine sooner, I would have been able to reverse my condition and save my thyroid from destruction as I have done with numerous patients in my clinic.
When antithyroid medications and radioactive treatments are not viable options, doctors may recommend a partial thyroidectomy, which is when part of the thyroid gland is surgically removed. This is actually the option I recommend as a last resort if someone is not able to reverse their hyperthyroidism using a functional medicine approach.
The Functional Medicine Approach to Graves’ Disease
The key to reversing Graves’ disease is getting to the root of what triggered your hyperthyroidism in the first place and addressing the underlying causes head-on, rather than just treating the symptoms or resorting to harsh measures. I cover exactly how to do to this in my book, The Thyroid Connection, using The Myers Way® 28-day plan. I outline the basics of this plan below.
1. Remove Gluten from Your Diet
I recommend that all of my patients remove gluten from their diets because it’s an inflammatory food. For my patients with autoimmune diseases, such as Graves’ or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, I highly recommend removing all grains and legumes from their diet as well. These foods contain proteins known as lectins, which act as a natural pesticide for crops and can wreak havoc on the lining of your gut. Changing your diet is the first step in getting well. I created The Myers Way® Comprehensive Elimination Diet eCourse, which you can do at home as a foundation to begin recovering from a condition.
2. Repair Your Gut
Repairing your gut is essential to healing yourself, as I mentioned before. For this reason, I created The Myers Way® Guide to the Gut eCourse to help guide you through the exact same steps I use with my patients to repair a leaky gut. I also have many articles explaining my 4R approach to repairing the gut and gut-repairing supplements.
3. Test for Heavy Metals
We are exposed to heavy metals in a number of different ways: amalgams, fish consumption, and the environment. I recommend having your MTHFR genes tested and doing a DMPS chelation challenge test through a functional medicine practitioner to determine if mercury or other heavy metals are an issue for you.
4. Find and Treat Infections
Have your doctor test for infections such as HSV and EBV. Monolaurin from coconut oil has been shown to be a very helpful addition to treatments for both HSV and EBV. A lysine-rich diet is also an effective way to combat HSV infections.
5. Support Your Immune System
Supplements such as vitamin D, omega-3 fish oils, and glutathione are powerful immune modulators, which means that they can help support your immune system. Vitamin D has been shown to help regulate the immune system. Omega 3 fish oils help to fight inflammation in your entire body. Glutathione is your body’s most powerful antioxidant, which can help your body’s inflammatory response and improve detoxification pathways.
Recommended Supplements for Graves’ Disease
While you work to address the underlying cause of your thyroid disorder, you can ease your symptoms and support your thyroid with supplements and thyroid-calming herbs such as bugleweed, motherwort, and lemon balm. Additionally, a high-quality multivitamin is an excellent way to support your thyroid health.
The Myers Way® Multivitamin
Hyperthyroidism causes your body to go into overdrive, putting you at an even greater risk for developing certain nutritional deficiencies than most people. I specifically formulated The Myers Way® Multivitamin for my patients with thyroid dysfunction, including Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s. My multivitamin provides the optimal level of thyroid-specific nutrients such as selenium, zinc, and iodine to support thyroid health. Plus, the B vitamins and minerals included in The Myers Way® Multivitamin are in their activated forms to optimize detoxification and methylation, ideal for those with an MTHFR mutation.