This is the fourth article in a multi-part series on the thyroid. Follow along as we explore how the thyroid works and how you can use The Myers Way® Four Pillars of Health to prevent, control, or reverse thyroid disease.
If you’ve been following along since Part I of this series, then you recall that the two most common thyroid diseases, Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease are actually autoimmune thyroid diseases. This week we’ll look at how viral and bacterial infections can trigger autoimmune thyroid disease and how you can support your immune system to prevent it from happening.
How Viral and Bacterial Infections Trigger Autoimmune Disease
No one knows exactly how infections trigger autoimmune diseases, but because our immune systems are so complicated and each infection is unique, it’s likely that there are multiple factors involved. Recent research has identified three leading theories that, when combined, explain the various links between infections and autoimmune disease. I will outline them here in relation to thyroid disease, and you can read more about them in my book, The Autoimmune Solution.
We covered this in Part II of the series in relation to gluten and the thyroid, and the same principle applies to infections. Essentially, the infection is so structurally similar to your thyroid tissues that your immune system goes to attack the infection and accidentally attacks your thyroid–this is basically a case of mistaken identity.
In this situation, a bacteria or virus invades your thyroid gland, and your immune system kicks in and sends immune cells to your thyroid to kill the infection. While these cells are attacking the bacteria or virus, it accidentally injures some of the surrounding thyroid tissue, creating inflammation. The inflammation signals more immune cells to the thyroid where they attack the thyroid gland.
You can think of this as the “hijacking theory” where an infection (usually a virus) hijacks your thyroid cells’ DNA to hide from your immune system. Your immune system is smart enough to detect the virus anyway, and attacks the virus and the thyroid cells it’s hiding in.
Five Infections Linked to Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
The whole herpes family is believed to be linked to autoimmune disease, but the herpes simplex type 1 and type 2 viruses (the ones that cause oral and genital herpes) have been studied most thoroughly in relation to autoimmunity. Like the rest of the viruses in the herpes family, the simplex viruses remain in your body for life once you’ve been infected. They’re not always active, but when they are it is theorized that they can trigger an autoimmune response in your thyroid via the hijacking effect or bystander activation. Stress can actually trigger the viruses’ transition from latent to active because your stress hormones suppress your immune system and viruses have evolved to activate in response to them (we will cover the connection between stress and the thyroid next week).
Epstein-Barr is the virus that causes mononucleosis and is part of the herpes family. Even if you weren’t teased in school for coming down with “the kissing disease,” you were very likely infected with it, since 95% of U.S. adults have picked it up by age 40, and it can present without any symptoms. Epstein-Barr has been linked to both Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease (I had mono as a teenager and it, along with my diet, toxin exposure, and stress likely contributed to my development of Graves’ disease). It has also been linked to other autoimmune diseases, most notably multiple sclerosis and lupus, but also chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and Sjögren’s.
Yersinia enterocolitica is a bacterium that is typically transmitted via undercooked pork, contaminated water, meat, or milk and causes symptoms similar to food poisoning. Most people overcome Yersinia infections on their own, but in some cases the bacteria takes up residence in the gut lining, continuing to multiply. Yersinia’s amino acid sequence is so similar to that of your thyroid receptors that your antibodies for it attack the thyroid as well, due to the molecular mimicry phenomenon. By measuring Yersinia antibodies in thyroid patients, researchers have linked the bacteria to both Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease.
Hepatitis C is a virus that attacks the liver and affects nearly three million Americans, many of whom do not know they are infected because 70-80% of people with Hepatitis C don’t experience any symptoms. Studies have found higher rates of autoimmune thyroid disease in chronic untreated Hepatitis C patients, indicating that the active form of the virus can cause an autoimmune reaction in the thyroid. Unfortunately, rates are also elevated among Hepatitis C patients who have received treatment because the primary treatment for Hepatitis C is a type of interferon (interferons are antivirals and immune regulators) that research has shown is an environmental trigger for autoimmune thyroid disease.
Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, is a bacteria that causes ulcers by attacking the stomach lining, allowing your stomach acid to seep in and eat away at your gut lining. Like many of the infections on this list, H. pylori is very common, but most people are asymptomatic and never realize they’ve been infected. In a study comparing H. pylori infection rates among groups of autoimmune and thyroid patients, 86% of autoimmune thyroid patients tested positive for H. pylori, compared to 40% of non-autoimmune thyroid patients, and 45% of non-thyroid autoimmune patients.
How to Treat Your Infections to Prevent Autoimmune Disease
The first step in preventing one of these infections from triggering autoimmune thyroid disease is to know your risk factors, so if you suspect you have one of the infections listed above, you should get tested. Herpes, Epstein-Barr, and Hepatitis C can all be found in blood tests through a regular lab, Yersinia is detected in a stool test, and H. pylori is identified using a breath test, stool test, or blood test (although the blood test will only tell you if you’ve had H. Pylori, not if it’s still active).
If you test positive for any of the infections, you’ll want to treat the underlying bacterial or viral infection while also supporting your immune system using The Myers Way® protocol.
Treating Viral Infections
If you have one of the viral infections associated with thyroid disease (herpes, Epstein-Barr, or Hepatitis C), I recommend treating it with coconut oil and humic acid. Coconut oil is high in medium-chain fatty acids and has been shown to act as a natural antiviral by enveloping infected cells and destroying their cell walls. Humic acid is very helpful for latent infections because once the virus reactivates it prevents the newly created viruses from entering your cells and reproducing, reducing your viral load over time.
Treating Bacterial Infections
The bacterial infections in the list (Yersinia and H. Pylori) should be treated with antibiotics–just remember to support your gut while you’re on them to maintain a healthy gut flora balance! We offer a complete antibiotic support wellness kit in our online store that will keep your gut healthy while you fight off the infection.
Supporting Your Immune System Using The Myers Way®
The best way to prevent an existing infection from triggering autoimmune thyroid disease is to support your immune system by following The Myers Way® Four Pillars. I cover each of them in the blog posts below, and you can read about them in-depth in my book.
Pillar II: Get Rid of Gluten, Grains, and Legumes
Pillar IV: Heal Your Infections and Relieve Your Stress
You can provide additional support for your immune system by maintaining your Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D works to prevent both infectious disease and autoimmune disease, which you can read about in this article.
For more information about the connection between infections and autoimmune disease, read my book, and be sure to check back next week when we’ll be covering the connection between stress and thyroid disease!
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For more information
I had the pleasure of speaking with Izabella Wentz about how infections contribute to autoimmunity. Together, we discuss the importance of testing for, identifying, and treating the infections that exacerbate symptoms of autoimmunity. If you want to test your thyroid levels at home, I recommend using LetsGetChecked home thyroid tests. You can do the test in the privacy of your own home and then discuss your results with your functional medicine doctor.