Hashimoto’s disease is a disorder that leads to damage of the thyroid, a small gland in the front of your neck. Once it takes enough damage, this butterfly-shaped organ can no longer produce enough thyroid hormones to support your body the way it needs to. It sounds pretty bad, but of course, this is a gluten-free blog–so what does a thyroid have to do with it?
It turns out; research is starting to show a relationship between gluten and Hashimoto’s disease. Let’s dive into this autoimmune disorder, how it seems related to gluten, and whether a gluten-free diet might be helpful if you have Hashimoto’s.
To start with, let’s establish what Hashimoto’s is. As mentioned above, it’s a disorder that damages your thyroid gland. However, unlike other types of thyroid problems, Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder. Essentially, your immune system becomes confused and starts to view your thyroid as an enemy, and if your immune system is programmed for one thing, it’s destroying enemies!
Unfortunately for you, your thyroid performs some pretty essential functions to keep your body running. When your immune system attacks it, it’s no longer able to create the hormones needed to regulate the way your body utilizes energy. In other words, it affects every organ in your body because a low level of thyroid slows down your energy consumption. This slowing can lead to a number of unpleasant side effects, including but not limited to chronic fatigue, weight gain, joint and muscle pain, constipation, depression, a slowed heart rate, and even uncomfortable swelling in the neck that eventually leads to an unsightly goiter.
Generally, Hashimoto’s is diagnosed via a blood test, as with many thyroid disorders. Your doctor will be looking to see if antithyroid antibodies are lurking in your body to indicate your immune system has gone rogue. Other tests may include an ultrasound to check for damage typical of Hashimoto’s and eliminate the possibility that your symptoms have been caused by nodules or other growths on or near the thyroid.
Now you know what Hashimoto’s is and why it matters to your health, but we still need to examine the relationship between gluten and this unpleasant autoimmune disease. It certainly seems the two affect each other directly; studies have shown that nearly 1/3 of patients with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity or Celiac itself also develop an autoimmune disorder–most commonly, that disorder is Hashimoto’s disease.
Beyond that, pilot studies are showing that adopting a gluten-free diet positively affects Hashimoto’s patients. Researchers have observed that gluten-free patients show reduced antithyroid antibodies in their blood after six months compared to those who continued on a traditional diet. This indicates that a gluten-free diet could potentially help preserve thyroid function in Hashimoto’s patients
The question remains as to why that is, both in your mind and in the research. One potential theory that shows a lot of promise is related to the concept of molecular mimicry. Molecular mimicry is when your body produces antibodies to things with similar peptide structures but are different on a molecular level.
Let’s break that down a bit further; a peptide structure is how something is shaped, while the molecular structure is how it’s built internally. Think of cars in a parking lot–your vehicle and the car across the row from it may both be small, white, and similar enough in appearance that you accidentally try to get into a stranger’s car. However, if the cars are different brands, the way they look and are structured internally is very different from each other.
With molecular mimicry, your immune system is essentially getting confused and going after the wrong car. Gluten and the thyroid have similar peptide structures. If you’re inclined to Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity or, more worrisome, have Celiac, your immune system is likely going to attack gluten when it appears. If your immune system then gets confused and goes for the wrong car–that is, starts mistaking your thyroid tissue for gluten—it will attack your thyroid with full force. And if your flawed, confused immune system is good at anything, it’s attacking stuff.
This information is all still in the research stages, of course, but it certainly seems like there is a strong relationship between gluten and Hashimoto’s disease. If there can be a definitive relationship established, mainly if that relationship involves molecular mimicry, then consuming gluten is likely to exacerbate existing Hashimoto’s-related thyroid damage.