When first diagnosed with a condition called “Graves’ disease,” some people might start to worry. Does Graves’ lead you to an early grave? No, not usually. It’s named after an Irish doctor, Robert Graves, and while it is a disease, it’s a chronic condition, meaning you can live with it for decades. Sadly, autoimmune disorders and other causes of chronic illness are common these days and create a wide range of symptoms — some to the point of being debilitating. Graves’ disease, or Graves’ hyperthyroidism, causes the thyroid to increase its hormone production beyond normal levels. Mainstream medicine prefers to treat chronic conditions like Graves’ with medication, but is that addressing the problem? This article will give an overview of Graves’ disease and provide guidance on where to start.
What is Graves’ Disease?
The American Thyroid Association describes Graves’ disease as an autoimmune condition that causes antibodies to bind to receptor sites on the thyroid, causing the cells to work overtime. The result is a ramping up of thyroid hormone production. This general overactivity of the thyroid is known as hyperthyroidism. In Graves’ disease, these antibodies are Thyroid-Stimulating Immunoglobulin (TSI) and Thyrotropin Receptor Antibodies (TRAb). While both antibody types are potential triggers of Graves’ disease, it’s far more likely to be the TRAb than the TSI. Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism in the United States. It is also 7-8 times more common in women than in men, as most autoimmune disorders are. (1)
Your Body Doesn’t Make Mistakes
What is an autoimmune disease? When asked this question, many people will say it’s the immune system making a mistake. That’s how it seems, as the body’s antibody response targets its own tissues rather than foreign invaders. However, the body isn’t making a mistake. When the immune system targets body tissue like this, it’s for a reason. Autoimmune disorders happen because your immune system is stressed. These stressors come from the “3 T’s”: traumas, toxins, and thoughts. Chronic low-level versions of these can be as detrimental as one major event. Here are a few examples:
- Traumas: over-exercising, poor posture, a sedentary lifestyle, or a poor-quality mattress
- Toxins: food allergies, processed foods, toxic personal care products, poor air quality, using plastics
- Thoughts: stressing out over an upcoming test, unforgiveness, loneliness
Finding your body’s triggers and easing the stress on your immune system can be the key to fixing the problem. The symptoms tell you something is out of balance; it’s not a sign something’s inherently wrong with your body. Learn more about autoimmunity here.
Symptoms of Graves’ Disease
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) gives a good list of Graves’ symptoms. Because Graves’ can lead to it, they include symptoms of hyperthyroidism: (2)
- Weight loss, despite an increased appetite
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nervousness or irritability
- Shaky hands
- Muscle weakness
- Sweating or heat intolerance
- Frequent bowel movements
- An enlarged thyroid gland (a goiter)
- Irregular menstrual cycles and problems with fertility
- Eye problems, such as:
- Bulging eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy)
- Gritty, irritated eyes
- Puffy eyes
- Light sensitivity
- Pressure or pain in the eyes
- Blurred or double vision
- Graves’ dermopathy or pretibial myxedema (thick, reddish skin with a rough texture, usually on the shins, but can develop elsewhere)
- Thyrotoxicosis (having too much thyroid hormone in the body in general)
In severe cases, a thyroid storm can occur. A thyroid storm is also called accelerated hyperthyroidism or thyrotoxic crisis. Signs and symptoms of a thyroid storm may begin with a fever, sweating, vomiting, and an irregular heart rate. They may progress to delirium, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), severely low blood pressure, seizures, and even a coma.
Graves’ Disease vs. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
While Graves’ is an autoimmune disorder that leads to hyperthyroidism, Hashimoto’s is the opposite. Hashimoto’s leads to an underactive thyroid, referred to as hypothyroidism. Read more about Hashimoto’s. Hyperthyroid means your thyroid is making an overabundance of thyroid hormone, and hypothyroid means your thyroid isn’t making enough thyroid hormone. These disorders can exist apart from autoimmunity, but both Hashimoto’s and Graves’ are autoimmune. While it may sound strange, it’s possible to have both autoimmune conditions simultaneously as the body tries to find balance.
Testing and Treatment Options
Suppose you suspect Graves’ disease and make an appointment with a mainstream medical professional. How will they determine what’s going on with your thyroid?
Mayo Clinic shares the standard medical route for addressing Graves’ disease. It starts with testing, which can take a few different forms: (3)
- Blood tests. The main blood test for Graves’ is TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), as Graves’ patients tend to have lower than normal TSH and higher than normal levels of other thyroid hormones.
- Antibody test. An additional blood test option is an antibody test. While this isn’t necessary for diagnosing Graves’, it can indicate whether something besides antibodies is causing hyperthyroidism.
- Radioactive iodine uptake. Iodine is a critical nutrient for thyroid hormone production. A radioactive iodine uptake test involves giving the patient radioactive iodine and using a specialized camera to monitor how quickly it’s absorbed. The amount of radioactive iodine absorbed helps determine if Graves’ is behind the hyperthyroidism or if it’s something else.
- Ultrasound tests. These tests, which use high-frequency sound waves to create images, can tell if you have an enlarged thyroid. Ultrasounds are helpful for people who cannot take radioactive iodine, as is the case for pregnant women.
- Imaging tests. Imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, can show abnormalities in the thyroid that other testing methods miss.
After getting test results, your doctor will likely discuss various treatment options, but these will usually fall under one of two categories: medications or surgery. Their “fire hose or axe” approach is why we at The Wellness Way refer to them as fireman doctors. Learn more about the Fireman & Carpenter Principle by watching this video:
What are the Treatments?
The treatments offered by mainstream or “allopathic” medicine usually include the following:
- Radioiodine therapy. The therapy is similar to the radioactive iodine test but isn’t for the same purpose. The radioiodine therapy destroys thyroid cells, shrinks the organ, and decreases hormone output. Because it destroys part of the thyroid, those who receive radioiodine therapy will likely need thyroid hormone medication or supplementation later. It can also cause issues in other organs that use iodine.
- Antithyroid medications. Because thyroid overactivity is a problem, one allopathic solution is to disrupt thyroid function with antithyroid medications. Commonly used drugs like methimazole and propylthiouracil reduce thyroid hormone production. Unfortunately, this only reduces symptoms and doesn’t address the source of the problem. If you stop taking the drug, the issues will return because they never left.
- Beta-blockers. These are usually used for heart disease, because they can lower blood pressure. However, they’re also used for thyroid conditions. Instead of reducing thyroid function, they block the stimulating effects of thyroid hormones on the body.
- Thyroid surgery. The mainstream medical field’s role is similar to that of a fireman—they put out “fires” in the body. Doctors suggest surgeries like thyroidectomies (complete or partial thyroid removal) for this very reason. Removing some of all of the thyroid eliminates symptoms and can do so quickly. Surgery offered for Graves’ ophthalmopathy (bulging eyes) releases the strain on the optic nerve and allows the eyes to move back to position. While these surgeries can eliminate symptoms, they leave the cause unaddressed and may cause complications down the road.
If none of these “treatments” sound appropriate to you, keep reading. There may be more to the story…
There Is More to the Story
As mentioned, your thyroid doesn’t work alone. Your adrenals, pituitary gland, and hypothalamus all affect and are affected by the thyroid. A thyroid issue may not originate in the thyroid; it may come from another imbalance, deficiency, or excess in the body. Remember, an autoimmune disorder doesn’t mean the body is misfunctioning, it means it’s stressed. Those stressors can come from a variety of traumas, toxins, and thoughts. That’s why it’s essential to do testing like a spinal assessment, food allergy testing, stool testing, etc., in addition to your thyroid panel. These can indicate what contributing factors are behind Graves’ disease.
You may not know this, but your thyroid is affected by the health of your adrenal glands. Thyroid-binding globulin is a protein that not only delivers thyroid hormones but can also transport estrogens. How many healthcare providers measure estrogens or adrenal glands before manipulating the thyroid? Very few. How often does managing Graves’ disease include supporting other systems of the body? When is adrenal fatigue considered a risk factor alongside family history, age, stress levels, and the presence of other autoimmune conditions? Welcome to the Wellness Way approach.
The Wellness Way Approach
The thyroid is one gear in the “Swiss watch” that is the human body. It doesn’t work independently but touches several other organs and systems. That’s how it can affect oxygen use, heart function, and metabolic rate. At The Wellness Way, we don’t guess; we test! We find out what’s causing an issue with the thyroid and then take steps to help the body resolve it. When we remove the stressors leading to autoimmunity and support the thyroid, it can return to balanced, normal function. Get your “Swiss watch” tested and find out how to support your body by contacting a Wellness Way clinic today!