Is It Possible To “Turn Off” The Autoimmune Response In Graves Disease?

Published June 29 2012

Graves’ Disease is an autoimmune hyperthyroid condition, and is labeled as being incurable by just about every endocrinologist.  I commonly get asked why endocrinologists only prescribe drugs or recommend radioactive iodine treatment, and don’t do anything for the autoimmune component of this condition.  After all, every endocrinologist knows that the immune system is the main culprit, and not the thyroid gland itself.  So it might seem puzzling for most medical doctors to focus their treatment on the actual thyroid gland.

As usual, it comes down to the training they receive in school.  While I think it’s important for everyone with Graves’ Disease to get diagnosed by a competent endocrinologist, there really shouldn’t be a surprise when they recommend prescription drugs, surgery, or other conventional methods.  They simply don’t know what other approach to take.  Of course in the United States many endocrinologists seem to be more aggressive than in other countries.  After all, in other countries antithyroid medication is commonly recommended as the first line of treatment, with radioactive iodine as a last resort.  In the United States many endocrinologists take the opposite approach, as they will recommend radioactive iodine to all of their hyperthyroid patients, regardless of the severity of the person’s symptoms or blood tests.

Anyway, let’s get back on track and discuss whether it’s possible to “turn off” the autoimmune response in Graves’ Disease.  Before I answer this it is important to know how the autoimmune response is “turned on”.  Most people who develop Graves’ Disease do seem to have a genetic marker for the condition.  However, just because someone has a genetic marker for a specific condition doesn’t mean they will develop it.  Something has to trigger the genes to turn on, and there can be many different things which cause this.

What Are Some Factors Which Can Trigger An Autoimmune Response?

Stress seems to be a big factor when it comes to autoimmune thyroid conditions…especially Graves’ Disease.  I feel that stress was a huge factor in the development of my condition, and many people I consult with feel the same way about their condition.  Stress affects the adrenal glands, as well as the digestive system, and both of these systems are closely tied to the immune system.  Speaking of digestion, conditions such as leaky gut can potentially trigger an autoimmune response.  Factors which can cause or contribute to a leaky gut problem include food allergies, infections, and parasites.  Certain toxins can also cause an autoimmune response, such as heavy metals (mercury, lead, etc.), or xenoestrogens.  So these are just some of the factors which can lead to the development of a condition such as Graves’ Disease.

As for whether the autoimmune response can be “turned off”, this is controversial, as it is possible to suppress the autoimmune response and get the person to the point where they are symptom free and all of their tests are negative.  Doing this of course isn’t an easy process, but in any case, can one conclude that the autoimmune response has been eliminated in this example?  Probably not, and while some people will look at the thyroid antibodies as an indicator of whether the autoimmune response has been eliminated, one needs to keep in mind that the antibodies can fluctuate.  So if someone tested positive for thyroid antibodies and then after restoring their health the antibodies tested negative, this is great, but doesn’t conclude that the autoimmune response has been “turned off”.  It wasn’t too long ago that cytokine testing was used to determine the state of the autoimmune component, but this doesn’t seem to be reliable either.

How To “Suppress” The Autoimmune Response

Okay, so at this point it looks like there is no way to confirm whether the autoimmune response has been “turned off”.  Perhaps in the near future there will be a different type of immune test one can look at, or perhaps even genetic testing will help determine this.  But for now, when someone has an autoimmune condition of any kind, one of the main goals should be to suppress the autoimmune component of the condition.   One of the keys to doing this is to eliminate the trigger of the condition.  So for example, if stress was the trigger, then one of course needs to do a better job of managing their stress (since it is impossible to eliminate stress completely).  In addition, if stress caused problems with the adrenal glands, then this needs to be corrected as well.  If leaky gut syndrome was the trigger, then this needs to be corrected.  So it can take some detective work to find out what is triggering the autoimmune condition, and then when this is accomplished it of course will take some time to correct the problem.

Inflammation is a big factor in autoimmune conditions, and so one of the primary goals should be to eliminate the inflammation.  Removing the actual trigger is a big step in helping with the inflammatory process, but sometimes immune system support is necessary as well.  For example, I usually will recommend herbs to help with the autoimmune component and control the inflammation.  Some examples of such herbs include hemidesmus, boswellia, and turmeric.  Resveratrol can also help with the inflammation as well.  Although everyone is looking for a “quick cure”, when someone follows a natural treatment protocol, it usually will take months to suppress the autoimmune component, eliminate the trigger, and get rid of the inflammation.

In summary, I honestly don’t know if one can stop the autoimmune response in people with Graves’ Disease, or in any other autoimmune condition.  So when I consult with someone who has Graves’ Disease, I will do things to help suppress the autoimmune component, eliminate the trigger, and control the inflammation.  This will take a combination of dietary changes, supplementation, and modification of lifestyle factors, and then the goal is to give the person the necessary tools to help maintain their health thereafter.