For many women, the onset of their hypothyroid symptoms began either during pregnancy or just after. Most of these women went on to be diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that attacks and destroys the thyroid gland. Pregnancy often triggers Hashimoto’s due to normal shifts in immunity that cause an already beleaguered immune system to tip out of control and begin attacking the thyroid gland.
Factors that can contribute to developing Hashimoto’s around pregnancy or childbirth include shifts in immune function during the third trimester, shifts in immune function postpartum, the dramatic shifts in hormone function, genetic tendency, and the exacerbation of existing disorders such as blood sugar imbalances, food intolerances, gut infections, and other autoimmune diseases (which may or may not be diagnosed).
How pregnancy can trigger Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism
Women make up the vast majority of people struggling with autoimmune diseases, about 75 percent. Researchers suggest this is because women have more complex hormonal systems that involve more fluctuations; hormone and immune function are closely tied. Hormone imbalances are a major contributor to chronic inflammation that can trigger autoimmunity.
Pregnancy simply exacerbates these fluctuations and underlying imbalances.
Shifts in immune function during and after pregnancy can trigger autoimmune disease
Women experience major immune shifts towards the end of pregnancy and then again immediately after birth. These are natural shifts designed to help protect the baby.
During the third trimester, a pregnant woman’s immune system becomes more heavily weighted toward what is called the TH-2 system. This arm of the immune system is the delayed immune reaction that produces antibodies that identify a foreign invader a short while after it enters the body. This response allows the body to recognize the invader in the future.
After the baby is born, a woman’s body then becomes more TH-1 dominant. This is the arm of the immune system that reacts immediately to a foreign invader, such as with swelling and pus around a splinter.
Most people who either already have an autoimmune disease or are at high risk of developing one are overly dominant in either the TH-1 or TH-2 arms of the immune system.
The immune swings that pregnancy and childbirth cause tip an already imbalanced immune system into full expression of an autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.
Pregnancy and pituitary function
Although about 90 percent of hypothyroid cases are caused by Hashimoto’s, some cases are caused by chronic stress. As any mom can tell you, pregnancy and childbirth can bring inordinate amounts of stress.
Extreme or chronic stress depresses function of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a small gland at the base of the brain that is like a control tower for the body’s hormones, telling the various glands throughout the body how much hormone to secrete in response to external and internal cues.
Chronic stress overwhelms the pituitary gland and depresses its function. As a result, the pituitary falters at its job of telling the body’s hormone glands to secrete hormones. In the case of the thyroid gland, this means it doesn’t tell it to release enough thyroid hormone.
This not only causes tiredness and other hypothyroid symptoms, but it can also explain postpartum depression in some women.
It’s important to understand that stress doesn’t just mean bad traffic or a demanding job. Many women enter into pregnancy already under enormous stressors they may not be aware of:
- Leaky gut or gut infections
- Blood sugar that is either too low (hypoglycemia) or too high (insulin resistance)
- Undiagnosed food intolerances such as gluten sensitivity or celiac disease
- Hormonal imbalances
- Undiagnosed brain dysfunctions, such as from an old brain injury, brain inflammation caused by poor diet, or PTSD or CPTSD
- Sensitivity to chemicals or over exposure to chemicals
- Poor liver detoxification
- Undiagnosed chronic bacterial, viral, parasitic, or fungal infections
Are you at risk? Check your TPO and TGB antibodies before pregnancy
It’s not a bad idea to screen for risk for Hashimoto’s before conceiving. You can do this by testing TPO and TGB antibodies. Many people have autoimmune mechanisms already in place that not advanced enough to cause symptoms. However, a big shock to the body such as pregnancy can be the tipping point to send you over the edge into autoimmune expression.
If you have Hashimoto’s in your family, other autoimmune diseases in your family, or you suffer from other inflammatory conditions, it pays to screen for your risk before pregnancy. This gives you an opportunity to use functional medicine strategies to slow down or send into remission your autoimmune condition.
Studies show that women with no thyroid symptoms but positive blood serum TPO antibodies have a 25 percent higher risk for developing an autoimmune response to their thyroid.
Reducing the risk of autism, allergies, eczema, and more in your baby
Using functional medicine to manage autoimmunity or heightened risk for autoimmunity is not only good for the mother’s health, but also for that of her child. Children born to mothers with autoimmunity such as Hashimoto’s show increased risk for varying health disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, eczema, asthma, food allergies, and food intolerances.
Researchers have increasingly found that autoimmune disorders underlie many cases of autism, which is caused by an autoimmune attack against the brain in these children. Whether it’s autism or other immune disorders, children born to mothers with imbalanced immune systems may be more vulnerable to environmental triggers that can tip them over into full blown autoimmunity.
Triggers can include food intolerances, blood sugar imbalances, or toxic chemicals introduced into the bloodstream.
Of course, no one willingly or knowingly brings these hardships onto themselves or their children, but in today’s world the modern immune system faces significant burdens. Going into pregnancy knowing how to manage and minimize the impact of those burdens on the body can help minimize the risk. If you already developed Hashimoto’s during pregnancy or after childbirth, understanding why you did can help you better manage it.
Ask my office for help addressing the root cause of your Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.