Gigi Stewart, M.A., Gluten Free Gigi
Thyroid Nation


Gigi discusses the connection between thyroid disease and gluten sensitivity.



There is a distinct link between Celiac Disease and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease. That’s because individuals with autoimmune thyroid disease (either Hashimoto’s disease or Grave’s disease – more on these in a moment) have a greater chance of testing positive for CD.

Research shows as many as 5% of individuals with autoimmune thyroid disease may also have CD. That’s a significant number worth talking about!

To gain an understanding of the CD-Autoimmune Thyroid Disease connection, let’s take an in-depth look at the thyroid and its function in our bodies (We get interactive in this section!). Then let’s touch on symptoms and diagnosis of autoimmune thyroid diseases and their connection to the CD. Finally, to tie it all together, let’s find out what science has to say about how a gluten-free diet affects autoimmune thyroid disease.

That’s a lot of useful info, so let’s dig in!

The Thyroid and Its Function

Near Adam’s apple area of the neck, wrapped around the windpipe, the thyroid gland releases hormones to keep our metabolism in check.

{metabolism ~ a complex series of chemical reactions, involving hormones and enzymes, that control the production and use of energy in the body; metabolism also determines the rate at which energy is used. That’s why it comes up so often in discussions about weight gain/loss.}

Now, if it understanding the thyroid and how it works were only that simple.

As with most body systems, the metabolic process is complex. So complex, in fact, the intricate (and important!) details of how our thyroid functions as part of the body’s systems are sometimes left out of these explanations unless you’re reading a medical article.

I know you want the whole story without having to read a (sometimes boring) complicated medical article. I love reading the research and won’t give you anything less than the complete fact-based story. That means to understand how the thyroid works in our bodies, we need to talk a bit about the endocrine system. Don’t worry… I’m keeping it as simple as possible, and even throwing in a little interactive fun!

{endocrine system ~ the system of glands in our bodies that release hormones into the blood; the glands of the endocrine system are: the hypothalamus, the thyroid, the pituitary, and the pineal.}

First, let’s see where everything’s located, then we’ll find out what each part does!

Location, location, location!
We already know where the thyroid is, so step into the brain with me for a ballpark idea of where our hypothalamus hangs out. After that, we’ll venture just outside the brain to “see” our pituitary gland. Once we locate these important endocrine structures, we’ll see how they work together for optimal thyroid function.

Ready to participate in some interactive science fun?!

Place your index finger at the base of your skull (nape of your neck). Now, slide your finger around to the right, keeping it at the level of the nape of your neck. You’ll be nearly in line with (or just below) the center of your ear. Stop when you reach the area just in front of your ear.

Imagine going from that point to the center of the brain. If we could do that, we would see a small structure, about the size of a whole almond. That’s the hypothalamus.

61fU0eN6MWLNow, hold that visual. Imagine a pea-sized structure sitting just beneath the hypothalamus in a teeny-tiny cave made of thin bone…that’s the pituitary gland. (The pituitary is not actually a part of the brain, but instead, an extension of the hypothalamus.)

Now that we know where they are, let’s look at what they do

Function, function, function!
You know the thyroid produces several hormones. Two of these, T3 and T4, are vital to getting oxygen into our cells, helping cells produce energy, and telling cells how much energy to use (that’s the metabolism connection).

If these thyroid hormone levels in our blood are too high or too low, the pituitary gland gets involved by producing Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), a type of chemical messenger that signals the thyroid to adjust levels of T3 or T4.

If the pituitary regulates the thyroid, then what regulates the pituitary? You guessed it…the hypothalamus!

The hypothalamus is a small, powerful structure that acts as a mini control center for our endocrine system, signaling various glands in the body to produce (or stop producing) certain hormones.

The hypothalamus releases a hormone called Thyrotropin-Releasing Hormone (TRH), which tells the pituitary gland to release TSH when needed.

The connection between thyroid, pituitary, and hypothalamus is a type of feedback loop that keeps thyroid hormone levels in our system balanced.

Sometimes, though, things go awry and balance is lost. That can lead to thyroid disease. Let’s look at two autoimmune thyroid diseases that share a connection with CD.

Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases:

Hashimoto’s Disease and Grave’s Disease

There are several different thyroid disorders. We’ll focus on two that are autoimmune disorders associated with CD. The most common of all thyroid diseases is Hashimoto’s disease.

Hashimoto’s is characterized by an enlarged thyroid gland that does not produce enough thyroid hormones (referred to as hypothyroidism). This slows the body’s use of energy.

Some symptoms of Hashimoto’s are:
·      Fatigue
·      Cold sensitivity
·      High cholesterol levels
·      Weight gain
·      Sore muscles and joints
·      Muscle weakness
·      Pale, dry, or puffy skin
·      Constipation
·      Depression

The other thyroid disease caused by an immune system response is Grave’s disease. It is the most common form of hyperthyroidism. In Grave’s disease, antibodies attack the thyroid gland just like in Hashimoto’s, but instead of slowed thyroid hormone production, there is an increase in thyroid hormone production. This causes the body to use energy faster than it should.

Some symptoms of Grave’s disease are:
·      Fatigue
·      Overheating/profuse sweating
·      Irritability
·      Weight loss
·      Bulging eyes
·      Muscle weakness
·      Rapid heartbeat
·      Diarrhea
·      Depression

If you experience symptoms of either of these diseases, a discussion with your doctor may be in order, especially if you already have another autoimmune disease like CD or suspect you may have CD.

If your doctor believes you may have thyroid disease, blood tests can determine the levels of thyroid hormone in your blood and detect abnormal antibodies in your blood.

{antibodies ~ proteins the body’s immune system produces when harmful substances are detected in the body; sometimes, our bodies mistakenly recognize our own healthy tissues as harmful and produce antibodies against those tissues.}

In autoimmune thyroid disease, the immune system incorrectly identifies the thyroid gland as harmful and creates antibodies against it. Why this happens is not entirely understood. Some researchers believe a virus or bacteria lead to this autoimmune response. Others think a genetic disturbance is a cause. What is known is many patients with autoimmune thyroid disease also have CD. Let’s take a look at that connection…

Making Connections:

Celiac Disease and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease

It’s not surprising there’s a connection between CD and autoimmune thyroid disease. Both are disorders of the immune system. Medical research shows individuals with an immune disorder, like CD, are more likely to develop another disorder of the immune system.

In fact, the undiagnosed CD may be a major factor in setting off an underlying autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease.

Some researchers suggest individuals testing positive for autoimmune thyroid disease also be tested for CD. If CD is diagnosed and treated (with a gluten free diet) in those with thyroid disease, additional autoimmune diseases may be prevented.

Some individuals also believe a gluten free diet is the “best medicine” for those with autoimmune thyroid disease. Let’s see what the research reveals…

The Gluten Free Diet and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease

Some evidence suggests a gluten free diet may be helpful to individuals with autoimmune thyroid disease. For example, individuals with CD and increased levels of thyroid antibodies (not yet elevated enough for an official diagnosis of full-blown thyroid disease, but certainly on the path to it) experienced a decrease in thyroid antibodies in about 6 months after going on a strict gluten free diet.

Another (similar) study showed thyroid antibody levels were completely normal after 2 years on a gluten free diet.

One small study of children with CD found Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) levels were elevated in 11 of 15 participants. After approximately one year on a gluten free diet, TSH levels were normal in all the children.

While studies like these are encouraging and provide hope to those living with autoimmune thyroid disease, they are small, which means it is difficult to apply findings to the general population.

There are also similar studies where no significant changes in thyroid antibody levels were detected after patients went on a gluten free diet.

Unfortunately, the research is split. BUT… It is worth noting, much anecdotal evidence exists that suggests some individuals feel their symptoms of fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and gastrointestinal upset were greatly reduced after going gluten free.

There are even patients with Hashimoto’s disease who report being able to reduce the amount of synthetic thyroid hormone they take after going gluten free.

So, with different studies giving us different results, what’s the bottom line?

Choosing a gluten free diet is a personal choice. There’s no harm in going gluten free as long as you keep it healthy and make sure you’re getting plenty of nutrients your body needs. You just never know… what has worked for many others may work for you, too!

Keep in mind, if you do have thyroid disease, some foods are considered harmful to thyroid function. Always ask your doctor about the foods you add to or eliminate from your diet first! Here’s a partial list of…

Potential Foods to Avoid if You Have Thyroid Disease:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
  • Dark leafy greens (like spinach, mustard greens)
  • Any foods high in saturated fat (like fried foods, organ meats, fatty meats, etc.)
  • Soy (like soy sauce, tofu, soybeans, miso, tempeh, soy-based vegetarian foods)
  • Highly refined carbohydrates (like white rice, starches, processed foods)
  • Foods with high sugar content (like processed foods, soft drinks, syrups, jellies/jams, cakes, pies, cookies)

A Word about Potential Foods that May Need to be Avoided if You have Thyroid Disease

Some foods, like cruciferous vegetables and dark leafy greens listed above are considered to be goitrogens.

Goiterogens occur naturally in certain foods and can cause the thyroid gland to enlarge. An enlarged thyroid gland is called a goiter.

The most common cause of goiter worldwide is a lack of iodine in the diet; however, here in the United States where most people use iodized salt, goiter is more often due to the over- or underproduction of thyroid hormones or to nodules that develop in the thyroid gland.

Always speak to your doctor about which foods you may need to avoid based on your unique situation and thyroid disorder.

Here is a basic overview of who may or may not need to be concerned about these so-called goitrogenic foods:

HYPOthyroid (thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone; also called underactive thyroid)

Individuals with a functional (or semi-functional) thyroid who are hypothyroid may want to limit their intake of raw goitrogenic foods. You likely do not need to avoid these foods entirely. Heat destroys some of the enzymes that form the goitrogenic compounds, so enjoying these foods in a cooked form may be fine.

HYPERthyroid (thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone; most common form is Grave’s disease)

Individuals who are hyperthyroid may be able to add more goitrogenic foods into the diet.

SOY: Soy is believe to act as a goitrogen and inhibit thyroid hormone absorption. While research professionals are divided on this topic, most do now acknowledge over-consumption of soy can have detrimental effects on overall health.

In terms of thyroid function, more recent research suggests soy’s negative effects on thyroid function are exacerbated by other issues such as iodine deficiency, defects of hormone synthesis, or additional goitrogens in the diet.

Again, this is not a comprehensive look at goiter or goitrogenic foods. Always ask your health care provider or nutrition counselor what is best for your unique situation.

Don’t forget to take advantage of the free resources I have for you here in the Knowledge Section as well as the gluten-free, allergen-free recipes in my Recipe Index.

And when you’re ready to take your wellness to the next level, subscribe to Food Solutions Magazine, my comprehensive and in-depth ad-free digital publication on living your best gluten-free life!

About the Author

gigi-stewart-gluten-free-gigiGigi Stewart, M.A., Struggled for more than 25 years with debilitating chronic pain that doctors could not understand, and enduring dozens of horrifying misdiagnoses from lupus to Lyme disease to leukemia, Gigi Stewart, M.A., was relieved when she learned celiac disease and multiple food allergies to soy, peanuts and tree nuts, as well as the need to eliminate dairy products, were responsible for her ill health. Instead of feeling restricted and deprived, Gigi immediately felt empowered and liberated as she combined her skills and knowledge as a research scientist with years of culinary experience to overcome the challenges of eliminating entire food groups from her diet. To receive the latest articles and recipes from Gigi, sign up for her free eNewsletter, the “Gluten Free Fix.Gigi loves connecting with her readers via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, where she shares recipes, tips and insights to make living gluten-free easier for everyone!

This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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