Brain challenges are common with Hashimoto’s Autoimmune Thyroid Disease. Every cell in the brain, as well as every cell in the entire body, relies on thyroid hormone to function properly.
Neurons (nerve cells) are the communication network of the brain. Healthy neurons are needed to communicate every bit of information, electrically and chemically. In addition to a cell body, neurons usually have an axon and dendrites, which project outward and which send and receive signals from other cells. The growth of dendrites is believed to be important for a healthy memory, and that growth is dependent on thyroid hormone.
Reasons for Cognitive Trouble
Insufficient, active thyroid hormone (T3) alone makes learning difficult. Before beginning thyroid medication (and even afterward, for various reasons), a person with Hashimoto’s will experience “brain fog”—a term which describes sluggish mental reactions, difficulty concentrating, and a compromised memory. (For a more complete list of symptoms, see our Low-Thyroid Symptoms page.)
Even after a patient begins medication, such as Synthroid or Levothyroxine, this synthetic T4 needs to be converted into the active form of thyroid hormone (T3) to be used by the body. Many Hashimoto’s patients have one or both of the following problems: 1) trouble converting enough T4 to T3; or 2) trouble with cells actually taking in the necessary amount of hormone from the bloodstream. In the case of this second problem, there is active T3 available in the blood, but cells are still starving for thyroid hormone, which means the brain is starving, too, for fuel to concentrate and to learn.
Brain fog has an immune-system connection, also. About 10-15% of all brain cells are microglia, which are immune cells in the brain. In someone with Hashimoto’s Autoimmune Thyroid Disease, microglia cause an inflammatory reaction, which interferes with clear thinking and makes concentration difficult. In some people, however, sufficient thyroid hormone calms these microglial cells and helps to reduce inflammation and brain fog. For others, this immune attack in the brain is not helped by more thyroid hormone, because the answer requires a more comprehensive approach to the disease.
Examining the Roots
At least 90% of the body’s serotonin—a brain neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep, and appetite—is made in the digestive tract. Serotonin is often called the “feel good” neurotransmitter, because of its positive effect emotionally. Hashimoto’s patients with digestive problems will, most probably, experience the results of low serotonin levels: insomnia and depression (which interfere with concentration and memory).
Traditional medicine tries to compensate for low serotonin by using antidepressants, called SSRIs, which are drugs that keep existing serotonin from leaving the system rapidly. This approach is unsatisfactory, however, because the best answer is to increase the body’s ability to make more serotonin, which means healing the digestive tract.
In fact, digestive problems are often a key reason for lingering hypothyroid symptoms, because 20% of all T3 conversion (from T4) is dependent upon a healthy intestinal tract, with more good bacteria than bad. In addition, both pathogenic (“bad”) bacteria and beneficial bacteria use the vagus nerve to travel to the brain. Once there, helpful bacteria have a positive effect on mood, cognitive ability, and memory. Conversely, harmful bacteria cause inflammation in the brain, which increases the risk of dementia and mood disorders.
At Carolinas Thyroid Institute, we use Functional Medicine diagnostic tools to assess the health of the entire body (the endocrine/hormonal, nervous, gastrointestinal, and immune systems). See our Functional Medicine page for more information.
When most patients come to me, Dr. Steven Roach, they are already on thyroid medication; have normal thyroid lab results; and yet are desperate for help, because they are still experiencing low-thyroid symptoms, such as trouble with concentration and memory. Using diagnostic lab tests, I collect information and then treat the underlying root problem, rather than masking symptoms with more pharmaceuticals.
For anyone suffering with Hashimoto’s Disease and in need of help, I offer a free, 15-minute phone consultation to discuss health concerns. For scheduling, see our Contact Us page or call (704) 853-8000.
Quenching Inflammatory Fires
When a Hashimoto’s patient consumes gluten, this increases zonulin—a protein which is made in the body and which acts as a wedge between cells in the lining of the intestines. This destruction produces a condition known as “leaky gut” (intestinal permeability). When foreign compounds pass through the leaky intestinal wall and get into the bloodstream, those microglia (immune cells) in the brain become activated, which results in an inflamed brain—with difficulty concentrating, reasoning and remembering.
Reducing all dietary/lifestyle sources of inflammation will help to reduce or eliminate brain fog. Stress, for example, raises cortisol, which is inflammatory. Also, foods high in sugar are inflammatory, and American consume far too much of them.
Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids is important, too. Americans consume a lot of Omega-6 fatty acids and not enough Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil; fatty fish like salmon; walnuts; chia seeds; flaxseed oil, etc.). Omega-6 fatty acids are essential but can cause an inflammatory cascade in the body. These fatty acids are found in many salad dressings and in oils like corn, soy, vegetable, sunflower, and safflower. Two excellent oils for Hashimoto’s patients, however, are coconut oil and extra-virgin olive oil.
Hashimoto’s is a whole-body disease; and at Carolinas Thyroid Institute, we help to strengthen our patients’ brain power, by understanding and treating the entire body. See our Success Stories page for encouraging patient testimonials!