It’s more common than you think.
In February of this year, talk show host Wendy Williams announced that she would be taking a three week hiatus from television after being diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune disorders impact women more often, and more aggressively, than men, for reasons we’re not really sure of (although it likely has something to do with hormones), and Graves’ disease is no exception.
Graves’ disease, the most common autoimmune disease in the US (about 10 million people between the ages of 30-50 have it), attacks the thyroid, resulting in an overproduction of hormones, and often hyperthyroidism. There’s evidence that the presence of estrogen and prolactin increase B cell antibodies, which are associated with immune system malfunctions, says Caleb Backe, a Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics. “It’s no coincidence that most women develop these diseases shortly after puberty or after having a baby since their hormone levels are drastically higher.”
Symptoms of Graves’ include things that look like a lot of other things, such as fatigue, insomnia, weight loss, hair loss, muscle weakness, and excessive sweating, but there are some which point more directly to Graves’, like thickening and reddening of the skin on shins and top of the feet, tremors, and inflammation, swelling, and bulging of the eyes.
“Graves’ Disease can have a huge impact on quality of life, because it tends to affect people who are in their most productive years of life, including women of childbearing age,” says Dr. Kaushal M. Kulkarni, a certified ophthalmologist and neuro-ophthalmologist in San Diego, CA, who specializes in Graves’ impact on the eyes. Kulkarni emphasizes that smoking not only increases the likelihood of developing Graves’, but can also exacerbate the disease’s impact on the eyes and inhibit treatment.
Graves’ also impacts fertility, causing a cessation of ovulation in women, and diminished sperm production in men. Pregnancy with Graves’ often results in miscarriage, heart problems for the fetus, and low birth weights. If you’re pregnant and your Graves’ is untreated, says Cindy M.P. Duke, Medical & Laboratory Director at the Nevada Fertility Institute, it can lead to a ‘thyroid storm” – super high blood pressure resulting in heart attacks, strokes, or hemorrhage under the placenta.
Treatment for Graves’ includes radiation, removal of the thyroid and suppressants. Dr. Sean McCaffrey of the McCaffrey Health Clinic, describes Graves’ treatment as a search for balance of the thyroid gland. “You’re constantly trying to find that balance, constantly chasing and adjusting. Because the thyroid is part of a larger system, we need to look at the bigger picture. You will always see a gastrointestinal issue and leaky gut syndrome when an autoimmune problem, such as Graves’, is present.”
“It’s a lifestyle, not a life-hack,” says biopsychologist Nicole Porter, of maintaining one’s energy levels while living with Graves’. She recommends consistently good sleep, managing your stress, and self-healing techniques like mindfulness and meditation.
“One of the most effective ways to treat Graves disease is by altering your diet,” says herbalist Lisa Akers. “Food intolerances can exacerbate the immune response that causes Graves’ disease, so identifying and removing those foods will calm down your immune system and naturally reduce symptoms. Surgery can also be an option, if the symptoms are severe enough and the person doesn’t respond to diet changes, but even if the thyroid is removed, you have to adjust your diet to manage the immune response.”
Amy was diagnosed with Graves’ when she was nine (she’s now in her late 30’s), and while it was controlled via medication for a while, she was given radioactive iodine to hinder her overactive thyroid. Recently, she says, her thyroid levels have stabilized, after trying various medications and seeing many doctors. “I wish I could say that all is well, but since age 19 I have developed numerous other autoimmune disorders and I continue to find ways to stay healthy and keep symptoms at bay.” Because of her experiences as a child with an incurable disease, she now works as a therapist.