The Thyroid and Autism Connection
Scientists and researchers have noted that autism and thyroid disease are two epidemics on the rise. Dr. Raphael Kellman believes autism and thyroid disease are closely related. His study showed that 75 percent of children with autism have undiagnosed thyroid problems often due to unreliable blood tests.
The most common type of thyroid disease seen in children with autism is hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is a condition wherein the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone needed for growth and development.
Hypothyroidism in newborns (called congenital hypothyroidism) is detected upon completion of the routine newborn screening. Blood tests include T3, T4, and TSH – all of which determine the possibility of an underactive thyroid gland. In the US, one in 4,000 newborns is diagnosed with congenital hypothyroidism every year.
As mentioned in Dr. Kellman’s report, cases of low thyroid function can go undetected due to inaccurate or inefficient blood tests. Additionally, symptoms of autism and hypothyroidism are similar. These factors might lead to a missed diagnosis of either one of the two disorders.
The overlapping signs and symptoms of autism and hypothyroidism are:
- Jaundice that lasts longer than usual
- Difficulty feeding/eating
- Poor bone development
- Poor muscle tone
- Gastrointestinal deviations
- Difficulty sleeping
- Speech and other developmental delays
- Distended belly
- Hyperactivity or lethargy
- Dry and pale skin
- Poor hair growth
- Infections and allergies
- Gaining too much or too little weight
- Anxiety, fear, and aggressiveness
- Unable to focus/concentrate
When newborns get a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, immediate treatment is started in the form of thyroid medication. Untreated cases of hypothyroidism in babies can lead to mental impairment and other developmental disorders, including autism. It can also cause other health problems like anemia, low body temperature, and heart failure. This is why it is crucial for parents to recognize the symptoms of low thyroid in children.
Unlike hypothyroidism, autism is not detected with a blood test and is often diagnosed when the child is older.
Maternal thyroid hormone, autistic brain and how it relates to thyroid
In some cases, hypothyroidism in infants is caused by the mother’s thyroid condition. There is a growing body of evidence that confirms a link between pregnancy and thyroid disease.
A study conducted by neurologist Dr. Gustavo Román revealed that pregnant women with low levels of thyroid hormone are four times more likely to have autistic children.
Dr. Román’s studies have also shown that thyroid deficiency in pregnant women can cause developmental problems commonly seen in autistic brains.
One of the many possible causes of hypothyroidism is iodine deficiency. Research conducted by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and the University of Kansas concluded that 1 in 7 Americans is iodine-deficient.
To ensure a healthy pregnancy, Dr. Román says, “If you are planning to become pregnant, have your doctor measure urine iodine and thyroid function beforehand. If you have just become pregnant, have your doctor measure urine iodine, thyroid function, and begin using prenatal vitamins, making sure iodine is present.”
Román also suggests expecting mothers go through proper and accurate thyroid evaluation before, during, and after giving birth.
Supplemental Support for Hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism is commonly treated with thyroid hormone pills called levothyroxine once a day. The dosage might be adjusted as determined by an endocrinologist. For this reason, monthly and/or yearly appointments with an endocrinologist is required.
Difference between hypothyroidism and hypoadrenalism
Hypothyroidism should not be confused with hypoadrenalism, although their symptoms are similar. Hypoadrenalism, also called Addison’s disease, refers to the under activity of the adrenal gland. This illness is caused by a deficiency in the steroid hormone cortisol.
Some symptoms of Addison’s disease include:
- lack of energy or motivation (fatigue)
- muscle weakness
- low mood
- loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss
- increased thirst
Autoimmunity and thyroid disease
An autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease is one of the many causes of hypothyroidism. An autoimmune condition is when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. In Hashimoto’s disease, the immune system attacks the thyroid.
- weight gain
- paleness or puffiness of the face
- joint and muscle pain
- inability to get warm
- difficulty getting pregnant
- joint and muscle pain
- hair loss or thinning, brittle hair
- irregular or heavy menstrual periods
- slowed heart rate
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Hypothyroidism is common in women ages 35 and up. The American Thyroid Association suggests women get screened for the disorder when reaching 35 years and five years after that.
Women with hypothyroidism who get pregnant are also at risk of having a child with hypothyroidism if not detected early in pregnancy. A number of studies have proven that children who have hypothyroid mothers are at risk of developmental disorders and learning disabilities in addition to acquiring hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism and other disorders
Hypothyroidism is also associated with anorexia. In this case, low levels of thyroid hormones appear to be a result of prolonged starvation. A test conducted on 21 women with anorexia nervosa showed that 66% had delayed TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) response, which is an indicator of hypothyroidism.
Recently, a link between hyper or hypothyroidism is seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease. A dysfunctional thyroid is known to cause cognitive impairment, which would include symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The Framingham study saw 209 subjects out of 1,864 develop Alzheimer’s in a span of 12 years. Of the 209 subjects, 142 were women. Both low and high levels of TSH were identified to pose a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Seeking help to treat thyroid disease for autism
If you are a parent or caregiver of a person with autism and feel it is possible he/she has signs of thyroid disease, it is best to consult your doctor.
Your child will most likely to be screened and undergo a blood test for T3, T4, and TSH. Upon reviewing the results, your doctor should provide you with a diagnosis and a treatment plan, if applicable.
Thyroid disease and children with autism. Retrieved from https://www.theautismexchange.com/organized-information/biomedical/conditions/thyroid-connection
Autism four times likelier when mother’s thyroid is weakened. 3 August 2013. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130813111730.htm
The Autism-Thyroid Connection – Developmental Delay Resources. Retrieved from http://www.devdelay.org/documents/ThyroidautismarticleKellman.pdf
Hypothyroidism: Overview, Causes, and Symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/thyroid/hypothyroidism-too-little-thyroid-hormone
Severe hypothyroidism in the mother is associated with possible autism in their babies. Retrieved from https://www.thyroid.org/patient-thyroid-information/ct-for-patients/vol-7-issue-1/vol-7-issue-1-p-3/
Thyroid Function and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: The Framingham Study. 28 July 2008. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2694610/
Thyroid function and Alzheimer’s disease. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19276542
Hypothyroidism in Women. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26902444
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