Chickens Tackle Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

A chicken, the possible key to learning more about Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis [CC BY – SMcGarnigle]

Beep! Beep! Sarah groans as she climbs out of bed, her joints protesting loudly. Slowly, she pulls on her boots and struggles to close her coat over her pajamas before shuffling outside to the chicken coop. Once the chickens are fed, she walks back to the house rubbing her sore back. Feeling exhausted, Sarah hopes her doctor will finally have some answers for her unexplained weight loss, her dry skin and hair, her aches and pains and constant fatigue.

Aware of her symptoms and noting that she has a family history of thyroid and immune system disorders, Sarah’s doctor suspects she is suffering from Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, also known as HT.

During her next appointment, Dr. Smith asks Sarah to imagine what would happen during a football game if the defensive players suddenly took the role of the offensive players. When the players who are supposed to block and protect start attacking, he explains, chaos on the field is inevitable.  This scenario is similar to what occurs inside the body of someone with an autoimmune disease,” he continues. “To put it simply, autoimmune diseases arise when the immune system becomes confused and begins to attack the body, rather than defending it.” (“Autoimmune Diseases: MedlinePlus,” 2013)

Dr. Smith informs Sarah that her thyroid is under attack. The thyroid delivers hormones directly into the blood stream that are critical for a healthy metabolism. (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011). A lack in production of these hormones can lead to a wide range of symptoms…just like hers. (Chistiakov, 2005).

In patients with HT, the thyroid becomes inflamed and production of vital hormones slows. [Unedited photo: “Hashimoto’s disease” by A.D.A.M. Education]

Sarah drags herself home and does some more research to better understand what is going on in her body. She is intrigued to discover a connection between chickens and HT.

Over 60 years ago, researchers at Cornell University, who were keeping detailed records of a strain of obese chickens (OS chickens), noted three chickens that displayed physical differences from the rest of the birds. (Van Tienhoven & Cole, 1962).  They bred and studied these chickens whose offspring inherited spontaneous autoimmune thyroiditis, a condition extremely similar to HT.  In 1999, Cornell researchers conducted a study to understand the connection between spontaneous autoimmune thyroiditis in chickens and HT in humans (Dietrich, Cole, & Wick, 1999).

Obese chickens with spontaneous autoimmune thyroiditis have telltale long and silky feathers. [by Staff Illustrator]

Obese chickens with spontaneous autoimmune thyroiditis have telltale long and silky feathers. [by Staff Illustrator]

For many years, the actual cause of HT was highly disputed.  Some scientists speculated that HT could be triggered by the presence of certain viruses or bacteria. However, there is strong evidence to support the theory that individuals who develop HT are often genetically predisposed to it. When obese and regular chickens were bred, several offspring inherited spontaneous autoimmune thyroiditis  — leading to the conclusion that specific thyroid genes combined with specific immune regulatory genes are responsible for susceptibility to HT (Dietrich et al., 1999).

Research also suggests that the disease becomes active due to environmental triggers.  Some of these triggers include pregnancy, infection, cytokine therapy, and a lack of iodine, which is critical to the structure of thyroid hormones.  However, iodine deficiency is rarely seen in the United States as it is found in the average American’s diet in the form of dairy products, salt, shellfish, and breads (ADAM Inc., 2012).

Currently, there is no cure for HT; however, it is treatable with synthetic hormones such as Levothroid, Levoxyl, and Synthroid.  These drugs can help to reverse the symptoms and are relatively inexpensive (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011).

Sarah ends her long day with hope and new respect for her hungry chickens. She smiles in wonder, thinking Who knew that such an ordinary animal could be the key to understanding such a complex disease?  As she closes her weary eyes, she finds herself rooting for the chickens in the battle to put immune systems back on defense, giving a new and more positive meaning to the term “chickening out.”

hashimoto 2

Scientists believe that HT is caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. [by Staff Illustrator]

In Brief:

  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (HT) is an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid.
  • HT affects mostly middle-aged women.
  • Symptoms of an underactive thyroid include, dry skin and hair, unexplained weight gain, fatigue and weakness, constipation, sore joints, depression, and elevated blood cholesterol levels.
  • Researchers studying obese chickens for many years have begun to understand the complex causes of HT.

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw17. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff


Author: cYw17

“Hey everyone! Thank you for taking the time to be a little curious! This is my first work as a cYw blogger. I have always had an interest in up-and-coming-research, particularly in the medical field. The complexity of our world which we so often take for granted has fascinated me ever since I was young. Curious Yong Writers has provided me with the opportunity to continue to explore the phenomena of our world. I would like to continue my studies in college and beyond possibly as a molecular biology major. In my spare time, I enjoy running, reading, and baking. I also frequently volunteer at my school and in my community.

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    Great post! I learned a lot! I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors and please write some more articles.

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      Thank you for posting this very interesting article. Having a son with an autoimmune disease, I have a great interest in the causes of such devastating diseases. It is quite easy to accept and understand the many diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, but an auto immune disease is an entirely different type of condition. The concept of being genetically pre disposed to a disease is intriguing. Add to that the possibility of an environmental trigger which will “turn on” the pre disposed genes and then the genes causing havoc within the human body is sometimes more than we can comprehend. This entire area of the predisposition of genes is an area of research that scientists need to concentrate on. We, as a society do not realize that we contribute many of the “environmental triggers” which can set off these types of diseases. Who would think that the common chicken would be of use in the researching of this disease. Scientists often turn to nature and look for and at a variety of organisms which can often be a clue or solution to understanding or curing a disease. This is why it is of the greatest importance that we do all we can to protect and defend all living organisms on this planet, no matter how small or large they might be. Each organism represents a millennium of time through which they evolved and survived and as a result, they may hold the secrets to understanding and solving many of our current day medical problems.

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    This was incredibly interesting and well written. I’d never heard of HT before, but after reading your article, I definitely want to know more! Thank you for writing this

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