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.”

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

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Works Cited

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