There are two different autoimmune diseases in which an immune system dysfunction targets the thyroid - Graves' disease and Hashimoto's disease. In the United States, the vast majority of thyroid patients are either hypothyroid or hyperthyroid due to an autoimmune disease. Hashimoto's disease is the most common form of thyroiditis, an inflammation of the thyroid, and so the condition is also often referred to as Hashimoto's thyroiditis. It is far more common than Graves' disease, and is the cause of most hypothyroidism in the U.S. In Hashimoto's, antibodies react against proteins in the thyroid, causing gradual destruction of the gland itself. Occasionally, before the thyroid is destroyed, it has thyrotoxic periods -- known as Hashitoxicosis -- during which the thyroid overproduces thyroid hormone. Eventually however, the gland's attack on itself destroys the ability to produce the thyroid hormones the body needs.
Symptoms of Hashimoto's disease usually parallel the hypothyroidism that results, however, the thyroid can periodically sputter into life during Hashitoxic periods, causing hyperthyroidism symptoms. For most people, treatment is for hypothyroidism and involves life-long thyroid hormone replacement. Holistic and integrative approaches tend to look at healing the underlying autoimmune imbalance, and may include nutritional support for the thyroid (i.e., selenium, tyrosine, B vitamins, etc.) and overall support for the immune system. Graves' disease -- sometimes referred to as diffuse toxic goiter because of the usual presence of a goiter -- typically causes hyperthyroidism. In the U.S., it's thought that Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism affect slightly less than 1 percent of the US population, or slightly less than 2.9 million people. Some experts believe, however, that as many as 4 percent of Americans, or 11.8 million people, may have a mild, subclinical Graves' disease, with few or no symptoms, but exhibit blood test evidence of slight hyperthyroidism.
In Graves' disease, autoantibodies bind to the gland, which causes the thyroid to overproduce hormone, and cause hyperthyroidism. Treatment for Graves' disease follow hyperthyroidism treatment, and involves antithyroid drugs, radioactive iodine ablation, or surgical removal of the thyroid. Most Graves' disease patients end up hypothyroid over time, requiring life-long thyroid hormone replacement.