Nutritional Supplementation is Not Without Risk

Many people have the notion that supplements are safe, without side effects like pharmaceutical drugs may have. While this is generally true, there are situations where supplements can cause more harm than good. High-quality nutritional supplements such as vitamins, minerals and herbs can exert powerful physiological effects to heal. But as with anything that is powerful, they can also have the ability to cause problems if used inappropriately.

This is especially the case for people with thyroid and autoimmune diseases. The number one cause of low thyroid is Hashimoto’s disease. All autoimmune diseases, whether Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, irritable bowel disease, multiple sclerosis or celiac disease, have environmental triggers. These can be food sensitivity, chronic infections, chemical toxins, stress, hormone imbalance or herbal supplements.

The reason that herbal supplements can trigger an autoimmune flare-up is due to a little-known fact. The immune system has two branches, a T helper 1 system (TH1), killer cells that destroy pathogens, and a T helper 2 system (TH2), antibodies that are the memory system by which the immune system can remember a pathogen and mount a more efficient response if it encounters the same germ again. This memory system is what vaccinations try to stimulate to confer protection.

If we have autoimmune disease, we are either TH1 dominant or TH2 dominant. In a TH1-dominant individual, the killer cells are overactive and destroy our own body tissues. For example, in Hashimoto’s, the killer cells are destroying the thyroid gland; in rheumatoid arthritis the killers cells are destroying joints and cartilage. In a TH2-dominant individual, the memory cells are producing excess antibodies against own tissue, leading to inflammation. For example, in Hashimoto’s, thyroid peroxidase antibody is elevated, leading to thyroiditis and inflammation.

Supplements that may stimulate TH1 system include echinacea, astragalus, maitake mushroom and many immune-boosting herbs found in health food stores and online. Supplements that may stimulate TH2 system include flavonoid compounds such as pycnogenol, royal jelly, caffeine and green tea polyphenol. The problem comes when we are TH1-dominant autoimmune and our killer cells are already overactive, taking TH1-stimulating supplements will create more imbalance within the system and lead to an autoimmune flare-up.

This is why so many people are unknowingly taking nutritional supplements and assume that just because it’s natural, it’s all good and safe, while they continue to flare up their condition, wondering why they are not feeling better despite taking expensive, high-quality supplements. It’s not that the products are of poor quality, it’s that people are taking something that makes them worse.

This is why working with a functional medicine doctor trained in immunology and experienced in working with an autoimmune clientele with nutrition can be extremely beneficial for those with autoimmune conditions. It’s more important to identify the root cause and understand the particulars of the patient’s physiology, and less important what the purported benefit of the supplement is.

Running the proper diagnostic laboratory tests to identify the underlying mechanism causing the autoimmune condition is the first step to recovery. Food should be the primary mode of healing and used as medicine, with supplements as a secondary means to address specific nutrient deficiencies and toxicities without causing autoimmune flare-ups.

Peter Kan, DC, DACNB, FAAIM, CFMP, the host of the online Ask Dr Kan Show, offers free autoimmune workshops in his Gilbert office, located at 3336 E. Chandler Heights Rd. To register, call 480-988-6269. For more information, visit


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