Cause of Graves Disease

Graves’ disease is classified as an autoimmune disease because it results from an attack on the thyroid gland by the body’s own immune system. It is uncertain what triggers this immune system attack in most cases, though clearly some individuals seem predisposed to this disease because thyroid problems run in their family.

Some individuals report the onset of Graves’ disease during times of stress, which is known to affect immune system function. Graves’ disease is not related in any way to cancer, and it does not predispose to cancer.

The immune system carries out its attack by using lymphocytes from the blood, which directly invade the thyroid gland. In addition, other immune cells make antibodies, which are directed against an important control system on thyroid cells called the TSH receptor.

Under normal circumstances the activity of the thyroid gland is very closely controlled by the pituitary gland. This small gland acts as a thermostat for the thyroid by sending into the blood just the right amount of another hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone or TSH.

This TSH travels to the thyroid gland, locks into the TSH receptor like a key into a padlock, and controls the activity the thyroid gland. However, the antibodies produced by the immune system in Graves’ disease are also able to lock into and stimulate the TSH receptor. Because of this, the immune system takes over the control of the thyroid gland from the pituitary and drives the thyroid into an overactive state.

As is true for most autoimmune diseases, women develop Graves’ disease more frequently than men do. The disorder can develop at any age, though most of those affected are between the ages of 20 to 50 years old.

The immune system attack that occurs in Graves’ disease usually lasts for months or years. Thus, it is unusual for the condition to improve or resolve on its own. For this reason, treatment is usually necessary, even in mild cases.

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