The thyroid is a two-lobed gland usually situated in the front of the lower neck. It stores and secretes thyroid hormones that play a major role in regulating various metabolic rates throughout the entire body. Any abnormality in thyroid function can affect every cell in the body.
Hypothyroidism, or a slowing of thyroid function, can range from subclinical deficiency, with only subtle symptoms, to severe life-threatening myxoedema. Major symptoms of under-active thyroid include: unusually slow pulse; cold intolerance; fatigue; depression; dry and coarse skin; lethargy; tingling and/or numbness in the hands and feet; dry hair; hair loss (particularly the outer-third of the eyebrows); high cholesterol; muscle cramps; heavier and more frequent menstrual periods; digestive changes such as constipation, bloating, heartburn and loss of appetite; and unexplained weight gain. Another problem that I have found is that when the thryoid is low, herbal medicines in general do not work nearly as well, so getting the thryoid to work becomes very important before other problems can be tackled.
Hypothyroidism is almost always caused by thryoid inflammation, called Hashimoto’s Disease, an inflammation of the thyroid that can occur alone, or may appear in conjunction with Graves’ Disease. Hypothyroidism can also result from iodine deficiency or damage to the pituitary gland. Subclinical thyroid dysfunction, which does not usually present any symptoms, may occur in as many as 10% of women over the age of 60 and is often mistaken for other diseases. It has been linked to many problems including heart disease, depression, elevated cholesterol, bone loss and poor circulation (Woeber, 1997). Returning your thyroid to normal function can decrease blood levels of homocysteine, thereby reducing your chances of developing coronary and cerebrovascular diseases (Hussein et al., 1999).
It is a mistake to assume that clinical blood tests for thyroid function are infallible. In fact, it is my clinical experience (shared by other holistic doctors) that persons whose blood tests do not show problems often continue to have symptoms. When treated with either thyroid hormone or herbal alternatives, many of these patients improve dramatically. The simple tried and true method of taking the basal body temperature with a thermometer is often a more accurate way to assess thyroid status, and is certainly less expensive than laboratory evaluations. Blood tests measure the amount of thyroid hormone that is produced by the body and circulated in the blood, but they cannot tell if the body is utilizing the hormone properly at the cellular level.
Interpreting your blood tests
Patients are often confused by their blood tests, so here is a simple summary of the most common ones:
• TSH (Thyroid stimulating hormone or thyrotrophin) stimulates the thyroid to release more thyroid hormone. If it is high, it means your thyroid is underactive, and TSH is trying to stimulate it. If the TSH is low, it means the thyroid is overactive. Because TSH is high before other tests show problems, it is used to detect hypothyroidism. It is not as sensitive for hyperthyroidism.
• Total serum T4 Thyroid hormone (Thyroxine or T4) is the iodine based compound that is released by your thyroid gland to stimulate metabolism. This number is high if you have hyperthyroidism, with a greater than 90% accuracy. Other more complex tests are used if this test is uncertain, such as serum T3, a precursor.
• Serum Thyroid antibodies - This test measures if your immune system is attacking your thyroid. High levels indicate Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
Herbal Treatment of Hypothyroidism
Treatment of thyroid problems with natural means can take a long time, because the thyroid changes slowly. It is also important to continue to take your thyroid medications and work with your doctor. If herbal or naturopathic methods are successful you may be able to decrease your medicines, but this is by no means certain. The basic strategy is to reduce hidden factors that affect the thyroid and stimulate metabolism - this means finding the underlying problems that are contributory. These can be as simple as iodine deficiency, and as complex as liver and digestive problems, autoimmune issues or liver problems.
To measure your basal temperature, keep a thermometer by your bed at night. Upon waking (don't leave the bed at all), shake it down below 95 degrees, and place it in your armpit for a full ten minutes. Move as little as possible. Record the temperature for three days. Menstruating women need to do this on the second, third and fourth day of menstruation. Normal basal temperature should be between 97.6 F and 98.2 F. Low temperatures may indicate hypothyroidism, and high temperatures may indicate hyperthyroidism.
• Deficiency of any one of many basic nutrients, especially iodine, can slow thyroid hormone production and utilization. Daily intake of a multi-vitamin and multi-mineral can help solve this problem.
• Goitrogens are naturally-occurring substances that block the body’s utilization of thyroid hormone. These substances can range from chemicals in the water supply to common foods such as cabbage, mustard, cassava root, soybeans, peanuts, pine nuts and millet. The cooking process can inactivate goitrogens, so be sure to avoid raw forms of these foods (reported in Murray, 1991). Authorities such as Dr. Jim Duke believe that cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage) exert a deleterious effect only when there is iodine deficiency, and may be beneficial in the presence of sufficient iodine.
• Kelp fronds (Fucus versicolor) are a very rich source of micro-nutrition, minerals and trace minerals. They are especially high in iodine and potassium, useful for increasing under-active thyroid function and for alkalizing blood chemistry. Experienced clinician Dr. William Mitchell, ND has observed that low T-4 levels often increase slightly with 6 kelp tablets once a day at lunch (Mitchell, 1998). Other varieties of seaweed are also natural sources of iodine and can serve as beneficial dietary additions in cases of hypothyroidism. It is important to moderate your dietary intake of iodine-rich foods, especially when taking prescription thyroid medications. An overdose of iodine can be problematic, so do this in conjunction with your health care provoders.
• TCM doctors believe hypothyroidism is a Yang deficiency disease (see research note below), and they prescribe combinations of purified aconite, deer antler, astragalus root, ba ji tian root (Morinda officinalis ), epimidium herb, dry ginger root and cinnamon bark. The dosage is usually about six to nine grams per day of the 4:1 concentrated powders. These herbs are very strong, and need to be prescribed by a qualified TCM practitioner.
• The unique herb coleus (C. forskohlii) can be used to strengthen thyroid function by increasing intracellular cAMP levels. It must be prescribed by a qualified herbalist.
• Thyroid inflammation is sometimes cause by an underlying intestinal dysbiosis problem or candida infection, and if so, the digestive system must be treated properly first before other measure can work.
• DHEA can be used as a general aid to normalizing general hormone levels, including thryoid.
• Naturopaths use dessicated thryoid (bovine) to nourish the thyroid, as well as groups of vitamins such as vitamin B-6, folate, L-Tyrosine, Vitamine B-12 and iodine.
• In addition to prescription medications and herbal remedies, regular exercise also helps stimulate healthy thyroid activity.