HELP FOR THE THYROIDMichael Vertolli, RH May 1, 2004
The Modern Epidemic of Hypothyroidism Can Be Treated with Natural Food, Vitamins, and Herbs
Many of our body functions are controlled by hormones. These are one of several classes of substances that allow the different parts of our body to communicate with each other. Most hormones are produced by endocrine glands which release hormones into the blood, which in turn carries them throughout the body until they reach their target cells. Any cell that has receptor sites for a particular hormone will be influenced by it when it is present in the blood. Generally, a hormone will either speed up or slow down processes that occur within the cells that it influences.
The brain’s hypothalamus controls the pituitary gland, which in turn controls many of the functions of the remaining endocrine glands. However, endocrine glands often work together and the hormones produced by one of them will usually influence other endocrine glands. This is why disturbances in the functioning of one endocrine gland tend to have a negative influence on the functioning of the whole system.
Dysfunction of one or more of the endocrine glands is very common in our society. This is largely due to the prevalence of stressful lifestyles and overconsumption of foods that stimulate or suppress the functioning of various endocrine glands.
One of the most common endocrine disturbances in our society is an underactive (or hypo) thyroid, characterized by reduced production of thyroid hormones. These hormones regulate the metabolic rate of other cells and calcium metabolism. When thyroid hormones are deficient, many of the processes that occur in cells are slowed down. Hypothyroid influences every organ in our body. The more common symptoms associated with this condition include: intolerance to cold, weight gain, fatigue, depression and menstrual disorders.
The medical establishment recognizes three different forms of hypothyroidism:
1. Iodine-deficiency hypothyroidism was once prevalent because iodine is not a common element in the soil in most parts of the world. Diets that consist primarily of foods grown on iodine deficient soils tend to supply insufficient iodine to meet our daily requirements. Iodine is necessary for production of the two thyroid hormones that regulate metabolism. This condition is not common in our society because iodine is added to table salt, which we tend to overconsume. Sea salt contains natural iodine, but not in the same quantity as iodized salt. It is sometimes possible for natural food enthusiasts who consume only sea salt to be slightly deficient in iodine, especially if they also eat large quantities of foods and herbs from the Mustard (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage, kale, arugala, rapini, etc.) and Mint (e.g. peppermint, spearmint, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, catnip, lemon balm, motherwort, bugleweed, etc.) families, as plants from these families contain chemical constituents that tend to suppress thyroid function. This can easily be remedied by occasionally eating sea vegetables or taking kelp or dulse supplements. Iodized sea salt is now available as well.
2. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks thyroid tissue.
3. Post-therapeutic hypothyroidism can occur from over-zealous treatment of hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) resulting in destruction or removal of too much thyroid tissue.
What is not recognized or well-understood by mainstream medicine is functional hypothyroidism. This condition results from a combination of factors, usually beginning with chronic overstimulation of the thyroid due to stress and overconsumption of substances that tend to stimulate the thyroid (e.g. caffeine, sugar and iodized salt).
The stress response is primarily mediated through the interaction of the hypothalamus and the pituitary and adrenal glands. Disturbances in the functioning of these organs due to chronic stress will invariably affect the functioning of other endocrine glands, including the thyroid, and ultimately all organs of the body. Overconsumption of stimulants such as caffeine (e.g. coffee, tea, chocolate) and sugar has a similar affect on the endocrine system as stress.
Overconsumption of iodine (usually in the form of iodized salt) also tends to overstimulate thyroid function.
When an endocrine gland is chronically overstimulated, it tends to be overactive. This overactivity is sometimes mild and may not be recognized by diagnostic tests. After a period of overactivity, the gland will eventually become fatigued. Initially it will oscillate between hyper function and hypo function. Eventually it will become chronically underactive, although the level of underactivity will not always be significant enough to be easily diagnosed. Yet it can still have a profound influence on the way a person feels and functions.
The factors mentioned above (with the exception of overconsumption of iodine) tend to overstimulate both adrenals and thyroid. Hypothyroid function is often preceded or concurrent with hypoadrenal function. This tends to intensify feelings of fatigue. Although not specifically for adrenal function, the treatment protocol recommended for hypothyroid will benefit the adrenals as well.
Once the thyroid becomes underactive, its functioning can be further suppressed by other factors such as diets that are slightly deficient in iodine, over consumption of foods and herbs that suppress thyroid function, poor circulation (usually due to lack of exercise) and liver dysfunction.
Foods and herbs from the Mustard and Mint families are very nutritious and many have important medicinal properties. Regular consumption of these plants will not lead to underactive thyroid function unless other factors are also involved. Only those who already have hypothyroidism need be concerned. In these cases foods from the Mustard family should be reduced, but not eliminated, from the diet. Spices and herbs from the Mint family aren’t as much of a concern because they aren’t consumed in as large a quantity. However, regular consumption of bugleweed, motherwort and lemon balm should be avoided.
NUTRITIONAL MEDICINE FOR HYPOTHYROIDISM
Iodine-deficiency hypothyroidism is rare in our society. It can be treated by increasing dietary sources of iodine or taking kelp or dulse supplements.
Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune condition. Its treatment is more complex and needs to be supervised by a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner.
Post-therapeutic hypothyroidism is treatable, however, the success of treatment will depend on how much of the thyroid has been destroyed. If most of the thyroid is present, complete treatment is possible. If too much of the thyroid has been destroyed, only partial results are possible. If the thyroid has been completely or almost completely destroyed, treatment is only possible with thyroid hormone supplements.
Functional hypothyroidism is common and relatively easy to treat. The treatment protocol is the same as for milder cases of post-therapeutic hypothyroidism. If you are not taking thyroid medications, it is possible to attempt to treat the condition yourself as long as you have an accurate diagnosis. If you are taking thyroid medications, the condition is still treatable, but it should be supervised by a qualified practitioner. As always, if you are in the category where self-treatment is possible, you should stop the treatment and consult with a practitioner if you experience any unusual symptoms or the treatment doesn’t work after a period of three to six months.
The focus of treatment is to restore normal thyroid function so that it will produce sufficient hormones for optimum health. The use of thyroid glandulars is not recommended. It only helps the condition superficially by normalizing thyroid hormone levels without normalizing thyroid function. Although this approach may reduce the symptoms of hypothyroidism, it actually discourages normal thyroid function and creates a dependency on the thyroid supplements.
To begin with, there are important lifestyle and dietary factors that must be implemented as much as possible. Eat a diet that primarily consists of whole, organic foods with lots of fruits and vegetables. Moderately spicy foods (but not too spicy) are beneficial, especially garlic and cayenne or chili peppers. However, these spices lose their benefits when they are heated, so they should be added on your plate. If you prefer the flavour of garlic cooked, try partially cooking it by stirring it into your food right after you turn the heat off. Eat sea vegetables regularly. Essential fatty acids, preferably flax oil, are also recommended — it’s great in salads (mixed 50/50 with extra virgin olive oil) and on whole grains.
Reduce consumption of Mustard family vegetables for the duration of the treatment (don’t eliminate them). Also reduce caffeine (eliminate it, if possible), sweets, white flour products, red meats, dairy products, fried foods and any foods high in rancid or trans fats (hydrogenated oils, junk foods, nut butters, roasted nuts).
Take a good quality multi-vitamin with breakfast. It should have 25-50 mg of the B complex vitamins and all of the minerals should be in the form of amino acid chelates or citrates. Also take a good quality vitamin C, 500-600 mg, with breakfast and supper. It should be in the form of ascorbate (not ascorbic acid) and have a good polyphenol complex including at least two of the following: bioflavonoid, quercetin, rutin, hesperidin, anthocyanin, anthocyanidin.
Regular exercise is essential. Exercise improves circulation to the endocrine glands and mildly stimulates thyroid function. Your exercise regimen should include at least 30 minutes of intense aerobic work-out, three to four times per week, plus regular walking (preferably an hour a day or more).
Make sure that you get sufficient sleep. Regular practice of disciplines that help to relieve stress such as meditation, tai chi and yoga are also recommended.
A HERBAL REGIME FOR HYPOTHYROIDISM
The herbal treatment of hypothyroidism has two stages. In the first stage we use a formulation that consists of five components:
1. A strong bitter herb such as gentian root (Gentiana lutea: 10-20%), centaury herb (Centaurium erythraea: 10-20%), wormwood herb (Artemisia absinthium: 5-15%) or horehound herb (Marrubium vulgare: 10-20%)
2. A mildly bitter detoxifying herb such as dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale: 20-25%), or burdock root (Arctium spp.: 20-25%)
3. A pungent (hot) herb such as cayenne fruit (Capsicum spp.: .5-2%), garlic bulb (Allium sativum: 5-15%) or ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale: 5-10%)
4. An aromatic herb such as hyssop herb (Hyssopus officinalis: 20-40%), thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris: 20-40%), German chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita: 20-40%), lavender flowers (Lavandula angustifolia: 20-40%) or spearmint herb (Mentha spicata: 20-40%); and
5. Bladderwrack thalli (Fucus vesiculosus: 30-40%).
Overall, the formulation should be fairly bitter (but not overpoweringly so) and pungent (spicy) enough so that you can feel the heat in your mouth without burning it.
The best way to use these herbs is in the form of 1:5 fresh herb tinctures, taken three times per day on an empty stomach 15-30 minutes before meals. Add the tincture to a small amount of water 20-25 ml (1/2 to 1 ounce) and hold it in your mouth for about 30 seconds before swallowing.
Begin at a relatively low dose of about two droppers (a dropper is the amount of tincture that you get in the glass tube of the dropper when you completely press the bulb once) of the formulation (not each individual herb). As long as you don’t get any unusual symptoms, increase the unit dose by one dropper every week until you reach a maximum dose of five to seven droppers. Maintain that dose for at least three months or until the symptoms of hypothyroidism have dissipated.
When you have finished the first stage of treatment, take a break from the herbs for one to two weeks then begin the second formulation. It should consist of three components:
1. Two adaptogenic herbs such as North American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius: 25-35%), Siberian ginseng rhizome (Eleutherococcus senticosus: 25-35%), Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus: 25-35%) or lacquered polypore fruiting body (Ganoderma lucidum: 25-35%)
2. A pungent herb such as cayenne fruit (.5-2%) or ginger rhizome (5-10%); and
3. Maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba: 25-35%).
The second formulation is taken the same way as the first, except that it is not necessary to build up the dose. Start at five to seven droppers right away. This formulation needs to be taken for at least two to three months.
The doses that I have recommended are based on 1:5 fresh herb tinctures. Tinctures that you purchase may be stronger or weaker, depending on the manufacturer. The lower the second number in the ratio, the more potent the tincture (i.e. 1:2 is stronger than 1:5, 1:10 is weaker than 1:5). The recommended dose of the formulation may need to be decreased or increased depending on the potency of the tinctures that you purchase.
You can use the recommended dosages on the product as a guideline. It’s also best if you purchase all of your tinctures at the same potency, otherwise the recommended proportions will change (lower for a more potent tincture, higher for a less potent tincture). This may sound complicated to some of you, but, unlike drugs, herbs are very forgiving.
Minor changes to the proportion of an herb in a formulation will usually not make a big difference in the results, as long as it is a good formulation.
It is very difficult to make a general recommendation that will benefit everyone. Every case is different and many cases are too complex for self-treatment.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.com