Thyroid TherapyMichael Vertolli, RH March 1, 2006
Foods and Herbs to Nourish this Hardworking Master Gland
Stress is something that we have learned to accept in modern Western society. It has become a way of life. For example, the technologies that are supposed to make our lives easier are actually accelerating our stress load. It began with answering machines, then came cell phones, faxes and e-mails. Although these inventions facilitate communication, it has reached a point where we are communicating ourselves into an early grave. In addition to psychological stress, chemical stress is also on the rise as our population and level of consumption increases and we rapidly fill our one and only home with our toxic waste products.
Not surprisingly, this sad state of affairs is having a profoundly negative impact on our physical and psychological well-being. Physiologically, it takes a major coordinated effort for the body to mount a defence against the many sources of stress in our lives. Although this effort is ultimately controlled by our nervous system, it is primarily implemented by hormones produced by our many endocrine organs.
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. Our endocrine glands release their hormones into our blood, where they travel throughout our 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 our blood. Generally, a hormone will either speed up or slow down one or more processes that occur within the cells that it influences.
The part of our brain that controls our endocrine system is the hypothalamus. It controls the pituitary gland, which in turn controls many of the functions of the remaining endocrine glands. The backbone of our stress response is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, as our primary stress response is stimulated by adrenal hormones in response to signals from our hypothalamus and pituitary.
Nevertheless, endocrine glands tend to work together and the hormones produced by one of them will usually influence most or all of the other endocrine glands either directly or indirectly. 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 partly due to the prevalence of stressful lifestyles and overconsumption of foods, beverages and drugs that stimulate or suppress the functioning of various endocrine glands. Many environmental toxins also act on hormone receptor sites.
Disturbances of the functioning of endocrine glands often develop over many years. Medical diagnostic methods usually cannot detect a problem until these conditions are very advanced. As a result, they often go undiagnosed. These are what we call subclinical conditions as the symptoms are often too subtle to be easily diagnosed. Nevertheless, these conditions are very real and can have a profound impact on our health and well-being. Those who suffer from them are usually aware that something is wrong even if their doctor can’t find anything.
SYMPTOMS OF THYROID DYSFUNCTION
One of the most common categories of endocrine dysfunction in our society involves disturbances of thyroid function. This usually results in an over- or under-production of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones help to regulate the metabolic rate of our body cells and also calcium metabolism. Consequently, thyroid dysfunction influences every organ in our body.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when thyroid hormones are being produced in excess. This tends to speed up many of the processes that occur in our body. Symptoms include hyperactivity, elevated heart rate, intolerance to heat, weight loss, mild diarrhea and insomnia. In more serious cases goiter (enlarged thyroid) usually develops. Most of these symptoms can also be associated with hyperadrenal function and other conditions. Hyperadrenal function often occurs concurrently with hyperthyroid.
Hypothyroidism occurs when thyroid hormones are deficient. This tends to slow down many of the processes that occur in our body. Symptoms include fatigue, depression, reduced libido, intolerance to cold, weight gain, elevated cholesterol levels, constipation, hair loss and irregularities of the menstrual cycle in women. In advanced cases goiter develops here as well. Most of these symptoms can also be associated with hypoadrenal function and other conditions. Hypoadrenal function often occurs concurrently with hypothyroid.
Diagnosed hypothyroidism is much more common than diagnosed hyperthyroidism. However, both are considerably more common when we include undiagnosed subclinical cases. Hypothyroidism often occurs after a period of subclinical hyperthyroidism.
FACTORS THAT DISTURB THE THYROID
Aside from the negative impact of psychological stress that affects all of the endocrine glands via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, there are many factors that can potentially disturb thyroid function. They include:
1. Dietary factors: Excess consumption of sea vegetables, iodized salt and stimulants such as caffeine can contribute to hyperthyroidism. Excessive consumption of raw vegetables and herbs from the mustard family (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, arugula, rapini, etc.) and mint family (e.g. peppermint, spearmint, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, catnip, lemon balm, motherwort, bugleweed) and soy products can contribute to hypothyroidism. As well, deficiencies of iodine, zinc and vitamins A, B2, B3, B6 and E also exacerbate hypothyroidism.
2. Exercise: Lack of exercise can contribute to both hyper- and hypothyroidism, as can insufficient sleep.
3. Toxicity: Many toxins can bind to hormone receptor sites resulting in negative health consequences. Also of particular importance for thyroid function is radioactive iodine, which is a byproduct of nuclear fission from power plants and weapons testing. Iodine is an important component of thyroid hormone and this substance tends to be found in the highest concentrations in our thyroid.
4. Autoimmune factors: Many cases of both hyper- and hypothyroidism have an autoimmune component. Psychological and toxic stress are major factors contributing to the development of autoimmune conditions.
5. Tumours: Cysts and tumours of the thyroid can result in hyper- and hypothyroidism. One of the major causes of tumours in this organ is radioactive iodine.
6. Iatrogenic causes: Post-therapeutic hypothyroidism can occur from over-zealous treatment of hyperthyroidism resulting in destruction or removal of too much thyroid tissue.
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, particularly iodine deficiency, which is rare since the advent of iodized salt. 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 and only eaten cooked. 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 herbal products containing bugleweed, motherwort and lemon balm should be avoided.
HERBAL MEDICINE FOR THYROID DYSFUNCTION
Iodine-deficiency hypothyroidism is rare in our society. It can be treated by increasing dietary sources of iodine or taking kelp or dulse supplements.
Autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s disease and Grave’s disease require treatment protocols that are more complex. The treatment of these conditions should be supervised by a qualified herbalist or other natural health care professional.
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 subclinical hyper- and hypothyroidism are relatively easy to treat as long as you are not taking thyroid medications. If you are taking thyroid medications, the condition is still treatable, but it should be supervised by a qualified practitioner. 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. As always, if you are someone for whom 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 produce significant results after a period of 3-6 months.
The treatment protocol for post-therapeutic hypothyroidism is the same as for milder cases of subclinical hypothyroidism.
The herbal treatment of both hyper- and hypothyroidism is similar and involves 2 distinct stages.
In the first stage we use a formulation that consists of 5 herbal 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%), elecampane root (Inula helenium: 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%).
(5) The fifth component is different depending on whether we are treating hyperthyroid or hypothyroid. For hyperthyroid we use bugleweed herb (Lycopus spp.: 25-35%). For hypothyroid we use bladderwrack thallus (Fucus vesiculosus: 25-35%). Overall, both kinds of formulations 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 (0.5-1 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 5-7 droppers. Maintain that dose for at least 3 months or until the symptoms have normalized.
When you have finished the first stage of treatment, take a break from the herbs for 1-2 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%). In this stage of treatment there are no differences between the treatment of hyper- and hypothyroid.
The second formulation is taken the same way as the first, except that it is not necessary to build up the dose. Start at 5-7 droppers right away. This formulation needs to be taken for at least 2-3 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 important that you are sure of your initial diagnosis before beginning treatment as the symptoms of both hyper- and hypothyroid could be due to other conditions. If you begin treatment and experience any unusual symptoms or you get mediocre results, discontinue the treatment and seek the advice of a qualified practitioner.
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: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/