What Does Natural Mean for Treating Hypothyroidism?

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You may wonder if there's a way to manage your hypothyroidism "naturally." It's a common question, and to answer it, the first step is defining what is meant by the term "natural."

For some patients and practitioners, treating hypothyroidism "naturally" means prescription thyroid treatment—by using natural desiccated thyroid drugs, such as Armour Thyroid or Nature-Throid. These prescription drugs are naturally derived from the thyroid glands of pigs but are FDA-regulated, prescription drugs.

Others view "natural" as meaning a treatment plan that does not include a prescription drug but is developed and overseen by people like naturopathic physicians, holistic and integrative physicians, Traditional Chinese Medicine experts, or herbalists.

Finally, there are some patients who view a natural approach as a do-it-yourself treatment they themselves can find and carry out on their own.

Let's take a closer look at these options and their potential implications for your health. 

Natural Prescription Thyroid Medication

Armour thyroid (and Nature-Throid) is desiccated thyroid extract derived from the dried thyroid gland of pigs. Desiccated thyroid extract contains both thyroxine (T4) and triiododothyronine (T3) in a ratio of about four to one. This is in contrast to the ratio of T4 to T3 in the human body, which is about 14 to 1. 

Armour Thyroid and Nature-Throid are alternatives to Synthroid (levothyroxine), a synthetic thyroid drug, which is traditionally prescribed by a primary care physician or endocrinologist to treat hypothyroidism.

It's important to note that the American Thyroid Association and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists do not recommend the use of desiccated thyroid extract as thyroid replacement treatment for hypothyroidism. 

This is why levothyroxine is favored by the vast majority of physicians, although some may opt to prescribe and manage patients on Armour.

Complementary/Holistic Treatment Approach

In addition to the traditional treatment of your hypothyroidism (with thyroid hormone supplementation), implementing lifestyle habits, mind-body practices, and dietary changes in your health care can offer many benefits.

That said, it's important you are open and honest with your doctor from the start about your use of complementary therapies. This way you can ensure nothing is going to interfere with your thyroid treatment and medication.

It's sensible to ask your doctor if he or she can recommend a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioner—one that is certified and/or affiliated with your hospital's center for integrative medicine.

Lastly, while CAM practitioners may be able to recommend approaches to support your thyroid, immune and hormonal systems, it's important to be cautious of any product that can "cure" your disease, or a product that has no side effects.

In the end, supplements are not regulated by the government, meaning there is no scientific consensus that they are safe and effective. In other words, just because a supplement is "natural" or available without a prescription does not necessarily mean it's actually harmless or right for you.

Self-Treatment

Self-treating your thyroid problem, by heading down to the local health food store, picking up some supplements, and making a few dietary changes is not a good idea. Treating an underactive thyroid is a complex process that requires careful symptom and dose monitoring by a physician.

To start, after being prescribed an initial dose of T4 (levothyroxine), your doctor will retest your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) about six weeks later. Depending on your blood test results and how you feel, your doctor will adjust your dose. This process may need to be repeated several times before your thyroid hormone levels normalize.

Then, even after your thyroid function normalizes, you will need a repeat TSH blood test at least yearly, as your T4 dose may need to be adjusted with changes in your life.

For example, a change in your diet may affect T4 absorption. In addition, your thyroid disease may naturally worsen requiring a higher dose of thyroid medication.

Not taking enough T4 (called undertreated hypothyroidism) is not healthy, as it may cause a host of problems from menstrual irregularities to high cholesterol and a slow heart rate. 

On the flip side, if you are taking too much thyroid medication, there is a risk of developing an irregular heartbeat (called atrial fibrillation) or developing bone loss (called osteoporosis). 

A Word From Verywell

In summary, it's best to see a medical doctor for treatment of your thyroid disease. Moreover, be candid about your use of complementary or holistic approaches. It's likely they can be safely integrated into your care, but you want to be certain you and your doctor are on the same page. 

Sources:

American Thyroid Association. (n.d.). Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Thyroid Disease (CAM). 

Chakera AJ, Pearce SHS, Vaidya B. Treatment for primary hypothyroidism: current approaches and future possibilities. Drug Des Devel Ther. 2012;6:1-11.

Garber JR et al. Clinical practice guidelines for hypothyroidism in adults: cosponsored by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American Thyroid Association. Endocr Pract. 2012 Nov-Dec;18(6):988-1028.

Jonklaas J et al. Guidelines for the treatment of hypothyroidism: Prepared by the American Thyroid Association task force on thyroid hormone replacement. Thyroid. 2014 Dec 1;24(12):1670-1751.