What Does 'Natural' Mean for Treating Hypothyroidism?

Pills in palm of hand
Zoa Photo/Stocksy United

You may wonder if there's a way to deal with your hypothyroidism "naturally." I hear this question frequently from readers. To answer the question, 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 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 it's developed and overseen by a trained practitioners, such as naturopathic physicians, holistic and integrative physicians, Traditional Chinese Medicine expert, or herbalist.

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, without practitioner guidance.

So, let's take a look at the options.

Natural Prescription Thyroid Medication

Desiccated thyroid is a thyroid drug derived from the dried thyroid gland of pigs. Common brand names include Nature-throid and Armour Thyroid.

These are FDA-regulated, prescription drugs — not to be confused with over-the-counter, non-prescription thyroid glandulars that you can buy at the vitamin store.

Natural thyroid is an alternative to levothyroxine, a synthetic thyroid drug, which is more commonly prescribed.

Desiccated thyroid is sometimes maligned by traditional doctors, and levothyroxine is favored by many conventional physicians, but many holistic, complementary, and older physicians are comfortable prescribing and managing patients on natural thyroid drugs.

Holistic/Alternative/Complementary Treatment Approach

In more than a decade as a patient advocate, and as someone who personally has an interest in trying to incorporate holistic approaches into my own health care, I've had the unique opportunity to interview hundreds of practitioners.

Many of them might be characterized as "alternative" or holistic, including naturopaths, herbalists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors, holistic MDs, homeopaths, and many other types of experts.

I have always asked them the same question: can you "cure" thyroid problems naturally?

I always get the same answer.

For a percentage of their patients, mainly those who started with a borderline or mild problem case of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, they were able to relieve symptoms and get them back into a normal profile, as far as blood tests, after extensive treatment. Typically, most of the alternative practitioners I've interviewed have reported nine month to two-year timelines for those patients they successfully treated.

Even with a lengthy treatment timeline, hypothyroid patients almost always needed to take "traditional" drug therapy. The practitioners then gradually wean patients off the traditional drugs, as thyroid balance was restored.

But the practitioners all cautioned me that it's not a sure thing.

Rather, it's a complex process, it almost always takes quite a long time to see results, and most patients find it difficult, if not impossible, to follow the vitamin/supplement/herbal regimen, mind-body practices, lifestyle changes, and dietary restrictions necessary to achieve success.

So, does this mean there's no hope? Never say never! If you have a mild or borderline thyroid problem, you may want to investigate going for a remission or "natural cure" of your condition, under the direction of a knowledgeable alternative practitioner.

We know, for example, that there are natural supplements that may help the thyroid, and even help calm the immune response — selenium and iodine, for example. 

And even if your thyroid problem is not mild, alternative practitioners may be able to recommend approaches to support your thyroid, immune and hormonal systems , which will allow you to take less medication, get better relief of symptoms, and deal with persistent symptoms that may not be relieved by medication.

For an example of an interesting and thoughtful alternative approach, read my Thyroid Disease: A Natural/Herbal Perspective: Interview with Shasta Tierra.

Self-Treatment

Can you head on down to the local health food store, pick up some supplements, make a few dietary changes, and fix your thyroid problem yourself?

Probably not. Since it's hard for even experienced alternative practitioners to sort out the complexity of a thyroid imbalance and treat it naturally, it's even more of a challenge for the average person. There is also the risk that your condition will get worse. Clerks at health food stores give harmful advice about supplements to help your thyroid.

And with hypothyroidism, treatment can prevent the condition from progressing (and causing weight gain and atherosclerosis along the way.) And untreated or undertreated hypothyroidism can cause infertility, endanger pregnancy, or cause other hormonal problems, such as erratic menstrual cycles or difficult menopause.

Be especially wary about costly supplements marketed all over the Internet that tout themselves as thyroid cures, or suggest that they are an alternative to prescription thyroid medications. Not only do these supplements not contain the missing thyroid the body needs, but there are often ingredients — such as iodine — that are known to actually worsen thyroid conditions in a subset of people.

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