An Herbal Perspective on Care and Management of Thyroid Disease

Learn More About Natural and Herbal Treatment of Thyroid Disease

Herbal Medicine
Herbal medicine. Getty Images/BSIP/UIG

More and more people are becoming interested in natural alternatives and complementary medicine for the treatment and management of their chronic health conditions, thyroid disease included. In an interview with natural health practitioner Shasta Tierra of Way of Wellness, we discuss alternative and complementary treatment options for thyroid disease and its symptoms. 

The Thyroid in Traditional Medicine

The thyroid as we know it in Western medicine is the master-controlling gland that has many different functions in the body.

It is a part of the endocrine system, which in both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is like the chakra system or the root or "essence" qi. Therefore, from a traditional medicinal perspective, if the thyroid is out of balance, it can affect the different organs in many ways.

Essence is what TCM calls preancestral qi, which is essentially what our parents genetically gave us. When we're born, we have the opportunity to preserve our essence by eating good "food qi" (with healthy, unprocessed, organic, seasonal food) and breathing good "air qi" (through proper exercise, chemical-free perfumes and cosmetics, clean air, etc.). Our "essence" mixed with "food qi" and "air qi" combine together to give us our "defensive qi" or immunity.

If there is a breakdown in any of these factors either deficient "essence" (genetic problem), poor nutrition, and/or inadequate oxygen, then we will see a breakdown in the immune system and autoimmune problems, like thyroid disease.

Herbal Alternatives to Thyroid Hormone Replacement

Many people are looking for natural alternatives to thyroid hormone replacement that would allow them to avoid prescription thyroid hormone replacement or gradually reduce their dose over time. According to Tierra, there are no herbs that have thyroid hormone in them, but there are herbal, lifestyle, and dietary changes that can be made to help the whole body, which in turn will help the thyroid.

Tierra begins her explanation with the Chinese theory of:

Preancestral Qi (or, Essence/Genetics)+ Food Qi + Air Qi = Defensive Qi (or, Immunity) 

With this theory in mind, what natural medicine practitioners want to do is foster the best food and oxygen to preserve patients' essence and maintain their immunity. Approaching herbs as specialized foods, they fall under the food portion of the equation and can be used to help the body, and as a result, the thyroid optimally.

Using Food and Herbs to Support the Thyroid

Thyroid hormones are mostly converted in the liver and the kidneys, so helping these two organs will help the conversion and give the thyroid a break. Eating easily digestible foods along with herbs that will help with digestion can lessen the detoxifying work of the liver and allow it to better convert thyroid hormone. Depending on your body's constitution, there are several herbs that are known to aid digestion, including ginger, peppermint, and digestive grape bitters, which can be found in commercially available products like Digestive Comfort and Digestive Grape Bitters by the company Planetary Herbals.

Other herbs that can help support the thyroid include:

  • Guggul, which is known to increase the metabolism while breaking down bad cholesterol
  • Triphala, which has lots of enzymes, vitamin C, and helps digestion and elimination
  • Kelp, which contains iodine and is known to help certain thyroid conditions

According to Tierra, since herbs can be used to help manage symptoms as well, there are many more herbal possibilities for people with thyroid disease. But most important is to start with things that:

  1. Support the liver
  2. Regulate digestion and elimination
  3. Aid digestion  

What About Iodine-Rich Herbal Supplements?

There is currently a debate about iodine-rich supplements and thyroid disease. Some practitioners believe that the current increase in hypothyroidism in North America is stemming from a deficiency of iodine in the diet and feel that supplemental iodine in some form is essential for thyroid patients. Yet at the same time, many patients who decide to try to self-treat thyroid symptoms with iodine, kelp, or other iodine-rich herbal supplements report having a "crash" several days after beginning. Their energy flags, they feel profoundly hypothyroid, and cannot function well. Conversely, some alternative practitioners believe that lack of iodine is not the cause of autoimmune hypothyroidism and that iodine actually aggravates an autoimmune thyroid. 

According to Tierra, Chinese medicine believes that a combination of herbs working together usually works best, meaning that an iodine-rich herb would not be used alone. Kelp (which is a natural source of iodine) is often used in combination with other herbs and typically makes up a very low percentage of the formula (5%) as it is hard to digest and absorb. Tierra says, "It's not what we put into our bodies; it's what our bodies can do with it."

Soy: Is It Right for Thyroid Patients?

One of the big controversies for thyroid patients is the issue of soy isoflavones. Some studies have reported that overconsumption of soy - particularly in the form of isoflavone-packed supplements and protein powders - can inhibit the thyroid peroxidase, the thyroid enzyme that makes the key hormones T4 and T3, which can result in goiters, hypothyroidism, and autoimmune thyroid problems. A number of patients have reported developing thyroid symptoms after periods of excessive soy consumption.

Tierra says that if we are to eat soy, it should always be in moderation. She also recommends that soy be cooked and that you eat balancing herbs like ginger to help digest it. In line with what many have experienced with soy, Tierra shared a story about a young male patient who came into her office with severe carpal tunnel syndrome. He said that the symptoms all started when he began drinking excessive amounts of soy protein drinks. Upon further inspection, he had all the classic hypothyroid symptoms, so Tierra ordered blood tests which revealed that his TSH level was 40 along with low Total T3. In response to the findings, she immediately took him off all the soy protein drinks, put him on a mostly warm, cooked diet, and got him on the appropriate thyroid medications. He reported significant improvement in most of his symptoms. 

Natural Solutions for Thyroid Disease Symptoms

In addition to learning how to best manage thyroid disease, many people are also looking for ways to naturally manage their symptoms. For instance, the three symptoms that tend to plague most people who are hypothyroid are fatigue, weight gain/difficulty losing weight, and depression. According to Tierra, these common symptoms can also be treated with natural options. For instance, she has seen Qigong, a simplified version of Tai Chi, do wonders for patients experiencing fatigue with time and dedication. Whereas others do well with regular acupuncture or moxibustion (herbal heat therapy) treatments. Even others are successfully with herbal options.

Tierra says that it is important to note that natural treatments take time.. "There is an old Chinese saying that it takes 9 months to create a baby," she says. "The first three months you may not even see any changes, but as 6 to 9 months come along it all begins to accumulate in a substantial way. This is the same for all chronic diseases." She suggests working with a practitioner to take a holistic approach to treating your thyroid disease symptoms.

When Alternative Treatments Are Not Enough

Despite being a natural health practitioner, Tierra doesn't necessarily believe that natural alternatives can treat all thyroid conditions on their own. In fact, she goes as far as to say, "I think it is short-sighted for complementary practitioners to think that we can fix anything, including the thyroid if we just do all the right things for our [patient's] health. Some genetic thyroid problems are like type I diabetes [in that people are born with it] and it must be treated [with the proper medication like] insulin."

In Tierra's experience, the more severe thyroid problems like hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism take a combination of treatments to get under control and may need both Western conventional medicine and Eastern/complementary methods to effectively treat and stabilize. She maintains that you should always try to work with all aspects of your life and health including your environment, lifestyle, diet, medications, herbs, and exercise to get the best results.

She goes on to say that while there is a growing fear of going on synthetic and non-synthetic prescription thyroid hormones, if people with thyroid disease work with doctors who are knowledgeable about herb and drug interactions to find the right dosage while incorporating natural, complementary options, they can expect better outcomes and generally lower dosages of prescription medications. Finding out what works for you is the key.

How to Find a Natural Practitioner

According to Tierra, a great place to start your search is with the Thyroid Top Doctors Database. There is also the American Herbalist Guild, which has many respected herbalists across the country. As a natural practitioner herself, Tierra thinks that it is important to find out what a practitioner's experience and philosophies are. It is important that they have a comprehensive system that treats the patient's unique symptoms individually verses one solution for all.

Questions to ask during your search include: Are they totally western medicine-oriented, totally alternative medicine, or can they see the strengths and weaknesses of both? Are they up to date with the latest literature? Do they seem like they truly care, or are they going to think that you're a hypochondriac and neurotic? Do you feel like you are in partnership with them, or is it all one sided? Hopefully with some research and luck, you will find a team of doctors who are willing to work together to help you with your health.

About Shasta Tierra, L.Ac.

As a licensed primary health care provider, Shasta Tierra uses Acupuncture, Clinical Herbology, Nutrition and Acupressure for the treatment of a broad range of common ailments. Having grown up surrounded by the healing arts, Shasta had the rare opportunity to study under the tutelage of her father, Dr. Michael Tierra O.M.D. L.Ac. author of many books including the best selling book, The Way of Herbs. With over ten years as a health care provider, Shasta specializes in and teaches on hypothyroidism, women's health care, pain management and whole body and facial rejuvenation. Shasta has lectured and practiced Chinese Medicine at the Center for Integrative Medicine at O'Connor Hospital, as well as taught at the American School of Herbalism. Her unique approach incorporates a total health program aimed at achieving whole life enrichment.

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