Canadians, like members of most Western societies, are living longer and there are those who would like us to believe that this is largely the result of the many medical advances that have taken place in last century. Although there is probably some truth to this, what seems to be forgotten in our increasingly materialistic world is that quality is more important than quantity. What is the use of accumulating endless possessions if we are always so busy and stressed out making money to pay for them that we never have any peace or time to spend with our loved ones and our obsessive consumption is destroying the Earth upon which we depend for our very existence? Similarly, what is the use of living to be 100 if we end up spending the last few decades of our lives incapacitated with chronic disease, wasting away in a retirement home pumped full of medications? If we open our eyes it is obvious that chronic disease is on the rise and affecting each successive generation in rising numbers at an earlier age. All one has to do is listen to the news or read a newspaper and it is impossible not to notice the regular announcements that this or that disease is on the rise.
Recently the media was buzzing with the news that a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal indicated that various types of cancer of the thyroid had more than doubled in Canada the last decade. Although many doctors who commented on the study claimed that this was due to improved diagnosis, it is most likely that it is due to both increased incidence and better diagnosis.
I did not find this news to be much of a surprise. In my practice conditions of the thyroid are among the most common that I treat and they are rising steadily. Many of my clients who are suffering from thyroid dysfunction also have cysts on their thyroid. Fortunately, in most cases they are not malignant.
One of the sad things about thyroid conditions is that the medical treatments that are available are quite invasive. They involve cutting out cysts and part or all of the thyroid, destroying thyroid tissue with radiation, and inevitably putting people on increasing doses of synthetic thyroid hormone for the rest of their lives. The most unfortunate part of all of this is that the medical ‘experts’ will insist that there is no alternative. They will tell their patients that thyroid dysfunction will eventually lead to other more serious health problems (true) and that they must therefore accept conventional medical therapy because thyroid function can not be restored (untrue). As always, experience should be the ultimate judge of the efficacy of a treatment, not unquestioning adherence to current medical dogma. More than 20 years of practice as an herbalist has taught me that thyroid function can be restored to the point where the dependency on synthetic thyroid medications can be reduced and often eliminated, or prevented if treatment is begun early enough. This can be accomplished whether or not the condition includes an autoimmune component. It is also possible to shrink and even eliminate thyroid cysts.
In general, the health of any organ can usually be improved and often completely restored. Although the details differ, the basic approach is always the same: improve the dietary, lifestyle and environmental factors that underlie the condition, and provide appropriate treatment that will support the function of the organ and the person’s body as a whole.
The thyroid gland produces three important hormones. Triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) both require iodine and the essential amino acid tyrosine for their production. These hormones are involved in the regulation of the metabolic rate of our cells. When they are released into our blood, most of these molecules bind to blood proteins. Only a small percentage of these hormones circulate in an unbound state. It is believed that only these free T3 and T4 molecules influence cellular function. The third hormone produced by the thyroid is calcitonin. It is involved in calcium metabolism.
The master gland of the endocrine is the pituitary. It produces hormones that control the release of hormones by the other endocrine glands. The pituitary controls the release of thyroid hormones by releasing thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).
Disturbances of the functioning of endocrine glands often develop over many years. Medical diagnostic methods usually can not detect a problem until these conditions are very advanced. As a result, they often go undiagnosed. These are what we call sub-clinical 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 very aware that something is wrong even if their doctor can’t find anything.
In the case of the thyroid, disturbances of function are primarily diagnosed on the basis of blood tests for free T3, free T4 and TSH. In order to understand how the thyroid is functioning, it is not sufficient to simply measure T3 and T4 levels. It is also important to measure TSH so that we can determine how hard the pituitary has to work to get the thyroid to produce whatever levels of free thyroid hormones are present in the blood. Even then the results are difficult to interpret because there are many other factors that can influence the levels of these hormones.
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, especially when the condition is partially related to dietary iodine deficiency. 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 sub-clinical cases. Hypothyroidism often occurs after a period of sub-clinical hyperthyroidism. However, even if the hyperthyroid condition is more pronounced, it can be missed if blood tests are not taken at the right time. The situation is even more complicated by the fact that hypothyroid is often preceded by a period when the thyroid oscillates between hyper and hypo function. As a result, I have seen many cases where thyroid dysfunction has been misdiagnosed simply because the blood tests were taken on a day when the blood hormone levels were not characteristic of the true nature of the underlying condition. It would be more useful to measure hormone levels every couple of days over several weeks. This is obviously impractical, so the medical establishment is willing to put up with a certain percentage of misdiagnosed cases. This is not necessarily intentional. Most doctors don’t know that this is the case.
The factors that can contribute to thyroid dysfunction include:
(1) Psychological stress: This is significantly affected not only by the number and intensity of potentially stressful factors in our life, but more significantly by our strategies for dealing with stress which ultimately determine the degree to which these factors affect us. Personality factors are also important, such as being high-strung, extremely ambitious or aggressive, or a tendency to experience a lot of anger also tend to create significantly more stress in our life.
(2) Dietary factors: Excess consumption of sea vegetables, iodized salt, tyrosine supplements and stimulants such as caffeine can contribute to hyperthyroidism. Excessive consumption of raw vegetables and herbs from the Mustard family (e.g. arugala, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, rapini, etc.) and Mint family (e.g. basil, bugleweed, catnip, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, motherwort, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, spearmint, thyme, etc.) and soy products, and deficiencies of iodine, zinc and vitamins A, B2, B3, B6 and E can contribute to hypothyroidism.
(3) Drugs: Estrogen therapies opium derived drugs can contribute to hyperthyroid, while androgens, corticosteroids and salicylates may be implicated in hypothyroid.
(4) Exercise: Lack of exercise can contribute to both hyper- and hypothyroidism, as can insufficient sleep.
(5) 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 by-product of nuclear fission from power plants and weapons testing. Iodine is an important component of thyroid hormone and these substances tends to be found in the highest concentrations in our thyroid.
(6) 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.
(7) 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.
(8) 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.
Now let’s look at the treatment of thyroid dysfunction.
Iodine-deficiency hypothyroidism is rare in our society, although it was once common, particularly in the Great Lakes region where the soils are exceptionally low in iodine. 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 practitioner. This is also the case if there is a cyst on the thyroid gland.
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 sub-clinical 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 sub-clinical hypothyroidism.
The herbal treatment of both hyper- and hypothyroidism is similar and involves two distinct stages.
In the first stage we use a formulation that consists of five components: (1) a strong bitter herb such as centaury herb (Centaurium erythraea: 10-20%), gentian root (Gentiana lutea: 10-20%), wormwood herb (Artemisia absinthium: 5-15%) or white horehound herb (Marrubium vulgare: 10-20%); (2) a mildly bitter detoxifying herb such as burdock root (Arctium spp.: 20-25%), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale: 20-25%), or elecampane root (Inula helenium: 20-25%); (3) a pungent (hot) herb such as cayenne fruit (Capsicum annuum: .5-2%), cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum: 5-10%), garlic bulb (Allium sativum: 5-15%) or ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale: 5-10%); (4) an aromatic herb such as German chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita: 20-40%), hyssop herb (Hyssopus officinalis: 20-40%), lavender flowers (Lavandula angustifolia: 20-40%), one of the mint herb (the Mentha spp. peppermint, spearmint or wild mint: 20-40%), or thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris: 20-40%). (5) The fifth component is different depending on whether we are treating hyperthyroid or hypothyroid. For hyperthyroid we use bugleweed herb. American bugleweed (Lycopus americanus) is preferred because it is a strong bitter and can be used in place of one of the bitter herbs indicated above. Otherwise use one of the other Lycopus species’ at a proportion of 20-25%. For hypothyroid we use bladderwrack thallus (Fucus vesiculosus: 20-25%). 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 it being too hot or irritating.
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 10-20 minutes before meals. Add the tincture to 20-30 ml (1 ounce) of water 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 your 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 couple of weeks until you reach a maximum dose of 5-6 droppers. Maintain that dose for at least three months or until the symptoms have normalized.
The first stage of the treatment generally lasts about 6-12 months. How long it takes depends on the specifics of your case. You will know when to stop when you’re T3, T4 and TSH readings have been in the normal range for several months.
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 Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus: 25-35%), North American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius: 25-35%), Siberian ginseng rhizome (Eleutherococcus senticosus: 25-35%), or lacquered polypore fruiting body (Ganoderma lucidum: 25-35%); (2) a pungent herb such as cayenne fruit (.5-2%), cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum: 5-10%), or ginger rhizome (5-10%); and (3) maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba: 20-30%). 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 5-6 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, 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. Don’t forget that the dosage of your complete formulation will be similar to or slightly higher than the recommended dosage of your individual herbs when used on their own. You do not take the full recommended dose for each herb.
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 poor results, discontinue the treatment and seek the advice of a qualified practitioner.
With our health, as with anything in life, it is important that we keep an open mind and not give up our natural inquisitiveness and free will to authority figures until we have adequately explored our options. This takes a lot more work, but our health is ultimately our own responsibility. There are many conditions for which mainstream medical practitioners will claim that they can’t be reversed, only ‘managed’ with drugs and invasive medical treatments. Most of the time this is not the case. Sadly, most medical professionals have also surrendered their free will to the authority of accepted medical dogma and practice. Similarly, it is important that we don’t unquestioningly buy into the latest ‘alternative’ health fads, whether it’s parasites or low carb diets. Every illness provides us with an opportunity to rise to the challenge: to learn, to grow and to achieve a greater level of harmony within ourselves and the world that we live in.