Thyroid Health: Acupuncture, Herbs & Nutrition

A well-functioning thyroid gland, a major player in our endocrine system, is essential for restoring and maintaining our optimal health.  So when something goes wrong with the thyroid, many health problems can arise.  But treatment of thyroid dysfunction with a combination of an individualized acupuncture protocol, herbal medicine and nutritional changes, can effectively address hypothyroid (underactive) or hyperthyroid (overactive) conditions.

As background, thyroid hormones have an influence on each and every cell in our bodies, and therefore exert a major impact on our overall health.  It’s not just metabolism that the thyroid gland regulates, although the unwanted weight gain in hypothyroidism is problematic.  Other functions in the body are also directly affected by thyroid hormones and as a result, hypothyroid patients, whose thyroid function is low, have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (including elevated cholesterol), dementia and Alzheimer’s.  These are obviously serious health risks.  In addition, other troublesome symptoms of a low functioning thyroid can include difficulty losing weight, fatigue, arthritis, constipation, depression, dryness of the skin and hair, headaches, infertility and miscarriage, insomnia, muscle cramps, cold sensitivity and more.

From a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) perspective, thyroid issues (hypothyroidism or, the less common, hyperthyroidism) likely indicate what we call “Kidney Essence” deficiency, as well as other imbalances of “Qi” and “Blood”.  This can be addressed with acupuncture, but every patient will manifest a unique symptom picture and will therefore benefit most from an individualized diagnosis, and an acupuncture protocol designed specifically for them.  Acupuncture, as one of several approaches in the treatment of thyroid dysfunction, will strengthen the deep, underlying deficiencies and harmonize the imbalances that have led to this condition.  In this way, the root cause of the thyroid problem is treated, not simply the symptoms.

Other common causative factors for thyroid issues include adrenal weakness, nutritional insufficiencies due to poor diet or weak digestion, exposure to common environmental toxins and pollutants, inadequate sleep, chronic stress and aging (particularly menopause)…which begins to sound descriptive of so many of us.  And women (vs. men) are far more likely to experience thyroid problems.

With the use of herbal medicine to treat a hypothyroid (or hyperthyroid) condition, herbs are chosen to address the specific and very individual needs of each patient.  However, a key element to herbal treatment of both hypo- and hyperthyroidism is the use of adaptogens.  Adaptogens are herbs that will strengthen “Kidney Essence” and help to restore vital functioning, including in the thyroid and adrenal glands.  Herbs would be chosen carefully to fit each unique patient, and may include one or more of these:  Rehmannia, Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, Schisandra and Rosemary (an adaptogen companion).   Other herbs may be added to a formula because they will improve thyroid function, such as Bladderwrack or Coleus. 

The ideal scenario in any herbal treatment is to have a skilled herbalist choosing plant medicines that will address the unique constitutions of individual patients.  But anyone with thyroid problems will likely benefit from an adaptogenic formula that will strengthen adrenal function, and these can be purchased in reputable health food stores or online.  (Just make sure you’re getting a clean product that has been processed correctly, and with the right dose.) 

Probably the most effective “self help” for people dealing with thyroid issues falls under the heading of nutrition.  By that, I mean both diet and supplements.  I routinely suggest to patients who have been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (which is an underactive thyroid, the result of an autoimmune reaction), that they completely eliminate gluten from their diets (all wheat products, spelt, rye and barley).  Briefly, the reason for this is that, oddly enough, the protein (gliadin) in gluten closely resembles molecules in the thyroid gland.  When the immune system “tags” the gliadin for destruction, those antibodies also attack the thyroid.  So if you have Hashimoto’s, it can be very helpful to entirely eliminate the presence of gliadin (from gluten), which will effectively “quiet” the immune system’s “attack” on your thyroid.

In general, a diet to improve thyroid health would be very low in refined sugars and refined grains (ie. white bread), and would include fresh vegetables and fruits (preferably organic), protein (especially grass fed meat, fish, poultry & eggs), and fats (healthy ones, like olive oil, coconut oil or avocado).  Unrefined salt is preferable, as it naturally contains minerals, including iodine (which is crucial to healthy thyroid function).  And adding 8-10 olives (naturally brined) daily to the diet will nourish thyroid function as well.

Especially beneficial to thyroid health are: almonds, eggs, apricots, avocados, cranberries, oats, fish (avoid farm raised), sea vegetables and whole milk dairy products (goat milk may be preferable), nuts & seeds, carrots, tomatoes, yams, & naturally brined olives.  These foods in particular provide the thyroid with essential nutrients to maintain optimal function.

Foods to avoid would be uncooked (raw) cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, mustard greens and brussels sprouts.

This is because raw cruciferous vegetables contain goitrogens, which are natural substances that unfortunately suppress thyroid function.  However!  Cruciferous vegetables are an amazing source of vitamins and minerals, and have been shown to prevent cancer… so they should actually be eaten in abundance for overall health.  Just make sure you cook them first, which deactivates the goitrogens.

If you study the suggestions listed above, you’ll notice that the optimal diet for healthy thyroid function is very close to the Mediterranean diet.  In that regard, you might also want to limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day, preferably red wine.

In terms of supplements, two key nutrients are crucial to thyroid function: Selenium and Zinc.  Selenium and zinc are necessary for the conversion of T4 hormone into the biologically active T3, which is ultimately responsible for the myriad of thyroid functions in the body.  Patients can either take a dietary supplement to ensure they are getting these nutrients, or they can increase consumption of foods high in both selenium and zinc. They can also do some of both.  For example, for selenium supplementation, take no more than 400 micrograms (not mg.) of selenium - OR take a lower dose and add Brazil nuts (quite high in selenium) to your diet.  To make sure you’re getting enough zinc, take 15 mg per day, or up to 30 mg if you’re a vegetarian, since meat products are high in zinc.  OR you can take a lower dose, and increase lean beef (preferably grass fed), lamb, spinach, pumpkin seeds and cashews.

It is estimated that over 20 million people (mostly women) in this country are being treated for a thyroid disorder.  It is also quite possible that many millions more are suffering with the effects of an undiagnosed thyroid problem, largely because of how tricky it can be to accurately identify.  But there are absolutely things you can do to optimize your thyroid health, some of which are briefly outlined in this article.   

As always, if you have questions about this post, or any of the specific suggestions I make here, don’t hesitate to email or call me for clarification.  I’m happy to help if I can.  But meanwhile, start eating your olives, Brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds!