What is Thyroid Disease?
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland on the front of the neck that sits just below the Adam’s apple and wraps around the windpipe (trachea). It is responsible for secreting the hormones necessary for growth and metabolism, and a regulator of all body functions. There are many types of thyroid disease; however, the main conditions present in most thyroid illnesses are hyperthyroidism (thyroid over-activity) and hypothyroidism (thyroid under-activity).
The thyroid itself is regulated by another gland located in the brain, called the pituitary. In turn, the pituitary is regulated in part by the circulating thyroid hormones and by another gland called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases a hormone, which sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). In turn, TSH sends a signal to the thyroid to release thyroid hormones. If over activity of any of these three glands occurs, an excessive amount of thyroid hormones can be produced, thereby resulting in hyperthyroidism. Similarly, if under activity of any of these glands occurs, a deficiency of thyroid hormones can result, causing hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism in More Detail
Hypothyroidism can also be classified as primary or secondary. Primary hypothyroidism is thought of as an autoimmune disease induced through chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland, also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This variety occurs most commonly in women. Secondary hypothyroidism is caused by failure of the hypothalamus to regulate the thyroid gland, or lack of secretion of TSH from the pituitary gland. Laboratory evaluation is needed to differentiate these two varieties. Low levels of TSH exist in secondary hypothyroidism, whereas very high levels of TSH characterize primary hypothyroidism due to the fact that there is no feedback inhibition of the pituitary gland.
Symptoms of Thyroid Disease
Each person’s experience of thyroid disease differs depending on a number of factors. A patient will not necessarily have all the below symptoms and some patients have these symptoms without having thyroid disease at all. A physician should be consulted if thyroid illness is suspected. Signs and symptoms of hyperthyroid and hypothyroid conditions include:
- rapid heart rate
- muscular weakness
- weight loss in spite of increased appetite
- restlessness, anxiety and sleeplessness
- excessive sweating and heat intolerance
- decreased concentration
- eye changes
- irregular or decreased menstrual flow
- goitre (increased size of the thyroid)
- slow heart rate
- muscular weakness
- constant fatigue
- sensitivity to cold
- dry skin
- fluid retention
- slowed mental processes and poor memory
- excessive or prolonged menstrual flow
- goitre (increased size of the thyroid)
How Chinese Medicine Treats Thyroid Disease
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, symptoms of a thyroid imbalance are indications of an imbalance of yin & yang in the body. Yin qualities are darker, heavy, night, moon, feminine, inactive, slow, moist, cold, and receptive. Yang qualities are lighter, warmer, daytime, masculine, fast, active, and dry. Chinese medicine aims to treat the entire person, not just the disease. A Chinese medical practitioner carefully observes the patient’s color, tongue, pulse, scent, signs, and symptoms in order to properly diagnose the imbalances and treat them accordingly.
Acupuncture: Clinical research has shown that acupuncture causes physical responses in nerve cells, the pituitary gland, and parts of the brain. These responses can cause the body to release proteins, hormones, and brain chemicals that control a number of body functions. It is proposed that, by these actions, acupuncture affects blood pressure, body temperature and the immune system.
In general, hypothyroidism can be diagnosed as an over abundance of Yin with Yang Deficiency. According to diagnosis, Chinese herbs would be used to rebalance this Yin and Yang relationship. Herbs and acupuncture are particularly useful for symptoms such as feelings of cold, cold hands & feet, fatigue, body aches, poor memory & concentration, foggy thinking, melancholy, depression, insomnia, trouble waking up in the morning, weight gain, constipation, and dryness.
Hyperthyroidism, being the opposite of hypothyroidism, would generally be diagnosed as an overabundance of Yang with Yin Deficient Heat. According to diagnosis, good herbal remedies will rebalance the Yin and Yang relationship. Acupuncture is also incredibly useful in treating hyperthyroid symptoms such as racing heart, palpitations, anxiety, feelings of heat, weight loss, and jumpy moods like anger and irritability.
Nutritional and Lifestyle Guidance: Sea vegetables such as kelp and seaweed are good sources of iodine, which is important to keep the thyroid function normal. Foods that contain omega 3 fatty acids including walnuts, flaxseeds and fatty fish, like sardines and salmon, also help produce thyroid hormones. Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium, which can help with thyroid hormone production. String beans are also very beneficial for the thyroid gland.
Conversely, soy products can have a negative impact for those with thyroid problems. Soy has an estrogen effect, and increased levels of estrogen can interfere with the production of thyroid hormones. Eat soy in moderation; once a week is acceptable.
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peaches, strawberries, peanuts, radishes, spinach, and millet can also lower the production of thyroid hormone by reducing the amount of iodine in the body. It is recommended to consume small amounts of these foods, and to cook them before eating since the heat can lessen their negative effect.
Caffeine can negatively affect absorption of thyroid medicine. It’s recommended to wait an hour after taking any thyroid medication before drinking coffee or tea.
Regular exercise, though not excessive, combined with proper sleep and reduced mental or emotional stress can also greatly improve a thyroid condition.
How Western Medicine Treats Thyroid Disease
Depending on the causes and symptoms of the type of thyroid disease, treatment may include medications, radioactive therapy, or surgery. Medications may be used to treat hyperthyroidism in order to reduce production of thyroid hormone, inhibit its release from the gland, and/or to treat signs and symptoms. Radioiodine may be used to damage or destroy the cells that make the thyroid hormones. Surgery may be used to remove the thyroid gland.
In hypothyroidism, synthetic thyroid hormone is given daily to replace the missing thyroid hormone. Once replacement therapy begins, the thyroid will stop producing hormones all together, and replacement must be continued for life.
Research and Related Articles on Thyroid Disease
A study on the clinical effect and immunological mechanism in the treatment of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis by moxibustion
Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 1993 Mar;13(1):14-8.
The influence of acupuncture on the quality of life and the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone in patients presenting with subclinical hypothyroidism [Article in Russian]
Vopr Kurortol Fizioter Lech Fiz Kult. 2011 Sep-Oct;(5):29-33.