The Ayurvedic approach
A look at a holistic method of treating thyroid hormone deficiency that restores balance and function
By Virender Sodhi, MD (Ayurveda), ND
Hypothyroidism is a common disorder that can broadly be described as deficiency of thyroid hormone. The deficiency can be either from the gland itself, from the pituitary, or from the hypothalamus. A clear understanding of the etiology and pathology behind the different types of hypothyroidism is important in making good clinical decisions.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III, the prevalence of hypothyroidism overall in the United States is 3.7 percent, defined as an elevated serum TSH concentration and reduced free thyroxine concentration (fT4) and 4.3 percent of the population have what has been described as “subclinical” or mild hypothyroidism.1,2 The incidence of hypothyroidism may even be more prevalent than the above-stated figures.
Hypothyroidism, including subclinical hypothyroidism, affects 10 females for every male, and is estimated to affect up to 20 percent of women over the age of 50. Approximately 2 percent of pregnant women are diagnosed with hypothyroidism and 2.5 percent with subclinical hypothyroidism.2,3
Hypothyroidism due to autoimmune thyroiditis may be part of polyglandular failure syndrome that may include autoimmune adrenal insufficiency, type 1 diabetes mellitus, hypogonadism, pernicious anemia and vitiligo.2 Postpartum thyroiditis is a type of transient thyrotoxicosis that occurs within six weeks to six months after giving birth in 6 percent to 8.8 percent of postpartum women. About 23 percent eventually end up in a permanent hypothyroid state.2,5
Euthyroid sick syndrome is a condition related to long-term illnesses whose chronic stress can cause hormonal changes, especially at the cellular level. For example: patients with chronic cardiac, renal, and hepatic diseases are observed to have low T3, normal or low T4, and normal TSH levels. In patients with severe chronic diseases, the stress of the disease stimulates the adrenal gland to produce excess cortisol in the bloodstream.
Cortisol inhibits the peripheral conversion of T4 to T3 and promotes the conversion of T4 into an isomer of T3 called reverse triiodothyronine (rT3). Reverse T3 does not act the same as T3 but binds to the same T3 receptors, which causes a competitive inhibition to T3. Loss of T3 activity produces symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue, headache, and fluid retention.2,7
Stress can independently induce similar conditions and lead to hypothyroidism. Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of hypothyroidism worldwide. Transient hypothyroidism resultng from iodine excess is known as the Wolff-Chaikoff effect.4
Medications like amiodarone, interferon ?, thalidomide, and lithium, among others, can cause hypothyroidism.2,6 Melatonin also has been shown to suppress thyroid function in test animals.15
Children with prolonged hypothyroidism, even after adequate treatment, do not reach predicted height based on mid-parental height calculations.8 Fire retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are environmental chemicals that may lead to thyroid dysfunction. Over the years these have been added to many kinds of products, such as pillows, furniture foam, and clothing.
PBDEs come in several varieties, including pentaBDE, octaBDE, and decaBDE. In laboratory tests, they have been associated with thyroid dysfunction, impaired memory, learning problems, abnormal behavior, reduced sperm count, and delayed puberty.9
It may be that low-level radiation form computers, laptops, cell phones, televisions, and similar devices may be linked to some cases of hypothyroidism. The thyroid gland is rich in iodine, and low-level radiation can bind on iodine and may render the thyroid dysfunctional.
Nutrition is the hallmark of Ayurvedic medicine for treating disease. Hypothyroid patients are instructed to avoid goitrogenic foods. Goitrogens are naturally occurring substances that can interfere with function of the thyroid gland. If the thyroid gland is having difficulty making thyroid hormone, it may enlarge as a way of trying to compensate for inadequate hormone production.
Two categories of foods associated with disrupted thyroid hormone production in humans are soybean-related foods and cruciferous vegetables. In addition, other foods, such as peaches, strawberries, and millet, also contain goitrogens.
Hypothyroid patients should avoid broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, millet, peaches, strawberries, peanuts, radishes, spinach, soybeans, and soybean products. However, cooking can destroy some goitrogens.10-14
Foods rich in iodine, such as fish and sea vegetables (e.g., kelp), are believed to nourish the thyroid and increase its function. Seaweeds have the precursor diidotyrosine for manufacturing T3 and T4. Foods rich in vitamin A are also beneficial. Yellow vegetables, carrots, and dark green vegetables all contain high amounts of vitamin A, which is also a proven antioxidant.
Zinc and copper are important minerals that help the body produce thyroid hormone. Foods that contain zinc include beef, chicken, seafood, oatmeal, beans, spinach, seeds, and nuts. Foods rich in copper include eggs, beans, nuts, and raisins. Foods rich in selenium also help thyroid function and include whole grains, cereals, brazil nuts, seafood, and shiitake mushrooms.
Yoga and exercise
Yoga helps to balance the endocrine system. Stress can independently suppress thyroid gland function, as excess circulating cortisol suppresses the function of thyroid hormone. Yoga can have a positive and stimulating impact on the endocrine organs, especially the thyroid and parathyroid glands.
The compressing, stretching, and twisting of the yoga postures is thought to help to massage the endocrine organs, regulating their function, improving blood flow, and nourishing them at the cellular level.
According to Ayurvedic medicine, the most effective yoga posture for an underactive thyroid is sarvangasana (shoulder stand). An inverted pose, the shoulder stand reverses the effects of gravity and allows blood to flow from the legs and feet into the neck, where the thyroid gland is. By sending oxygenated blood to the neck region, the thyroid is nourished and stimulated, which in turn assists in weight loss, improves circulation, and increases metabolism.
Shavasana (the corpse pose), simhasana (the lion pose), and kapalbhatti (breath of fire) help keep the thyroid healthy and boost the whole body.
Patients with thyroid disease are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis.22 Brisk walking, aerobic exercise, and active sports help improve circulation and thyroid hormone production. Light weightlifting is also recommended
as people with hypothyroidism are prone to osteoporosis. Patients with hypothyroidism can benefit from calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and selenium supplements.
A number of Ayurvedic herbs have shown thyroid stimulating effects. Traditionally, Commiphora mukul (guggul), Bauhinia variegata (Kachnar), Withania somnifera (Ashwgandha), Bacopa monnieri (Brahmi), Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice), and other herbs have shown promising results.
Like Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine also employs polypharmacy, using combinations of herbs to balance particular organs and the whole body. An herbal preparation containing solid extracts of B. variegata, C. mukul, G. glabra, and Convolvulus pluricaulis (Shankhapushpi) was tried in 50 patients for three months. After treatment, a marked improvement was seen in weakness, fatigue, dyspnea, and there was reduced neck swelling. There were increases in serum T4 and T3 concentrations and decreases in total cholesterol.16
In another study, a preparation of C. mukul resin and B. variegata powder was given to nearly 900 Indians with simple goiter. They were also asked to apply B. variegata ointment simultaneously. Treatment was continued for 10 to 20 months. A 90-percent to 100-percent improvement was observed in the swelling of the gland in 163 patients, a 50-percent to 100-percent improvement was seen in 148 patients, and up to a 50-percent improvement was observed in 149 patients. Patients over 50 years old exhibited only 40-percent to 50-percent improvement.
In other animal studies, B. variegata extract has shown stimulating effects similar to thyroxine.17 Similarly, extract of Bauhinia pupurea (purple camel’s foot) can stimulate T3 and T4.18
C. mukul extract administered for 15 days in mice significantly increased T3 concentration.6 A dose of petroleum ether extract of C. mukul was also reported to enhance thyroidal weight and I131 uptake in melatonin-induced hypothyroid rats.7,19,20
B. monnieri given to male mice increased their T4 concentration by 41 percent, increased SOD and CAT, and decreased lipid peroxidation.21
W. somnifera root extract administered to albino mice for 20 days stimulated both thyroid hormones without any hepatotoxic effect.8 In another study, all three extracts (B. purpurea, C. mukul, and W.somnifera) were administered simultaneously to mice for 30 days. The results showed an increase in both T3 and T4 levels, suggesting that a combination of the three plant extracts may prove to be an effective treatment for hypothyroidism.
W. somnifera is stress adaptogenic, and one of the key factors in thyroid dysfunction is maladaptation to stress. W. somnifera has been used for hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism with great success. In practice, many patients who take W. somnifera have successfully cut down on their doses of thyroid medication anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent.
Virender Sodhi, MD (Ayurveda), ND, teaches Ayurvedic medicine and lectures extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad. He is an official advisor of Ayurveda to the government of Australia. He can be reached through www.ruved.net.
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