Under and overactive thyroid conditions can cause a wide array of symptoms that require medical attention. Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis cause the body’s metabolic rate to slow down while hyperthyroidism and Grave’s disease increase the metabolic rate. Common symptoms of all thyroid disorders can be fatigue, hair loss, swelling or puffiness, mood swings and changes to weight, menstrual cycles, skin, and hair. Naturopathic medicine can help to minimize thyroid symptoms and re-balance thyroid hormones.
Naturopathic doctors can prescribe thyroid hormones and often look at the importance of including the active thyroid hormone, T3, as part of therapy. Additional complimentary treatments to balance hormones and symptoms with diet, lifestyle, supplements and herbs are important in a well-rounded thyroid protocol. It is possible to avoid, reduce or stop thyroid prescriptions in many situations if complementary treatments are in place and the root cause of thyroid dysfunction is identified and treated.
Understanding the Thyroid
This butterfly-shaped gland which sits at the base of the anterior neck can be considered the master endocrine gland. In a healthy person, a thyroid gland cannot be seen but it can be carefully examined by a naturopathic or medical practitioner to identify if it is enlarged, too small, hard or firm, boggy or contains nodules. This gland secretes two very important hormones called thyroxine and triiodothyronine.
Thyroid function and hormones
The brain, specifically the pituitary gland, controls direct signaling to the endocrine organs such as the thyroid, adrenal glands, ovaries and testes. Thyroid stimulating hormone, known as TSH, is released from the anterior pituitary and travels by blood to the thyroid gland. The amount of TSH produced will cause either an increase or decrease in thyroid hormones, especially thyroxine (T4). Thyroxine has 4 iodine molecules bound to it and with the help of an important enzyme called deiodinase and the nutrients selenium and zinc, T4 is transformed into triiodothyronine (T3) and one iodine molecule is removed. T3 is the active thyroid hormone. Conversion from T4 to T3 occurs in they thyroid, liver and cells in the body. It is the hormone responsible for metabolism which translates to the rate the body is running at. Tissues have receptors for T3 and when bound, up-regulation of processes occurs. If T4 and T3 are noted to be too low, more TSH is released from the pituitary to tell the thyroid to make more hormone. When reviewing TSH blood test levels, the higher the number, the lower the thyroid hormone production.
Because the metabolic rate of the body enables normal body functions, when metabolism is too high or too low, a multitude of symptoms can arise. This can be related to brain function and health such as mood changes, energy, insomnia, temperature regulation, memory and clarity of thought. Physical symptoms are also affected when metabolism isn’t optimal and changes to body weight, hair and skin quality, menstrual cycles, muscle and joint aches and pain can be observed.
Common thyroid disorders
Low thyroid hormone production can result in hypothyroidism. This is by far the most common thyroid disorder and can most often be diagnosed by blood tests. TSH values will rise when low thyroid hormones are being produced in most cases. However, subclinical hypothyroidism can have all of the same symptoms but a normal TSH. Additionally, detailed thyroid testing can uncover this condition and may lead to thyroid hormone prescriptions or supplement and nutritional changes. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, weight gain, low libido, constipation, hair loss, menstrual cycle changes, acne and/or dry skin, depression and brain fog.
Hyperthyroidism is when too much thyroid hormone is produced. This can occur quite quickly with symptoms of insomnia, heat, anxiety, heart palpitations, excess thirst and hunger, diarrhea, fatigue and jitteriness or difficulties sitting still. Blood tests usually reveal a very low TSH, often non-detectable and elevated T4 and T3 levels. This condition tends to be easier to detect in most scenarios due to TSH reliably dropping to almost zero.
Autoimmune thyroid conditions can lead to hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can initially feel like hyperthyroidism and change to hypothyroidism or constant hypothyroidism. Grave’s disease is usually the reason for hyperthyroidism. Both conditions involve an auto-immune attack on the thyroid which leads to either upregulation or downregulation of thyroid hormone production. Blood tests for these autoimmune antibodies provide a clear diagnosis in almost every case.
Principles of Naturopathy
Naturopathic medicine encompasses all aspects of health including lifestyle, diet and nutrition, herbal medicine, nutrient supplementation and when required the use of prescription drugs. Some naturopathic physicians may also provide acupuncture treatments and other modalities such as IV therapy, injection therapies and physical manipulations. The 6 Principles of Naturopathic Medicine have been established for many years as a framework for NDs (Naturopathic Doctors) to practice.
- First, do no harm
- The healing power of nature
- Identify and treat the causes
- Doctor as teacher
- Treat the whole person
Here’s more information from the post: What is Naturopathic Medicine?
Instead of treating a symptom as the only approach, Naturopathic Physicians look to determine the cause of the symptom and focus on the removal of the cause. For example, instead of just giving ibuprofen for a headache, the cause may be determined to be magnesium deficiency, food sensitivities, hormonal imbalance, thyroid disorder, low iron, digestive disorder or other cause. Naturopathic doctors are trained to perform physical exams and know when concerning symptoms need referrals for specialized care and testing.
Prevention of illness and progression of illness could be considered a highlight when working with an ND. It may be necessary to use medications to manage symptoms but digging deeper to treat the root cause will prevent further disease and may even return the body’s balance. Take diabetes for example. Once diabetes has been established, prescription medications are usually required. Before diabetes initiates, first comes insulin resistance, then hyperglycemia, then diabetes. It is possible to test insulin much before diabetes arises and treatment in many cases can normalize glucose and insulin balance, thus preventing diabetes.
Nutrition and diet might be the most important aspect of wellness. NDs are trained with over 150 hours of classroom learning on nutrition alone. This includes details about each vitamin and mineral required and optimal amounts through diet and supplementation. Ideal portions with macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fats are examined and compared with various health conditions. Education about specific health scenarios or general wellness and diet are provided to support healing and maintenance of good health.
Lifestyle support is provided during consultations with NDs. Stress management, sleep habits, ideal eating schedule and exercise amounts can all be optimized when looked at with an ND. Suggestions such as sleeping in a cooler room or with less covers to allow deeper sleep may sound simple but can make an incredible difference to the quality of life.
Herbal medicine, vitamins and minerals are a large aspect of Naturopathic Physicians’ repertoire. Herbs were the first medicines to be used by humans and have a long history. Today, more studies exist to show the medicinal properties of herbs and the safety considerations according to dose and disease. NDs use herbs in many different formats – from teas, salves, tinctures and extracts, herbs have maintained their way into modern usage alongside traditional medicine. Vitamins and minerals in addition to dietary sources can be used to treat deficiencies and for functional benefit. Some vitamins and minerals and herbs have safety concerns and it is best to speak out advice from a knowledgeable ND prior to starting a new supplement.
Naturopathic Treatments for Thyroid Disorders
There are many ways to support thyroid health in addition to prescription medications or in the absence of drugs. Looking deeper to find the root cause of dysfunction should always be addressed. Causes can take the form of nutrient deficiencies, digestive conditions, chronic infections, toxins and sometimes other hormonal imbalances.
Diet and nutrition
Iodine and the amino acid tyrosine are the most important nutrients for thyroxine (T4) to be produced by the thyroid. Low protein and salt-restricted or vegetarian diets can lead to deficiencies if not well balanced. Poor absorption of nutrients such as in SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) and yeast overgrowth can also limit important thyroid nutrients.
Natural sources of iodine should be part of a healthy diet. Using sea salt that contains naturally occurring iodine is the preferred salt to use at home when it comes to thyroid health. Seafood, fish and sea vegetables are excellent sources of iodine. It is not recommended to take iodine supplements unless recommended by a health care professional because in the event of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, too much iodine might trigger a flare.
Dietary sources of tyrosine include meats, fish, eggs, dairy and some nuts and beans. The minerals zinc and selenium are important to include in the diet to support T4 to T3 conversion. Brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds are excellent ways to enjoy foods with since and selenium.
Several herbs are known to support thyroid function and help to improve hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Ashwagandha, bladderwrack, bugleweed and lemon balm are often associated with metabolism and thyroid. These herbs can help to lower auto-immunity, slow down thyroid hormones or increase thyroid hormone production and improve thyroid health overall. Herbs should be prescribed by a practitioner that is well-versed in thyroid health so that the correct herbal combination, dose and duration of treatment is advised.
Vitamins and Minerals
The top mineral when it comes to supplements for thyroid health is probably selenium. This important micronutrient can promote two very important aspects with respect to the thyroid. Firstly, it is the main co-factor to support the deiodinase enzyme to convert T4 into the active hormone T3. Supplying selenium in supplemental form will provide the ability to convert more efficiently. The second function selenium is involved with is lowering thyroid antibodies and supporting anti-autoimmune properties. A common dose of selenium is 200mcg per day but it can vary depending on the individual. Caution must be taken with selenium supplementation as overdoing it can lead to hypothyroid-like symptoms and it can be difficult to decipher this and hypothyroidism.
Other micronutrients that support the thyroid include zinc, iodine and magnesium. These minerals play roles in the conversion and formation of thyroid hormones. Interestingly, iron is also a key factor as it helps to transport thyroid hormones and sometimes iron deficiency is the root cause of hypothyroid-like symptoms. All of these nutrients can be tested to determine if supplementation is required or advised.
As with most health conditions, attention to lowering stress, exercising and sleep hygiene will support good health. The thyroid is no exception as the stress hormone cortisol impacts thyroid health quite intricately. In cases of overproduction of cortisol, the body will adapt and slow down the thyroid conversion of T4 into T3. In this instance, the root cause is cortisol and by lowering this hormone, thyroid health rebounds back to balance.
Exercise can help to promote an increase in both T4 and T3 levels and this has been proven in several studies. For those with hypothyroidism, this should be part of a well-balanced program but sometimes this is introduced after hormone levels start to increase so that energy is there to be used up with exercise. In cases of hyperthyroidism, exercise may be suggested to be limited to low impact due to an undesired increase in symptoms. This should be discussed with a medical professional.
In most scenarios, using both conventional and naturopathic treatment strategies will yield the best results. There are many thyroid circumstances when a prescription medication must be used to increase or decrease thyroid hormones. What can be accomplished in these situations is working towards lowering medications and at the same time treating the underlying root causes of the thyroid condition. The goal may not always be to completely come off all medication but to feel the best that one can with the least amount of pharmaceutical interventions.
Working with a naturopathic physician that is well-trained in thyroid health and has years of experience will help to weave together conventional and naturopathic treatments for the best possible outcome. There are many thyroid supplements available in the stores but there is not a one size fits all model for health. Find the most individualized protocols with a Naturopathic Physician.
Seeking Thyroid Naturopathy in Vancouver?
Adjunctive or complimentary care should be considered when diagnosed with a thyroid condition. Looking at the whole health and root cause will likely result in feeling better and gaining stronger control and balance of thyroid diseases. Dr. Jennifer Luis, Naturopathic Physician, has a special interest in thyroid health and has been treating thyroid patients for over 10 years. Having Hashimoto’s thyroiditis herself, she has navigated through lowering inflammation and uncovering the root causes of her disease. Contact Dr. Jennifer today!
Frequently Asked Questions
Good question! This can take many forms from providing prescriptions for thyroid hormones, dietary suggestions, supplements to help with conversion and more. Naturopathic medicine will also look into the root cause of your thyroid disorder to determine if the progression can be slowed or possibly resolved. Naturopathic protocols can also be used simply to support the prescribed medication from a medical doctor and improve symptoms.
As with many health conditions, an optimal diet and lifestyle can lower symptoms and prevent the progression of dysfunction. With healthy eating and avoidance of some foods, it is possible to lower inflammation and decrease antibody production in the cases of Hashimoto’s and Graves’s disease.
Depending on the condition, the herbs lemon balm and guggul are commonly used for thyroid health. In cases of hyperthyroidism, lemon balm may help to lower thyroid hormone production and guggul can support improved hormone production for hypothyroidism. Herbs alone may not be enough and are often used in conjunction with other nutrients.
Studies have verified that exercise helps to promote more thyroid hormone production. In the event of hypothyroidism, this is great news – but the key can be having enough energy to start exercising regularly. This is where it can be helpful to speak with a Naturopathic Physician and have an individualized protocol created in stages to improve energy to allow for exercise.