Q and A: Lupus and Hypothyroidism

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Borage oil can help relieve painful joints by reducing inflammation.
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Borage oil can help relieve painful joints by reducing inflammation.
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Borage oil can help relieve painful joints by reducing inflammation.

Lessen Lupus Symptoms

My 69-year-old friend has been diagnosed with lupus. Is there any diet she should be following to combat the effects of lupus? What herbal supplements should she be taking? What kind of doctor should she be seeing for this disease?

                        Crofton, Maryland

Keville responds: Although I can’t offer a cure for lupus, there are plenty of things your friend can do to be more comfortable. Painful joints and connective tissue partially can be relieved with evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), borage (Borago officinalis) or flax (Linum usitatissimum) oils, which help reduce inflammation.

Your friend can massage an oil of St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) into her skin over painful areas. For a super-effective product, use St. John’s wort oil with essential oils, such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita), to help reduce inflammation. To make your own oil, add 6 drops of each essential oil to 1 ounce of St. John’s wort oil. St. John’s wort also can be taken internally in pills or tincture, if she has depression in connection with the lupus.

Good anti-inflammatory herbs to take internally are turmeric (Curcuma longa), nettle (Urtica dioica) and chamomile. A less-familiar herb, thunder god vine (Tripterygium wilfordii), has been used extensively in China to treat lupus. Various studies from China show the herb inhibits the inflammatory process involved in lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is another Chinese herb that will help reduce inflammation and pain. An effective anti-inflammatory nutritional supplement to take along with these herbs is glucosamine with chondroitin. Taking magnesium with malic acid supplements also is recommended.

While the symptoms are being relieved, there are other herbs that will go to work directly on the problem. In lupus, the immune system is confused, sending the body’s own antibodies to attack joints and connective tissue. The Chinese herbs astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula) and ligustrum (Ligustrum lucidum) are recommended to improve immune-system activity and to specifically treat lupus. Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) are other herbs with immune-regulating actions that can work against lupus. These same immune herbs reduce the risk of developing infectious diseases, which can be an added burden to those suffering from lupus. They won’t overstimulate white blood cells and the particular T-cells that are already overstimulated by lupus. On the other hand, herbs known to stimulate these immune-system factors, such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.), are not recommended.

One of the best things you can do for your friend is to offer emotional support, since lupus is associated with increased levels of stress.

Khalsa responds: Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the central nervous system, all major organs and skin. Patients suffer aching, weakness, malaise, fatigue, low-grade fever, chill, facial rash, sun sensitivity, immune disorders, arthritis-like pain, joint swelling, stiffness, blood and kidney disorders, seizures and convulsions. Lupus affects between 0.5 million (0.2 percent) and 1.5 million (0.6 percent) of the U.S. population. Women are 10 times more likely than men to get the disease, and 70 percent of lupus cases are in females between the ages of 15 and 45. Lupus is a serious disease and needs medical monitoring. Patients should definitely see a rheumatologist.

In the beginning stages, anti-inflammatory herbs work well to get control of the symptoms. Turmeric, licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) can help. A 2002 scientific article published in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that pycnogenol, an extract of pine bark, could be of benefit, as it strongly curbs inflammation. Essential fatty acids have the same effect.

Studies published in the Journal of Chinese Medicinal Materials point to Chinese cordyceps, a stamina-enhancing remedy. Thunder god vine root also is used in the modern practice of Chinese medicine. As evidence for its effectiveness mounts, it is gradually gaining attention from herbalists. Although it’s still obscure, more than 200 studies of thunder god vine have been published in the scientific literature. Thunder god vine is used primarily in treating autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, in which it is a successful substitute for corticosteroid drugs. In one Chinese multi-center study of rheumatoid arthritis involving 226 patients, overall effectiveness of the remedy surpassed 90 percent. A recent study from China, published in The Journal of Rheumatology, sought to investigate the herb’s mechanism of action. In this test-tube study, researchers determined that the herb was immunosuppressive in autoimmune diseases. Preparations of the herb are just beginning to show up in American markets. Use the dose suggested on the package or recommended by a qualified herbalist.

Because lupus is an inflammatory disease, it’s good to stay away from spicy foods, which tend to promote chronic inflammation. Lupus compromises the digestive tract, so it is best to eat good-quality, easy-to-digest foods, such as steamed vegetables.

Help for Hypothyroidism

I’ve been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. My condition is borderline, so I don’t need medication at the moment. However, my thyroid levels must be checked every six months. Prior to this, I worked out five days a week, took a multivitamin, vitamin E and B complex, flaxseed and drank a protein drink four times a week. Once I turned 40, my metabolism went downhill and I did not have enough energy to continue my workout routine. What do you recommend?

         via e-mail

Keville responds: A borderline case of low thyroid — which means you are producing insufficient levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone — usually can be adjusted through diet, herbs and exercise. The first step is to add foods to your diet that are naturally rich in iodine, which is necessary to produce this hormone. Good sources are fish and seaweed, especially kelp, dulse and kombu. Since seaweed is not typical fare in the American diet, you’ll need to find creative ways to incorporate it into your daily meals. If seaweed proves too strong for your taste, then take it in encapsulated supplements.

Also, avoid eating foods that slow thyroid action — turnips and raw vegetables in the cabbage family, such as broccoli, mustard greens and cabbage. You can keep these foods on the menu as long as they are cooked. Other foods to eat in moderation are peanuts and soy products.

Why not continue to have a supplement drink? Chances are, the high-protein version you used to have was high in soy protein, so try substituting a green food, such as chlorella or spirulina. Nutritional supplements to try are zinc and vitamins A and E. Make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamins C and B, as well, since these nutrients are associated with thyroid health. Also eat vegetables that are rich in vitamin A, such as carrots and yellow squash, and get at least a few hours of sunshine weekly to promote your body’s utilization of this vitamin.

I don’t know how strenuous your previous workout was, but borderline low thyroid, or turning 40, should still leave you enough energy for moderate exercise. Even if you’re not up to doing your previous level of training, at least modify it into some form of a regular workout. Exercising stimulates the thyroid gland and makes your body better able to react to even small amounts of the thyroid hormone.

Herbalists commonly recommend herbal bitters not only to aid digestion, but to help normalize thyroid hormones. Several bitters formulas are available as liquid extracts. Two of the most popular bitter herbs to look for are gentian (Gentiana officinalis) and bitter orange (Citrus aurantium). Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is another good herb to try — it helps keep up your stamina and regulates thyroid activity.

Khalsa responds: The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland positioned in the front of the neck. It produces hormones that promote oxygen use in cells and regulates vital processes in every part of the body. Thyroid hormones have a major impact on heat production, growth, use of energy and fertility.

People suffering from hypothyroidism, whatever its cause, experience diverse symptoms, including fatigue, weakness, weight gain, hair loss, cold intolerance and constipation. Each individual will have any number of these symptoms, and they will vary with the severity of the thyroid hormone deficiency and the duration of the disease. Most will have a combination of several of these symptoms. Some patients with hypothyroidism have no symptoms whatsoever, or the symptoms are subtle and they go unnoticed until diagnosed medically.

The thyroid is the body’s thermostat, and it produces two key hormones, thyroxin (T4) and L-triiodothyronine (T3). Iodine, used in the manufacture of these hormones, is extracted from the blood and trapped by the thyroid, where 80 percent of the body’s supply is stored. The thyroid produces mainly thyroxin, which in turn is converted into T3, the more active form. About 20 percent of T3 is formed in the thyroid gland. The majority is manufactured from circulating thyroxin in tissues outside the thyroid.

The process of iodine trapping and hormone production is regulated directly by thyroid-stimulating hormone, which is secreted by the pituitary gland. Any abnormality in this intricate system of glands, hormone synthesis and hormone production can have far-reaching consequences.

Hypothyroidism is more common than you might think — more than 5 million Americans have the condition. Mild thyroid dysfunction occurs in 4 percent to 17 percent of women and 2 percent to 7 percent of men, and the risk increases with age. The elderly are most susceptible to hypothyroidism, but it can affect people of all ages. Untreated hypothyroidism can, over time, cause mental and behavioral impairment, including depression, and eventually may cause dementia.

It’s good that you are being medically monitored — this condition can be serious. There is not a lot of specific, documented information on the herbal treatment of hypothyroidism, which I believe can be treated successfully with a broad spectrum of natural remedies. An effective treatment strategy will be to tone the endocrine system with slow-acting, long-term, stamina-enhancing tonic herbs, and reduce inflammation in general, if it is present.

Iodine is the raw material of thyroid hormone, so diets deficient in iodine can promote hypothyroidism. Around the world, about 200 million people have goiters from dietary iodine insufficiency, but the condition is almost unheard of in developed nations, where iodine has been added to salt. Excess iodine, however, tends to suppress production of thyroid hormones. For people with thyroid antibodies but no autoimmune symptoms, an increase in iodine can bring on such symptoms. Countries with the highest iodine intake, including the United States and Japan, have the highest prevalence of chronic autoimmune thyroiditis. When people in countries with iodine-deficient diets are given iodine supplements, the rate of Hashimoto’s disease (a common thyroid gland disorder) increases. Recent animal models and test-tube studies have shown the same effect.

Hypothyroidism responds very slowly to natural therapies. It is unlikely you’ll get a rise in blood thyroxin levels before one to two months. You should expect a year for a complete recovery and a transition to maintenance protocol, and you can expect a satisfactory long-term recovery with consistent compliance.

The protocol of herbal remedies that should be taken is a question that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Trying to pick your own herbs to self-treat thyroid disease is tricky because there’s not one formula for thyroid disease. The interplay of hormones is a symphony, and by working on the whole system, an expert can bring all the glands into play. I always encourage people to see an herbal practitioner at least once or twice. Three herbs, all slow-acting balancers, head my list of thyroid tonics. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a general glandular balancer and nourisher. Though not used much now for this purpose, I find it to be quite effective. Fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum), a Chinese tonic herb, is well-suited to toning the thyroid. Eleuthero is the original adaptogen and is used in Chinese herbalism as a long-term builder.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association
(www.ahaherb.com) and author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books
Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches
seminars throughout the United States.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa
has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. A licensed
dietitian/ nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the
American Herbalists Guild, he specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and
North American healing traditions.

Please send your questions to Herbs for Health “Q & A,” 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; fax (785) 274-4305; or e-mail us at letters@herbs forhealth.com. Provide your name and full address for verification, although both will be kept confidential.

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