The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland, positioned on the front of the neck, on either side of the windpipe, directly below the Adam’s apple. It is part of the endocrine system and one of the first organs to develop in a fetus. Among its many functions, the thyroid gland:
• Dictates the rate at which cells use oxygen
• Stores 25 percent of the body’s total iodine
• Produces hormones that affect metabolism and activity
• Allows for better muscle and cardiac activity
• Regulates growth in children
• Accelerates bone repair
• Helps convert beta-carotene into vitamin A
• Enhances secretions of gastric juices at an optimal rate
• Affects sex drive and menstrual regularity
The entire blood supply filters through the thyroid gland once every hour. Any iodine in the blood is used by the thyroid to manufacture hormones. The thyroid gland can easily be susceptible to imbalance because it attracts electropositive elements (that is, those that tend to release electrons) such as aluminum, arsenic, bromine, calcium, chlorine, fluorine, and thiocyanates. Liver stagnation can be a factor in thyroid gland function, as the liver also filters blood. In Oriental Medicine, low thyroid function is often related to a deficiency of kidney yang energy.
There are three known hormones secreted by the thyroid gland: thyroxine, triiodothyronine, and calcitonin. Heredity, viral infections, and many medications affect the thyroid adversely. Fluoride, in most drinking water, and thiocyanate, found in cigarettes, are thyroid inhibitors. Exposure to dyes, X-rays, and chemicals in the environment can also cause thyroid dysfunction. Although rare, an imbalance in the pituitary (the “master gland”) or in the hypothalamus gland (which sends messages to the pituitary) may cause the thyroid gland to function poorly. Both the hypothalamus and the pituitary can be adversely affected by cold exposure, stress, excitement, and emotional upheaval.
Possible thyroid problems
An underactive thyroid gland is called hypothyroidism and is often marked by low iodine levels. Fatigue, brittle hair and nails, hair loss, puffy eyes, poor skin tone, tingling hands, weight gain, constipation, poor sleep, flulike symptoms, hoarseness, hypersensitivity, low sex drive, depression, and fluid retention are all possible indicators of low thyroid secretions. Low thyroid function is five times more common in women than men and can manifest as a multitude of ailments and may be difficult to pinpoint. Low body temperature and low thyroid are almost synonymous and can cause the body’s surface to be deprived by some of its normal blood supply. Low body temperature can slow down the production of red and white blood cells in the bone marrow.
Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, occurs when there is an excess of thyroid hormones causing one’s metabolism to race out of control. Diagnosis of hyperthyroidism is confirmed by elevated levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which is produced in the pituitary gland, causing the pituitary to work harder. Also, iodine levels in the thyroid gland are usually higher. Women between the ages of thirty and fifty-five are most often affected by hyperthyroidism. Symptoms include heart pounding, high blood pressure, feeling flushed, sweating, weight loss, overheating, inability of the eyes to focus, insomnia, nervousness, abnormally frequent bowel movements, anxiety, and diarrhea. This chemical imbalance can lead to heart failure if untreated. Sometimes hypothyroidism is accompanied by eye abnormalities, where the eyes protrude. This condition is called Graves’ disease. It causes painful eye pressure and if untreated can lead to impaired vision and perhaps blindness. In Oriental Medicine, hyperthyroidism involves a yin deficiency of the liver, kidneys, and sometimes heart systems. The disorder is most likely to worsen in the spring, and the body will need more moistening yin tonics.
Hashimoto’s disease occurs when the thyroid gland shrinks and loses much of its function. If low thyroid function is a familial trait, it may be more difficult to correct with herbs and vitamins. However, a bovine thyroid gland supplement may be helpful.
Goiter, due to a poorly functioning thyroid gland, causes a visible swelling of the thyroid gland. It is more prevalent in areas inland–where minerals in the soil are likely to be low–than those close to the ocean. As early as the 1920s, iodine was added to table salt to reduce incidences of goiter. Goiter can be due to either hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
Checking your thyroid function
A simple test called the Barnes Basal Temperature Test is helpful for checking thyroid function. You’ll need to refrain from drinking alcohol for two nights. Before bed, shake down a thermometer and place it by your bed. In the morning, put the thermometer firmly in the armpit and rest for ten minutes. A normal resting reading will be 97.8°F (37°C). Repeat this test the next day. If your temperature is lower than 97.8°F, suspect an underactive thyroid. Women should do this test after their menses–temperature levels will fluctuate more during menstruation.
Helpful and harmful foods
Overconsumption of some foods that may adversely affect an underactive thyroid include Brussels sprouts, cabbage, canola oil, cauliflower, millet, peaches, pine nuts, radishes, rutabagas, soybeans, spinach, and peanuts. These foods contain thiouracil, a compound that can interfere with the production of thyroxine. Soy (including oil) can also be a contributing factor in goiter.
High-iodine foods that can improve thyroid function include asparagus, citrus fruits, garlic, onions, pineapple, seaweeds (dulse, kelp, hijiki), Swiss chard, watercress, and watermelon. Using raw coconut oil as a fat improves thyroid function. However, consuming heated fats and oils of any kind is thyroid suppressing. Juices should always be diluted fifty percent with water and can include carrot and celery.
If iodine is deficient, the thyroid gland tends to swell and blood vessels get hardened. The Japanese, known for their diet high in seafood and sea vegetables (both rich sources of iodine), rarely have goiter. Most land-based foods contain only trace amounts of iodine. Sea vegetables, constantly bathed in the rich brine of the ocean minerals, are endocrine-gland tonics and have a softening, draining effect that helps to clear both thyroid and liver stagnation.
If you harvest your own sea vegetables, avoid collecting those that have washed ashore or those growing in polluted waters. Sea vegetables are available at natural food stores. Before embarking on major dietary and herbal changes, especially if using medication, please consult with a competent health professional.
Bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus) improves anxiety, calms a racing heart, hyperactive thyroid, Graves’ disease, and reduces an enlarged thyroid. Bugleweed is a thyroxine antagonist, cardiovascular tonic, vasoconstrictor, and sedative. It is not recommended during pregnancy.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is cooling and nutritive and helps balance an irregular thyroid. Chickweed improves constipation, aids weight loss, and moistens the body’s yin, helping correct conditions of dryness. Learn to identify this common garden weed and eat it fresh in salads. It also contains lecithin, which nourishes the brain and nervous system function.
Dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinale) nourishes with minerals. It helps correct a hypothyroid condition, constipation, obesity, and skin ailments. It is highly nutritive. Grow it–don’t mow it! Include the young spring leaves, collected before flowering in salads.
Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum) improves kidney deficiency, skin dryness, and glandular swelling. It is a rejuvenative, restorative, stimulant, and yang tonic. It is also considered a tonic among those sexually savvy, as it produces a desirable body fragrance. Learn to sprout it and include the sprouts in salads!
Irish moss (Chondrus crispus) moistens, cools, relieves dry skin, and reduces swollen glands. It helps one recover from convalescence, coughs, and cystitis. It is a nutritive and yin tonic.
Kelp (Laminaria spp.) is a common sea vegetable. Kelp is an antioxidant and antiseptic. It is rich in mucopolysaccharides that have immune-stimulating activity and increase lymphocyte transformation. Kelp improves a sluggish metabolism and is often used as part of a weight-loss program. It can also reduce the symptoms of goiter, an enlarged thyroid, and Graves’ disease. Kelp is rich in iodine, calcium, and ocean minerals like those in our blood, sweat, and tears. It is a thyroxine antagonist, cardiovascular tonic, and vasoconstrictor, and it imparts a cool, salty flavor. Kelp can be used as a supplement but also sprinkled on food such as salads and soups. Overuse can cause goiter-like symptoms.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is cooling and calms heart palpitations, hot flashes, anxiety, skin hypersensitivity, and thyroid enlargement. It is a bitter, circulatory stimulant, nervine, rejuvenative, sedative, and vasodilator. It helps “gladden the heart” and in Oriental Medicine is considered a longevity tonic. It is not recommended during pregnancy.
Mullein leaf (Verbascum spp.) balances hyperthyroidism and reduces glandular inflammation. It is a nervine, sedative, and yin tonic.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a kidney tonic. The leaves and seeds are a thyroid tonic. It is one of nature’s most nutritious herbs. Nettle nourishes the bones, teeth, hair, and blood and can help weight loss. In our home, we make raw nettle pesto and juice. (No, it doesn’t sting your mouth, in case you were wondering.)
Sarsaparilla root (Smilax spp.) improves a hypothyroid condition. It is an alterative for the hormonal system, rejuvenative, and tonic.
Siberian ginseng root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) directly affects the pituitary gland and benefits the entire endocrine system because it improves circulation. It is a cardio and qi tonic.
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) slows an overactive thyroid gland. It improves anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, and stress. Valerian is a nervine and sedative and not recommended for those fatigued, pregnant, or depressed.
Watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) reduces an enlarged thyroid. It helps prevent goiter and calms heart palpitations. Watercress is a glandular tonic, nutritive, and metabolic stimulant.
Other suggestions for a healthy thyroid
Swimming in clean salt water and exercise in open air will benefit the thyroid gland. Soak the feet in a bucket of salt water, dry them, and then paint the soles of the feet with a liquid iodine solution, available from health-food stores.
It is helpful to massage the thyroid gland a couple of times daily. St. John’s wort oil makes an excellent massage application. Its effectiveness may be bolstered by the additions of essential oils of catnip, geranium, myrrh, or palmarosa. Use 1 ounce of St. John’s wort oil with 10 drops total of essential oil. The ideal massage technique is done by grasping the front of the throat at the gland level using all fingers and moving the area up and down. These oils can also be used as ten deep inhalations twice daily.
According to psychoneuroimmunology (the study of how emotions affect health), glands are “gateways” on an emotional level. To improve thyroid function, clear up disturbances regarding decision-making, or difficulty in moving from one life phase to another. The thyroid gland is also associated with humiliation. It can be helpful to speak out.
Brigitte Mars, an herbalist and nutritional consultant from Boulder, Colorado, has been working with natural medicine for thirty-three years. She is the author of Addiction Free Naturally (Healing Arts, 2001), Natural First Aid (Storey, 1999), and Dandelion Medicine (Storey, 1999). Her upcoming book is Sex, Love and Health, to be published by Basic Health. Visit her website at www.brigittemars.com.