What You Need to Know

Hypothyroid disease tends to be subtle.  It creeps up on you little by little.  Symptoms of fatigue, depression, weight gain, and problems with the menstrual cycle are the major symptoms, though there are others.  Many times, the disease is mistaken for menopause.

Eleven million Americans have some sort of thyroid problem.  It is ten times more likely to affect women than men.  In fact, one in five women over seventy-five have Hashimoto Syndrome, a form of low thyroid.  Left untreated, the symptoms increase and get worse, leading to myxedema, coma and death.  Hashimoto Syndrome is an auto-immune disease, caused by the body attacking healthy cells in the thyroid.

The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists suggests that women who are taking hormone replacement therapy for menopause and still have symptoms may also have hypothyroid problems.

The thyroid produces two hormones.  One is thyroxine and the other is triiodothyronine.  There are no herbs that have similar chemicals, but there are medicines that can replace some or all thyroid hormones.  These synthetic hormones are Levothyroxine and Liothyronine.  The two are sometimes combined in the form of Liotrix.  Until these medicines were discovered, the only treatment involved using the glands of pigs.

There are some things that might increase the likelihood of a person developing thyroid problems.  Women are at higher risk, and age seems to be a factor as well.  The role stress might play in developing the disorder is still hotly debated.  While circumstantial evidence shows a correlation between high stress and *Grave’s disease, there is little to no evidence it effects other types of thyroid disease.

While herbs may not be able to replace hormones, they may have an effect on the thyroid.  Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good.  Many herbs and foods contain iodine in at least some amount.  This is a trace element that is important in thyroid function, but it isn’t produced by the body, so it has to be eaten.

Before the intervention of iodized salt, there were areas that had a high number of people dealing with goiters.  This is an inflammation of the thyroid gland not related to cancer or too high of thyroid hormone output.  In places where people had little access to seafood and/or have low iodine content in the soil had a greater tendency to develop this disorder.  In fact, the area has been called “the goiter belt.”

Vegetables that contain iodine include kelp, other edible seaweeds, black walnut and watercress.  Some breads, cheeses and milk products may also contain some amounts of iodine.  Some medications also contain iodine, in particular over the counter cough and cold medications.

Here is one warning: If you take a tricyclic antidepressant, iodine could have a serious interaction with it.  When iodine is added to these antidepressants, a dangerous spike in blood pressure is likely.  Check with your doctor before taking iodine supplements or increasing iodine in your diet.

Causes of Hypothyroid Problems

Many things can cause hypothyroid problems.  As mentioned above, age and gender play a role, as does where one lives.  Heredity can be a cause, particularly in the case of Hashimoto syndrome.  Medications for other problems and conditions are another factor.

Here is a list of a few medications to watch out for.  To get a better list, see your doctor or pharmacist.  Amiodarone, bexaratene, cardarone, ethronamide, high dose glucocorticoids, lithium, oral cholecystographic agents, proton pump inhibitors, sulfonamides, sunitinib, and tyrosine kinase inhibitors.  Another caution, don’t stop taking a medication prescribed for you without checking with your doctor.  Your doctor and pharmacist work together to make sure the medications you take don’t interact with each other.

There are also foods that can interfere with thyroid function.  For most people, this will not be a problem, because the amounts eaten as food are generally regarded as safe.  However, if you have low thyroid function, it might be an idea to ask your doctor if the foods are safe for you. 

Here is a list of a few foods to watch out for.  African cassava, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, millet, radishes, rutabagas, soy and turnips.

On the topic of soy, there is a controversy.  Some doctors and herbalists claim that it is very valuable when dealing with low thyroid output.  Others see soy as a toxin, particularly for the thyroid.  Two scientists with the FDA are particularly worried about the possible toxicity.

Here is what I think, and it is what many other herbalists think as well.  Soy has been used for several thousand years in China.  It is used in its natural state, in tofu and in sauces.  It has a lot of benefits under those circumstances.

However, most soy grown in the U.S. is done by big companies.  It’s genetically engineered, not naturally grown.  To top it off, the one set of constituents that have the most potential for toxicity is isolated and put into tablets, capsules and other products to be consumed in high amounts.  I have a problem with that.

In healthy people, short term use (in days not weeks) may be ok.  However, those that have medical issues may have big problems using this product.

Herbs that May Help

It is important to speak with your doctor before trying any of the herbs mentioned below.  How effective they will be and whether or not they will help or hurt will depend on your particular case and what other health problems might be involved.  Some of these plants are touted as being useful, but have little to know sign of effectiveness.  I include them only for educational purposes.

Acai Berry:  No evidence supports any usefulness in dealing with hypothyroidism.

Avena Setiva:  Formal name for the humble oat.  It is thought to improve thyroid function, and is considered a calming food.

Bayberry Root:  The berry of this plant are used to make candles and is a scent I associate with weddings and Christmas.  However, the root is toxic when taken orally.

Black Walnut:  This nut contains iodine, which may be useful in some cases of low thyroid.  Long term use, particularly of large amounts, can be toxic.  Only the nutmeat of this plant is edible, the rest is toxic.

Coleus:  The use of coleus in hypothyroidism needs a great deal more study.  The plant has some drug interactions, including to allergy medications and any medication that thins the blood.

Essential Oils:  Aromatherapists like to use oil of spearmint and oil of myrtle in cases of hypothyroidism.

Flax Seed Oil:  For most people, flax seeds and the oil are safe.  However, in cases of hypothyroidism, it is important to make sure the cyanogenic compound has been removed. Otherwise, it can make the condition worse.  Most oils do have this compound removed, but read the label carefully.  Also, the oil turns rancid rapidly, so it is wise to keep it in the fridge.

Green Tea:  This tea is full of antioxidants, which may help thyroid function.  Be aware that green tea contains caffeine.  A cup or two may not be a problem, but most supplements contain the equivalent of twelve cups of the tea.

Gugal:  Ayerverdic herbs are just now being added to the Western herbal pharmacopeia.  A few small studies have been done on gugul, and they indicate a possible benefit to thyroid function.  Side effects include mild stomach upset.  Gugul interacts with propranolol, diltiazem, and anticoagulant/anti-platelet medications.

Holy Basil (Tulsi):  While at least one study has been done, there is no information available as to the benefits of using holy basil (Tulsi) for hypothyroidism.

Irish Moss:  Irish moss contains iodine.

Lobelia:  There is some anecdotal mention that lobelia will help hypothyroidism.  Even if that were so, the plant is far too dangerous to use, especially without the guidance of a qualified practitioner.  Even small amounts may cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  If mixed with herbs or medications that cause drowsiness, that effect will be multiplied.

Maca:  No studies have been done to show effectiveness, but anecdotal information indicates it might have a positive benefit.  Due to the lack of knowledge of this Peruvian plant, it is wise to discuss using it with your doctor or pharmacist.

Mullein:  This herb is normally used for respiratory complaints.  It may have an anti-inflammatory effect, thus helping general gland functioning, but there is no evidence of such a connection.

Parsley:  While it may not have an effect on hypothyroidism, it is thought that parsley may help prevent thyroid cancer.

Royal Jelly:  This is called “royal” because it is associated with the queen bee of a hive.  This bee product was once thought to be a cure all, and especially useful to prevent aging.  However, studies have been done and while it has a slight anti-microbial affect, it doesn’t have much else.

People with asthma and those who have allergies to bees, bee pollen or bee stings should avoid royal jelly, as it could cause a reaction.

Follow Up

Hypothyroidism is not the world’s easiest thing to diagnose, not so much because the tests aren’t there but because it mirrors other problems that appear at about the same time of life as the thyroid problem.  There are some tests…usually simple…that can rule out thyroid problems.  If you are diagnosed with something and the remedies (prescription or other) do not help, insist on having your thyroid tested. 

As I’ve said numerous times in this article and on other pages in this web site, communication with your doctor and pharmacist are extremely important.  Speak to them about any herbs or other supplements you wish to take so that you can avoid harmful interactions.

*Grave’s Disease is an auto-immune disorder involving to much thyroid output.