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Addressing Hypothyroidism With Asian Medicine & Nutrition

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Feeling burnt out, exhausted and cold all the time? Impaired thyroid functioning may be part of the problem.

A little gland located in the neck, the thyroid produces hormones that play a role in many major functions of the body including maintaining the body’s metabolic rate, growth, detoxification and immunity. A hyperactive thyroid produces too many hormones and can lead to goiter, sudden weight loss, racing heart or the manifestation of Grave’s disease. At the other end of the spectrum, an under-active thyroid, can lead to hypothyroidism which affects more than 10 million Americans. It’s a highly treatable disharmony, however, it’s one that takes time and significant lifestyle changes. Fortunately, Asian medicine and nutrition can be very helpful in treating thyroid pathologies.

Symptoms of Hypothyroidism They are numerous – anxiety chronic fatigue constipation depression dry skin enlarged thyroid gland exhaustion feeling cold or low body temperature hair loss hormonal imbalance: especially estrogen and progesterone immune deficiency lack of vitality lethargy loss of the outer 1/3 of the eyebrow – yes, really. low energy low libido painful menstrual cycles slow metabolism slowed thought weight gain Looks like things have cooled and slowed down, right? Right. Most clients with hypothyroidism have a basal body temperature of 97.6 or below. In the eyes of Asian medicine (Chinese medicine) this is a deficiency of Yang – the fire in the body – but it’s not quite that simple.

Causes of hypothyroidism

Heredity – Mom or Dad may have passed the trait down. Yet, even in this instance, there is improvement that can be made. We look at whether the person’s habits encourage or discourage healthy thyroid functioning.

Burning the candle at both ends – Literally, you worked and/or played too hard and often without adequate rest appropriate for your life stage, health and constitution. This leads to a collapse of Yang and Qi (energy, for an over simplified definition) in the body – you snuffed out the fire by using up all the oil (Yin). This includes having too many children and leading an excessive lifestyle. Yes, Qi and Yang are recoverable, but it takes time which can be difficult to convince a type A personality that they do need 8 hours of sleep.

Illness – Severe illness or long term chronic patterns will whittle away the immune system and the Qi in the body. Included in this we have to look at the drugs and their effect on the body.

Lack of digestive vitality – Ideally, we make the Qi that our body uses daily by properly ingesting foods and transforming them into vital essence, nutrients, Qi and Blood. When our digestion is weak or we have irregular eating habit the system declines. Qi, Blood and Yang begin to suffer and eventually, Yang will collapse. In times of need, the body will utilize Jing, our stored essence, to keep the system going. Jing, unlike Qi and Yang, is not a renewable substance. You are born with a certain amount based on your parent’s health at the time of conception. Jing is then stored and in the Kidney and used a little a day for each functioning. Think of it as your stored treasure or savings account. Each time we dip into it rather than properly nourishing our system we chip a little off the stone. When it’s gone – that’s it – when the essence is gone the body dies.

Overuse of stimulants – Americans love stimulants to ‘keep us going’ – just look at the sales of energy drinks. Powerful foods like coffee, caffeine, chocolate, sugar, and guarana may give us a kick now and then, but they often don’t replenish or return much to the body. They can lead to adrenal exhaustion. It’s a matter of balance, if you find yourself requiring a strong stimulant daily take a look at whether you are getting enough rest, proper nourishment and exercise. Have a delicate or compromised digestive system?

Asian medicine’s view on hypothyroid Hypothyroidism is considered a deficiency pattern in Asian medicine. Specifically, a lack of Qi (energy) and Yang (fire). It involves the energetic functioning of the Kidneys and Spleen organs, both Yin organs with a lot of Yang functions. As with any disharmony, proper Asian medicine assessment is necessary to identify and treat the individual. Five clients with a western diagnosis of hypothyroid may leave with a few similar recommendations but there will be variances based on age, gender, constitution, history and more. However, remember, if you are so depleted that you lack the deep well of resources provide by Yin there will be no fuel for the fire.

Asian medicine practitioners – Look for a slow, deep pulse especially on the right side and in the proximal (Kidney Yang) position. If dampness has crept in the pulse will have a slippery quality. The tongue is often swollen or thick, but color may vary depending on other factors.

Asian medicine treatment – The general protocol for an acupuncturist is decongest the Liver first (I’ve not encountered a case of hypothyroid that didn’t have a very congested Liver as part of the picture). There may also be dampness that needs drained. Then treatment then focuses on restoring and strengthening Spleen and Kidney Qi and Yang.

General Recommendations for treating hypothyroidism Just a starting place….

Don’t skip meals – The body relies on you to feed it regularly. It then uses that food to create energy. If you are irregular with your diet habits the digestive fire (a Yang function of the Spleen warmed by the Kidney Yang) will burn out. Your metabolism slows and weight will creep on. The digestive fire is at its peak from 7-11 am in the morning, so eat a good breakfast. Please be careful of fad diets.

Avoid cold and raw foods – This is where I lock horns with raw food enthusiasts. The digestive system is like a cauldron. The Middle Burner, made up of the Stomach and Spleen, require warmth to cook down the foods and transform them into energy, which they move into the Small Intestines and Colon for further refinement and elimination. If your metabolism is already low and your body temperature already cold, the fire isn’t there to manifest the transformation properly. This creates a slow, sluggish digestion, bloating, gas and lethargy. Iced foods should be avoid as much as possible in hypothyroid. A little in the summer is okay, but you are literally dumping ice on the fire. Raw foods may be fine for some here and there, but not if you are treating Yang deficiency. Use warming pungents and spices like cinnamon and turmeric regularly, yet gently – not so much that you get hot enough to sweat. We are looking for a consistent warming glow.

Keep the body and Kidney 1 warm – It’s essential to give the body the aid it needs in keeping warm with this disharmony. Don’t challenge the weather and dress appropriately until your energy recovers. Kidney 1, located on the ball of the foot is a significant source for Yang energy in the body. If your feet are cold, you run the risk of decreasing the body’s overall Yang –

Get appropriate rest – Constantly going, working and moving – all Yang qualities- – without resting and restoring (Yin qualities) will lead to a collapse of Yang which takes time to recover from. Yang and Qi are replenished when we partake of Yin activities–that rest, gentle qigong and t’ai qi. This can be quite the task for some clients that work and play hard. I often ask them to schedule in at least on PJ day a month. A day to just rest–remember when the norm used to be that you took one day a week to rest or take it easy? Pop in naps every now and then too.

Get appropriate exercise but know your limits – On the opposite side of rest, you need adequate exercise. What is right for you is probably not what’s listed on the internet as the perfect exercise. Enjoy a variety, walk, swim, do t’ai qi or yoga. I rarely recommend running for hypothyroid or chronic fatigue patterns–it’s too extreme leaving the person more wiped out and sending us backwards in treatment. They may be able to build up to running or more extreme athletics but it will take time. You should come away from whatever workout you are doing feeling like you’ve moved, feeling open and refreshed, but not exhausted or worn out–that’s taking it too far. If you just had major surgery or a baby you should probably not lunge into running a half marathon 3 months later.

Eat Iodine rich foods – The body requires iodine rich foods to make the hormone thyroxine. Iodine rich foods include: All sea vegetables (kelp, nori, kombu, etc), sea salt, cranberries, strawberries, navy beans, potatoes and salt water fish. Iodine supplements are available, often as kelp, but be sure to check with your healthcare provider before supplementing as you may need to watch your thyroid levels. Find out more about salt here.

Tyrosine rich foods – Tyrosine is an amino acid that combines with iodine to make thyroxine. Tyrosine is found in meat, turkey, sesame seeds, lentils and legumes, fish, turkey, organic yogurt, almonds, avocado and pumpkin seeds.

Selenium rich foods – Selenium is an essential mineral that fights free-radicals, aids in the proper functioning of the immune system including thyroid and aids in treatment of cancer. Foods that contain selenium include: chicken, salmon, sea foods, whole unrefined grains, brewer’s yeast, Brazil nuts, dairy products, onions, garlic, leeks, and black strap molasses.

Get some sun – Sunlight stimulates the pineal gland that positively affects the whole endocrine systems, thyroid included. Better still, take a nap in the sun–just don’t get burnt.

Protein – Protein is the primary make up of our glands. Make sure each meal includes some clean protein, whether animal or vegetable (Watch out for soy!–See below).

Foods and herbs for treating hypothyroid – Remember keep them organic! Foods laden with herbicides, pesticides and growth hormones are harmful, especially to those with weakened immunity or hormone functioning. alfalfa sprouts adapogens (ginseng, rhodiola, maca and dozens of others and Chinese herbal formulas–seek guidance to make sure the herbs match your pattern) all leafy greens all root vegetables all sea vegetables all winter and summer squash apples apricots carrots celery cranberries essential fatty acids (cod liver oil, primrose oil) garlic ginko biloba ginseng glandulars grapes grapefruit leeks licorice (not the candy!) mushrooms onions pineapple rhodiola (ask your healthcare provider about how to use rhodiola) rose rosehips rosemary salt–needs to be naturally occurring salt with iodine in it. watercress walnuts

Get supporting treatments – Asian medicine modalities like acupuncture and Amma therapy are very beneficial in addressing both the symptoms and root causes of thyroid disorders. Your practitioner may also recommend glandulars or herbals.

What to avoid

Soy – What the? Isn’t soy a super food? Kind of…but it’s not a happy food for those with thyroid troubles. Soy contains an isoflavinoid (genistein) that acts directly on hormones. Consuming high amount of soy has been shown to actually suppress thyroid functioning by blocking the enzyme thyroid peroxidase. This little enzyme is required to add iodine into the thyroid hormones. Most people can handle a bit of traditional soy in their diet in the forms of miso, a bit of tofu or tempeh. However, be cautious. The American food industry decided soy was a perfect protein, superfood and filler, so it is often hidden in many packaged and processed foods. For those with thyroid disharmony, traditional forms of soy 2 x a week is usually okay.

Cruciferous vegetables – Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale, spinach, rutabagas and kohlrabi are all beautiful vegetables. But, again, they aren’t a match for anyone with a compromised thyroid. Like soy, they block thyroid peroxidase. Cooking reduces their propensity to mess with the thyroid. Limit them to only a few times a week. Gluten – Gooey, gluey, gluten is linked to aggravating thyroid disharmonies. There are many wonderful grains that benefit the Kidney and thyroid so explore them and keep the gluten grains to a minimum or cut them out all together.

Fluoride and chlorine – These lovely chemicals are often in our tap water. Both are being researched and are believed to block iodine receptors. Fluoride specifically destroys iodine, so be sure to drink filtered or spring water.

Sulfa drugs – Sulfa drugs inhibit proper thyroid functioning. Sulfa drugs are used as antimicrobials, diuretics, anti-diabetic and anticonvulsants…to name a few. On a final note – use moderation. Often people try to rebuild too fast, using more adaptogens (like ginseng, rhodiola or ashwaganda) or working out harder which is actually counter productive. You will end up crashing again, perhaps even worse. Yang collapse and thyroid issue make the structure of the system weak and unable to hold if you rebuild too quickly. It’s like you’ve become a sieve and will leak out. We have to gently build, hold and stabilize.

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