Hypothyroidism - A Chinese Medicine Approach
Updated: Jan 9
Fatigued? Cold? Finding it difficult to lose weight?
Could it be your thyroid?
The thyroid gland plays an important role in controlling our metabolic rate, body temperature, and energy levels. If your thyroid gland is unable to produce adequate levels of thyroid hormone it can slow your metabolic rate and cause the body's systems to slow down.
When the body fails to produce enough thyroid hormone this is known as hypothyroidism which causes significant effects on many of the body's systems. Hypothyroidism can occur as a result of many factors, one of them being a condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Hashimoto's thyroiditis is a progressive autoimmune condition and is the leading cause of hypothyroidism in women of reproductive age. Dysfunction of the immune system causes an attack on the thyroid gland which destroys its’ delicate tissues, rendering them inactive and unable to produce adequate hormones.
There are a number of factors that can trigger an autoimmune reaction.
These may include:
Genetics or a family history of autoimmune disease
Environmental stress - excess iodine, smoking, toxins
Exposure to radiation
Digestive issues - increased intestinal permeability
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Other autoimmune conditions
Does the thyroid impact fertility?
Poor thyroid function and autoimmune issues can also impact fertility. The effects on ovulation and the menstrual cycle are common in women who are trying to conceive. Autoimmune thyroid conditions are known to coexist with other immune and metabolic conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome which are also common causes of infertility.
Symptoms of thyroid dysfunction may include:
Increased risk of miscarriage
Cold hands and feet
Unable to regulate body temperature
-(cold in winter and hot in summer)
Poor recovery from exercise
Foggy head or poor memory
Depression / Anxiety
Irritability / PMS
Gallbladder issues - gallstones
How are thyroid conditions diagnosed?
Thyroid conditions, including Hashimoto’s, are commonly diagnosed through blood testing and ultrasound scans. Hashimoto's thyroiditis is diagnosed via elevated antibodies in the blood whereas hypothyroidism usually presents as elevated TSH with low levels of free T4 and T3.
Unfortunately, a full range of thyroid testing is not often carried out which leaves people with this condition suffering longer than usual with poorly managed symptoms. It is not uncommon for only basic TSH testing to be carried out which does not give the full picture of how your thyroid is functioning. Ideally, free T3, free T4, reverse T3, and thyroid antibodies are required for a proper diagnosis and to determine any underlying factors that may be contributing to your symptoms.
Another factor in the management of thyroid conditions is that optimal ranges of blood pathology results are highly controversial. It is thought the optimal ranges are likely to be within a smaller window. For example, TSH results may have a .5 - 5.0 mU/L range however many patients still experience debilitating symptoms when within this range.
How does conventional medicine treat hypothyroid conditions?
Western medicine commonly relies on thyroid hormone replacement medications to manage symptoms of low thyroid. Natural desiccated thyroid may be used in some patients and is available through some integrative doctors.
Some health professionals are aware of iodine deficiency and may prescribe iodised salt or supplements, however in people with autoimmune thyroid conditions iodine can aggravate the thyroid gland. Careful supplementation of low dose or transdermal applications are best if iodine deficiency is suspected.
How does Chinese medicine view hypothyroid conditions?
Chinese medicine is a whole-body medicine and involves sophisticated diagnostic techniques to determine the underlying cause of imbalance within the body.
Unlike conventional medicine which treats the disease, Chinese medicine aims to understand what the underlying causes are that caused an imbalance and then aim to bring the body back into balance using a variety of methods. There are no patients that are exactly alike and thus each person will be treated according to their unique Chinese medicine pattern.
Hypothyroid conditions including are commonly seen as a ‘mixed pattern’ of both deficiency and excess. Patients often present with a lack of Qi (energy) and Yang (internal fire) which can leave them depleted, fatigued, cold, and prone to weight gain. Deficiency is commonly caused by poor diet and long term stress which can prevent the internal organs from functioning optimally giving rise to other symptoms of excess.
Excess symptoms may be seen as gallbladder issues (inability to digest fats or gallstones), oestrogen excess, painful periods, and weight gain with fatigue. These may be caused by a lack of internal warmth and digestive fire which fails to aid the body in digesting food to produce adequate nutrients. Low metabolism and poor fluid transformation are also common in this pattern leaving the body's Qi, blood and fluids stagnant.
During a consultation and acupuncture session, the energetic functioning of all of the organs is assessed. Common symptoms of thyroid dysfunction relate to the liver, kidneys, heart and spleen from a Chinese medicine perspective. Acupuncture will be used to balance the internal organs and herbal medicine may also be used for various symptoms.
Our approach to assisting you in improving your health
1 - Optimising your diet
During our consultations, we review all body systems and gain information about dietary choices. Many people have tried various popular or fad diets however these can be problematic for those with an under-functioning thyroid.
For example, low carbohydrate or ketogenic diets are often detrimental for optimal thyroid function - the thyroid needs carbohydrate for proper t4 - t3 conversion and to produce energy for the body.
Working to improve digestive function is the basis of Chinese medicine. We aim to
determine any food intolerances and work with improving the function of the spleen and stomach - our paired organs of digestion.
In particular, gluten may be an issue for those with digestive symptoms. An increased prevalence of coeliac disease has been found in patients with autoimmune thyroid conditions. A gluten free diet can help in reducing further autoimmune flares alongside other digestive issues.
Step 2 - Assess nutrient and hormone status
There are many important nutrients and thyroid cofactors such as tyrosine, iodine, selenium, iron, zinc and chromium. Further blood testing may be ordered to determine any deficiencies and supplements may be prescribed were inadequate levels are found.
It is also common for hormone levels to be out of balance - especially in women. Here we order further testing to assess levels and ratios of oestrogen, progesterone, DHEA and testosterone to ensure these are optimal and not merely “in range”.
3 - Acupuncture - balancing the body and mind
From a Chinese medicine perspective thyroid conditions often involve the Spleen, Kidney, Liver and Heart meridians. Traditionally acupuncture is used to stimulate acupuncture points on these meridians to balance these organs and assist the proper flow of Qi within the body.
It is well known that intense levels of stress can impact the body and its immune responses. Autoimmune disease is often triggered by long term and extreme stress on the body. Acupuncture increases the release of endorphins - our feel-good chemicals that regulate our emotional and physical (inflammatory) responses. Acupuncture is also known to positively affect heart rate variability (HRV) and calm our nervous system, enabling us to manage stress more effectively. The sense of calm that is felt by many after an acupuncture treatment is thought to be due to the various neuro-chemicals from the hypothalamus that play a significant role in our stress responses and in reducing inflammation.
4 - Herbal medicine
A herbal formula may be prescribed to address symptoms of fatigue, stress, insomnia or constipation amongst others. Unlike western medicine, there is no one size fits all approach with Chinese medicine. Our herbal formulas are tailored to each person's unique pattern of disharmony. Chinese herbal medicine has been used traditionally for thousands of years with the aim of bringing the body back into balance.
5 - Assessing lifestyle factors
What do you do for exercise? How do you manage stress?
High intensity exercise is stressful on the body - this stress is normal in those with a well functioning metabolic system and provides a healthy level of stress. Unfortunately for those with a poorly functioning thyroid, it could be causing more harm than good.
Higher cortisol from excessive or high intensity exercise can deplete the body leading to more fatigue and stubborn weight gain that is hard to shift.
Calming the body is the best option here. For those in the beginning stages of recovery yoga, Qi gong and walking in nature are much less stressful on the body than intense, long cardio sessions or HIIT. Building up to more moderate cardiovascular exercise and resistance training which enhances insulin uptake is a good option for the long term.
It is important to listen to your body and rest when needed when undertaking a new exercise program.
As described, the thyroid is a complex gland that requires a holistic and careful approach. Chinese medicine is a holistic model of medicine that provides a comprehensive approach in managing the varied symptoms that present in each individual patient.
We love assisting women and men who struggle with the symptoms outlined above.
We also assist those suffering from hyperthyroidism and Graves disease (autoimmune hyperthyroid conditions) so please get in touch if you would like to know more about how we can assist you with these conditions.
If you wish to find out more about how we can assist you Contact us on 0467 253 463 or book an appointment online at: https://www.ballarat-acupuncture.com/booknow-contactus
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