While it is well known that acupuncture effectively treats musculoskeletal issues, acupuncture can also treat many other disorders. Controlled clinical trials carried out by the World Health Organization lists numerous disorders including neurological, respiratory, digestive, blood-related, urogenital, gynecological, obstetric, cardiovascular, psychiatric, and pediatric disorders, as well as skin diseases. In case of thyroid issues, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of the symptoms and also the dosage of the thyroid medications.
Western Medicine Overview
Hypothyroidism is a condition where there is an insufficient amount of thyroid hormone in the body with decreased level of circulating thyroid hormone (TH). It may be a result of thyroid gland malfunction, the pituitary malfunction, or the hypothalamus malfunction.
Although the causes differ from different countries, in developed countries such as the United States and Canada, the inflammation of thyroid gland is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. This inflammation and swelling damage the thyroid gland and in return the thyroid gland malfunctions. This may be due to autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, iodine deficiency, viral infections, medications, pregnancy, birth defects, surgical removal of the thyroid gland, and radiation treatments.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Overview
In TCM, improper diet, poor constitution, and overstrain lead to hypothyroidism. First of all, improper diet may damage the Spleen and Stomach, leading to fatigue, weakness, reduced concentration, cold body, weight gain, and constipation (Qi and Blood Deficiency in TCM). Secondly, poor constitution and/or overstrain may result in weak Spleen, Stomach, or Kidneys, leading to retention of water.
Signs and Symptoms
The hormone from the thyroid gland regulates metabolism, body temperature, energy levels, mood, heart rate and blood pressure. With such functions, lack of thyroid hormone results in related symptoms. In the early stages, hypothyroidism shows fatigue, weakness, depression, reduced concentration, cold body, unexplained weight gain, constipation, slower heart rate, headache, pale complexion and edema. In the later stages, the symptoms of the early stage may worsen and there may be continued weight gain despite the poor appetite, goiter, slow speech, thickening of the skin and decreased sense of taste and smell.
Acupuncture is one of the ancient healing techniques that have been effectively treating diseases for thousands of years. Acupuncture stimulates and promotes the body’s inherent healing abilities, regulates the nervous and endocrine systems, and strengthens the immune system. Acupuncture is slowly getting more attention and acknowledgements as technological advancements allow modern studies to show that acupuncture is effective.
All diseases are essentially imbalance of yin and yang in TCM. Hence, restoring the balance between yin and yang is the first and the most important goal of an acupuncture treatment. In fact, human body has inherent healing abilities. A healthy immune system knows how to defend and heal our body. Unfortunately, there are times when it is too weak to do its job or when it is overwhelmed and does not know what to do. That is when acupuncture comes in. Without physically or chemically modifying the body, acupuncture can remind the body which way to go, on the journey to recovery.
In TCM, Hypothyroidism is considered to be due to weak Spleen and Kidney. As previously mentioned, Spleen and Kidney can be damaged from improper diet, poor constitution, and overstrain. In this case, not only does acupuncture restore the balance between yin and yang, but also, with different protocols, acupuncture strengthens the affected organs, Spleen and Kidneys, thereby significantly reducing the signs and symptoms manifested by weak Spleen and Kidneys.
Hypothyroidism is a difficult disease to treat. That is why modern medicine can only offer you synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine also known as Levothroid, or Synthroid. Acupuncture can reduce the dosage of these thyroid medications hence reducing the risks of possible side effects. While acupuncture alone can significantly reduce the dosage of the medications as well as severity and frequency of the signs and symptoms, even greater results can be achieved with adjustments in diet and lifestyle. In the best case scenario, patients were able to completely get off the medications.
Patients with hypothyroidism are recommended to increase their iodine and selenium intakes while reducing goitrogens and goitrogenic foods but do not over-consume iodine. In addition, smaller but more frequent meals rather than big heavy meals are suggested. Furthermore, replacing refined sugar snacks with fruits will also help maintain a healthy diet while keeping weight in check.
Foods to Consume
Iodine is required in TH production. Daily iodine requirement is about 150 micrograms. While three ounces of cod fish, shrimp, and turkey contain 99, 35, and 34 micrograms of iodine respectively, iodized salt contains about 140 micrograms per half a teaspoon. Hence, it is recommended to consume iodized salt, seaweeds, and sea foods.
Several foods that can be recommended for the patients with hypothyroidism are fish, nuts, whole grains, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, sea weeds, beans and dairy products. First of all, fish including tuna and wild salmon, contains the Omega-3 Series, which decrease inflammation, and boost immune system, and selenium, which also decreases inflammation. Secondly, nuts including Brazil nuts, Macadamia nuts, and hazelnuts contain large amounts of selenium but they also contain high level of fat. Over- consumption should be avoided. Whole grain foods including cereal, bread, pasta, and rice contain fiber, which will help constipation, but fiber may also interfere with thyroid medications. It is suggested that the thyroid medications are taken several hours away from dietary fiber consumption. Thirdly, fresh fruits and vegetables with low calorie and high nutrient including cherries, blue berries, potatoes, and green peppers, which contain antioxidants, will help with weight gain. Garlic and onion also contain high concentration of selenium.
Fourthly, there is calcium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, and a high concentration of iodine, the precursor to the production of TH, in seaweeds, such as nori, dulse, and wakame. However, over- consumption of iodine may worsen conditions affecting the thyroid gland. Fifthly, as beans contain antioxidants, complex carbohydrates, fiber, protein and other vitamins and minerals, they offer sustained energy which will help the fatigue that patients with hypothyroidism often experiences. Lastly, dairy products including fortified milk which contain extra calcium, iodine, protein, and vitamin D will assist Hashimoto’s Disease, which is found to be one of the most common causes of hypothyroidism.
Foods to Avoid
Foods that interfere with the body’s ability to use TH, to produce TH, or to absorb necessary nutrients should be avoided. They are soy, cruciferous vegetables, gluten, fats, sugar, processed foods, coffee, and alcohol. First of all, soy contains plant-based phyto-estrogen and estrogen interferes with TH usage. Secondly, cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, turnips, and cabbage negatively impacts the TH production as they may prevent iodine absorption. Thirdly, gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grains, may interfere with thyroid medication absorption. Fourthly, fats from fried food and fatty cuts of meat may interfere with thyroid medication absorption and with hormone production. Next, refined sugar or foods with large amount of sugar have high calories without any beneficial nutrients and they only lead to weight gain. In addition, processed foods contain large amount of sodium, which increases the risk of high blood pressure. Furthermore, dietary fiber in excess may interfere with thyroid medication absorption. Moreover, coffee and alcohol should be avoided. Coffee containing caffeine may block thyroid medication absorption while alcohol is shown to interfere with the TH usage and to have toxic effect on the thyroid gland. Other foods that should be avoided include cassava, linseed, peanuts, mustard, millet, peaches, and spinach.
Many of the naturally-occurring chemicals such as goitrogens found in plants interfere with thyroid functions. When the thyroid gland attempts to produce TH by putting together the salt iodine and the amino acid tyrosine, in the presence of goitrogens, the thyroid gland is instead interrupted and enlarged, resulting in goiter. First of all, goitrin, found in the seeds of cruciferous vegetables, is by far the most problematic plant goitrogen resulting in goiter even with the presence of high concentration of iodine by lowering the activity of thyroid peroxidase. Thyroid peroxidase is an enzyme which is necessary to insert iodine into the TH.
Secondly, thiocyanates, which is formed from bamboo shoots, cassava, corn, flax sweet potato, and cruciferous vegetables when they are cut or chewed, also lower the thyroid peroxidase activity and interfere with iodine absorption as they compete with iodine to enter the thyroid gland but the effects of thiocyanates can be combated by iodine consumption. Thiocyanates however are able to cross the placenta and affect the newborns, resulting in thyroid dysfunctions in newborns. Another way to reduce thiocyanates levels is to cook or to ferment.
Thirdly, soy flavonoids and millet flavonoids also lower the thyroid peroxidase activity but increasing iodine consumption will combat this effect. Fourthly, quercetin, kaempferol, and rutin also lower the enzyme activity of thyroid peroxidase and hepatic deiodinase (a liver enzyme which activate TH). Apple, broccoli, blueberries, cranberries, grapes, and onions contain large amounts of quercetin. Endive and grapefruit contain kaempferol. Asparagus, citrus fruits, and cranberries contain rutin.
First of all, it is important to exercise, in order to help with fatigue and weakness. It may be difficult as the patients already feel out of energy but increasing physical activity will help increase energy levels by building up Qi. Secondly, it is important to improve sleep quality. It is recommended that patients sleep seven to nine hours on regular bases in a dark and sound-free environment. It is also suggested that they keep the same schedule even during the holidays or the weekends. Exercising will also help improving sleep quality. Thirdly, it is important to stop smoking. Nicotine found in cigarettes interferes with sleep and worsens the fatigue.
Peter is a registered acupuncturist that practices at Integrated Therapies in Edmonton. If you have any questions regarding this article please write to Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to see Peter for acupuncture please book online or call (780) 432-4803.
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