The treatment of thyroid disorders with Oriental medicine
In several of my earlier articles, I have discussed the fascinating (or terrifying) concept of auto immune disorders. These occur when the body‘s immune defence system goes haywire and starts attacking itself. Auto immune diseases can manifest in many forms, ranging from Rheumatoid Arthritis (joints) to Multiple Sclerosis (nerves) .Other auto immune disorders have an effect on our hormonal system. This is the case of Hashimoto disease which is a disorder of the thyroid gland.
The human body has several ways of regulating itself. The nervous system can make very quick changes in a fraction of a second by sending electrical impulses through the spinal cord to the muscles, or it can make slow changes by sending chemical messengers, called hormones, into the blood to reach the tissues and the organs. While hormonal changes are a lot slower, they have longer effects, than those activated from the nervous system to the muscles, and they are often vital for our survival.
Hormones in our body have very diverse effects. They influence how tall we grow, how much weight we put on, the onset of puberty and menopause, our moods, our sexual drive and overall energy, our ability to process the food we eat, and our immunity.
To use an example, the thyroid gland is located in our neck. It regulates our metabolism which is our ability to process energy, and it is activated by the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain. These two glands in our head both control the activity of the thyroid through the secretion of the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). A very clever negative feedback system monitors how much hormone is being released by sending chemical signals to the brain when the optimum amount has been reached.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go according to plan.
Hashimoto disease is a thyroid auto immune disorder affecting mostly women. It can be the result of a virus, a bacteria, a pregnancy, or due to a genetic imbalance causing the thyroid follicles to be accidentaly released into the blood stream. The body’s defense system reacts by creating antibodies to attack this unexpected visitor. Thus causing a chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland, and stopping any secretion of the much needed thyroid hormones. When the pituitary gland gets the feedback message that the thyroid is no longer functioning, it responds by gradually increasing the amount of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) which makes the matter worse. In fact, the level of TSH in the blood is an accurate indicator of the thyroid inflammation. The higher the TSH levels, the worse the inflammation.
A patient suffering from Hashimoto syndrome is someone having a body engine constantly running at half speed. She could be feeling cold, getting easily tired, feeling depressed, losing hair, experiencing difficulties with memory, and poor concentration. At the beginning, the patients might only have “flu” type symptoms, and the excessive level of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) in their blood will be the only indication that the culprit is hiding in their neck.
.Although Hashimoto Syndrome can be effectively treated with a lifetime of hormones replacement therapy; the dosage has to be closely monitored to avoid bone loss causing osteoporosis, and potential heart problems. This explains why patients will often look at alternative forms of treatments.
In Oriental medicine, Hashimoto symptoms of cold, fatigue, lack of sexual energy, hair loss, and poor memory are symptomatic of a weakness in kidney Yang energy , or a lack of internal warmth. .According to the ancient principles of Traditional Chinese medicine, our immune energy, or Wei Qi, has its source in the Kidney organ before being diffuse by the lungs, so reinforcing both the kidney channel and organ will be highly beneficial against any forms of auto-immune disorders. Unlike other forms of hypothyroidism, in Hashimoto disease, the hypo function of the thyroid is not caused by an iodine deficiency, so the traditional Chinese thyroid formula involving the use of grounded oyster shells, or seaweeds extract is not beneficial. Instead Qi and Yang warming herbs like ginseng, cinnamon, ginger and liquorice are often prescribed. In addition, acupuncture points stimulating the blood circulation, harmonizing the liver function, and strengthening the kidney warming energy are often used
In clinical practice, the patients are treated once a week until their symptoms have improved and their TSH levels have been brought down to normal. After that stage the patient will need only to visit episodically while their symptoms and hormone levels are being monitored. As in most cases, the earlier the problem is treated the quicker the results, but even in long term conditions, Hashimoto sufferers can get significant decrease in TSH levels in a short period of time with both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine
Once these hormone levels have been reduced, the intake of synthetic Thyroxin hormone replacement dosage can be moderated, then gradually decreased.
Being able to control their hormonal intake and the corresponding risks of side effects brings to many patients a new lease of life.
For the Oriental practitioner, this powerful collaboration of Western and Oriental medical systems shows the true potential of this new approach to healthcare.
Olivier Lejus is a registered acupuncturist practicing in Sydney.