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Thyroid Herbs: The Good and Bad

Herbs are the mainstay of traditional medicine and they have been used for centuries in the treatment of thyroid disorders. With advancement in medicine, it is now possible to determine which of these thyroid herbs are effective and how safe they are. This article discusses the major herbs used in the treatment of hypothyroidism, the benefits and risks of using them and other supplementary herbs that can improve thyroid health.
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When it comes to thyroid herbs, there are 101 possible remedies listed online. With so many options, how can you know if herbs for hypothyroidism even work? The thyroid herbs listed in this article are all science-backed and have shown to have direct or indirect benefit on your overall thyroid health. When it comes to a sluggish thyroid, these herbs can help solve the underlying issues causing the problem and help you start feeling your best without the dangerous side effects of prescription thyroid hormones. For best results, take these herbal supplements under the guidance of a medical professional and combine them with other healthy lifestyle choices, like eating a nutrient-rich diet and exercising regularly. 

What is Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism is a medical condition caused by an underactive thyroid.

The thyroid gland is located in the neck and it produces two major hormones: T4 or thyroxine and T3 or triiodothyronine. Both of these hormones are involved in a number of metabolic processes although T3 is the more active of the two.

The thyroid produces more T4 than T3 (eleven times more). However, once released from the gland, the body converts some T4 into more T3.

The production and secretion of the thyroid hormones are controlled by another hormone known as TSH or thyroid-stimulating hormone. TSH is released from the pituitary gland, and is under the control of yet another hormone.

TRH or thyrotropin-releasing hormone is released from the hypothalamus to stimulate the pituitary gland into releasing TSH. Once released, TSH then further stimulates the thyroid to release T3 and T4.

All of the processes make a feedback mechanism that controls the levels of the thyroid hormones.

When the plasma levels of T3 and T4 falls, the feedback mechanism triggers the release of TRH in the hypothalamus and, by extension, TSH in the pituitary gland. However, when the levels of thyroid hormones rise, the same mechanism reduces the secretion of TSH and TRH in order to reduce the syntheses of T3 and T4.

There are 3 types of hypothyroidism: primary, secondary and tertiary.

Types of Hypothyroidism
Primary hypothyroidism is characterized by low levels of T3 and T4 even when TSH levels are normal. It is caused by damage to the thyroid gland and accounts for most cases of hypothyroidism.
Secondary hypothyroidism, on the other hand, is caused by low production of TSH in the pituitary gland. Since there is not enough TSH to stimulate the thyroid, the production of thyroid hormones remains low.
Tertiary hypothyroidism happens when the hypothalamus does not produce TRH in sufficient quantities. This means that the pituitary is not well stimulated to release TSH. Tertiary hypothyroidism is the least common of the 3 types of hypothyroidism.

Causes of Hypothyroidism

To make the thyroid hormones, the thyroid needs iodine and tyrosine. The hormones produced are essentially combinations of the two starting ingredients.

For example, T3 contains 3 atoms of iodine (as iodide ions) while T4 contains 4 atoms of iodine.

Therefore, any factor that reduces the amount of iodine in the body will reduce the production of the thyroid hormones. For this reason, iodine deficiency is a common cause of hypothyroidism.

Since the thyroid hormones have such profound effects on metabolism, growth and brain development, hypothyroidism (and/or iodine deficiency) is a leading cause of cretinism, infertility, mental retardation and weight gain.

To prevent the serious complications of hypothyroidism caused by iodine deficiency, iodized salts are sold and recommended in most countries.

Other sources of iodine can also serve this purpose. Therefore, foods such as sea vegetables (kelp, for example) and also herbs that store iodine, can help prevent and treat hypothyroidism.

Another important cause of hypothyroidism is autoimmune disorders. Sometimes, the immune system mistakes the cells of the thyroid for foreign substances and tries to rid the body of them by directly attacking these cells.

If the autoimmune attack on the thyroid goes on for too long, there may not be enough cells to produce T3 and T4. When that happens, increased TSH levels will not be able to increase T3 and T4 production.

Autoimmune thyroid disease is often accompanied by other autoimmune disorders.

Hypothyroidism can also be due to hereditary. Some people carry higher risks of developing hypothyroidism than others. For example, scientists have identified specific mutated genes that increases the chances of developing hypothyroidism. One such mutated gene codes for vitamin D receptors.

Polymorphic vitamin D receptors can increase the risk of hypothyroidism. Researchers believe that this is because vitamin D protects the thyroid from autoimmune destruction and that these mutated receptors do not produce normal responses even when vitamin D binds to them.

Yet another cause of hypothyroidism is the surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid gland. This invasive treatment is sometimes recommended for people with overactive thyroids.

When surgery is used to treat toxic goiter, thyroid cancer and other forms of hyperthyroidism, there is always a chance that too much of the thyroid has been removed. Therefore, hypothyroidism may set in when the population of hormone-secreting cells and the production of thyroid hormones drop sharply.

One other invasive treatment of hyperthyroidism is radiotherapy. By bombarding the thyroid with radioactive iodine, it is possible to kill off too many hormone-producing cells and, therefore, trigger hypothyroidism.

Herbs for Hypothyroidism

Herbs do not provide thyroid hormone replacements. They merely boost the production of thyroid hormones either by supplying iodine or improving thyroid health.

Therefore, herbs are no use for cases of hypothyroidism resulting from total or near-total damage to the thyroid.

Herbs will only work if there are still hormone-producing cells present in the gland.

While herbs are generally safe and well-tolerated, their use needs to be regulated. It is important to know when to use a certain herb for hypothyroidism and when to avoid the same herb.

Discussed below are the most commonly used herbs for hypothyroidism. This article also notes the limitations and contraindications for these herbs.

Bladderwrack

Bladderwrack is a seaweed also known as Fucus vesiculosus. It is the most popular herb used for treating underactive thyroid.

This seaweed is an excellent source of iodine and is traditionally used to treat goiter and hypothyroidism caused by iodine deficiency.  When taken, bladderwrack can replenish the body with iodine in the form of easily absorbed iodine ions. These iodide ions are then taken up by the thyroid where they are used in the syntheses of thyroid hormones.

Other beneficial phytochemicals found in bladderwrack include potassium, beta carotene, zeaxanthin and mucilage.

In the treatment of hypothyroidism, the recommended dosage of bladderwrack is 600 mg taken 1 – 3 times daily.

However, bladderwrack should not be used to treat cases of hypothyroidism not caused by iodine deficiency. By taking bladderwrack when the iodine levels are normal, iodine toxicity may result. The resulting overload may worsen or cause hypothyroidism.

Lastly, because bladderwrack is a seaweed, other minerals may accumulate in it besides iodine.

Bladderwrack traps minerals and salts in seas and oceans in its airbladders. Since heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic are also found in large bodies of water, these metals can also accumulate in bladderwrack. Therefore, there is a clear risk of heavy metal poisoning with bladderwrack obtained from unstandardized and unregulated sources.

Other seaweeds that can be used to treat hypothyroidism because they also contain iodine include kelp, hai zao (or hijiki) and dulse (Palmaria palmata). They also carry the same risk of heavy metal poisoning.

Coleus

Coleus forskohlii or Plectranthus barbatus is also known as Indian coleus.

Coleus increases thyroid function by stimulating increased production of thyroid hormones.

Of the phytochemicals in coleus, the most studied is forskolin, a diterpene that is known to increase the intracellular levels of cyclic AMPs (adenosine monophosphates). To do this forskolin activates adenylyl cyclase, the enzyme required.

Cyclic AMP is a signal carrier between cells and hormones. It is needed for feedback mechanisms like the one controlling the levels of thyroid hormones. In addition, cyclic AMPs are especially active in the hypothalamus-pituitary axis that controls thyroid functioning.

When forskolin in coleus increases the level of cyclic AMP, it signals the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to release TRH and TSH respectively. These hormones then stimulate the thyroid gland to increase the production of T3 and T4.

Therefore, coleus is effective in the treatment of hypothyroidism cases not caused by iodine deficiency.

The recommended dosage of standardized coleus extract is 50 – 100 mg taken 2 – 3 times daily.

Guggul

Guggul is the resin extract obtained from the bark of the tree, Commiphora wightii. This arid climate tree grows in Northern Africa and Asia.

The extract of gum guggul is known as guggulipid. It is also a long-standing traditional remedy used in the Indian Ayurveda system of medicine.

The chief active ingredients in guggulipid belong to a class of phytochemicals known as guggulsterones.

Guggulsterones have been proven to improve thyroid function. In a 1984 study published in the journal, Planta Medica, a group of researchers detailed the response when they administered Z-guggulsterone (1 mg/100 g of body weight) to albino rats.

One of the benefits recorded after administering the guggulsterone was increased uptake of iodine by the thyroid.

Another study published in the journal, Anticancer Research, in 2008 also established that guggulsterones can prevent and suppress cancer cells.

250 – 500 mg of standardized guggul extract taken 3 times daily is the recommended dosage for hypothyroidism.

St John’s Wort

Some herbs are also recommended for hypothyroid patients not because they have any direct medicinal effect on the thyroid but because they are commonly used in the treatment of symptoms of hypothyroidism. A good example of such herbs is St. John’s Wort.

St. John’s Wort is traditionally used to treat depression. It contains phytochemicals that inhibit monoamine oxidase, the enzyme that breaks down monoamine neurotransmitters such as serotonin.

Therefore, St. John’s Wort work for depression by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain.

Since hypothyroidism is associated with lethargy and slow metabolism, it is often accompanied by depression, and therefore, St. John’s Wort may be recommended.

However, care must be taken with this herb. St. John’s Wort can cause serotonin toxicity or serotonin syndrome, a potentially lethal condition. The risk for this toxic reaction is all the more increased if there are other phytochemicals in the thyroid herbs co-administered alongside that also increase serotonin levels or serotonin activities in the brain.

Licorice

One benefit of taking licorice supplements is that it fights fatigue, a common symptom of a sluggish thyroid. A study conducted by the Director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Oregon found that small doses of licorice can help fight the fatigue associated with a slow metabolism thanks to the small boost in cortisol licorice gives.

Licorice can be dangerous at higher doses, however, so only take as much of the supplement as recommended by a doctor and stay away from the herb if you are currently pregnant or breastfeeding.

Evening Primrose

Evening primrose is an herb that helps boost thyroid function. The herb contains high levels of gamma linoleic acids, which encourage the body to make additional thyroid hormones and convert T3 into T4, which is essential for thyroid health.

Evening primrose can have some side effects, and should not be taken during early pregnancy. Ask your doctor if taking an evening primrose supplement is right for you.

Nettle

Nettle (also known as stinging nettle) is a beneficial herb for a sluggish thyroid. The biggest boost that nettle gives to your health is its ability to reverse and resist iodine deficiency. If you are in any way iodine deficient, adding nettle to your supplement routine will help reverse this condition and make it easier for your body to absorb iodine, which is essential for thyroid health.

The best way to consume nettle to boost thyroid function is to drink it as a tea once or twice a day. Steep the nettle leaves in one cup of water for 10 minutes, then drink the tea while it is still warm. This will maximize the absorption of the nutrients in the nettle and also help fight any nutrient deficiencies that could be causing your thyroid to slow.

Ginger

Ginger is effective in improving thyroid function due to its ability to relieve inflammation in the body. Thyroid malfunctions are often caused by excessive inflammation in the body, triggered by unhealthy diet or lifestyle.

Chronic inflammation will cause the body to produce fewer thyroid hormones, leading to a thyroid that is too slow. Ginger contains vital nutrients, like magnesium, potassium, and vitamin B6. These nutrients not only work to reduce inflammation, but also to reverse a sluggish thyroid by giving your thyroid the precise nutrients it  needs to produce thyroid hormones. 

Ginger can be taken in dry supplements, or you can brew a ginger tea from raw ginger. You can also add raw ginger to other foods that you eat throughout the day for a thyroid boost.

Black Walnut

Black Walnut is the highest source of iodine from a non-meat source. This means that by adding extra black walnut supplements to your diet, you can increase your iodine intake without taking separate supplements or worrying about mercury in seafood.

Low levels of iodine are associated with many health problems in addition to a slow thyroid, including chronic fatigue, depression, and mental problems. You can take black walnut supplements, or try to consume more walnuts in your daily diet. However, if your thyroid is particularly sluggish, you may want to add walnut supplements to your daily routine in addition to other iodine supplements. However, it is possible to consume too much iodine.

Talk with your doctor to find out exactly how much iodine you should be taking in a day to reverse a sluggish thyroid. 

Bugle

Bugle or bugleweed is an herb that contains nutrients that the thyroid needs to produce quality thyroid hormones. In one study on the bugle herb, it was found that taking bugle supplements in liquid or tablet form improved thyroid health in just a few weeks.

The herb produced no side effects on the patients during the study period. The herb is currently being examined to see if it can replace or reduce the use of the prescription thyroid medication called methimazole.

Bacopa

Bacopa is an effective herbal remedy for a sluggish thyroid. According to a study from 2002 on bacopa, it was found that this her was able to increase T4 concentration by 41 percent over the study period, which helps to regulate thyroid health and improve thyroid function and metabolism. During the study, no side effects were reported by the study participants.

Bacopa supplements are available in capsule form, and bacopa is often included in herbal thyroid remedies and supplements.

Flaxseed

Flax is an herb that is high in essential fatty acids. Specifically, flaxseed is one of the only non-animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain development and the control of hormonal systems. Without the right balance of fats in the body, your thyroid can quickly fall into producing less and less hormones, which makes your thyroid and metabolism sluggish and ineffective.

Adding a flaxseed supplement to your daily routine will help boost your thyroid hormones and boost your thyroid back up to where it needs to be. Try adding one teaspoon of flax seed oil to your daily supplement routine and you should start to see results within just a few weeks.

Ashwagandha

Aswagandha is an ancient herb that has been used for hundreds of years to boost overall health. The herb may have a strange name, but it is a powerful herb that can boost thyroid health. Aswagandha boost thyroid function by reducing oxidants in the body and helping your thyroid achieve balance in hormone production. Aswagandha also boosts the immune system and fights stress while relieving inflammation in the body.

The overall beneficial herb was shown in a study from 1011 to stimulate thyroid activity within just a few weeks of study participants taking aswagandha supplements. Aswagandha is available to consume in capsule or powdered form.

Eleuthero

Eleuthero is another strange-sounding herb that is highly effective in regulating the thyroid gland. The herb affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a part of the body that helps the body respond appropriately to stress. Individuals who struggle with a sluggish thyroid often have adrenal problems that negatively affect the HPA axis, causing the thyroid to go out of balance.

Taking eleuthero supplements along with other herbal supplements for thyroid health will benefit overall health and may speed the results of supplements that directly affect thyroid hormone production and thyroid health.

Herbs for Hypothyroidism Can Work

If you have a sluggish thyroid, you may not have to take prescription thyroid hormones. A sluggish thyroid is usually a symptom of another, deeper problem in the body, which prescription medication will only mask. Instead of simply taking additional hormones, herbs for hypothyroidism work with your body to restore the ideal balance of nutrients and hormones that help a thyroid regulate and produce the correct level of hormones.

When this happens, your metabolism increases, and it is easier to maintain a healthy body weight, prevent fatigue, and have more energy for day-to-day living. With a thyroid in balance, your whole world will be improved and you will have more time and energy for the things you really care about. 

Sources


http://www.bcdex.com/herbalremedies/thyroid.html

http://www.herb-doc.com/thyroid.htm

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17340256

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