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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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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.
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.
Other useful supplementary herbs in the treatment of thyroid disorders include licorice (for its antioxidant benefits helping to protect the thyroid from oxidative damage), eleuthero (because it is an adaptogen that can relieve chemical stress on the thyroid) and ashwagandha (for its immunomodulatory properties which can help prevent the autoimmune destruction of the cells of the thyroid).
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