Hyperthyroidism and Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Christina Morris, L.Ac.

The thyroid is a small gland located in the neck, surrounding the trachea. This gland is important in the maintenance of overall health. It secretes thyroid hormone that affects metabolism, growth and maturation, digestion and nutrient absorption, ultimately influencing all body tissues. Proper functioning of the thyroid gland is dependent on the performance of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, adequate supply of iodine, and conversion of thyroxine to triiodothyronine. If these normal functions are inadequate then a person may develop hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. This article will focus on hyperthyroidism.

This condition is seen more often in women and is more common in young adults between the ages of 20 and 40. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces an excess of thyroid hormone. This may lead to symptoms such as increased blood pressure, bulging eyes, moist skin, perspiration, increased heart rate, weight loss, increased appetite, nervousness, insomnia, diarrhea, menstrual irregularities, muscle spasms, intolerance to heat, weakness, thickened skin, confusion, and difficulty concentrating. Treatment from a Western Medicine approach may include prescription drugs or surgery. Traditional Chinese Medicine may be used as a conjunctive approach in the treatment of hyperthyroidism.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine hyperthyroidism can be due to three different imbalances in the body. The following terms are Chinese Medicine terminology and their meanings are not to be taken literally. The first is termed “Liver Fire Rising”. This corresponds to the speeding up of all body functions due to the continuous stimulation of excess thyroid hormone produced by an over active thyroid. The second imbalance is “Qi and Yin Deficiencies”. This relates to the fatigue and weakness often associated with prolonged over stimulation. The third imbalance is termed “Phlegm Stagnation”. This physically represents an enlarged thyroid gland. These terminologies may be unfamiliar, yet constitute “patterns of disharmony”. Traditional Chinese Medicine does not treat disease but patterns of disharmony made up of certain signs and symptoms. These patterns allow a practitioner to create individualized treatments, based on the person, as a whole. Treatments focus on both the cause and the symptoms.

Methods used for the treatment of hyperthyroidism in Traditional Chinese Medicine may include: acupuncture, herbology, lifestyle and diet changes. Acupuncture and herbology can be an effective treatment in balancing disharmonies in the body and can help to correcting hormone imbalances. During treatments of acupuncture and herbology the patient should not stop taking the thyroid medications prescribed by their medical doctor. The patient should have routine check ups with their physician and should have their thyroid hormones tested. Often, patients will be able to reduce thyroid medications after a series of acupuncture and herbal treatments. This should be monitored by their medical doctor.

People with hyperthyroidism should avoid excessive heat such as hot tubs and saunas, over-strenuous activities, all stimulants such as caffeine and cigarettes, as all of these can exacerbate hyperthyroid symptoms. Relaxing exercises are beneficial such as walking, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. Meditation can also be helpful. Refined foods, sugar, dairy products, wheat and alcohol should be avoided for hyperthyroid conditions. A healthy diet of greens including broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, spinach, kale, cauliflower, turnips, soy beans and mustard greens can depress thyroid activity and can be advantageous for hyperthyroid patients. Please note that these foods are not beneficial for hypothyroidism which is due to an under active thyroid gland.