According to the American Thyroid Association, 20 million people in the United States have a thyroid disease. And the scariest part? An estimated 60 percent of those people don’t even realize it. Globally, thyroid diseases account for the second highest rate of endocrine disorders (second only to diabetes), with some sources stating that the total number of worldwide cases hovers around 200 million. (1)
With those statistics in mind, chances are that you or a loved one will deal with a thyroid gland disorder at some point. And research has found that risk factors involving ethnicity, gender and iodine deficiency can increase those odds (2).As doctors and scientists around the world debate the best methods of treatment, cases continue to occur more frequently, begging the question: why are these conditions so difficult to manage for so many?
The Trouble with Treating Underactive Thyroid
In this article, I’m going to focus on hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid. And like the other thyroid conditions, even if you believe you suffer from some of the common symptoms, underactive thyroid requires a physician’s diagnosis. One reason for this is the complications and underlying causes of the disorder.
The work of the thyroid gland actually starts in the hypothalamus, which creates thyrotropin-releasing hormone, which then acts upon the anterior pituitary and produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH goes to the thyroid and tells it to begin producing T3 and T4, the two main, circulating thyroid hormones. And even though you produce about 17 times the amount of T4 than T3, T3 is much more active — five times so. (3)
In a healthy thyroid, T4 converts to T3 fairly often, since T3 is so much more active. Proteins produced in the liver then take T3 and T4 to tissues where they become “free” molecules and bind to various thyroid hormone receptors in the body to do their various jobs.
So what, exactly, causes the thyroid to fail in producing enough thyroid hormones (T3 and T4), also known as hypothyroidism?
In infants, hypothyroidism is actually caused by untreated hypothyroidism in the mother during pregnancy, and it can actually lead to delayed intellectual development. This condition, known as cretinism, is not as large a problem in developed countries anymore, as screening has been developed to identify and treat the disorder.
For adults, the two major root causes of hypothyroidism are Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune condition) and poor iodine consumption — the latter is common in underdeveloped countries, while Hashimoto’s is the number one cause in first-world countries.
Underactive thyroid can also occur because of radioactive iodine treatment, injury to the pituitary gland or hypothalamus, some medications, lack of functioning thyroid at birth, ongoing inflammation of the thyroid gland, or thyroid surgery. (4)
Your integrative practitioner or doctor will usually perform a thyroid antibodies test to determine what, if any, thyroid condition you have, and to also distinguish autoimmune hypothyroidism from other thyroid dysfunction.
High TSH levels with low T3 and/or T4 levels is generally indicative of hypothyroidism, although low T3/T4 levels accompanied by normal or low TSH may point to low T3 syndrome, which does not benefit from the same treatments as hypothyroidism.
As you can see, diagnosing hypothyroidism is a complex endeavor, and finding the most effective treatment options isn’t always easy, either.
Best Herbs for Hypothyroidism
If you’ve met with your integrative practitioner and determined what’s causing your underactive thyroid, the next step is figuring out a treatment plan. And the good news is that there are now plenty of holistic, all-natural options that can be very effective in achieving results. That’s where this great list of helpful herbs for hypothyroidism comes in. Consider discussing these options with your treating physician to decide what’s best for your unique condition.
Herbs for Iodine Deficiency
Low in iodine? These herbs may correct iodine deficiency and increase thyroid function.
Bladderwrack: Weird name, controversial herb. Bladderwrack has been found to increase iodine levels and stimulate iodine-processing hormones. (5) It’s a bit risky when taken internally, so you should only do so under medical supervision. Bladderwrack should not be taken by pregnant women or those struggling with infertility and may modify blood clotting.
Black Walnut: Seaweed is well known for being rich in iodine, but for the sushi adverse, black walnut (Julans nigra) may be a good alternative.
Herbs for Adrenals
One reason integrative practitioners take the time to test more than just TSH levels when striving for a holistic approach to treating thyroid dysfunction is that long-term stress (which leads to adrenal burnout/fatigue), can perpetuate low thyroid levels, even if you’re using natural methods to increase thyroid function. In these cases, it may be helpful to use adaptogen herbs to support adrenal function while you simultaneously aim to lower stress levels. (6)
Ashwagandha: One of the most commonly prescribed herbs for hypothyroidism, ashwagandha has direct impact on thyroid function and prevents some oxidative stress within the liver. (7) On its own, ashwagandha is known to raise T4 levels but has raised T3 and T4 in mice when combined with Bauhinia purpurea (orchid tree) and C. mukul (guggul) (more on this herb below).
Rhodiola: Using rhodiola has been shown to pharmaceutically reduce stress levels and regulate cortisol. (8)
Herbs to Stimulate Thyroid
Once you’ve dealt with your iodine levels and adrenals function, there are several useful herbs that seem to stimulate levels of T3 and T4 hormones and decrease TSH, promoting normal thyroid function.
Orchid Tree: Found in southeast Asia, various types of orchid tree supplements have tested well in animal models to increase the weight of the thyroid, increase I131 uptake (which blocks production of TSH), decrease cholesterol and oxidative stress, and increase concentrations of T3 and T4. (9)
Guggulu: Guggulu is another antioxidant herb for hypothyroidism, promoting the conversion of T4 to T3 and increasing iodine uptake in mice. (10)
Brahmi: Bacopa monnieri, or brahmi, increases T3 and T4 levels in mouse models. (11)
Forskolin: This herb stimulates the thyroid similarly to the way TSH does, but slower and without the same exact mechanisms. As of yet, it’s unclear how it works exactly, but the study results in animals were quite significant. (12)
Shigru: Known as “drumstick tree” and Moringa oliefara, shigru increases levels of both T3 and T4 and significantly decreases TSH in mice. (13)
Aragvadha: The “golden shower tree” has also been known to decrease TSH levels and bump T3 and T4 production in animal models. (9)