Health Topics

Naturopathy and your thyroid.
Why your ‘normal’ thyroid may not be doing enough for you.

The thyroid, situated at the front of the neck below the voice box, is one of our most important glands. It secretes hormones, which govern the rate of most vital functions of the body. Disturbances of the thyroid can have quite serious effects on your health so you should always seek advice from your doctor if you think you have a problem, but naturopathic medicine can play an important supportive role in dealing with any imbalances in the function of the gland.

What happens when the thyroid goes wrong?

The thyroid gland can become underactive or overactive. The causes are complicated and not fully understood. When the gland is underactive (hypothyroidism) it does not produce enough of the hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), which help sustain healthy body function. Here are some of the symptoms of inadequate thyroid function:

  • lethargy and poor concentration
  • weight gain
  • muscular aches and pains
  • dry skin, brittle nails
  • thinning of hair
  • voice changes
  • feelings of chilliness even in warm weather
  • constipation

Because there may be other causes of these symptoms thyroid problems can often be overlooked. Nevertheless, if you have two or more of the above symptoms you should consult your doctor to see if the thyroid needs testing.

An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) is less common. Excess thyroid hormone may cause symptoms such as palpitations, sweating, anxiety attacks, and a staring appearance of the eyes. There may be swelling of the gland in the front of the throat.

How is thyroid trouble diagnosed and treated?

A history of symptoms such as those listed above are highly predictive of thyroid insufficiency. If you have several of them, an axillary temperature test (see below) would be the next step. If this shows your temperature to be consistently subnormal then blood or urine tests need to be done.

Axillary Temperature Test for thyroid function (Barnes’ Test)

  1. Before retiring to bed, shake down an oral thermometer and place it within easy reach of the bed.
  2. Immediately on waking, place it under the armpit for 10 minutes. It is important that you remain still and quiet to get an accurate reading.
  3. Record the temperature each day for a minimum of 5 days.

The basal temperature should be between 97.8 and 98.2 degrees F (>36.5 degC). If it is consistently below this level you should seek professional advice.

Your doctor can arrange blood tests to check the levels of the thyroid hormones and the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which is produced by the pituitary, the ‘master gland’ at the base of the brain. (It is important that the levels of free T3 and T4 are determined and not just TSH which is sometimes regarded as sufficient)

If the hormones are deficient you may need replacement therapy with thyroxine tablets prescribed by your GP. It may take several months to determine the right amount of thyroxine to suit your needs. (Although this is, strictly speaking, a hormone replacement therapy, do not confuse it with the more common use of the term HRT for the prescribing of female hormones in the menopause.)

Often the tests may be in the normal range when there are still symptoms suggestive of thyroid problems. In fact, TSH and T4 levels may not change significantly even when the patient has quite noticeable symptoms of hypothyroidism due to lack of active T3. Some practitioners believe these are, nevertheless, due to a condition of subclinical thyroid deficiency where the hormone needs of the individual are not being met.

There is, however, a better correlation between the amount of T3 and T4 that is secreted in the urine over 24 hours. (This test is currently available through a laboratory in the Netherlands but is more costly than the blood test)

Conventional medical treatment for an overactive thyroid is usually with drugs which suppress the excess thyroxine or, in severe cases, surgical removal of part or all of the gland. When this is done thyroxine may need to be taken for life to make up for any deficiency which is created.

Can naturopathic medicine help with thyroid problems?

Naturopathic medicine focuses on treating the whole person, using only non-toxic approaches, such as dietary regulation, nutritional supplements, herbal medicine, and physical therapy. It is essential to continue with the normal medical monitoring and treatment of your thyroid condition, but there may be a great deal you can do to support the function of the gland and help achieve a better level of health and energy. If you still experience symptoms even though you take thyroxine or if you think you may be a subclinical hypothyroid case, it may be worth consulting a registered naturopath.

Since naturopathic medicine places emphasis on the function of the body, lower levels of thyroxine, but within the ‘normal’ range on the blood test, may actually be insufficient for your particular needs.

What does a naturopath do for thyroid problems?

A naturopath will look at thyroid problems in the context of your general health. The practitioner will investigate other possible causes for your symptoms as well as considering anything that might have an effect on the function of the thyroid itself. These can include:

  • Imbalances of blood-sugar levels affecting energy metabolism.
  • Digestive disturbances, e.g., deficiency of enzymes, causing abdominal bloating and undigested food molecules leaking through the gut wall to trigger an inappropriate immune system response.
  • Imbalance of the detoxification functions of the liver resulting in an increase of toxic compounds which may irritate the thyroid tissues.
  • Deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements needed for healthy thyroid function.
  • Prolonged stress, anxiety states, or sudden shock.
  • Muscle and joint problems in the neck and upper back which may interfere with circulation and nerve supply to the gland.

Most of these can be detected by careful questioning and examination and, if necessary, we can arrange for special laboratory tests to give more accurate information on digestive enzymes, trace elements, blood-sugar levels, or whether you have an overgrowth of yeast (candidiasis) in the gut.

What does treatment entail ?

The objective of treatment is to reduce the demands placed on the gland by stress or an unhealthy diet whilst supporting its functions and those of the general metabolism. Advice or treatment given by a naturopath may include:

  • Dietary adjustments and nutritional support for the thyroid.
  • Supplements of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, or natural enzyme preparations.
  • Herbal or homoeopathic support for liver and other metabolic functions.
  • Home hydrotherapy such as compresses and bathing to improve circulation and ease painful joints.
  • Gentle osteopathic and soft-tissue neuromuscular techniques to release neck, back, and chest restriction.
  • Relaxation and stress management techniques.

Individual needs may vary considerably and the naturopath will select treatment accordingly. Naturopathy also places much emphasis on self-help in health care.

Where can I consult a naturopath?

The General Council and Register of Naturopaths (GCRN) maintains a register of qualified naturopaths throughout the country. More information can be obtained from:

The Secretary, GCRN, and British Naturopathic Association
Goswell House
2 Goswell Road
Street
Somerset BA16 0JG
Tel: (01458) 840072 Fax: (01458) 840075
Website: www.naturopathy.org.uk

For information about consultations in Letchworth Garden City and London telephone (01462) 684232 or 020 7436 1446 or e-mail info@naturomed.co.uk

R Newman Turner
BAc, ND, DO, MRN, FBAcC