Traditional Chinese Medicine for Thyroid Disease

Acupuncture, Herbs, and More

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Although traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has become increasingly popular in the United States, an understanding of thyroid disease and the endocrine system is relatively new among practitioners of this ancient approach to health care.

TCM uses a personalized approach to treating disease—one that's based on an individual's specific symptoms and that may include any of a number of practices commonly used by Chinese medicine practitioners. For these reasons, TCM offers no standardized medications or therapies for thyroid disease, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

If you have a thyroid disorder and would like to consider including traditional Chinese medicine in your overall treatment plan, be sure that the primary physician treating your condition is aware of the options suggested by your TCM practitioner before you try them. This will help protect you from potential side effects or interactions with other medications you take.

Achieving Balance

As with any disease or disorder, traditional Chinese medicine regards both broad categories of thyroid disease—hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism—as being caused by an imbalance of yin (loosely defined as structure) and yang (function) in the body. The goal of Chinese medicine is to achieve a balance between these two forces.

TCM treatment principles are tailored to an individual's symptoms. Put another way, one's diagnosis alone does not dictate the use of specific herbs or therapies. For instance, a patient who has the standard symptoms of hypothyroidism but also experiences, say, dizzy spells would be treated differently than another person with low thyroid who has a different constellation of symptoms.

That said, according to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM), the modalities most likely to be used to treat the symptoms of either thyroid disorder are:

  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal medicine
  • Dietary therapy

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body that coordinate with particular pathways of qi (pronounced "chee")—the energy that flows through the body, which plays many roles in a person's overall health and wellbeing, per TCM. By targeting these pathways, or meridians, a TCM practitioner aims to bring back into balance a disruption of qi believed to cause pain and other symptoms of a disease.

Proponents of Western medicine who recognize acupuncture as a useful adjunct to conventional treatment suspect that the practice somehow boosts the body's natural painkillers by stimulating nerves, muscles, and connective tissue.

There've been few studies looking at the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating thyroid disease, but a 2018 overview of such research found several to be promising. Similarly, the British Acupuncture Council cites a number of specific ways in which acupuncture has been found to be potentially useful for treating thyroid disease, such as:

  • Increasing levels of thyroid hormones in the people with hypothyroidism
  • Lowering levels of thyroid hormones in patients with hyperthyroidism
  • Reducing sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation by acting on specific areas of the brain
  • Increasing the release of the chemical adenosine, which decreases sensitivity to pain
  • Improving muscle stiffness and joint mobility by increasing blood circulation in small blood vessels, which aids dispersal of swelling
  • Reducing inflammation by promoting the release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors

Medicinals

Traditional Chinese medicine makes use of the leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds of plants for the treatment of disease; these items are transformed into decoctions (liquids made by heating or boiling), granules, or powders. Herbs may be used alone or combined into what are called formulas.

There are thousands of Chinese herbs as well as many formulas. Again, those that might be given to one thyroid patient won't necessarily be the same as the herbs or formulas prescribed for someone else with the same diagnosis. However, PCOM recognizes certain ones as often being used for hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

Herbs and Formulas For Hyperthyroidism

  • Rehmannia (shu di huang)

  • Dioscorea (shan yao)

  • Cornus (shan zhu yu)

  • Kidney Yin Tonic (Liu Wei Di Huang Wan)

  • Liver Cleansing (Zhi Zi Qing Gan Tang)

  • Heart Yin Tonic (Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan)

Herbs and Formulas for Hypothyroidism

  • Cinnamon (rou gui)

  • Aconite (fu zi)

  • Kidney Yang Tonic (Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan)

  • Right Restoration Formula (You Gui Wan)

In addition, several specific herbs and formulas for treating thyroid disease have been researched. Among them:

  • Yingliu mixture: A combination of this herbal formula and methimazole has been found in studies to improve thyroid function and decrease levels of autoimmune antibodies associated with Graves' disease more effectively than methimazole alone.
  • Haizao Yuhu Decoction: This herbal formula also has shown promise in at least one study as a treatment for goiter when used in conjunction with more conventional therapies.
  • Xing Qi Hua Ying Tang: This herbal formula was found in one study to lessen symptoms of patients with goiter and to reduce the size of the goiter.

A Word From Verywell

Many types of treatment comprise traditional Chinese medicine, so if you decide to explore TCM as a complement to the conventional therapies you may be receiving for thyroid disease, don't be surprised if the practitioner devises an approach that's very different from those described here. That's largely because of the highly individualized approach to diagnosing and treating disease that's the linchpin of TCM.

The one thing all people who turn to Chinese medicine for treatment of thyroid disease should share, however, is maintaining an open and honest dialog with their primary caregiver to make certain that any non-traditional treatments they may want to try won't interfere with any conventional medicines or therapies they may be receiving. Chinese herbs in particular have not been rigorously studied, so it's important to talk with your doctor before you take one.

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