I’m always interested in the following question: How can I revive my thyroid beyond what is offered by conventional medicine? Let’s toss around this question together as part of integrating western medicine with Eastern wisdom traditions such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Often the integration part becomes arcane and my eyes glaze over as I read monotonous tomes of information on these ancient systems. So, let’s try to keep this lively and accessible.
Today: Ayurveda, or “knowledge of life,” — an ancient healing system that acts as a sister science to yoga. I’m a yoga teacher but not an Ayurvedic physician – please keep that in mind as you read my words. I have been a student of yoga for 30+ years, and a student of Ayurveda for only 10 years. Ayurveda is based on understanding your constitution and imbalances, with the goal of manifesting your optimal health and wellbeing, but customized to you and your uniqueness.
OK, but why is Ayurveda actually interesting to me, a 43-year-old mom with no free time and little patience for an archaic system of healing? Well, Ayurveda initially captured my attention because it fills a gap we encounter in Western medicine: Ayurveda actually engages not simply with medical science, but also with the nature, scope and purpose of life. Ayurveda’s basic tenet is that the purpose of life is to express divinity in our daily experience.
Hmmm, say more.
Ayurveda believes that the original cause of disease is forgetting our true nature, as my current guide, Jessie Holland, puts it. With Ayurveda, our goal is to keep our body healthy so we can fulfill our dharma, or purpose. This happens with reprioritizing the environment, philosophically, and also balancing the five basic elements (air, water, ether, fire, earth); or put more specifically, with herbs, food, how you eat, how you perceive stress and configure your life.
Let’s circle back to the practical info on the thyroid and what Ayurveda offers.
One Ayurvedic herb I use a lot in my practice is ashwagandha, which regulates both the adrenals and the thyroid. It is known as an adrenal double adaptogen, meaning that it helps tonify your cortisol levels – so that your cortisol doesn’t get too high or too low. Ashwadandha can make your thyroid make more thyroid hormone, and in folks who take thyroid augmentation, particularly Synthroid, I recommend starting with a quarter- or half-dose.
What about iodine? Here’s one of my favorite Ayurvedic therapies for those with hypothyroidism: bladderwrack (or as I like to call it: bladderwhack). What’s especially thrilling about bladderwrack is that it’s TONIFYING, meaning that it not only lifts your thyroid function – it acts in an adaptogenic fashion. Here are more details on bladderwrack, paraphrased from my favorite online medical journal, Wikipedia: Bladderwrack helps women with abnormal menstrual cycling, at doses of 700-1400 mg/day, and has been demonstrated to decrease estradiol levels (so it helps correct estrogen dominance, referred to in my previous posts). Care must be taken in people with hyperthyroidism – excess doses can cause tremor, increased pulse, high blood pressure.
Another herb is suggested for some with hypothyroidism: shilajit, which is considered to be divine nectar given to mankind to live youthfully. Shilajit increases our vitality when it has withered as a result of stress and anxiety. While it is literally translated as an herb that allows you to conquer mountains and destroy weakness, more physiologically, it helps with movement of minerals – specifically calcium, phosphorus and magnesiu, which is often derailed in thyroid dysfunction.
Some of the Ayurvedic texts are rather impenetrable. Here’s an example from Textbook of Ayurveda by Vasant Lad, noted Ayurvedic scholar and Director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico (note: agni refers to your “fire” or “radiant energy”):
“Jatru agni. There are two schools of thought about jatru agni. One says this refers to urdhva (upper) jatru granthi (the thyroid gland), which maintains metabolism. Another says it is adha (lower) jatru granthi (the thymus gland), which maintains immunity. I like to make it simple and say jatru agni refers to both. These glands of the endocrine system are part of majja dhatu, so they are related to the chakra system. Jatru agni in the thyroid is important for regulating cellular metabolic activity. The thyroid is a bridge between bhuta agni and the seven tissues, maintaining the functional integrity of the bhuta agni and dhatu agni. The agni present within the thyroid relates to T3 and T4 hormones and it kindles agni at the cellular level. Cellular metabolic activities are governed by jatru agni and, if jatru agni in the thyroid is sluggish, a person’s metabolism becomes slow and they easily put on weight. If jatru agni is hyperactive, a person loses weight at the beginning, but the increased appetite can make the person eat a lot and their weight can vary. If there are certain repressed emotions, such as grief, or sadness, these can also impair the function of the thyroid gland.”
Huh? I get the part about the repressed emotions, and love that aspect of Ayurveda – that undigested emotions result in disease – but the stuff on jatru, bhuta and dhatu agni is completely opaque. Someone explain it to me, please.
In Ayurveda, here are the foods that are good for those of us with thyroid problems: old rice, barley, mung dal, cucumber, and milk products are recommended (assuming you’re not allergic). Sour and heavy substances are contraindicated.
Another favorite recommendation from Ayurveda, which sends me into a happy dance, is coconut oil. According to Ayurveda, coconut oil offers promise today to sufferers of hypothyroidism and slow metabolism. Fatty acid chains in coconut oil, known as medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) or medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), offer worthy health benefits and are not found more abundantly in nature outside coconut oil. For my hypothyroid friends, coconut oil may help rev up your sluggish metabolism. I drizzle one tablespoon on my vegetables at lunch, and use it to cook. I especially like Spectrum’s spray coconut oil for cooking.
It’s been a rapid tour of what Ayurveda offers your thyroid, and just the very tip of the iceberg, but hopefully this post will have you thinking outside of the box about other ways of tonifying your thyroid.
Written by Dr. Sara Gottfried