Acupuncture & Herbs Can Help Improve Thyroid Function

January 18, 2010

Ever wonder why you are so tired all of the time? Do you have trouble concentrating? Are you cold and achy? Are you finding that you do not enjoy the things that used to make you happy? Have you been gaining weight even though you eat right and exercise daily? 

If you are having these feelings it is important to know that you are not alone. There are literally thousands of people with symptoms of hypothyroidism with blood tests that do not reveal anything out of the ordinary. Why is this happening to so many people and what can be done for those who have no explanation for their symptoms?

Basic Anatomy & Physiology

The thyroid gland resides in the neck just in front of the larynx. It produces hormones that play a role in just about every bodily function. One of the reasons why it is so hard to diagnose a thyroid condition is because it is only a small part of a complex and intricate matrix called the endocrine system. The endocrine system consists of 8 main glands and secondary sex glands.

The hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, pineal, thymus, ovaries in women, testes in men, and the placenta in pregnant women are all apart of the endocrine matrix. The endocrine system is responsible for regulating hormones. If there is a shift in balance in any part of the endocrine system, then all of the endocrine structures will be affected. The key is targeting where the glitch in the system lies.

Hypothyroidism: The Western View

Hypothyroidism is defined as the circumstance of having inadequate thyroid function. Persons with hypothyroidism have a slow or underactive thyroid gland in which little or no hormones are produced. The thyroid produces 2 main hormones, Thyroxine T4 and Triiodothyronine T3. Both T4 and T3 direct cellular metabolism (4. p18). T4 is the most abundant thyroid hormone in the bloodstream. It is large and slow acting. It is broken down in the liver to T3.

T3 is faster acting and smaller so it can easily pass through the nuclear pores and bind to DNA (4. p34). Thyroid hormones regulate how your cells use oxygen as an energy source. Other important hormones include Thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TRH is released from the hypothalamus, which directs the pituitary gland to release TSH.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism are high cholesterol, fatigue, lethargy, headaches, moodiness, slow weight gain, feelings of cold, and memory and cognition difficulties. A regular allopathic western doctor will use a thyroid panel that includes anywhere from 1 – 10 thyroid-related hormone tests. Proper western drug therapies include the administration of synthetic or natural hormone replacement therapies. Hypothyroidism is not easy to diagnose because most patients will not have all of the symptoms.

What makes it even harder to diagnose is that some people have symptoms but their blood test do not reveal an underactive thyroid. In fact, so many people are wrongly diagnosed as having chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia who actually have a thyroid imbalance. Doctors call this “subclinical disease” in which there are no detectable clinical characteristics of the disease.

Hypothyroidism: The Eastern View

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, symptoms of a thyroid imbalance are indications of an imbalance of yin & yang in the body. Yin qualities are darker, heavy, night, moon, feminine, inactive, slow, moist, cold, and receptive. Yang qualities are lighter, warmer, daytime, masculine, fast, active, and dry. What makes the Chinese Medical system work so well is that it’s the entire person that is being treated, not just the disease. An acupuncturist does not need to read lab tests in order to diagnose a patient. Instead, the patient’s color, tongue, pulse, scent, signs, and symptoms are all carefully observed by the practitioner. In general, hypothyroidism can be diagnosed as an overabundance of Yin with Yang Deficiency.

According to diagnosis, we would use formulas such as Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan to warm the yang and tonify qi, Si Ni Tang which warms the interior, Zhen Wu Tang to tonifiy kidney yang, or Tou Gui Wan to nourish kidney yang. In laboratory studies, certain yang tonic herbs were proven to the raise body temperature of mice (3.). Using tonification technique and or moxibustion, points on the San Jiao and Pericardium channel are commonly used for hypothyroidism. Herbs and acupuncture are particularly useful for symptoms such as feelings of cold, cold hands & feet, fatigue, body aches, poor memory & concentration, foggy thinking, melancholy, depression, insomnia, trouble waking up in the morning, weight gain, constipation, and dryness.

Hypothyroid patients will often have faint, slow, and weak pulses. Their tongues could be wet, swollen, and pale. Some research has shown that acupuncture can stimulate the release of TSH and ACTH and other pituitary hormones (4. p140). Other research has shown moxibustion was able to reduce antibodies in the peripheral blood of patients with Hashimoto’s disease and bring their thyroid back into balance (1. p14).

Hyperthyroidism, being the opposite of hypothyroidism, would generally be diagnosed as an overabundance of Yang with Yin Deficient Heat. According to diagnosis, good herbal remedies include Liu Wei Di Huang Wan to tonify liver and kidney yin, Zhi Zi Qing Gan Tang or, Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan to nourish heart and kidney yin. Using the dispersion technique, acupuncture is incredibly useful in treating hyperthyroid symptoms such as racing heart, palpitations, anxiety, feelings of heat, weight loss, and jumpy moods like anger and irritability. Hyperthyroid patients generally have red tongues with rapid and big or rapid and thin pulses.

Integrative Medicine

The future of medicine will be a combination of both western and eastern medicine. Persons with clinical hypothyroidism in which their blood test reveals a thyroid imbalance would do best by taking a western thyroid supplement along with Chinese herbs and weekly acupuncture treatment (2.). Patients who have symptoms of a thyroid imbalance with normal blood results may not need to take a hormone replacement. These patients may improve just by using traditional Chinese medicine and alternative therapies.

Weekly acupuncture treatment can help balance hormones and alleviate stress. Alternative therapies such as herbs, acupuncture, dietary modifications, and engaging in stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation, or exercise have already been proven to be beneficial.

Simple dietary habits that could improve the thyroid’s function include increasing your intake of selenium, including foods that contain iodine like fish and sea veggies, eating foods like meat and fish that contain the amino acid l-tyrosine, restricting raw cruciferous vegetable intake, taking a good multivitamin that includes A, C, D, E, Zinc, and the B vitamins, and of course eating plenty of fiber-rich fruits, veggies, and whole unprocessed grains.

It is my belief that we must educate the patient on the importance of life long proper dietary habits, the importance of exercising daily and having good stress relieving tools, and most importantly the power of positive thinking. We must first educate the patient to take control of their own health by using preventative measures now to keep their bodies functioning optimally as long as possible and to not leave their destinies up to a stranger in a cold and sterile operating room.


  1. A study on the clinical effects and immunological mechanism in the treatment of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis by Moxibustion. Hu G., Chen H., Hou Y., Cheng Z., Wang R. Shanghai research Institute of Acupuncture & Meridian. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. March 13, 1993 pg 14 – 8.
  2. Chinese herbal medicines for hyperthyroidism. Zen XX., Yuan Y., Liu Y., Wu TX., Han S. Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews. April 18, 2007. Pg. CD005450
  3. Effects of yang-restoring herb medicines on the levels of plasma corticosterone, testosterone, and triiodothyronine. Kuang A., Chen J., Chen M. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Zi Zhi. December 9, 1989. Pg 710, 737-8.
  4. Thyroid Balance: Traditional and alternative methods for treating thyroid disorders. Rothefeld G., Romaine D. Adams Media Publishing Co. 2003

Also in Dr. Dawna Ara, DACM


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