Q) A friend of mine in her early 20s has been diagnosed with an overactive thyroid caused by Graves' disease-a condition her father also has. As conventional therapy left her father with more problems than before, she is keen to try an alternative approach. Can you suggest any natural treatments or cures for Graves' disease?-C.B., via e-mail
A) Graves' disease, known for its enlarged thyroid and eye problems, is the most common form of hyperthyroidism worldwide. An autoimmune condition, it arises when the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, causing excessive thyroid-hormone production (Am Fam Physician, 2005; 72: 623-30).
The conventional medical approach usually involves cutting away, irradiating or medically blocking the 'overheated' thyroid gland and replacing the output
of this temporarily 'switched-off' thermostat with synthetic thyroid hormone. The basis of the theory is that, by giving the thyroid a 'rest', the autoimmune disorder which is attacking and destroying it will go away and not return. In reality, this approach often ends up destroying too much of the thyroid gland, thereby causing an underactive thyroid in the attempt to treat an overactive one (see WDDTY vol 7 no 7).
Fortunately, there are a number of alternative ways to manage an overactive thyroid-provided that the patient isn't in a 'thyroid storm' (a life-threatening state characterized by fever, delirium and a rapid heart rate) and that the gland hasn't become entirely atrophied. Your friend should work with an experienced alternative practitioner, who can monitor her condition closely. However, according to the evidence, the following steps may help.
- Reduce stress. Psychoemotional stress appears to be an important factor in the development of Graves' disease, and may even be more significant than heredity (Lancet, 1991; 338: 1475-9). So, stress-reducing methods-such as tai chi, yoga or daily meditation-may be worth a try. Indeed, yoga has been found to have a positive effect on thyroid function in one study carried out in India (Int J Biometeorol, 1994; 38: 44-7).
- Cut out chemicals. Recent research indicates that environmental chemicals can interfere with thyroid function and thyroid hormone-signalling (Thyroid, 2007; 17: 811-7). The main culprits were found to be polychlorinated biphenyls (found in polluted fish and meat), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame-retardant chemicals added to home furnishings, electronic devices and other consumer items), phthalates (found in plastics, electronic devices and personal-care products) and bisphenol A (found in plastics and canned foods). For advice on how to avoid some of these nasty chemicals, see the environmental alerts in WDDTY vol 19 no 9, vol 19
no 1, vol 18 no 11 and vol 18 no 8.
- Quit smoking. If your friend is a smoker, she should stop, as studies have shown a significant link between Graves' disease and tobacco smoking, particularly in women (Thyroid, 2002; 12: 69-75; Eur J Endocrinol, 2002; 146: 153-61).
- Consider herbs. Extracts of gypsywort (pictured above; Lycopus europaeus) and common gromwell (Lithospermum officinale) have been shown to reduce thyroid-hormone and thyroid-stimulating-hormone levels-at least in rats (Arzneimittelforschung, 1994; 44: 41- 5; Planta Med, 1982; 45: 78-86). Another useful herb is bugleweed (L. virginicus), which has been shown to block the action of the thyroid-stimulating antibodies found in people with Grave's disease (Endocrinology, 1985; 116: 1687-93).
- Try traditional Oriental medicine. Eastern medicine has a good track record in the treatment of an overactive thyroid. Studies show that herbal mixtures such as Ahnjeonbaekho-tang (a combination of eight Oriental herbs) and needle-pricking therapy might be particularly helpful for Graves' disease (Biol Pharm Bull, 2008; 31: 583-7; Zhongguo Zhen Jiu, 2006; 26: 769-71).
- Watch out for iodine. Excess iodine intake is known to lead to hyperthyroidism in some people (Presse Med, 2002; 31: 1664-9), so your friend may wish to remove iodine-containing foods (such as kelp, iodized salt, sea salt, bio-salt and Japanese seaweed) from her diet, and to watch out for it in other sources, such as drugs, antiseptics and food preservatives (Thyroid, 2001; 11: 493-500).
- Increase antioxidant intake. Studies suggest that supplementing with antioxidants (vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium) may be useful in the treatment of Graves' disease. Graves' patients supplementing with antioxidants while taking the antithyroid drug methimazole achieved normal thyroid function faster than those who were taking methimazole on its own (Clin Chem Lab Med, 2005; 43: 383-8; Acta Pharm, 2004; 54: 79-89).
- Try royal jelly. Although more research is needed, there is some evidence to suggest that royal jelly-produced by honeybees-may be helpful for Graves' disease sufferers. In 2006, a study conducted in Turkey concluded that the substance may be effective as an "immunomodulatory agent" (Endocrine, 2006; 30: 175-83).