Chances are that you've heard of the thyroid gland. Any idea what it does? The primary role of the thyroid gland is in regulating metabolism but it also plays a role in maintaining the proper balance of calcium levels in the body. The thyroid gland is composed of two separate lobes located on either side of the windpipe below the voice box. Each lobe is made up of two different types of tissue, the follicular cells and the parafollicular cells. A majority of the tissue is composed of the follicular cells which produce the iodine containing hormones T4 and T3. The parafollicular cells produce a hormone called calcitonin.
The T4 and T3 hormones produced by the follicular cells are important hormones in the body that regulate metabolism, promote protein production and govern oxygen use in the hard working cells of the body. Metabolism is the process by which the cells release and utilize energy from nutrients to make proteins and other components the cells can use to function or grow. Without the proper levels of T4 and T3, the cells can not function at an optimal level and metabolism is increased (hyperthyroidism) or decreed (hypothyroidism). Calcitonin produced by the parafollicular cells works with another chemical, parathyroid hormone, to balance calcium levels in the body. As is often the case in the human body, the activity of the thyroid gland is regulated by the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland.
How can this small gland around your neck affect your health? Simply put, if the thyroid gland is producing too much or too little T4 or T3, then your body's metabolism will be affected. Diagnosis of thyroid imbalance is usually based on laboratory findings. Typically the levels of TSH are measured but if the levels of either T4 or T3 are off, then your doctor may diagnose you with a thyroid condition. Too much activity and you have hyperthyroidism; too little and you have hypothyroidism. Western treatment usually involves medication such as levothyroxine, a replacement for T4 in the case of an under active thyroid gland or medicine, surgery or radiation treatment to calm or remove a hyperactive gland.
Thyroid conditions occur more often in women and often become more evident as they approach menopause unless they have a genetic predisposition to a faulty thyroid. With hypothyroidism, they may have temperature regulation problems and feel cold all the time. Since metabolism is affected, weight gain and fatigue are often noticed as well. The symptoms are opposite with hyperthyroidism. Often anxiety, nervousness, flushing, palpitations, insomnia, weight loss and goiter (an inflamed thyroid gland) are reported.
How can acupuncture help with thyroid conditions? Acupuncture works by balancing the overall system and bringing the over or under active thyroid back to normal working conditions. Endocrine diseases such as these are effectively evaluated by acupuncture since its relaxing effect has an impact on brain and hormone activity within the body. In addition to treating the thyroid directly, acupuncture is also extremely valuable in its ability to address the uncomfortable symptoms of thyroid disease. A popular treatment for thyroid conditions involves several needles inserted painlessly in the ears. Chinese herbal medicine also seeks to either promote or subdue thyroid function through the use of herbs such as ginseng, mint or ginger.
It is important to mention that the thyroid gland is dependent on iodine for its function, a nutrient that is sometimes lacking in the typical American diet. Supplementing the diet with sea vegetables, like seaweed, or a sea salt containing iodine can help promote healthy thyroid gland function. In the case of hypothyroidism, it must be remembered that taking a medication such as levothyroxine that contains synthetic T4 to make up for a natural deficiency, will cause the body to adjust its own levels of TSH or the thyroid hormones. This can lead to a rapid switching of hormone levels and further side effects. If medication or surgery does not appeal to you, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine is a natural way to maintain a functioning thyroid gland and may be effective in helping you treat and manage your condition.