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Sluggish thyroid function, even when it’s “sub-clinical” or borderline, is one of those things that can really make us feel lousy. For many, it goes unaddressed for years because the symptoms look like so many other things; and for others, even when their levels are addressed on paper, a lot of issues like fatigue and fogginess still linger.

Why is that? Because our thyroid gland helps to regulate everything from metabolism to energy and cognition – in fact, every cell in the body depends upon thyroid hormones for regulation of their metabolism.

Thus, thyroid hormones play a huge role in how we feel each day. You may not be able to look at someone and ‘know’ they have a thyroid problem, but those who have experienced less-than-optimal thyroid function sure can tell you how it feels to live that way, and how it affects everything from digestion to circulation.

When I say ‘everything,’ I mean it (which is perhaps one of the reasons why so many go untreated for so long) – this includes the warmth of our hands and feet, and even the way we’re able to stay sharp and think on our toes. 

While labs matter most in a Western paradigm, in the practice of traditional herbalism, these hallmark issues (especially those cold hands and feet!) are wildly important clues we can use to support someone with herbs on a root level. We do this by addressing the state of imbalance of the overall tissue – called one’s “tissue state” – in order to help you feel your best (even when you’re doing everything else right).

SLUGGISH THYROID FUNCTION & A “COLD” TISSUE STATE

For someone who’s feeling mentally foggy and colder than most, always with more layers on than other people in the room, we’d consider this a “cold” and “damp” aka stagnant tissue state… and there are highly specific herbs we can use to warm and invigorate the circulation, brain, digestion, energy levels and more in order to support this human! 

It just so happens that many of the stress-fighting, warming and invigorating herbs also help to support healthy thyroid function when they’re studied in a Western lens – coincidence, or the result of the time-tested approach of nourishing the person with the imbalance, rather than the imbalance within the person? 

Regardless, when it comes to choosing herbs to support someone’s endocrine and thyroid health, it’s important to take both Western and traditional, energetic ‘tissue’ state factors into account. Not only do we want to warm someone up and move ‘damp stagnation’, proverbially supporting their metabolism and ‘digestive fire’ within the gut-brain-thyroid axis… we also want to look at:

  • supporting the body’s own endogenous thyroid hormone production,
  • removing barriers regarding the body’s ability to convert T4 into active T3 hormones,
  • supporting the actual absorption of active T3 hormones on a cellular level, which means considering stress and cortisol levels (and how to make the body more resilient),
  • maintaining our delicate immune balance, especially for those who are prone to swinging either way,
  • ensuring proper micronutrient status (as minerals and vitamins such as Iron, Selenium, Zinc and Vitamin D are crucial for assisting all of the above),
  • and regulating the HPAT (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid axis) so that the brain is speaking to the thyroid in a happy and healthy way, promoting the ‘green light’ all systems are a go signal within this negative feedback loop, especially when one is experiencing stress!

In order to touch on all of the areas above, here’s a list of the herbs I tend to use when supporting thyroid function from this holistic, whole body lens.

1. ADAPTOGENS

Adaptogens are key for healthy thyroid function – or more specifically, removing barriers to normal and healthy thyroid hormone function, because they modulate the HPAT axis (hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenals – ovaries – thyroid).

While thyroid (T) comes last, thyroid dysfunction often starts in the brain (H) first due to the brain recognizing we’re under high stress. This HPAT axis is quite literally our built-in “stress response system” and functions on a negative feedback loop, meaning all glands and organs involved are constantly speaking to each other in order to control and adjust their hormonal output. When dealing with occasional stress, your body aims to protect you from the harmful effects of exposure to excessive stress hormones like cortisol. To do this, your brain (the H part), can down-regulate the entire HPAT axis (including the T for thyroid) which can leave us feeling worn down and foggy.

Additionally, the enzyme 5′-deiodinase is responsible for our active thyroid hormone conversion process, and it can be limited by everything from stress and elevated cortisol to gut health and nutrient status.

Thyroid-specific adaptogens not only have an affinity for the thyroid itself, but they quite literally help us “adapt” to stressors more effectively, helping us to maintain normal and healthy energy, metabolism, drive, motivation, mood, and even body temperature regulation. As we aid our HPAT axis and nervous system’s perception of stress all the way up in the brain, the rest of the loop can continue functioning optimally. Here are my favorite picks:

a) Eleuthero

Eleuthero is an adaptogen that helps to assist someone who’s feeling depleted and worn out. This nourishing root, of course, helps to normalize and regulate the HPAT axis, thus supporting healthy cortisol and inflammation levels. Eleuthero is traditionally indicated for fatigue, lack of motivation and drive, and is considered warming to a “cold and depleted state” (which again, matches the pattern we’re working with quite well! Cold hands and feet, cold intolerance in general, Qi (energy) deficiency, etc.

b) Ashwagandha

A recent human trial found that 600mg ashwagandha root daily vs placebo for 8 weeks improved serum TSH, T3 and T4 significantly, and normalized labs compared to placebo. This study is promising, but also a great example of why you would want to speak with your practitioner first so they can closely monitor your labs! Your practitioner can work with you on finding the right dosage for your needs. Ashwagandha also contains naturally occurring iron and may support healthy hemoglobin and serum iron levels. And of course, as I keep mentioning, it’s a supreme adaptogen meaning it helps us to “gen” (generate) a greater ability to “adapt” to stressful conditions by helping to modulate stress hormones and inflammation. Ashwagandha is also immunomodulatory or “immune amphoteric” meaning it helps normalize the immune response.

3) Schisandra

In the bigger picture of thyroid health, “immune amphoteric” adaptogens that help to maintain a calm and balanced immune response truly shine. In herbalism, Schisandra is known as an herb that “stabilizes and binds,” or as my teacher says, it helps to “tighten and astringe things that are leaky – whether that’s leaky thoughts or energy.” These astringent properties help to stabilize and bring together a scattered and unfocused mind when you can’t fully “form” the thoughts you’re aiming to express. 

As a stabilizer and normalizer, Schisandra also supports us as a powerful immune amphoteric, helping to maintain normal and balanced immune function. Within the immune system, there are many different types of cells that require intricate balance. This is where immune amphoterics come in, as they help maintain healthy equilibrium between these different immune cells. Rather than pushing you one way or another, amphoterics support immune modulation by bringing the immune system into normal balance and homeostasis, no matter which side of the coin you’re on.

In a TCM lens, Schisandra is a “Kidney” meridian adaptogen, specifically nourishing to the Kidney Yang (our deep sense of warmth and vitality), balancing the cold/damp tissue state mentioned earlier. Schisandra’s unique broad-spectrum and complex blend of all five medicinal flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, acrid) reflects its wide-ranging impact on the different organ systems of the body and is considered to benefit all five “yin” organs (Heart, Lung, Spleen, Liver, and Kidney).

2. WARMING & CLEARING GUT-MIND AXIS HERBS

In traditional herbalism, we focus on addressing the person with the imbalance, not the imbalance within the person. This means observing how the body is functioning as a whole system, with other areas of the body (like the gut and mind) being seen as important pieces of the puzzle in terms of the root factors that allow for healthy thyroid function. 

When we see the whole body, we understand someone’s overall “tissue state” and energetics: whether they’re experiencing “heat” with lots of tension, frustration, and perhaps a red/angry skin presentation, or “cold” with cold hands and feet, foggy thinking, occasional gas, bloating, and stagnant digestion. More than anything, bringing the tissue state into homeostasis by balancing the energetics is what we focus on when choosing individual adaptogenic, mood and cognitive supporting herbs.

The herbs mentioned here help to warm and balance the underlying “cold”, stagnant/damp presentation within the overall tissue state that leads to the often overlooked factors like low digestive fire and lack of clarity of thought.

a) Myrrh

Myrrh supports the gut microbiome, digestive health, normal and healthy thyroid conversion, as well as normal cholesterol levels, all while warming and invigorating a cold and stagnant state with its potent aromatic phytochemicals. Bacopa supports healthy circulation to the brain, as a brain and nerve tonic that helps to clear the mind and support cognition.

Even mildly low levels of thyroid hormone (also known as subclinical hypothyroidism where your labs are just borderline) can lead to altered hepatic cholesterol synthesis and metabolism. The Commiphora family has been shown in studies to improve cholesterol status and lipid metabolism, and has also been studied as a botanical that supports the improvement of thyroid health.

b) Bacopa

Bacopa supports healthy circulation to the brain, as a brain and nerve tonic that helps to clear the mind and support cognition.

In Ayurveda, Bacopa is a grounding herb traditionally used for “vata brain” aka someone who is feeling scatterbrained. “Vata” is the element associated with air, so when out of balance, it can create “wind” aka chaos or tension within the body and mind. A mentally windy state can make someone forgetful, anxious, easily overwhelmed, and excessively airy with an ‘on the go’ nature that doesn’t allow them to focus on one thing or slow down. This is where Bacopa’s bitter quality comes in to help someone ground and descent their energy.

3. PERIPHERAL TISSUE SUPPORT

Did you know that a large percentage of T4 -> T3 conversion actually happens in your peripheral organs? Thus, liver and kidney support is always helpful, in order to ensure conversion to the most usable (T3) form is optimized.

a) MILK THISTLE

Milk Thistle is the perfect herb to bring in for peripheral conversion support, as it’s one of the only herbs in the plant kingdom that supports both the liver and kidneys. While it’s famous as a liver herb alone, Milk Thistle helps to maintain healthy kidney and urinary function as well thanks to its high antioxidant content and protective function. 

b) MICRONUTRIENTS

While not herbs, healthy Vitamin D, Zinc and Selenium status gets an honorable mention, as these vitamins and minerals have been associated with maintaining healthy thyroid metabolism as well as normal T3 and T4 hormone levels.

WHERE TO FIND THESE THYROID ALLIES

There’s nothing more frustrating than doing everything right — and even being told that everything looks ‘normal,’ only to feel anything but. Even when things look optimal on paper, there are often overlooked complaints that can linger beneath the surface when it comes to endocrine health and metabolism.

Because of the way adaptogens have deeply supported me over the years when dealing with my own struggles, I created a thyroid blend with the herbs and nutrients above to serve as a warming, thyroid-specific adaptogen for those who need some help filling in the gaps and feeling truly revitalized once again. ThyroPro will officially be available at the end of May, and contains all the plants and minerals mentioned above for a truly holistic blend.

There are so many things involved when it comes to maintaining healthy thyroid function: it’s not just about hormone production, but also about immune balance, active hormone conversion, cellular absorption (which can be affected by occasional stress) and even iron status and absorption. I wanted to create a blend that’s as comprehensive as possible, supporting each of these areas with plant-based tools that help us function and feel as we were meant to.

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