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The most common causes of thyroid dysfunction are the autoimmune conditions known as Hashimoto’s disease, which causes the thyroid gland to become under-active (hypothyroidism), and Grave’s disease, which causes the thyroid gland to become over-active (hyperthyroidism).
In both these scenarios, the immune system begins to attack the cells of the thyroid gland, which then become inflamed and either produce less thyroid hormone or more (depending on the condition). This then causes various metabolic changes as the thyroid hormones are responsible for regulating and coordinating many of the body’s activities.
In the case of hypothyroidism symptoms may include:
- Fatigue and sluggishness
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Pale, dry skin, puffy face
- Hoarse voice
- Elevated blood cholesterol
- Unexplained weight gain, mostly in the form of fluid
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness, especially the shoulders and hips
- Pain and stiffness in the joints and swelling in the knees or small joints of hands and feet
- Muscle weakness, especially in the lower extremities
- Excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia)
In the case of hyperthyroidism symptoms may include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Fine tremor of the hands or fingers
- Increased perspiration or warm, moist skin
- Sensitivity to heat
- Weight loss, despite normal eating habits
- Enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter)
- Change in menstrual cycles
- Erectile dysfunction or reduced libido
- Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
- Bulging eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy)
- Thick, red skin usually on the shins or tops of feet (Graves’ dermopathy)
From a conventional medical perspective the causes of both diseases are considered to be a dysfunction in the immune system, probably due to genetic or hereditary factors. However, little or nothing is known about the details of what actually causes this immune dysfunction in the first place.
Treatments for Grave’s include:
- Radioactive iodine therapy (orally)
- Anti-thyroid medications
- Beta blockers (symptomatic management)
- and other specific treatment for Graves opthalmopathy.
Treatment for Hashimoto’s include Synthetic Hormone replacement (usually levothyroxine).
The Ayurvedic View
Although Ayurveda recognizes genetic or hereditary factors at play in the development of these diseases, it also describes a very clear disease process and an in-depth understanding of what actually causes the immune dysfunction.
From the Ayurvedic view the initial causes are diet and lifestyle factors that imbalance the digestive fire and metabolism and disrupt the balance of the doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha). Stress and overwork also play an enormous part as this causes imbalanced Agni, vitiation of the doshas and the direct depletion of Ojas (which is considered the final essence of tissue metabolism and the primary support for our immune system).
The Disease Process
As is always the case from an Ayurvedic perspective, the disease process begins in the gut with imbalanced digestive fire (Agni) and the production of undigested food waste (Ama). This Ama then moves from the gut into circulation along with imbalanced doshas (Vata, Pitta or Kapha) and begins to compromise the function of the metabolic Agnis that are necessary for healthy tissue formation. This progresses from the level of plasma (rasa) and continues up the chain, inhibiting the formation of strong and healthy tissues until Ojas is affected.
Once the quality of Ojas is disturbed (in this case it is often caused by the presence of Pitta dosha in the form of heat) then the immune system begins to act improperly, attacking the thyroid gland and the full blown autoimmune condition develops. Whether the autoimmune condition manifests as Graves or Hashiomoto’s depends upon the specific doshic imbalance involved.
When this chain of metabolic dysfunction goes on unchecked, Ojas gradually becomes more depleted and conditions such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis and heart problems can also develop.
Ojas is also depleted by: fear, anxiety, anger, grief and trauma, excessive alcohol consumption, eating too much dry and cold food (including processed food or too much raw food), lack of restful sleep, excessive talking and sensory stimulation, too much mass media, overly strenuous exercise, overwork, travel, excessive fasting or sudden weight loss.
It is easy to see why these conditions can be so difficult to manage. They are long-standing and they affect the tissues of the body at a very deep level as well as the vital organs. The approach to managing them must, therefore, be equally comprehensive.
In Ayurveda, the emphasis is always on treating an individual rather than simply treating a disease state so every treatment program will look slightly different depending on each person’s unique situation. Having said that, there will always be some common recommendations which will include dietary and lifestyle guidelines, herbal preparations and body treatments.
Firstly, an Ayurvedic practitioner will always recommend the avoidance of any dietary or lifestyle activities that directly deplete Ojas. In addition, an approach to diet must be adopted that strengthens both the central digestive fire (Jathara Agni) and the tissue metabolism (Dhatu Agnis). Any doshic imbalance that is present must also be rectified. To this end avoiding wheat, all refined sugar, all fermented foods including alcohol, yogurt and yeast as well as sour fruits and tomatoes, is recommended. Other specific dietary and lifestyle recommendations depend on which doshas are imbalanced.
Gentle exercise such as walking, Tai chi or Qi Gong under the guidance of a good teacher are invaluable for these conditions. Meditation and mindfulness practices are also essential for managing stress and reducing its effect on immune dysfunction.
A variety of very specific Traditional herbal formulations are available that help support good digestion and metabolism and facilitate the elimination of Ama. They aid circulation through the channels and ensure the proper nourishment of the tissues. Herbs that rectify the imbalanced doshas and aid the production of healthy Ojas (therefore addressing the auto immune aspect of the condition) must also be prescribed.
Ayurvedic therapies are also incredibly beneficial for these conditions. Pindaswed (massaging the body with a heated bolus of specific herbs) is excellent for reducing Ama in the tissues and channels, bringing immediate relief from swelling, pain and stiffness; while Shirodhara (the drizzling of warm, medicated oil on the forehead) is very effective in relieving stress and nervous system tension and helping to balance hormone production.
The Ayurvedic approach to treatment can go hand-in-hand with more conventional medical approaches. While one can help to manage your symptoms, the other can affect change at the root of the disease process – strengthening digestion, reducing toxins, pacifying aggravated doshas and nourishing Ojas.