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Lifestyle Changes to Optimize Thyroid Function
By: Vanessa Vogel Batt, L.Ac., MSTOM

The small thyroid gland exerts a powerful influence on the mental, emotional, and physical health of the body. This butterfly-shaped gland is situated on the front part of the neck and can usually be felt only when it is abnormally enlarged. It is brownish-red in color, due to the abundance of blood vessels passing through. The thyroid produces, regulates, and releases hormones that contribute greatly to the process of metabolism. The term metabolism refers to all chemical reactions within the human body necessary to sustain life.

It's not possible to tally up the entire list of vital functions the thyroid affects, as it is extensive, so the following is a short list:

  • Cholesterol levels
  • Body temperature
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing
  • Muscle strength
  • Menstrual cycle
  • Emotions

A healthy thyroid is able to produce and release hormones in a timely manner. When this does not happen, the gland may become overactive, known as hyperthyroid, or it may slow down and become under active, called hypothyroid. Symptoms of hyperthyroid include increased appetite, weight loss (in spite of eating more), heat sensations, anxiety, and increased heart rate. On the opposite side of the spectrum, a hypothyroid condition can produce signs of lowered heartbeat, increase in weight accompanied by a reduction in appetite, cold sensations, fuzzy memory, and depression.

According to the theory of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, the universe is comprised of two primary forces called yin and yang. Yin energy is expressed by the qualities of cold and moisture, while yang is expressed through heat and dryness. Yin moves at a slow rate, and yang moves quickly. Feminine forces represent yin and, conversely, masculine forces represent yang.

Both thyroid conditions represent an imbalance of yin and yang energies. Hypothyroid expresses a depletion of yang and an abundance of yin. Using the seasons as a metaphor, the body is likened to the heart of winter--there is extreme coldness and a lack of activity. Hyperthyroid, on the other hand, is likened to high summer--excess heat and fast movements. When the yin dries up, the yang dominates.

Implementing certain lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms of a thyroid condition. There are three main areas to be addressed: diet, exercise, and management of the emotional state.  According to the dietary advice of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, the best foods to eat if one has a hypothyroid are lamb, beef, carrots, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, and ginger. These foods have a warming effect on the body.

In the case of hyperthyroid, a different set of foods are recommended. The wisdom of modern medicine recommends eating one to three servings of cruciferous vegetables every day. They have the ability to suppress the production of thyroid hormones. Vegetables in this category include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage.

Exercise also plays an important role. For the hypothyroid patient, when the body feels sluggish and heavy, it is important to not force oneself to perform rigorous exercise. Far from being invigorating, this will deplete the body's energy reserves even further. Although a hyperthyroid patient may exhibit restlessness and appear fidgety, this does not indicate an abundance of healthy physical energy. The body is overstimulated by the overproduction of thyroid hormones and if left untreated, may eventually lead to hypothyroid as the gland wears itself out. So in both cases, suitable exercises would be swimming, walking, gentle yoga practices, and tai chi.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese form of exercise that strengthens the body through fluid, gentle motions. The rhythm of tai chi also brings tranquility to the mind. The soothing movements can bring relief to runaway emotions, help increase blood flow to the head, and increase the availability of energy to all the body. This ancient Chinese practice is affectionately known as 'meditation in motion.'

For this reason, tai chi also provides an antidote for stress relief. Managing stress levels is very important when it comes to managing symptoms of any thyroid condition. Maintaining emotional equilibrium prevents the hormone cortisol from being produced. Cortisol is like an alarm bell telling the body to prepare to flee or fight. It interrupts the normal rate at which thyroid hormones are produced and released. Cortisol, when released into the bloodstream in excess, can exacerbate imbalances in the thyroid gland.

Although it is unrealistic to live a life without any stress, it is important to reduce the impact of stressful situations. A daily routine of tai chi, yoga or a meditation practice may help mitigate the negative consequences of tension and adverse situations when they do occur. Getting a good night's sleep also improves the ability to handle stress well. To help increase your chances for a rejuvenating sleep, keep your bedroom dark, comfortable, and a tad on the cool side.

Find an Acupuncturist near you to learn how acupuncture and Oriental medicine can help ease your symptoms!

About the Author:   Vanessa Vogel Batt, L.Ac., MSTOM, studied at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and practiced acupuncture and Oriental medicine in New York for several years. Vanessa enjoys traveling the world, and has published articles on acupuncture and Oriental medicine and related health topics for websites and publications in both the U.S. and abroad.