A well-functioning thyroid manufactures hormones that regulate metabolism (transforming food into heat/energy). One thyroid condition, known as Graves’ disease, is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism that results in the thyroid’s overproduction of hormones which in turn, leads to a number of unwanted symptoms. These symptoms include trembling, loss of weight, sweating, heart palpitations and others. In Graves’ disease, the thyroxine (thyroid-stimulating hormone or TSH) hormone is mimicked by dysfunctional antibodies (caused by the disease itself) which cause the thyroid gland to work more than needed and thus overproduce hormones.
Considered an autoimmune condition, Graves’ disease is deemed to be genetically in origin and triggered by stress and other environmental influences. About 9% of the US population (10 million Americans) has this condition, of which, the most susceptible are women who smoke and those who are pregnant. Western medicine offers no cure for Graves’ disease. The two modalities it provides for sufferers include iodine (radiation) therapy, and drugs such as anti-thyroid medications and beta-blockers. On a few occasions, surgery is recommended for the total extraction of the diseased thyroid.
Besides the trembling, weight loss, sweating, and heart palpitations, Graves’ disease can result in other symptoms including:
-Shortness of breath,
-Frequent bowel movements
-Intolerance to heat
-Exophthalmos (bulging eyeballs)
Graves’ disease has a term in Chinese medicine; it’s called “gu yan ning jing,” which means “dove-like fixed eye.” The modes of treatment for it for centuries have been Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that the condition is an indication of a slow moving vital energy (chi or qi) accompanied by abundant phlegm and deficiency of the liver and heart yin with deficient fire. This means that the nourishing and cooling mechanisms of the body are weak and dysfunctional.
These days, a lot of doctors have integrated acupuncture into Western modalities when attempting to resolve Graves’ disease. The fact is acupuncture can be utilized as a stand-alone therapy or combined with Western or other Eastern treatments for this hormonal condition as it has been seen that the treatment has the ability to normalize the release of hormones, the autonomic nervous system, and the release of neuropeptides. A review of a Chinese clinical study done in 1988 stated that acupuncture was administered to address benign thyroid nodules including thyroiditis (not thyroid carcinoma), cystic goiter, nodular goiter, and thyroid adenoma. The results showed a 90% rate of effectiveness of the resolution of the nodules that had a long-term effect. Almost 50% of the people who participated in the study were cured with almost all manifesting a significant improvement of their condition.
The following is a list of the causes and effects of Graves’ disease from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine. This is more or less the patterns of imbalances that an acupuncturist would need to observe in patients who may show signs of Graves’ and thus be able to formulate a proper plan of treatment for the disease.
Spleen Yang Deficiency – Symptoms of this imbalance include loose stools, indigestion and abundant phlegm that travels up to the eyes (causing exophthalmos) or the neck (causing the enlargement of the nodules or the thyroid gland).
Liver and Kidney Yin Deficiency – Symptoms of this imbalance are many and they include female infertility, delayed menstruation, amenorrhea or scanty menstruation, dry stools and impacted stools, heat sensations felt on the soles and palms, night sweats, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), dry throat, low back pain, easy irritability and anger, blurred vision, dry eyes, dizziness, flushed cheeks, numbness of the limbs, dream-disturbed sleep, sallow complexion, insomnia, and vertical or dull occipital headaches..
Extreme Anger and Sorrow Resulting in the Disturbance of Qi – This leads to the protrusion of the eyes and swelling in the neck. The effect of this condition is a weakening of the Spleen and Stomach Qi (caused by either a poor diet or emotional factors) causing the production of Moist and Turbid substances, that rise up to the thyroid due to too much Liver Qi.
Damp Phlegm – Symptoms include productive coughing of abundant amount of phlegm that is sticky and white, joint problems, lumps and swelling, epigastrium, stuffiness sensation on the chest, no feelings of thirst, and no appetite.
Kidney Fluid and Qi Deficiency – Causes a lack of water in the body resulting in too much heat that in turn, damages Qi. The rise of too much heat damages the Yin as well and usually involves the Stomach, Liver, and Heart.
Deficiency of the Heart Yin – Symptoms include profuse sweating, insomnia, forgetfulness, fidgeting, and palpitations (severe or not) along with fear.
Stagnation of Liver Qi– This condition results in the accumulation of fluids that transform into Phlegm. The Phlegm obstructs the Qi flow in the neck that results in the development of goiter. The remaining Liver Qi converts into fire, resulting in the symptoms of irritability and fidgeting. When the stomach yin and body fluids are consumed by fire, heat will be produced by the Yin Deficiency. This type of Stagnation leads to symptoms of irritability, PMS and painful periods, irregular menstruation, unhappiness, epigastric pain, vomiting, nausea, changes in one’s mental state, depression, moodiness, and melancholy.
Rising Up of Liver Fire – Symptoms include nose bleeds, coughing of blood, vomiting of blood, dry stools and constipation, dream-disturbed sleep, bitter taste in the mouth, thirst, red eyes and face, dizziness, headaches, deafness, high-pitched ringing in the ears, and easy irritability and anger.
Graves’ disease can be effectively treated with Chinese herbs especially if it is administered by a professional and highly skilled naturopathic practitioner. There are certain Chinese herbs used for this disease that are banned in the US and this has forced other patients to seek treatment overseas. A few of these herbs are worthy of mention. They include:
Licorice, lycium fruit, moutan, peony, salvia, citrus, bupleurum, scrophularia, ophiopogon, and codonopsis – All of them help remove heat and have the ability to resolve a lot of the symptoms caused by Graves’ disease.
Oyster shell and fritillaria – Clears phlegm and treats neck swelling and thyroid nodules
Scrophularia and raw rehmannia and– Purges fire and nourishes Yin
Huang Qi (astralagus root) – Tonifies Qi and Increases Yang
Treatment of Graves using Chinese herbs and acupuncture can be very effective in treating this condition. However, you need to have proper guidance when considering an alternative option.
Ivelisse DeJongh is a Miami acupuncturist and the medical director at DeJongh Acupuncture Clinic.