Rosie and her husband were using protections, but last month she missed her period, which had always been quite regular. She took two home pregnancy tests. Both turned out negative. Feeling puzzled, she went to Urgent Care, where a blood test showed abnormally high T3 (active thyroid hormone) and T4 (inactive thyroid hormone in storage).
Hyperthyroidism is a common disease in modern society. Currently, there are more than two million hyperthyroid patients in America. Most of them are women between the ages of 20 and 40.
Scanty or missing periods are often one of the symptoms in female hyperthyroid patients of childbearing age. Male hyperthyroid patients may experience problems with their reproductive systems as well. This is because hyperthyroidism makes metabolism too fast to leave enough energy for the normal functions of the reproductive system. The over-consumption of energy also leads to weight loss. Although some hyperthyroid patients who would like to lose weight may welcome slimming down without dieting, the overactive metabolism may make the turnover of bone cells too fast for enough replacement. If hyperthyroidism is left untreated, it will make the patient prone to osteoporosis and infertility. In the meantime, when the heart rate gets too high and blood pressure elevated, the heart can be overburdened. In the worst case of hyperthyroidism, the patient may abruptly die of a thyroid storm.
Although very few patients have died of hyperthyroidism, the doctor would normally prescribe a beta blocker (which lowers the blood pressure and heart rate) along with anti-thyroid medicine. This is in part because anti-thyroid medicine only suppresses the production of thyroid hormone; it cannot lower the active thyroid hormone already existing in the blood. In other words, it will not take effect until at least three weeks later. In the meantime, possible side effects include rashes, decreased white blood cell count and lower liver function. It may also make the patient gain weight. The weight gained after medication often exceeds the pounds shed because of hyperthyroidism. Worst of all, once the patient stops the medication, hyperthyroidism often returns.
Once a relapse occurs, the doctor may suggest ablating the patient’s thyroid with radioactive iodine, and then the patient will most likely have to take thyroid hormone pills for life. This approach appears to eradicate hyperthyroidism, but in fact, the root cause of hyperthyroidism is not in the thyroid most of the time. In the vast majority of hyperthyroid patients, it is some antibodies that make the thyroid secrete more hormones than necessary. This is a well known fact to all doctors. However, because there is currently no way to suppress the antibodies, the thyroid is ablated instead. The problem is, the patient’s immune system remains untreated. It may become more sensitive after receiving radioactive iodine. Although it can no longer target the thyroid, it may go elsewhere to cause other autoimmune diseases.
Elaine Moore is one of the patients who has suffered autoimmune skin disorder and other health problems since receiving radioactive iodine in her late 30s. With a professional background in medical lab technology, she has written countless articles and published books to warn hyperthyroid patients against the dangers of radioactive iodine.
Rosie read Ms. Moore’s books and looked up other sources of information, which all told her that Western medicine could not truly eradicate hyperthyroidism. Thus she decided to try Chinese medicine instead. She didn’t even take a beta blocker because hyperthyroidism only raised her blood pressure to 122 over 83, which led her to believe a thyroid storm would be unlikely in her case. Given her mild symptoms, she figured the gentle approach of Chinese medicine would probably work better for her.
Chinese medicine practitioners have been using acupuncture to treat hyperthyroidism for thousands of years. In Chinese medicinal classics, hyperthyroidism is called ying-qi (瘿氣), which can be roughly translated as “a goiter formed by excessive energy” because the Chinese word qihere refers to the energy circulating through the body to keep every cell functioning.
In Chinese medicine, it is believed that qi is metabolized in the liver, which is coincidentally also an organ responsible for metabolism in Western medicine. So, the way Chinese medicine practitioners interpret the mechanism of hyperthyroidism, though seemingly abstract, was easy for American-educated Rosie to accept.
From the Chinese medicine practitioner’s point of view, emotional stress and/or improper diet can make qi stuck in the liver instead of being smoothly metabolized. The stagnated qi heats up the liver, causing a liver fire which generates excessive heat for the entire body. The heat dries bodily fluids and forces mucus to go up. When the drying and rising mucus reaches the thyroid gland, it accumulates there as phlegm. Then phlegm coagulation forms the goiter seen in the hyperthyroid patient.
This mechanism, though yet to be validated by scientific experiments, explains why hyperthyroid symptoms include intolerance for high temperatures, heart palpitation, higher blood pressure, eyelid inflammation, and erectile dysfunction in men or scanty menstrual periods which often lead to amenorrhea in women. The symptoms all manifest dry heat which causes thicker blood (making the blood pressure higher) as well as a lack of bodily fluids (not enough for the tear glands, nor for the reproductive system).
Based on this mechanism, the root cause of hyperthyroidism is qi stagnation, so the solution must get qi moving again. That’s what acupuncture does.
Besides moving qi to quench the liver fire, acupuncture can also nourish yin (which can be roughly translated as the cooling, moisturizing, feminine energy of the body). According to Dr. Ching Chi , who practices acupuncture in Sunnyvale, California, yin nourishment works extremely well for some female patients whose menstrual cycles are affected by hyperthyroidism.
Dr. Chi said scanty or missing periods are symptoms these female hyperthyroid patients have in common with polycystic ovarian syndrome patients. In the meantime, women with polycystic ovarian syndrome often have high thyroid hormones. As Dr. Chi sees an interactive connection between the thyroid and female hormones, she believes helping a female hyperthyroid patient like Rosie regain a normal menstrual cycle would be a good way to make her thyroid gradually normalize itself.
“Chinese medicine is personalized medicine,” said Dr. Chi. “The same hyperthyroidism actually has different causes. So, the treatment should vary case by case, based on the analysis of the cause.”
In Rosie’s case, yin nourishment worked very effectively. Her first acupuncture session brought on her late period. She received acupuncture twice a week. Three weeks later, her blood pressure came back down to her usual numbers, 103 over 62. A month after her first acupuncture session, her blood test showed normal T3 and T4. Best of all, her TSI, which indicates the antibodies that would stimulate the thyroid to produce more hormone, tested negative.
About TSI, Rosie feels a little confused because the first endocrinologist she saw told her that her hyperthyroidism was an autoimmune problem called Graves’ disease, but later she could not find a TSI number in the blood test report she received. She wondered how the endocrinologist determined her hyperthyroidism to be Graves’ disease without testing her TSI, especially after she declined the endocrinologist’s suggestion of a radioactive iodine uptake test to find out the cause of her hyperthyroidism.
Rosie learned from a famous endocrinologist’s article that the uptake test is no longer necessary because the less invasive TSI blood test and ultrasound can pretty much do the job, so she wondered why the endocrinologist tried pushing her into receiving radiation. After some consideration, she decided to switch to another endocrinologist.
The second endocrinologist tested Rosie’s TSI, but when it tested negative, her T3 and T4 were already back to normal. She still doesn’t know what her TSI was like when she was hyperthyroid. If it was negative to begin with, then her hyperthyroidism was probably not caused by Graves’ disease, but by subacute thyroiditis, which actually can resolve itself within six months without treatment. However, even if she just had subacute thyroiditis, acupuncture shortened her recovery time by months. And if she had Graves’ disease, that means acupuncture was able to turn TSI from positive to negative, and calm down the overactive immune system.
Even so, Rosie would not advise hyperthyroid patients to see an acupuncturist only. She said, “They still need an endocrinologist. At least all their blood tests have to be ordered by an endocrinologist. For some hyperthyroid thyroid patients with very high blood pressure, a beta blocker will be necessary, too. I wouldn’t tell everybody to do exactly what I did, but acupuncture is indeed a superior treatment for hyperthyroidism.”
It has always been Dr. Chi’s goal to integrate acupuncture into Western medicine. She said, “Hopefully in the future acupuncture will be recognized by the establishment of Western medicine as a valid treatment for hyperthyroidism, like the way it is recognized today for pain relief. That will be good news to many patients.”
Written by Crystal Tai
Edited by Dr. Ching Ching Chi