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Stress is one of the primary causes of disease in humans. And, it certainly plays a significant role in the development of an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto's disease, the leading cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. Treating hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland) requires thyroid medication for most people. However, supplemental therapies that target root causes can be highly beneficial for optimizing your thyroid health. Here, we explore what research shows us about the therapeutic effects of adaptogenic herbs on Hashimoto's.
Adaptogens are herbal medications that help your body manage stress. Increasing your body's ability to maintain homeostasis and physiological stability is one of the primary roles of herbal medicines in this class. Herbal treatment with adaptogens has been used for centuries to treat various ailments. One of the most notable herbs is ashwagandha, one of the hallmark treatments in Ayurvedic medicine.
Adaptogens target three primary endocrine glands responsible for maintaining a homeostatic state: the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands. These three hormone-secreting glands regulate everything from body temperature to muscle performance. But, at the core of their function is their primitive role in helping us fight off stressors.
Adaptogenic herbs are thought to target the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When we are stressed, the hypothalamus in the brain signals the pituitary (also in the brain) to release hormones that tell the adrenals glands (seated above the kidneys) to secrete or withhold cortisol. Sometimes referred to as the stress hormone, cortisol helps us manage stressors that come our way.
If the adrenals release cortisol, it gives our bodies a boost of energy to fight off the stressors, thereby suppressing immediately non-critical functions like reproduction and digestion. Conversely, our bodies return to a normal homeostatic state when cortisol levels decline.
We often broadly define stress, but when it comes to physiological stress (that is, stress that causes a body response), we refer to anything that can throw off homeostasis. A stressor may be physical like nutrient deficiencies, infection, lack of sleep, or mental and even environmental.
When the body is under stress, it can wreak havoc on all systems, most notably the neurological system, immune system, and endocrine system. Ultimately, stress affects how your body maintains homeostasis, which is the core that keeps us alive and helps us ward off disease.
When we are stressed, our body goes through 3 phases controlled by these organs:
- Phase of alarm
- Phase of resistance
- Phase of exhaustion
When we enter the alarm phase, our adrenals release hormones like adrenaline to help pump blood to the proper tissues like our muscles. This initial response is what kept our primitive ancestors alive, as it allowed them to run from a threat like a predator. Today, adrenaline, of course, helps us do this when we are in need. Still, it also increases our focus and concentration and even gives us a boost of energy.
The phase of resistance occurs in conjunction with that initial alarm phase. Essentially, the phase of resistance allows us to sustain the responses of the alarm phase for longer, so we can keep fighting or performing. It is thought that adaptogenic herbs help us maintain the phase of resistance for longer, keeping us out of the final phase of exhaustion for longer.
Adaptogenic herbs may improve Hashimoto's because of their role in stabilizing the HPA axis. Thyroid hormone production is one of the byproducts of this axis. When the HPA axis is thrown off, it can cause interference with T3 and T4 production. What is more, excess stress in the body can exacerbate inflammation, which may worsen Hashimoto's symptoms as it can further destroy tissue in the thyroid gland.
From an integrated medicine approach, some providers also find their patients with Hashimoto's have an underlying problem of weak adrenal glands (sometimes called adrenal fatigue), where they do not produce enough cortisol. However, this is a controversial topic, as adrenal fatigue is not an acknowledged diagnosis in medical circles. There is little research investigating this relationship.
However, because stress and inflammation go hand in hand, and the adrenal glands help regulate stress, adaptogens may be a valuable tool to implement in your thyroid treatment plan.
Each adaptogen has a slightly different function, so the best one for you depends on the specific ailment you're experiencing.
Aloe vera may help reduce thyroid antibodies and improve TSH and free T4 levels when taken over many months.
American and Asian ginseng
American and Asian ginseng may help with long-term stress and may help treat fatigue in people with chronic illness.
Ashwagandha may help with long-term stress.
Amla (Indian gooseberry)
Amla shows in preclinical studies to possess many beneficial properties, including anti-inflammation, immunomodulation, cardioprotection, gastroprotection, and neuroprotection.
Astragalus can be used to improve immune function and decrease fatigue. However, there are several potential herb-drug contraindications for astragalus, so check with your healthcare provider before use.
Animal studies show that extracts of Chaga mushrooms may help promote energy metabolism. Excessive intake may have toxic effects; please consult with your healthcare provider.
Cordyceps have potent antiviral effects and are rich in selenium, which can help reduce thyroid antibodies. Pregnant or lactating women should not take cordyceps. People with existing autoimmune conditions should first consult with their health care provider.
Holy basil or tulsi
Research suggests that holy basil, or tulsi, can help lower stress levels. Holy basil could potentially lower T4 levels, and medications may need to be adjusted as such.
Licorice may reduce oxidative stress. Licorice also contains an enzyme that increases circulating cortisol.
Goji berries can alleviate oxidative stress and offer protective benefits like preventing free radicals from damaging DNA, proteins, and lipids. Goji berries belong to the nightshade family and should be avoided by those sensitive to nightshades.
Maca supports the body's stress response and adrenals, and according to preliminary research, it may also reduce depression. This adaptogen is packed with nutrients like magnesium, zinc, and potassium, all essential minerals for those with Hashimoto's.
Reishi is a mushroom used medicinally for over 2000 years. This adaptogen can help with immune response, as found in some small studies.
Rhodiola may support acute stress and improve depressive symptoms, insomnia, and mood instability. Most research has been done on animals and human studies are limited.
Schisandra is another adaptogen that can support acute stress and has been studied in preliminary research for its central nervous system effects. Schisandra may also help with exhaustion--increasing alertness, improving the ability to learn and memorize, and enhancing mental performance and overall concentration.
Note: most research on adaptogens is preliminary. We recommend that you first consult with your healthcare provider about any adaptogenic herbs as they can interact with some medications.
To add adaptogens to your routine, you can sip adaptogenic teas or combine tinctures with water. You can also add adaptogenic powders to your food like smoothies, soups, or salad dressings. Some adaptogens can be taken as capsules.
Still, you will want to consult your doctor before adding adaptogens to your treatment plan. Even when something is considered natural or plant-based, it can still have severe or unintended consequences when misused. What is more, supplements can also interact with other medications or health conditions.
Suppose your doctor is not familiar with adaptogens. In that case, it can help to reach out to a doctor who takes a holistic approach to thyroid care.
Finally, remember that while adaptogens can have beneficial effects to help your body manage stress, they are no replacement for healthy lifestyle choices. Reducing external stressors, eating a healthy diet, removing food sensitivities, and getting plenty of exercise is vital to keeping Hashimoto's symptoms under control.
If you are looking for a holistic thyroid doctor that specializes in hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's, meet with a Paloma thyroid doctor and get comprehensive thyroid testing from the comfort of your home.