The conventional treatment for hypothyroidism — an underactive thyroid — is a prescription generic or brand- name thyroid hormone replacement drug like levothyroxine (Synthroid, Levoxyl, Tirosint), or natural desiccated thyroid drug (Nature-throid, Armour). But if you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, you, like many others with a thyroid condition, may wonder if there is a “natural” — meaning non-prescription — way to treat your hypothyroidism. Or, if you search on “natural treatments for hypothyroidism,” you will find thousands of websites, promoting videos, books, e-books, supplements, “drug-free” chiropractic programs, and specialized diets that promise to treat or even cure your thyroid condition without any prescription drugs. The real answer is more complicated and controversial.
Why are you hypothyroid?
An important first question is to ask why you are hypothyroid. The answer can help determine whether natural approaches may be a help to you.
If you are hypothyroid because you have had thyroid surgery to remove your thyroid gland, or radioactive iodine (RAI) to ablate your thyroid, you will require a prescription thyroid hormone replacement for life. Thyroid hormone is essential to survival, and there is no over-the-counter supplement or diet that can provide the thyroid hormone you need to function. Supplements or dietary changes might help you better relieve symptoms and enjoy better overall health after surgery or RAI, but they can’t replace the prescription medication you need.
If you are hypothyroid because you have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, it’s possible that natural approaches, such as a gluten-free diet, might help calm your autoimmune reaction or resolve your hypothyroidism. That possibility depends, however, on the extent to which your thyroid has already been permanently destroyed by antibodies, and whether you have certain underlying conditions that may be triggering your Hashimoto’s.
If you are subclinically or mildly hypothyroid because of iodine deficiency, iodine supplementation may help restore you to normal thyroid function without medication.
Following a gluten-free diet
A subset of people with hypothyroidism—especially those whose hypothyroidism is a result of autoimmune Hashimoto’s disease—also has celiac disease, an inability to process gluten, a protein found in wheat and many other grains. For some people with celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten, gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction that can ultimately result in Hashimoto’s disease and hypothyroidism. Researchers have found that when people who have confirmed celiac disease or gluten sensitivity along with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis follow a strict gluten-free diet, a small percentage of them will see thyroid antibodies and other thyroid levels drop towards more normal levels. They may even achieve a full remission of Hashimoto’s, hypothyroidism, and thyroid symptoms, and no longer require thyroid hormone replacement medication.
The caution here is that even if you have celiac disease, following a strict gluten-free diet is not a guaranteed way to lower thyroid antibodies or resolve your hypothyroidism. But, if you have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, it may be worthwhile to investigate getting screened for celiac disease as a first step.
Taking supplemental iodine
Some practitioners and nutritionists claim that hypothyroidism can be treated by taking supplemental iodine. Iodine is the primary building block and ingredient in thyroid hormone. Your thyroid needs you to get enough iodine from food and supplements in order to produce thyroid hormone.
The idea that supplemental iodine can treat hypothyroidism is misleading, however. Some cases of hypothyroidism are the result of an iodine deficiency. This most often occurs, however, in areas with severe iodine deficiency, including parts of Africa and Asia where salt is not iodized, and there is less iodine in the food supply. It is far less common in the United States, where iodized salt and iodine-fortified food is common.
If you have subclinical or mild hypothyroidism, your next step is not to just grab a bottle of iodine off the vitamin shelf and start taking it. Instead, you should have your iodine levels tested. Practitioners can do a urinary iodine test or a blood test to evaluate whether you have iodine deficiency. If you are shown to be deficient in iodine, appropriate iodine supplementation may be enough to nudge your slightly underactive thyroid into better functioning and resolve your symptoms.
Some holistic doctors, chiropractors, and nutritionists tout two supplements — tyrosine and selenium — as “thyroid cures.” Tyrosine is an amino acid that helps your body convert iodine into thyroid hormone. Selenium can help facilitate production of thyroid hormone, and lower thyroid antibodies. While both supplements can be part of a practitioner-directed approach to support your thyroid, neither of them can replace actual prescription thyroid hormone to treat your hypothyroidism.
You may also see combination supplements touted as “thyroid support” or “thyroid glandular” supplements. They frequently include high levels of iodine, along with glandular thyroid extract.
Another popular claim is that coconut oil can “treat” hypothyroidism. While coconut oil can be part of a healthy diet and may have some benefits for your thyroid, it is not a replacement for prescription thyroid medication or a treatment for hypothyroidism.
Again, while these supplements may be a helpful part of a practitioner-directed approach to support your thyroid health, they can’t replace actual prescription thyroid hormone to treat your hypothyroidism.
Switching to “natural” thyroid drugs
There is some confusion about the term “natural,” because one of the prescription treatment options for hypothyroidism, natural desiccated thyroid (NDT), is sometimes referred to as “natural thyroid.” Prescription NDT is available as a generic, and the popular brand names in the United States include Nature-throid, Thyroid WP, and Armour Thyroid. These drugs have been available since the early 1900s, they are referred to as natural because they are made from the dried thyroid gland of pigs, rather than synthetic forms of thyroid hormone like levothyroxine and liothyronine (Cytomel.) While most endocrinologists and conventional physicians avoid prescribing NDT, many integrative, holistic, and natural medicine practitioners include NDT as a treatment option and even prefer it as a first-line treatment for hypothyroidism.
Some patients who were taking levothyroxine or a T3/T4 combination synthetic treatment find that they have better resolution of their hypothyroidism symptoms after switching to an NDT drug. Research has also shown NDT to be as safe and effective as levothyroxine. But keep in mind, NDT is available only by prescription. Over-the-counter thyroid support supplements are not NDT and they can’t replace prescription thyroid hormone medication for your hypothyroidism.
Recommendation: thyroid treatment is not a do-it-yourself project
There’s no question that some health issues can be dealt with by using vitamins, supplements, and dietary changes. In the end, though, it’s always best to work with a knowledgeable practitioner to guide you in how to safely put together a natural or integrative program to address any health concern. This is crucial when it comes to hypothyroidism. You require thyroid hormone for every body function, and to survive. Much like someone with insulin-dependent, type 1 diabetes should not stop taking insulin and attempt to treat their diabetes with vitamins, herbs, and supplements, it’s not safe for someone with hypothyroidism to stop taking prescribed thyroid hormone replacement medication. Prolonged, untreated hypothyroidism can result in coma and eventually death.
Treating hypothyroidism, therefore, is not a do-it-yourself project. Don’t put your thyroid health in the hands of a nutritionist, a vitamin store clerk, someone who markets supplements, or sells videos or e-books. Don’t stop taking your prescribed thyroid hormone replacement medication unless directed to by your physician, and always consult a knowledgeable practitioner to help you create a specialized natural thyroid program of vitamins, supplements, nutritional changes, and lifestyle changes.
Also, please keep in mind that even if you have been able to successfully resolve your thyroid problem with supplements or dietary changes, you should still have periodic thyroid tests and screening, as you will remain at risk of developing other thyroid problems in the future.
See more helpful articles:
Mary Shomon is a thyroid disease, hormonal and autoimmune health writer, and patient advocate. For two decades, Mary has been a leading force advocating for more effective, patient-centered thyroid and hormonal health care. Mary is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Thyroid Diet Revolution,” “Your Healthy Pregnancy with Thyroid Disease,” “Living Well With Hypothyroidism,” and 10 other books on thyroid disease and integrative health. She co-stars in two PBS health specials, “Healthy Hormones,” and “Vibrant for Life.” Follow her on Twitter at @thyroidmary or at her Facebook communities: ThyroidSupport and ThyroidDiet.