Can acupuncture help with thyroid problems?

Q: I have hypothyroidism and am taking a 100 dose of thyroxine daily.
Since being diagnosed 10 years ago my weight went from 10stone to 12 stone over the first 3 years and has been steady at 12stone ever since. I do not eat sweets etc and have a pretty good diet. I know I am overweight and need help do you think acupuncture could be the answer. I have faith in it as I had a course to relieve severe hip pain some years ago and it worked wonders. I am a 65 year old female.

A:  We are always a mite cautious in answering questions about the management and effects of thyroid problems. Our clinical experience is that it can often take patients a considerable time to achieve a good balance of thyroxine, and one of the consequences of using acupuncture is that it can boost residual functions across the whole system. When people have limited function in the thyroid, and also in the pancreas and other endocrine glands, we are always concerned that we might just prompt the whole system to work better and cause fresh problems.

The first thing we would want to check is whether your thyroxine dose is precisely matched to your needs. Fluid retention and subsequent weight gain would be a sign of hypothyroidism, and it may just be that the dose you are taking is not quite meeting your current needs. On the assumption, though, that we can rule this out, the advice we give to people about acupuncture and weight loss is consistently the same - unless there is clear evidence that there are functional disturbances from a Chinese medicine point of view which might be causing some of the weight gain, we would never recommend acupuncture as a general treatment for weight loss. While our underlying belief is that a system in balance will perform better in all respects, and might in theory bring weight under control, the evidence from research and from our clinical practice is not that favourable.

One of the problems, of course, is that when we treat people for weight loss, it is rarely the only thing they are doing, and as people who go to Weightwatchers and similar organisations know from their initial briefing, after a short period of rapid loss every pound takes time, with targets set very low at a pound every two weeks or so. It is very difficult with this kind of time frame in mind to be able to determine whether acupuncture works or not, and whether it is having a direct effect or simply helping to maintain someone's determination to carry on.

That said, there are a number of syndromes recognised in Chinese medicine where we can and do give advice, and sometimes treatment, which can have an effect. Chinese dietary advice is always to eat more at the beginning of the day than later, and to avoid certain types of food. There was a saying used in this country 'breakfast like a king, lunch like a lord and dine like a pauper' which expresses well the best pattern of eating to fit in with the body's natural rhythms. Our digestive functions are far better in the earlier part of the day, and meals taken in the evening are never digested as well.

The main Organs of digestion, the Stomach and Spleen (we capitalise them to denote the Chinese medicine understanding), also work better when the food is fit for purpose. The Spleen is said to like warm dry food, and if it is over-loaded with cold and damp food, it under-performs and can lead to a condition the Chinese call Dampness which can mean an accumulation of fluids, especially in the middle third of the body and lower limbs) and a general feeling of sluggishness. When you think that the usual reaction to weight problems is to eat lots of salad, raw fruit and raw vegetables, it is not hard to see how things can easily get worse rather than better. This doesn't mean not eating all of these foods; they are still a healthy diet. It means rather to balance the coldness with something either physically hot or spicy hot. You rarely see cold food in a Chinese restaurant; even fresh vegetables are stir-fried to retain the crispness but lose the coldness.

What we sometimes advise prospective patients to do is to begin with a number of small dietary changes, and perhaps have a number of acupuncture treatments to see what happens. If the system is waterlogged this can sometimes mean that there is an immediate response to treatment and better dietary patterns. We have to be realistic insofar as people can't always change their eating patterns in one go, and we also need to be able to distinguish between what we do and what the dietary change is doing. However, if there seems to be some progress, then we usually discuss regular but spaced out treatment to keep the system working towards a better overall balance.

As always, it is best to visit a BAcC member local to you for a brief chat about what may be possible. Whatever we say here it will never be as accurate as what someone can tell you even from a brief look at diagnostic signs.

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