The Thyroid in Chinese Medicine

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

The thyroid is a small butterfly shaped gland that wraps around the trachea (windpipe) in the throat. The thyroid’s function is to secrete hormones (thyroxine) that help regulate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and the rate at which food is converted into energy. Thyroid hormones are essential for the function of every cell in the body. They help regulate growth and the rate of chemical reactions as well as our body’s metabolism. Thyroid hormones also help children grow and develop.


The thyroid uses iodine, a mineral found in some foods and in iodized salt, to make its hormones. The two most important thyroid hormones are thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which is produced by the pituitary gland, acts to stimulate hormone production by the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland also makes the hormone calcitonin, which is involved in calcium metabolism and stimulating bone cells to add calcium to bone.

Thyroid disorders fall into two categories, hypo – or under active thyroid, and hyper – or over active thyroid. Here is a description of both, with a list of their symptoms.

HYPERTHYROID (over active)

Hyperthyroid results from an overactive thyroid that produces too much thyroid hormone. Below are a list of hyperthyroid symptoms.

  • high blood pressure
  • rapid heartbeat
  • moist skin
  • increased sweating
  • tremor
  • nervousness
  • increased appetite with weight loss
  • diarrhea, and/or frequent bowel movements
  • weakness
  • eyes that seem to bulge out of their sockets
  • and sensitivity of the eyes to light


HYPOTHYROID (under active)

Hypothyroidism is characterized by an under active thyroid gland. Symptoms of hypothyroid are below.

  • hoarse voice
  • slowed speech
  • puffy face
  • drooping eyelids
  • sensitivity to cold
  • constipation
  • weight gain
  • dry hair and skin
  • depression

Traditional Chinese medicine regards both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism as imbalances of the Yin and Yang energy of the body. In Chinese medicine, Yin and Yang are considered the essential components of the material universe. Everything that exists has both Yin and Yang aspects. In the body, when Yin and Yang are in balance, we are healthy and able to ward off disease, but when Yin and Yang become imbalanced, illness develops.

When treating hypo or hyperthyroidism, a TCM practitioner will use acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy and energy work like Tai Chi and Qi Gong to rebalance an individual’s Yin and Yang. Chinese Medicine theory states that external factors (like diet, weather and physical injury or trauma) and internal factors (such as emotional states, mental stimulation and hereditary factors) are all contributors to changes in Yin and Yang.

acupuncture needles

Hyperthyroidism in Chinese medicine is considered a deficiency of the Yin energy of the body which is unable to control Yang and, because Yang is Fire, it flares upwards giving rise to hyperthyroid symptoms like anxiety, anger, dry mouth with a bitter taste – all symptoms of heat in the body.

Hypothyroidism is considered a deficiency of Yang causing excess Yin, which represents water or cold energy which causes symptoms like lassitude, poor memory, edema, being pale and feeling cold.

yin yang

There is some question as to why there seem to be so many cases of thyroid disorders in recent years, and why the numbers are increasing. Some theories suggest that we are getting better at diagnosing the disease, and others speculate that there is not enough iodine in the diet. I believe that in a world where we are constantly in a hurry, eating nutrient depleted foods covered in pesticides, and overloading our bodies with toxins like fluoride, that it is our lifestyles that have become toxic and are no longer as able to support health as they once were. If we were to look back even a generation ago, the food that was eaten was much closer to what grew out of the ground and people didn’t have to work 2 jobs to pay the mortgage. Other things that contribute are wearing tight, constrictive clothing that inhibits the movement of qi or energy throughout the body, energy that is important for all our physiological processes and psychological well being. We seem to have lost the balance in life and perhaps in some cases the meaning of life itself. In many traditions like those of the Native Indians, Ayurvedic medicine (the medicine of India) and Chinese medicine, there is a deep connection to nature and the world around us that is inseparable from the human being, and health on every level is an integral part of supporting us on the journey we are all on in this life and on this planet. In some ways, this seems to be getting lost.


The good news is that these ancient systems like Chinese medicine are a treasure trove of wisdom that have thousands of years of practice and development. It would be overly simplistic to say that Chinese medicine is a medical system, it was designed as a way of life. Chinese medicine can teach us the art of living, and the goal is for every being to live harmoniously with themselves, the people and creatures around them and the natural world so that they can live long, happy and healthy lives.

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