January 18, 2017

History of Thyroid Treatments and Modern Alternatives

by Dr. Scott Saunders, M.D.

The history of thyroid disorders goes back as far as written records. 1

As early as 2700 BC, the Chinese used seaweed to treat goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland.

  • 1475 – Chinese physician treats goiter with minced thyroid glands
  • 1500 – Leonardo Da Vinci makes the first drawing of the thyroid gland
  • 1602 – Cretins (physical and mental retardation due to low thyroid) are first recognized in Switzerland
  • 1820 – Goiter and cretinism are treated with iodine
  • 1884 – The first surgical removal of thyroid gland for Graves’ disease
  • 1917 – Thyroid hormone, thyroxine, became available for sale at $350/gram (Gold at the time was $0.61/gram)
  • 1917 – X-rays used to treat Graves’ disease

From ancient times to the modern era, little has really changed in the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders – that is, until the 21st Century.

Low Thyroid

Many people come into the office with symptoms of low thyroid.  These include:

  1. low thyroid symptoms_2Feeling slow and sluggish
  2. Tired all the time
  3. Lack of energy
  4. Feeling cold easily, especially in the hands and feet
  5. Hair falling out
  6. Weight gain
  7. Delayed reflexes
  8. Constipation

Many people who have a thyroid condition are already taking supplements to help manage their symptoms. These supplements are mostly dried and ground-up thyroid glands from pigs or cows.  These glandular supplement have been around for centuries, and have worked very well.  Today, we have the same hormone, T4, or thyroxine, which is made synthetically.

So, what causes low thyroid?

People can be hypothyroid when:

  • The thyroid gland can’t produce the hormones.
  • The body doesn’t convert the inactive T4 to the active T3.
  • Or, when anything interferes with the action of the thyroid hormone. The proper functioning of your thyroid can be inhibited by:
  1. Stress – High cortisol levels cause low thyroid by:
    • Higher Reverse T3, which blocks the normal T3 from working
    • Lower TSH so the thyroid gland makes less T3 and T4
  2. Low selenium3 has multiple effects on the thyroid, causing inflammation and the inability to convert the inactive T4 into the active T3
  3. thyroid functionLow tyrosine. This amino acid forms the backbone of the thyroid hormone.  When it is deficient, the gland is unable to function.
  4. Low iodine is common.
  5. Lack of vitamin D3 decreases the binding of the T3 hormone to the receptor.
  6. Toxins such as fluoride, bromide, lithium, mercury, and pesticides inhibit thyroid production or use.
  7. Immune dysfunction can cause antibodies to be made against the various components of the thyroid gland, proteins, or enzymes.

Many of these can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland called a “goiter.”


A goiter is simply an enlarged thyroid gland at the base of the neck, and is often caused by low thyroid.  Some are barely noticeable, while others can get so large they impair breathing and swallowing.

Pei was a woman from China who went to her doctor with a bump on her neck.  The doctor thought it might be a goiter so he sent her to an endocrinologist.  The specialist did some tests that proved she had goiter, and sent her on to a thyroid surgeon.  The surgeon told her about only two options: surgically remove the gland, or take radioactive iodine to kill the gland.  She found that she would have to be on thyroid pills for the rest of her life with either treatment, so she opted not to treat. 

Over the course of ten years the gland got bigger and bigger.  She went to several other doctors to see if there was anything else she could do, but they only gave her the same two options.  The goiter became so large that she had difficulty swallowing and had the gland removed by a surgeon.

If the thyroid gland doesn’t get iodine, then it starts getting bigger.  Seaweed contains a concentrated amount of iodine, which was recognized by the Chinese thousands of years ago as a treatment for an enlarged thyroid gland.  Over the years, this information has been lost and re-gained several times.  Currently, even though we know the history, we continue to use drugs and surgery for goiter instead of iodine. 

In the case of Pei, the first doctor should have told her about iodine, which usually shrinks the gland by about 1/3, and she could have avoided surgery, and the mass in her neck.

What causes a goiter?

When there is not enough thyroid hormone in the body,

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