Health and Illness I
IV. The Thyroid Gland and Hormones
2 December 1922, Dornach
Dr. Steiner. Gentlemen, someone has handed in a written question concerning the thyroid gland.
Question: The thyroid gland can become enlarged and when it does a goitre is formed. Since goitres may exert pressure on the windpipe and thus cause a problem, operations have been performed on this gland, whose function is unknown. Soon after surgery, however, a strange phenomenon was observed. Persons whose whole thyroid gland had been removed exhibited both physical and mental changes. Growth stopped, limbs became enlarged and perspiration ceased. There also was evidence of some mental retardation. When the cause for this was realized, one sought to remedy the defects by feeding the unfortunate persons thyroid glands taken from freshly slaughtered calves or wethers. The result was astonishing. All negative effects subsided. But these results were short-lived, and within a few weeks the trend was reversed again. The patient's stomach also rebelled. Then sections of thyroid glands were introduced into the throat. Again, the results were amazing, but signs of deterioration reappeared.
Injections made with preparations from thyroid glands were not much more successful. An English firm has achieved surprising results with certain tablets even in cases of cretinism. A short interruption in their use, however, reverses the process of recovery. What is to be expected with the continued use of these tablets?
Dr. Steiner: Gentlemen, if you take into consideration what we have already discussed here, you will be able to understand this matter fairly well. You see, until about seventy years ago, until about the middle of the nineteenth century, no particular significance was attached to the thyroid gland, which is located here in the front of the neck. It was thought to be like the appendix or some other organ that had had a function in man's ancestors but was no longer needed. In short, no special importance was attributed to this gland. Then it was noted that its degeneration, with the formation of a goitre, had a specific effect even on mental faculties. Its purpose and pathological enlargements were studied in cretins, that is, retarded and mentally deficient people. One can observe that in certain geographic regions persons are both retarded and afflicted with goitres. It is known throughout Europe that in Halberstadt the retarded population has goitres so large that in some cases they extend over the shoulders.
Now, it was thought at first that if pathological enlargement of the thyroid had such a pronounced influence on the mental faculties, surgical removal was indicated. This is how they think today. A great preference is shown for surgery because significant progress was made in surgical methods in the nineteenth century; this has become the most important aspect of medicine, that most deserving of recognition. So the first thought is to remove those organs that apparently have no significance. This is the procedure followed in the case of the appendix. It is surgically removed if it shows any pathological symptoms.
This manner of thinking ignores something I have repeatedly emphasized here. You will recall that when you observe man in his totality, you often note that something is present in certain processes of the child that has effects much later on, even in advanced age. Ordinary medical opinions are concerned only with what is demanded at the moment. Therefore, steps are taken that seem most beneficial at the given moment, but no attention is paid to the future course of events. It is difficult to make an overall judgment about these matters because, if a patient is not operated on when he exhibits symptoms of appendicitis, for example, he may immediately succumb. Then, of course, the doctor is held responsible. The point is to investigate other than surgical means to solve these problems. You are familiar, perhaps, with the fad these days of letting youngsters go about as much as possible with bare feet and legs, even up to the knees. Well, this habit contributes to the degeneration of the appendix! Of course, once the appendix has become inflamed, it must be removed, but when you see matters in a larger context, you know how to prevent such problems from arising in the first place.
Now, it is correct that the thyroid gland has great significance and important implications for the whole human organism. As I have said, people have been aware of this since the last half of the nineteenth century. They know that a malfunctioning thyroid does not allow the use of the body for mental activities in a normal way. Everything referred to in the question actually occurred. If a portion of the gland was allowed to remain, the patient did, indeed, make some improvement. He was relieved of the enlargement and his mentality was not adversely affected. But when the whole thyroid was removed and nothing of the gland remained, the patient became more retarded than before. Naturally, it was learned from this that even a diseased thyroid gland has significance for the expression of man's faculties of soul and spirit.
The secretion of the thyroid has been administered to patients in a number of ways. Incidentally, the fluid contained in a gland is called a secretion. Injections of thyroid substance could result in an increase of thyroid fluid in the body, but this method led to no lasting improvement. The organization of the body did not seem to respond favourably to what was being administered. So far, the best results have been obtained by administering thyroid fluid in the form of these tablets, which are absorbed by the digestive system. Introducing the substance of the thyroid into the stomach and hence into the blood stream permeates the body with the secretion of this gland. This remedy proves that the body needs such a secretion. It shows, too, that when the thyroid is functioning properly, its secretion passes into the blood in minute amounts and penetrates the entire body. If the thyroid secretion is introduced into the stomach rather than directly into the body, it also finds its way into the blood stream. But you understand, of course, that administering thyroid by way of the stomach is effective only as long as it comes to circulate in the blood. If the tablets are discontinued, the amount of thyroid in the blood will decrease. So persons who receive thyroid substance in this manner must take it continually. Then it does remain effective.
It can be said that this does, indeed, offer concrete proof for materialism because we see that we only need to administer certain substances to man in order to increase his mental faculties. The same is true when the substance is manufactured within the body, as is the case with thyroid secretion. By thoroughly checking into all the experiments made in this area, however, we discover something else.
Thyroid glands are quite large, as you may know, and are located in the front of the neck. Within them are many small glands, to the right and left, that are no bigger than the head of a pin. They secrete a substance that is produced also in other parts of the body. Similar, but not identical, substances are secreted by small glands in various parts of the body. Though it differs from the substance produced in the small glands of the thyroid, such a substance, for instance, is secreted in the adrenal glands. Tiny glands like these are found in other parts of the body as well. In other words, the body contains traces of substances secreted in various parts of its organization. These substances are called hormones. Such a hormone that permeates the body in minute amounts is also contained in the tiny glands within the thyroid.
You may picture it this way. If you take a fish out of its watery environment, it will die because it cannot exist in air. Likewise, these hormonal glands, which resemble minute living organisms, can survive only within the thyroid, the real purpose of which is to provide a place where they can function. When the thyroid is surgically removed, the body is deprived of the hormones it produces. If these minute glands are removed with the thyroid, the prognosis is negative, but if enough of the thyroid containing them remains, then things don't look so bad. Enough must be left to permit some of these small glands to continue to function. When the entire thyroid gland is cut out, the hormone producing glands are also removed and that is harmful. Less radical surgery that doesn't remove them all is successful. Preferably, then, just parts of the thyroid should be removed; the hormonal glands should be allowed to remain. But, if the secretion from the missing amount of thyroid substance containing these glands is replaced with tablets, so that the blood receives what it needs from them and also from passing through the remaining glands, the patient's general state of health may be expected to improve. The matter is really rather complicated, and much depends on how the thyroid secretion is produced.
When an experiment is performed on a wether in which only part of the thyroid is removed, leaving behind the part containing the hormonal glands, then it is found that the secretion does not have the medicinal value it would have had the entire gland been removed. When the entire gland is taken, however, the hormone produced by the hormonal glands combines with the thyroid secretion, permeating the blood of the thyroid, and an effective extract can be obtained. But, if only parts of the wether's thyroid is removed, leaving the hormonal glands behind, the thyroid extract will be less effective; then, such tablets will not work as well. So you see that not everything depends on the thyroid gland as such. Its purpose is only to nourish the minute hormonal glands, which, as you can imagine, were not discovered for a long time. Being so small, how could they have been noticed?
From all this you can understand that man's well-being simply requires certain substances. You need only recall that his mental faculties are altered also when he drinks wine, for instance. Cheerfulness is engendered by drinking wine but, later, things are likely to change. The next day his mood is usually quite the opposite of cheerfulness! So it is with this substance that is contained in the hormonal glands and that are required in minute amounts throughout man's body. He makes use of this substance, and animals need it, too. Much can be accomplished by working with such substances in the organism.
Well, in recent times, this has led to a more attentive examination of these delicate substances. What is the basis of the efficacy of such substances as those secreted by the hormonal glands? Gentlemen, you can understand this only when you realize that the body is constantly subject to processes of deterioration. It is a peculiarity of the organism that harmful substances are forever being formed in it. The substances secreted by the hormonal glands neutralize the destructive effect of these poisons that form in the body. It is a most interesting phenomenon that the processes of life consist in man's constantly poisoning himself, and then continuously counteracting the effects of the poisons by means of these little glands placed within his system. Take the case of the adrenal glands. If those little hormonal glands work properly, man appears the way you all look. But when they malfunction, his complexion turns brown, a yellowish brown. Such an affliction is called Addison's disease, because a Dr. Addison was the first to observe it. We once had such a patient who was a member of our society and who was looking for a cure here. This brown discoloration and darkening of the skin is caused by certain harmful substances in the body that are not neutralized by those substances normally produced in the adrenal glands. Likewise, mental retardation is caused by a lack of the substances normally produced in the hormonal glands of the thyroid.
When administered in tablets, hormones that act as antidotes are transmitted to the body, and their effects have led doctors to pay closer attention to this entire sphere of problems. It is interesting that this question also arises in connection with Steinach's Theory. Since this theory is somewhat related to our topic, it will be worthwhile to consider them together. Steinach's theory is just about ten years old now. About ten years ago, a professor in Vienna sent a report of his experiments to the Academy of Sciences. Now known as Steinach's theory, the report is based on the fact that the body is continually permeated with hormones, the products of minutely small glands. It is interesting that the body seems to be constantly out to poison itself by its organs, but tiny glands located everywhere in the system produce antidotes. Starting at the neck, we have the hormonal glands of the thyroid, which enable us to speak rather than to stammer, and to connect thoughts with our speech. The hormones produced in the adrenal glands prevent us from turning dark and they ensure our attractive light complexion. Also, hormonal glands of the reproductive organs emit small amounts of delicate fluid. These glands, of the gonads, are found in animals and humans, both male and female. They are only slightly developed in the child, but when he or she reaches puberty in the fourteenth or fifteenth year, they become fully developed. In the case of the male, the gonads or testes are located in the scrotum. They contain small hormonal glands whose secretion penetrates the whole blood circulation in minute dispersion.
Steinach's experiments have demonstrated that this particular hormone has the characteristic of suppressing the aging process. Scientists have been concerned with aging for a long time, and long before Steinach's theory became known, a physician-scientist in Paris named Metschnikoff published some interesting things about the phenomena of old age. His point of departure was that the body continually poisons itself. He emphasized the fact that poisons are constantly accumulating in the intestines and that man ages from the effect of the microscopically small animal- or plant-like creatures that produce them.
Now, Steinach concluded that the aging process, this quite natural and normal process of deterioration, can be counteracted. He conducted his experiments mainly with rats; the most important tests were with rats. In cases like these, it must be said that experiments with animals are not completely applicable to humans. Not everything that occurs in animals, especially in rats, can be applied unreservedly to man. After all, the organism of the animal is different from that of man, and I must say, even if one has a low opinion of the size of the human being when compared, for example, with the vastness of the universe, yet a difference does exist between the physical organism of a human and a rat.
Most of the scientific results were obtained, as I have said, through experimentation on rats, which are particularly suitable for such tests. You see, the normal life span of the rat is about two and a half years, and before it dies it exhibits quite pronounced signs of aging. Rats are quite agile and aggressive creatures, and when they age, they turn dull and listless. They lose their fur in some spots and become bald; in other spots, their fur turns bristly and ragged. Also, they lose their appetite. Their age is shown particularly in that, when males are locked together in a cage, they don't fight but keep to themselves, and when an aging male rat is placed with a female, it shows no interest in her.
Of course, one has to be careful with such experiments because rats are susceptible to all kinds of disease. They easily become tubercular and frequently become infested with tape worms or other intestinal parasites. Also, rats are subject to infectious diseases. Therefore, if a rat exhibits the symptoms I have described, it must be determined whether they are caused by such diseases or are truly signs of old age. So to conduct such experiments with rats one must start with quite a number and constantly examine them for intestinal parasites. Those with coarse fur or loss of hair due to illness must be eliminated. Eventually, you will be left with a few rats that are truly old.
Steinach experimented primarily with male rats. The aging males that were listless and had bald spots, that had lost hair and were no longer interested in the females, were treated in the following manner. When not breeding, the gonad of the male rat is found above the scrotum. This gland constantly discharges fluid into tiny canals. It can be pictured like this (drawing). Minute canals lead from the gonad into the spermatic cord, from which the semen is discharged. The hormone of the gonad passes through this canal and is mixed with the seminal fluid, which becomes permeated with the hormone. When the animal is young, this gland produces the hormone that passes through these canals, or vasa deferentia. From them, it enters the spermatic cord, so that the semen ejaculated by the male that impregnates the female contains this hormone. It is also diffused throughout the body. The principal part of the hormone flows into the spermatic cord, while the rest is distributed in minute amounts throughout the rat's organism by the blood.
Let us now take the case of a rat that is getting old and feeble. The feebleness and slackness of the body is indicated in that it can no longer control its excretory functions, having lost control over them. You may have heard that this happens to people who are executed. This is what happens when the body becomes slack. When the organism ages, too much of this hormone flows into the spermatic cord, and too little is retained in the body. The body then contains the toxic substances of advanced age because the gonadal hormone is lacking and therefore not effective as an antidote. This explains why the rat's organism ages in the first place. It ages because various toxic substances produced in the body come to permeate it.
When a child reaches puberty much of the hormonal substance passes into the body. This is not the main point, however. Because the organism is young and vigorous, it can retain the hormone it receives and allow the surplus to be discharged.
Now, when the rat grows old, too much of the hormone is discharged. So Steinach tied off the tiny canal with a small thread, thus closing the passage from the gonad to the spermatic cord. Since the hormone now could not leave the gonad, it entered the body through the blood. You understand how that worked, don't you? When you shut off a pipe, the fluid backs up. He closed it off here (indicating drawing), made a ligature, as it is called, and thus caused all of the hormone to penetrate the body. The rat became lively again and even grew new hair. When it was put with females, it showed sexual desire and attacked them, though it could no longer impregnate them because the operation had rendered it sterile. This was really what happened.
You see, it is actually quite simple. The aging body lets too much hormone escape, but because of ligation it is retained and the aging process is reversed, even if only temporarily. It is quite interesting to observe how these male rats become agile and youthful again after the ligature is made in the spot I have indicated. These ligatures can be made in a variety of ways. The way I have just drawn it is a method that is rather complicated because an operation must be performed to reach this spot. First, an incision must be made on the outside, then the thread must be inserted around the canal to tie it off. Experiments have been performed in other ways, too. For example, the testicles, particularly in the case of humans, were destroyed with X-rays, thereby holding back the gonadal hormone. In short, all of these tests are based on somehow retaining the hormone in the organism. You see here the similarity with the thyroid gland. In it, too, it is a question of getting the hormone into the blood. It is the same with the gonadal hormone, except here it is done by closing this canal when a person has become incontinent in old age.
Steinach has successfully continued these experiments over the past ten years and today it can indeed be asserted that what was proven to occur in rats applies also to a certain extent in humans. Such experiments have been made on humans and similar results obtained by using ligatures or by introducing the hormones of a young person directly into the gonads. This has been done with injections or by injecting directly into the testicles the seminal fluid of a young animal. In other words, all kinds of ways have been tried to reintroduce this hormone into the body. Results have indeed been attained, and although they have been generally somewhat exaggerated, they cannot be denied. Experiments were, in fact, performed not only on rats but also on old people who had become feeble; they then regained some youthfulness. Of course, the effect doesn't last too long. The human body can live only a certain number of years and it is not at all certain yet whether the life span can be lengthened by these means. A man can be somewhat rejuvenated but, at present, one cannot lengthen his life. It is feasible, however, that the life span, too, will eventually be lengthened this way.
You understand, though, that all these matters also have their negative aspects. It is true, is it not, that some people are poor sleepers? If one treats young people who do not sleep well with sleeping pills of opium or morphine, they will certainly sleep better, no doubt about it. One can't argue against it, but the fact is that if sleeping pills and related chemical medication is administered repeatedly to young people, it will, after a while, weaken the body. It will have an increasing need for the medication and will come to be unable to live without it, thus becoming addicted to it. Then, in later life, one will have to deal with a person who is not in full possession of his health. So it is much better to try to cure insomnia by psychological means, combatting it in a more inward way. If the patient is encouraged to think and concentrate on one word, he will gradually gain the strength from within to fall asleep. This method is much better because, this way, man does not weaken himself. The effects of sleeping pills are uncontested; it is indisputable that a person sleeps better with them, but it should really be considered from another aspect. One should try to induce sleep from an inward, mental direction. Of course, this method is more difficult and is related somewhat to education. If children are raised correctly, they can easily be induced to get the right amount of sleep every night. Then later in life people needn't be given sleeping pills if they have been treated properly in school.
These rejuvenation methods can really be compared to taking sleeping pills. Yes, gentlemen, the following is of particular interest. I have told you that Metschnikoff had already dealt with the symptoms of old age; as yet, Steinach's experiments were unknown. You may be surprised to learn that a thoroughly materialistic doctor recommended that his patients read things like Goethe's Faust! Really, they were told to read books like Faust; this was supposed to rejuvenate them.
There is much truth in this recommendation. If in old age one has an interest that completely occupies one's soul and spirit, something that fills one with enthusiasm, this will make one youthful. The meaning of “enthusiasm” is close to that of “inspiration.” Something spiritual enters the mind. Otherwise, the term used would not be “enthusiasm” but “embodiment,” which connotes a material process. When addressing the public, even materialists do not say, “Let us be full of embodiment!” Though they deny the spirit they nevertheless say, “Let us be full of enthusiasm!” Being filled with enthusiasm is indeed a source of rejuvenation. Of course, one cannot prove this in rats! It is a source of rejuvenation in humans, however, and if observations in life were made in this direction, one would discover that, depending upon a man's health and stamina, whatever rejuvenation could be brought about would be attained much more easily if he could be allowed sufficient time to engage in some mental activity. Mental or spiritual activity has the peculiar effect of holding together and keeping strong the glandular walls. If a man is interested only in superficial matters all his life, his glands and vascular walls tend to become slack more quickly than if he has an interest in spiritual and mental activities. If he has been educated correctly as a child, and then given enough time to permeate himself rightly with spirit, he will not need such ligatures because he will maintain his strength on his own and his body will retain what it requires.
It is a different matter with the thyroid gland. Here, medical means must quite often be resorted to because it is extremely complicated to improve it with, well, spiritual means. Yet, here, too, results will be attained and have, in fact, already been achieved. If a patient repeats certain sayings day after day in a song-like speech, carefully prescribed in a definite way, the size of the thyroid gland will decrease.
So it must be said that hormone therapy is just as effective as medications are for insomnia. It would be better, however, if humans would at last begin to think about accomplishing things in other than just materialistic ways and would finally consider giving civilization the opportunity that would afford everyone a chance for a certain degree of spiritual activity. Then these manipulations wouldn't be valued quite so highly, because it would be recognized that one becomes feeble in old age in the first place because of the negative aspects of our civilization. All these operations on humans that give them a few months of rejuvenation in old age basically serve only to equalize what has already been damaged. From the medical standpoint it is a brilliant, remarkable accomplishment, but when it is viewed in a larger cultural context, one sees its darker side as well.
Of course, we must consider something else, too. I said earlier that administering sleeping pills to younger persons actually weakens them. If rejuvenation treatments are resorted to in elderly persons who are shrivelled up and can barely grope about, it is naturally a source of great happiness for them to be able to act a bit lively once more. One doesn't have to be quite so concerned that such a rejuvenation treatment could be harmful to them because it is performed at an age when it becomes difficult to check for any damaging after effects.
Our materialistic world conception is attaining remarkable results today, but when they are seen in a larger cultural context, they take on a different appearance. This is why I always stress that people should be concerned with protecting children in school, and also in later years, to prevent them from getting premature symptoms of old age. This problem is not confined to a certain segment of society. Nowadays people hardly thirty run around with terribly bald heads, particularly those who belong to the so-called affluent professions. Premature baldness is caused by the unnatural forms of higher education. It would be much wiser to educate people in such a way that the body would be in a position to maintain everything for as long as it retains its life forces.
This is what I can tell you about these matters. It is always interesting to view such things from both sides, which, indeed, they have. Anything else concerning this I shall talk about another time.