Could stress be affecting your thyroid?
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Key points in this article
- Chronic stress leads to overproduction of the hormone cortisol.
- Cortisol and its precursor (CRH) can inhibit thyroid-stimulating
hormone (TSH). Cortisol can also inhibit conversion of the thyroid hormones T4 into
- Low T3 can lead to hypothyroid symptoms.
- Simple nutrient and lifestyle modifications can support
thyroid function and lower the impact of stress on your overall health and well-being.
Some years ago in my clinical practice I began to notice a pattern: thyroid dysfunction
was really common in my stressed-out patients. Though I hadn’t spent much time on
this relationship in medical training, I felt as a female practitioner caring for
women of all ages, shapes, and walks of life I should start to pay more attention
to this connection. And the more I learned, the more I realized there is a very
tight physiological connection between a woman’s thyroid function and her stress
Yes, we all know stress isn’t good for our health, but we don’t always make the
connection between stress and thyroid problems — nor how to change our lives in
response. Continuous stress leads to high levels of stress hormones, which can have
a negative impact on thyroid function, especially if levels stay high over the long-term.
What’s exciting is that we have many natural ways to stop this cycle — without drugs.
Over the years, I’ve developed some very effective tools to help women support their
thyroids by reducing stress. Whether you’re experiencing symptoms or not, let’s
take a closer look at how the adrenal and thyroid glands impact one another, so
you can lighten the stress load on your already busy thyroid and prevent thyroid
Adrenal and thyroid function originates in the brain
Hormones are molecules released by one area of the body to carry messages to another
area in the body. The thyroid’s main job is to produce the right amount
of thyroid hormone to “tell” your cells how fast to burn energy and produce
proteins. The adrenal glands’ primary job is to produce the right amount
of stress hormones that allow you to respond to stress of a zillion kinds.
The stress–hypothyroid connection
Think of the thyroid and adrenals as guardians, or protective intermediaries of
the endocrine (hormone-producing) system. They both function as complex
sensors, continually responding to ever-changing conditions within the body, and
relay information back and forth between the brain and the body.
HPT–HPA interactions & feedback loops
Because both of these endocrine loops trace back to the pituitary and hypothalamus
in the brain, and the hormones produced along these two axes interact, chances of
dysregulation are higher along one axis when the other loop is overactive- or underactive.
CRH = corticotrophin-releasing hormone; TRH = thyrotropin-releasing hormone; ACTH
= adrenocorticotropic hormone; TSH = thyroid-stimulating hormone; T4 = thyroxine;
T3 = triiodothyronine.
Yet the signaling for release of both sets of hormones originates in an area of
the brain known as the hypothalamus, which sends hormonal messages to the
tiny gland in the brain called the pituitary. From here, hormonal messages
are relayed to both the thyroid and the adrenal glands (along with other destinations
beyond the scope of this article). The adrenals and thyroid, in turn, produce hormones
and provide feedback to the brain. We call this negative-feedback loop the HPTA
You need just the right amount of cortisol for your thyroid to function optimally.
An imbalance can arise all along the HPTA axis and result in either an overactive
or underactive thyroid or adrenal glands. As you can see from the diagram, the hormones
from each loop interact, and cortisol and thyroid hormone work in concert. So when
one of these loops is overactive or underactive, disruption along the other is more
likely. This is one reason symptoms of thyroid dysfunction can show up even when
your thyroid lab tests appear “within normal limits.” Let’s look at how this happens.
How stress can cause thyroid symptoms
Much of the medical literature has focused on hyperthyroidism and a condition called
Graves’ disease as the main effect of stress on the thyroid. Graves’ is
generally caused by an autoimmune response that prompts the thyroid to make too
much thyroid hormone. This has been known to occur after a sudden stressful
life change. But too much stress can also lead to a slowing of the thyroid, hypothyroidism.
Any kind of stress prompts the brain to release CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone).
This hormone tells the pituitary to send a message to the adrenal glands: make cortisol!
But both cortisol and CRH can inhibit thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)
and the conversion of thyroid hormone T4 to T3. Because every cell in the
body uses T3 for healthy function, the decrease in T3 can lead to symptoms like:
- cold intolerance
- weight gain
- memory loss
- poor concentration
- hair loss and more
This inhibition of your thyroid and hormone receptors often takes place quietly
behind the scenes for years without causing overt symptoms. And this is why so many
women are caught off-guard when they are diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. They
think everything has been going fine and all of the sudden, they feel horrible.
The fact is, if you’ve been experiencing chronic stress, stress hormones may have
been inhibiting your thyroid function for years. Some patients can even remain in
what we call subclinical hypothyroidism, where their lab results are still
within the standard normal ranges, but they’re experiencing symptoms.
Thankfully, there are many ways to reset your stress response and reestablish communication
along your adrenal–thyroid pathways.
Tips for breaking the stress-thyroid connection
Supply the raw materials. Fortunately, there are many
opportunities to promote healthy thyroid hormone production with nutrients. Selenium,
iodine, and vitamins A, B, C, and E are all necessary players in the production
of thyroid hormones. So a high-quality multivitamin–mineral complex like the one
we offer in our Personal Program is essential for thyroid support.
Eat for your adrenal and thyroid health. Regular meals,
especially breakfast, including high-quality protein with each meal and snack, avoiding
sugar, and moderating caffeine intake can make you much more resilient to stress.
(For in-depth guidance see our articles on
eating to support your thyroid and
eating to support your adrenals — you’ll notice a lot of overlap between
Sleep. If you want healthy hormonal balance, set a reasonable
bedtime — and stick with it. The ideal time to sleep is between the hours of 10
PM and 6 AM. Allow yourself adequate time to unwind before bed, and give yourself
a quiet time during the day, too, if you need to. This downtime will help turn off
the adrenal response to stress, and reset your neuroendocrine system so it can respond
appropriately to whatever challenges come your way.
Counter your daily stress. There are many ways — some
requiring more of a commitment than others — to help your body relax. From deep
breathing exercises to scheduling a massage or day at the spa, you always have options.
Some women are devotees of yoga, qi gong, or other meditative practices,
while others prefer prayer or taking a peaceful walk each evening. Exercise is wonderful,
but over-exercising can put your adrenal glands back into stress mode and elevate
cortisol levels, so take it easy.
Meeting life’s larger challenges. With training in both
psychology and functional medicine, I’ve always tried to help women understand the
links between their emotions and their health. I understand how daunting it can
be to make lasting emotional changes in your life. But you can start by allowing
yourself the opportunity to explore patterns in your life, both negative and positive.
Many of my patients have had great success with the Hoffman Quadrinity Process and
the Emotional Freedom Technique for helping to break life-long patterns of stress.
As a busy healthcare practitioner and mom, I understand that life is stressful!
We can’t just eliminate stress from our lives. But we can support our bodies during
stressful times and try to lighten the load. If you have a family history of thyroid
dysfunction or if you’ve been told by a practitioner that you have a subclinical
thyroid condition, take comfort in the fact that you can support your thyroid naturally.
Remember that even small changes, especially if you stick to them, can add up to
a dramatic difference!
Our Personal Program for Adrenal Health
Relief for many thyroid symptoms, fatigue, insomnia, and other effects of stress
At Women to Women, we often make health connections that others miss such as the
link between stress and thyroid symptoms. Our Personal Program offers natural solutions
to stress symptoms, including those related to thyroid function. The Program includes
targeted, research-based formulas, real-life diet and lifestyle assistance, and
a strong nutritional foundation, along with caring one-on-one support.
- Can our Personal Program make a difference in the way you feel every day? Find out now.
- Find out more about the effects of stress on your body — take our
Adrenal Health Profile.
- Let us help you choose the right Program, or call and ask us a question about your
symptoms. We’re in Portland, Maine, and we’re ready to listen. Call us toll-free
Comment on this article:
Related to this article:
References & further
reading about stress affecting your thyroid
Last Modified Date: 09/14/2011