by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
- The brain controls both the adrenal and thyroid glands
- How stress affects your thyroid gland
- Tips for improving thyroid and adrenal health
As a female practitioner of functional medicine, I began to notice patterns among my patients linking stress to various physical disorders. Although this is a recognized occurrence in medicine now, it was not often explored in earlier medical training. I knew about it, but it became quite clear years ago in my clinical practice, especially in my patients with thyroid dysfunction. There is a very strong connection between a woman’s stress response and her thyroid function — we just haven’t always considered it.
We all know chronic stress has a negative impact on our bodies, we just don’t always know how to fix it. Long term stress leads to elevated stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands, and our bodies respond with inflammation, disorders, and disease. So how do we change our lives to reduce this pattern, or more importantly, stop the cycle?
Over the years I have learned how to help women improve their thyroid function by reducing stress without drugs or other medical interventions. It’s exciting to know that we can help ourselves naturally, and utilize effective tools to balance our hormones. First, let’s look at the physical components and how our adrenal and thyroid glands impact one another.
Adrenal and thyroid functioning
Simply put, hormones are released to carry messages to and from different parts of the body. Different glands produce different hormones. The thyroid produces specific hormones to direct cells to produce proteins and to burn energy. The adrenal glands produce hormones to help regulate stress and how we respond to it. Both of these glands work to protect our endocrine system, or our larger hormone-producing mechanism. The adrenal and thyroid glands work together responding to our body’s continually-changing conditions, and relaying information between the brain and the body.
The way these glands are signaled to release their hormones begins in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that sends hormonal messages to the pituitary gland. This gland sends messages to the adrenal and thyroid glands, which then produce specific hormones, and send that feedback to the brain. This is referred to as a negative-feedback loop called the hypothalamic–pituitary–thyroid–adrenal axis (HPTA).
For the thyroid to function optimally, it needs the right amount of stress hormone, or cortisol. Because the hormones interact along their respective loops, when an imbalance occurs along the HPTA axis, it will result in either overactive, or under active glands. The trouble is there is a range in which this functioning is measured in lab tests, so even if your thyroid is not functioning normally, it may still appear within the “normal limits.” So what exactly does this mean?
Thyroid symptoms and stress
When any kind of stress cues the brain, it releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which tells the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to make cortisol. But both CRH and cortisol can suppress the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), as well as impact the conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone into T3. Every, single cell in the body uses T3, so a decrease in that can cause an array of symptoms, from weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, and poor concentration, to cold intolerance, depression, and infertility.
Most medical literature correlates stress-induced thyroid dysfunction to overactive thyroids, noted frequently in hyperthyroidism, and a condition called Graves’ disease. This condition is marked by an autoimmune response causing the thyroid to make too much thyroid hormone, especially after a sudden, stressful change in life circumstances. It’s not uncommon to lose weight for a short period after experiencing major events like divorce or a death in the family due to too much thyroid hormone. But excessive stress can also lead to another condition called hypothyroidism, when the thyroid slows down its hormone production. Either condition can create problems.
With chronic stress, either process can actually go on for years in your body, unnoticed, before you start to have symptoms reflecting the imbalance. Sometimes it’s called subclinical hypothyroidism, when lab results appear within the normal range, but patients are still experiencing symptoms. The good news is that we can change our stress-response, and regulate the loops along the HPTA axis.
How to break the stress-thyroid connection
- Nourish yourself. Eat three well-balanced and two healthy snacks each day that include high-quality protein. Breakfast is especially important to help regulate blood sugar and hormone production. Reducing sugar and caffeine intake is important to help combat stress. Also, enjoying meals in a relaxed setting and eating slowly can help digestion and metabolization of important nutrients.
- Add vitamins and supplements. There are many important elements to healthy thyroid functioning. Iodine, Selenium, zinc, copper, iron, and vitamins A, B, C, and E all play crucial roles in the production and maintenance of thyroid hormones. High-quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplements can help support the necessary balance.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is an amazing way to restore and rejuvenate our bodies and our minds. When we have the right amount of sleep, our bodies will regulate and reset our neuroendocrine system to help promote hormonal balance, and also help us face the next day’s challenges. Especially important is adequate downtime before bed, so that our adrenal glands slow down the stress response and rest as well.
- Relax. There are many ways to counter daily stress and help our bodies and minds relax. Options include deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, walking, or simple exercise. Too much exercise can actually stimulate our adrenal glands as opposed to relaxing them, so moderation is key. Be sure you find a few methods you enjoy, so that you can commit to a daily relaxation regime.
- Think about therapy. Making emotional changes can be very difficult. Sometimes we are so entrenched in certain negative patterns that we not only cannot get out of them ourselves, but also may not even recognize it. Exploring both positive and negative patterns in our lives can help us break the stress responses that over time can lead to physical distress and disorders. With training in both functional medicine and psychology, I always try to help women connect the dots between their health and their emotions, and recommend ways to do it. Many of my patients have success with both the Emotional Freedom Technique and the Hoffman Quadrinity Process as avenues to healing.
Our lives are busy and stressful, and we can’t just remove stress from our lives. But we can try to support ourselves both physically and emotionally not just during stressful times, but on a daily basis. When we nurture and care for ourselves, we can manage the waves of stress with more ease. If you think you have a thyroid imbalance, or have a family history of thyroid dysfunction, remember you and your health practitioner can work with these natural methods to help repair the problem. Even with small steps, you can make big strides towards a very healthy outcome.