The Stress-Thyroid Connection
One of the most overlooked connections in conventional health care is the relationship between the adrenal glands and the thyroid gland. When you experience stress or trauma, your adrenals produce a series of hormones, including cortisol, that prepares your body for a response. Cortisol downregulates the thyroid gland and steals resources from the production of active thyroid hormone.
Stress also increases one’s risk of developing autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. When stress increases, inflammatory molecules called cytokines are produced. Cytokines make cellular receptors less sensitive to thyroid hormones.
Your levels of thyroid hormone may look fine, but you would still experience low thyroid symptoms due to poor cellular reception.
Lastly, when cortisol levels are elevated and remain in that state for long periods of time, excess estrogen accumulates instead of being excreted. Excess estrogen increases the thyroid-binding globulin protein, the protein that transports thyroid hormone throughout the body. However, when thyroid hormone is bound, it is not active. So, if there is elevated TBG, there is less available active thyroid.
If you have experienced prolonged stress, most (if not all) of these stress-related processes may be causing some level of diminished function. However, your thyroid tests could still look normal.
5 ways to reduce your stress and improve your thyroid function
Sleep can be tricky if you are experiencing cortisol spikes in the middle of the night. Studies have found that insomnia can be caused by a dysfunctional HPA axis and improper cortisol production. Good sleeping habits will be vital to healing your body and calming dysfunctional adrenal glands.
2. Stress Management
Learning stress management skills reduces the physiological stress response. Even short periods of deep relaxation give the body a chance to regulate stress and train the stress response to be less harmful. Deep breathing, yoga, and meditation are all effective.
Meditation has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, and immune function can be improved when patients are in a meditative state. Meditation can be intimidating for some, but apps like HeadSpace and Calm make meditation very accessible and easy to practice.
Exercise can be very beneficial for health, but if your adrenal function is diminished, it is important to modify your activity level. If you have adrenal fatigue, try walking, Qigong, or gentle yoga. You will reap the rewards of exercise without draining your body. From there, you can build on your intensity when your body is ready.
While there is a diverse selection of adrenal support compounds available, a skilled functional medicine doctor can create a supplementation plan based on your test results and cortisol patterns.
It is not wise to supplement without a deep understanding of how each compound will affect your specific situation. The following are helpful for balancing adrenal function:
- Licorice Root
5. Social Support
For some, social support can be the most challenging aspect of recovery. Surrounding yourself with relationships that support your health and well-being often means restructuring current relationships or investing less time in those that render stress.
However, the research is clear that social support has a direct impact on long-term health, stress hormones, and immune function, so this is often included in my successful treatment plans.