How Stress is Killing Your Thyroid

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Too much stress in your life doesn’t just affect your mental well being, it wreaks havoc on your body and could lead to symptoms mirroring those of hypothyroidism.

Types of Stress

Stress comes in a number of ways, some impacting us more than others and at different times in our lives. At some point in time, most of us will experience stress in some (or all) of these forms:

  • Financial stress
  • Relationships
  • Schedules
  • Commutes
  • Raising children
  • The stock market
  • Skipping meals
  • Living a “western” lifestyle

There are other factors not commonly considered when people think of “stress” which also burden the adrenal glands. Fluctuating blood sugar is the most common way that adrenal dysfunction and high or low cortisol can wreak havoc on the body’s metabolism by causing hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia. Other common factors that stress the adrenals are dysbiosis, food intolerances (especially gluten), chronic infections and autoimmune issues, environmental toxin and inflammation.

Stress and Your Body

The adrenals are two glands that are about the size of your thumbnail that sit atop the kidneys. They secrete hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones are responsible for our body’s response to stress. Adrenal fatigue is the name given to a poorly working adrenal gland in response to mental, emotional or physical stress.

Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
  • Mood swings
  • Frequent illness and susceptibility to colds and flues
  • Irritability or lightheadedness between meals
  • Sugar and caffeine cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Eating to relieve fatigue
  • Dizziness when moving from sitting or lying to standing
  • Gastric ulcers

Poor functioning adrenals can cause hypothyroid symptoms without any problem in the thyroid gland itself. In such cases, treating the thyroid is both unnecessary and ineffective and addressing the adrenals themselves is the key to improving thyroid function. Many times, people, especially women, have been treated with thyroid hormones only to have no relief of their symptoms of weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, insomnia, etc.

Adrenal stress can also impact thyroid function more direct ways, including the following five mechanisms:

Promotes Autoimmunity by Weakening Immune Barriers The digestive tract, lungs and the blood-brain barrier are the primary immune barriers in the body. They prevent foreign substances from entering the bloodstream and the brain. Adrenal stress weakens these barriers and promotes poor immune system regulation. When these immune barriers are porous large proteins and other antigens like lipopolysaccharides are able to pass into the bloodstream or brain where they don’t belong. The immune system gets keyed up and we become more prone to autoimmune diseases.

Disrupts the HPA Axis Studies have shown that the inflammatory cytokines (messengers) IL-1 beta, IL-6 and TNF-alpha, which are released during the stress response, down-regulate the HPA-axis and reduce levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). So your body doesn’t make as much thyroid hormones.

Reduces Conversion of T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (active thyroid hormone) 93% of the hormone produced by the thyroid gland is T4, in inactive thyroid hormone that must be converted into T3 before it can be used by the cells. The inflammatory cytokines from adrenal stressors disrupt the hypothalmus-pituitary-adrenal gland (HPA ) axis, they also interfere with the conversion of T4 to T3 in peripheral tissues such as the liver and the gut. Inflammatory cytokines have been shown to suppress the conversion of T4 to T3. In fact, inflammatory cytokines have been shown to suppress thyroid receptors on the cells making the thyroid hormones ineffective at increasing cellular activity. While there’s no practical way to measure receptor site sensitivity in a clinical setting, the research suggests thyroid receptor messaging is decreased in autoimmune and other inflammatory conditions.

Causes Other Hormonal Imbalances Cortisol is released by the adrenals during the stress response. Prolonged cortisol elevations, caused by chronic stress, decrease the liver’s ability to detox excess estrogens from the blood. Excess estrogen increases thyroid binding globulin (TBG), the proteins that thyroid hormone is attached to as it’s transported through the body, making the hormone inactive. TBG is like a cab that drives the hormone around. When it is not functional, the thyroid hormone cannot get out of the cab. Other drugs can also increase elevated TBG including birth control pills and estrogen replacement.

What Do You Do If You Have Poor Adrenal Function?

Adrenal stress is caused by many factors from diet, lifestyle and psychological stress to immune issues, dybiosis and inflammation. When these conditions exist, they must be addressed or any attempt to support the adrenals directly will either fail or be only partially successful.

General guidelines for adrenal health:

  • Stabilize blood sugar via a balanced paleo or ketogenic diet
  • Practice stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Avoid dietary causes of inflammation – food intolerances, Omega 6 fats, processed foods
  • Have fun, laugh and make pleasure a regular part of your life
  • Take adequate intake of Omega 3 fats DHA & EPA
  • Additional nutritional supplementation of phosphatidylserine and adaptogenic herbs like Siberian ginseng, Ashwagandha, Rholdiola and Holy basil leaf extract are also helpful in supporting the adrenal glands

Betty Murray, CN, IFMCP, CHC is a Certified Nutritionist & Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner with the Institute for Functional Medicine, founder of the Dallas-based functional medicine clinic Living Well Dallas and Executive Director of the the Functional Medicine Association of North Texas. A master of the biochemistry of the body, Betty teaches her clients how to utilize nutrition for autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, MTHFR and weight loss.  You can find her book “Cleanse: Detox Your Body, Mind & Spirit” on Amazon here.

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