How Stress Affects Your Thyroid

Stress is something that most people experience on a regular basis. Of course there are the obvious causes of stress that come from everyday situations, like driving in traffic, financial problems, having a busy schedule, job loss, relationship problems, etc.

However, there are also the less well-known causes of stress that have the exact same impact on the body and result in it reacting in exactly the same way. These include: large fluctuations in blood sugar, gut problems (irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease, intestinal hyperpermeability, etc.), food intolerances, autoimmune problems, inflammation, infection, and environmental toxins.

Stress and your thyroid gland

With any type of stress that disturbs the body's homeostasis (balance), the body responds by secreting hormones from the adrenal glands, such as cortisol, adrenalin, and noradrenalin as well as cytokines (small proteins released from various cells) that affect inflammation and cellular function. These hormones and cytokines play important roles within the body, particularly when it comes to the functioning of the thyroid gland.

In this article we will examine how stress affects your thyroid gland and what you can do to ensure its impact is limited.

Disrupts the HPA axis

There is a complex interaction that occurs between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands (HPA axis). It regulates a range of functions in the body including, temperature, digestion, immune function, metabolism, and the functioning of various organs/ glands, including the thyroid gland.

Studies show that cortisol as well as certain inflammatory cytokines, produced in response to stress, affect the HPA axis by decreasing the production of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is responsible for the stimulating the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones. Therefore, a reduction in its production also results in a corresponding reduction in thyroid hormone output.

Reduced conversion of T4 to T3

T4 (thyroxine) is considered to be the 'inactive' thyroid hormone while T3 (triodothyronine) is the 'active' form. Only 15-20% of the T3 circulating in the blood stream is produced in the thyroid gland. The rest gets converted from T4 in peripheral tissues of the body, particularly the liver, kidneys and gut.

The process of converting T4 into T3 requires an enzyme, 5'-deiodinase. Unfortunately though, inflammatory cytokines resulting from stress, inhibit the conversion of T4 into T3. It also results in a greater conversion of T4 into reverse T3 (rT3), which blocks T3 receptors in cell membranes, inhibiting its effects in cells.

Increased risk of autoimmunity

Stress affects your thyroid Stress increases the circulating levels of cortisol, a catabolic hormone that breaks down tissue. One of the major problems with having high levels of cortisol in the body is that it damages the primary immune barriers of the body. These include the gut, lungs, and blood-brain barrier. They are responsible for preventing foreign substance from entering the body.

When these important barriers are damaged large proteins and antigens are able to pass through and enter the body. This invokes an immune system reaction in order to protect the body. If it happens repeatedly then an autoimmune condition, like Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, may result.

Thyroid hormone resistance

In order for thyroid hormones to be effective they need to bind with receptors on cell membranes. However, inflammation, which may result from stress, reduces thyroid receptor sensitivity on cell membranes. This means that even though production of thyroid hormones may be sufficient and conversion of T4 into T3 may be adequate, if the T3 is unable to bind to cell receptors then it is unable to stimulate the cell to respond accordingly.

Excessive levels of Thyroid Binding Globulin (TBG)

Cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones. If its levels remain elevated in the body for an extended period of time it decreases the liver's ability to remove excessive oestrogens from the blood stream, and therefore the body.

A high level of oestrogen in the body, which may also be caused by birth control pills and/ or hormone replacement therapy, is associated with elevated levels of thyroid binding globulin (TBG). TBG is a protein that carries thyroid hormones around the body. When the thyroid hormones, both T4 and T3, are bound to TBG they are inactive.

Therefore, lowering stress will enable the liver to be able remove the excess oestrogen from the body and therefore lower the TBG levels.

How to reduce stress and improve your thyroid gland's functioning:

There are many steps you can take in order to reduce your stress levels and the impact it has on your body, and particularly your delicate thyroid gland. Doctor checking thyroid gland
  • Avoid potential food allergens and/ or foods that you may be sensitive to These may include foods or food components such as: dairy foods, gluten-containing foods (primarily wheat-based products), peanuts, soy, tomatoes, eggs and corn. This means that you body, particularly your digestive system, will no longer be 'stressed' by these foods.

  • Minimise (or limit altogether) your intake of stimulants These means you must avoid coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, and nicotine. This will help to minimise stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for adrenal hormone output.

  • Learn and implement stress management techniques (meditation, breathing exercises, and/ or relaxation exercises) This will help your body deal with stress more effectively as well as reduce your body's stress response.

  • Engage in pleasurable activities and/ or hobbies Studies show that performing these activities reduces stress levels significantly.

  • Take supplements that support thyroid and/ or adrenal function There are products on the market that can help support the functioning of your thyroid and adrenal glands. BCN's Thyron provides your body with all the nutrients it needs to ensure optimum thyroid functioning. Also, BCN's Rhodiola Advanced contains therapeutic amounts of an herbal 'adaptogen' that helps to nourish and support adrenal function.

  • Reduce inflammation in your body There are several supplements that can effectively reduce inflammation in your body. Fish oil is a good example as is curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, which is available in a highly bioavailable form in BCN's Relieve and InflammaCALM.

  • Your thyroid gland plays such an important role in the overall health of your body. Unfortunately though, in today's society stress is something that few people can avoid. Therefore, it is essential that everyone takes the steps necessary to minimise their stress levels as much as possible and reduces its impact on their body.

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    Here is the complete list of thyroid articles:

    Can You Get Off Thyroid Medication?

    T3 and T4 Thyroid Hormones

    Thyroid Disease Caused By Inflammation

    5 Common Thyroid Problems

    The Ideal Thyroid Diet For You

    Thyroid Diet Foods and Nutrients

    The Importance of a Healthy Thyroid Gland

    What Causes Thyroid Disease Symptoms?

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    Alternative Thyroid Treatments

    How Stress Affects Your Thyroid

    What is Hashimoto Thyroiditis?

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