The Stress Thyroid Connection
THE STRESS THYROID CONNECTION
When working with clients, my job as the “detective of their body” is to determine where imbalance started and how we can get to the root cause. When dealing with stubborn metabolism, hormonal imbalance, and inflammation, often stress is the driving force of dysfunction. The thyroid has a significant connection to stress response as it regulates homeostasis or balance in the body. Stress and anxiety can truly put the brakes on your primary metabolic gland. In a time of fight or flight mode, the sympathetic nervous system response is to reduce your body’s caloric burn so you can survive in a time of need. However in modern day society, our stressors are often not survival based such as running from a predator, they more often occur in a sedentary state such as are rush hour traffic, an argument with a family member, or meeting a deadline at work. And if the stressors are physiologically demanding they are often self induced such as over-exercising!
Understanding the role of stress on your thyroid is a key to support your body’s metabolism from the root cause and optimize your body’s thermostat or metabolic gas tank! Beyond driving caloric burn, the thyroid has many influences on your system from mood stability, to energy, sleep, digestive function, and more.
What is the thyroid gland and how does it work?
The tiny butterfly shaped gland in the front of your neck is truly the regulating center for your body playing a role in your metabolic function, weight, body temperature, mood, sleep, energy, cognitive function, anxiety, bowel regularity, bone and joint aches, dry skin, hair loss, brittle nails, and more! Too much of the thyroid hormone is known as hyperthyroidism and too little thyroid hormone is known as hypothyroidism. Thyroid imbalance is primarily seen in women with upwards of 60% women impacted at a ratio of 8:1 women to men. Of the 20 million Americans affected, greater than 90% of hypothyroidism cases are Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis in origin.
The thyroid gland is regulated by the hypothalamus and stimulated by the pituitary both primary stress responders in the brain. The thyroid when in production mode, uses a series of chemical reactions, to use iodine as a building component of thyroid hormone T1, T2, T3, and T4. Primarily the output from the thyroid is in the inactive Free T4 form which converted as needed into the active form of the hormone Free T3.
Hyper overactive gland: too much T4, T3, low TSH,
Hypo underactive gland: too little T4, T3, high TSH
Autoimmune: Graves hyper, Hashimotos hypo
It is important to assess thyroid peroxidase (TPO) and thyroglobulin antibody (TGAb) to screen for autoimmune and inflammatory activity in the thyroid gland. Also, reverse T3 (rT3) is a good add-on to consider as it further assesses the impact of stress to the gland. Under times of stress rT3 acts as the brakes competing with T3 receptor sites for expression.
What do all these lab values mean and which ones are important to monitor?
As always, being an advocate for your healthcare is the best way to ensure you are able to empower yourself and work with your body in a healing process. It is standard practice for physicians to run TSH and T4 (in the bound form) as markers of thyroid health, however, this does not tell the whole picture of the function of the gland. It is important to assess the active free T3 to see what is available for the body to use as well as screen and monitor autoimmune and inflammatory reactivity.
Thyroid biomarkers and ideal functional ranges:
TSH 0.8-2.2 UIU/ML or lower*
FT4 >1.0 NG/DL
FT3 > 2.8 PG/ML
TPO negative or <15
TgAb negative or <8
Thyroxine binding globulin 14-31
*Note: If on armor thyroid, glandular, or T3 compounded, may have medication suppressed levels of TSH
These labs can be requested from your specialist or practitioner or you can skip the hassle and directly order them here. Once the form is processed you can get the lab drawn at a location near you! Learn more about the Complete Thyroid Panel and order here!
Additional add-ons to consider:
RT3 90-250 PG/ML
Vitamin D 50-70
Salivary cortisol (4 point assessment)
A note on ferritin and hair loss!
Ferritin is the storage form of your iron and as a sensitive marker can be deficient even without experience of anemia or low red blood cells. Hair loss is often associated with hypothyroidism and ferritin plays an integral role as ferritin is required to transport active thyroid hormone to the center of the cells to be used. So if ferritin drops too low, T3 can’t be used in the body! Ferritin levels of at least 40 ng/ml are required to stop hair loss, while levels of at least 70 ng/ml are needed for hair regrowth.
Focus on having red meat 2-3x/wk from grassfed sources to support optimal ferritin values and if menstruating be sure to take a multivitamin with iron such as Multidefense with iron which is a whole food based bioavailable formula that includes methylated B-vitamins.
Thyroid dysfunction all comes down to STRESS!
The thyroid is impacted significantly by stress as the thyroid gland competes with the adrenal glands in times of significant stress. In survival prioritization, the body stimulates the adrenals for output of cortisol and adrenaline as it puts the brakes on the thyroid gland to prevent metabolic burn and preserve fuel reserves in a time of fight-or-flight! Unfortunately this shift of shutting down thyroid function slows down not only metabolism in the sense of weight gain and lack of fat burn, but it also interferes with the body’s ability to regulate hormones, cholesterol, and metabolic pathways in the liver including detoxification.
Stress can be both physical with impact on the body or mental with impact emotionally or cognitively both with the ability to drive the HPA-axis into overdrive which can drain or pump the brakes on the thyroid gland. As discussed stress can be self-induced and often may be overlooked as it can be something desired or intentional yet still driving the gland to be overworked!
Consider these stressors:
Physical: Running a marathon, crossfit or HIIT training, pregnancy, recovering from an injury, environmental toxicity, GI distress/dysbiosis, infection, food sensitivities, inflammation
Mental: job, spouse/partner, family dynamics, a death, fight, break up, test or deadline, new relationship, job promotion and new responsibilities
“Stress and anxiety can truly put the brakes on your primary metabolic gland!”
The sympathetic nervous system, fight-or-flight mechanism is also known as the HPA-axis after the glands that influence it, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal glands. The thyroid is regulated by the hypothalamus and stimulated by the pituitary so directly this axis has impact on the thyroid by two of the three glands and the adrenals play a strong indirect role with feedback as cortisol reduces the conversion of inactive T4 into active T3.
Primary Mechanisms of the HPA-axis by gland:
H: body temperature, circadian rhythm, metabolism/satiety leptin, thyroid releasing hormone (TRH)
P: Antidiuretic hormone (thirst, fluid retention), thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), human growth hormone (HGH), progesterone stimulation, oxytocin (reward, bliss, libido)
A: Cortex: Aldosterone (blood pressure regulator), Cortisol (HIGH→ Immunosuppressant, fluid retention, Low→ Inflammation, allergies), DHEA; Medulla: norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine (neurotransmitters that influence stress, anxiety, multitasking, professional drive, insomnia)
How stress directly impacts thyroid health:
Hypothalamus doesn’t make as much thyroid releasing hormone (low TRH)
Pituitary doesn’t stimulate thyroid (low TSH)
Adrenals make more cortisol which blocks T4→ T3 conversion and creates RT3 which blocks use of T3
How to defend against Stress to your Thyroid gland
Go Gluten-free and reduce grain consumption
Consider a Candida Cleanse!
Get 7+ hours of sleep
Focus on resistance training with cadence, gentle movement therapy, stretching as primary exercise, reduce HIIT and high stress activity!
Work on mindfulness and meditation, reduce rumination and racing thoughts with action plans vs. pending
Support your system with strategic supplementation (see below!)
Eat an antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory diet!
Clean up your diet and remove gluten!
A first line defense is ensuring a diet free of chemicals, additives, and processed products, focus on whole real foods and eating in diversity to support your body’s nutritional needs. I work with clients to support their thyroid with tight gluten-free approach and most clients to even commit to grain-free as gliadin in gluten interferes with thyroid function. By removing inflammatory compounds from the diet we can manage and reduce physiological stress. Also, if a client has a history of yeast symptoms from vaginal yeast infection, thrush, antibiotic use, or dysbiosis, I will start them on my Candida Cleanse to reset their microbiome to reduce stress to the system. Antibodies released in leaky gut from gluten or other irritants and bacteria or yeast such as candidiasis can interfere with thyroid function causing autoimmune flare. Women especially that have had c-sections, or are on birth control, antibiotics, have high carb diet should start with a 10-week Candida Cleanse to plow the gut microbiome and reset for optimal bacterial balance.
Be realistic with your exercise and mental demands!
Beyond inflammatory foods and dysbiosis, we can reduce stress by allowing ample recovery in our exercise and focusing on resistance training and gentle movement therapy vs. HIIT training which can perpetuate stress response and thyroid burn out or shut down. And finally once we have managed physiological stressors, working on harnessing the “wild stallion” of the brain and managing racing thoughts through practice of mindfulness, meditation, and affirmations can play a huge role in rebounding and optimizing thyroid function. Working to reduce pending to-do tasks and implement timeline, strategy, and SMART goals can be a great way to reduce the stress we can put on ourselves for either not doing something we “should” or feeling overwhelmed to accomplish a necessary task. This action of stress reduction via task orientation, is accelerated by ample sleep of 8 or more hours per night which resets the circadian rhythm and stress response.
“Deep breathing and yoga practice are two additional recommendations I make to clients when looking to reset metabolic response. Finding release and the ability to unwind is essential in rebounding that burned out thermostat!”
Supplement the HPA-axis, provide building blocks, and reduce inflammation!
Strategic supplementation can also aid in optimizing thyroid performance and stress response. The following 3 formulas are my top recommendations to supporting your Thyroid on STRESS:
Adaptogen Boost→ This formula contains 3 well researched adaptogens or plant compounds that help the body in its resilience to stress demand while preventing oxidative damage, Cordceyps, Panax Ginseng, Rhodila. Specifically these 3 have been shown in studies to support fat burn, support brain function, reduce rT3 (thus enhancing expression of active thyroid hormone), and increase antioxidant status!
Cellular Antiox→ If you have been following my work for a while, you know how much I am obsessed with glutathione, the “powerhouse” antioxidant. As the most powerful antioxidant in the body, it can reduce free radicals that drive oxidative damage and reduce the inflammatory stress on the thyroid. Also studies show it has direct role in the deiodinase enzyme pathway that activates T4 in T3. Cellular Antiox pairs NAC a building block with easy to absorb s-acetyl glutathione form in synergy with B6 to aid in the activation and conversion.
Relax and Regulate→ Magnesium plays a dynamic role on over 300 enzyme pathways and magnesium levels are burned out from stress demand. Magnesium bis-glycinate is the most bioavailable absorbable form of magnesium that targets the neuromuscular system aiding in relaxation of tension in the body serving to promote optimal sleep, reduce inflammation, and maintain bowel regularity. On the thyroid magnesium aids in both production of thyroid hormone as well as conversion and activation. The Relax and Regulate formula provides magnesium in its highest quality form along with myo-inositol, which has been shown in a recent study to maintain optimal thyroid function for individuals with thyroiditis.
Click each formula name to purchase and learn more!
“Adapatogen boost can aid with stress induced fatigue providing resilience vs. gland burn out and targeting belly fat burn to enhance metabolic function!”
Food-as-Medicine for Thyroid support!
Minerals, antioxidants, and B-vitamins are a couple of areas of primary focus when using food-as-medicine to support this precious gland. Below are some recipes that will have anti-inflammatory effects and boost production while you support your body supplementally with above mentioned formulas to reduce the hit on the gland in the time of rebound and recovery!
Like every cell and organ in our bodies, the thyroid requires specific vitamins and minerals to carry out everyday functions. Though there are several nutrients the thyroid uses, I’ll highlight those that research shows to be most crucial.
Iodine, Selenium, Magnesium, Zinc
Thyroid hormones including both T4 and T3 are the only iodine-containing hormones in humans. The process of producing thyroid requires iodine. Selenium-containing enzymes function in a protective “detox” capacity, preserving the integrity as an antioxidant of the thyroid gland when we’re under all kinds of stress — oxidative, chemical, even social stress! Selenium and magnesium help the body to more efficiently recycle its iodine stores and preserving function of the organ. When zinc is low in the body, TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), T4, and T3 can in turn become low in the body.
Sea vegetables such as 1 tsp of dulse flakes twice per week or consumption of seafood and shellfish at 3 servings per week provides you with a nice dose of iodine, just 1-2 Brazil nuts each day provide you with ample selenium, magnesium is found abundantly in leafy greens, and zinc is found in beef, oysters, dark meat chicken, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and almonds!
Note: Magnesium due to demand often requires supplementation!
Antioxidants and B vitamins
Antioxidants and B-vitamins work to neutralize the oxidative damage of physiological, psychological and environmental stress on the gland In emotional, psychological or physiological stress, the body will convert excess T4 to reverse T3 (rT3) as a means of conserving energy for healing and repair.
Fresh herbs and spices are a great source of antioxidants focusing on turmeric, ginger, basil, rosemary, cilantro, cumin to name a few! Also packing in your produce from 2-3 cups of leafy greens, sulfur-containing veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels, and healthy fat forms of antioxidants in avocado, almonds, nuts and seeds. Liver and egg yolks may provide some of the most user-friendly forms of b-vitamins that work as a great boost to metabolism and thyroid function.
HUNGRY FOR MORE???
Check out these recipes to BOOST your Thyroid gland function! Click on each image for recipe.