5 Ways that Stress Causes Hypothyroid Symptoms
Along with Blood sugar imbalances and poor gut health, the harmful effects of adrenal stress complete the triad which contribute to hypothyroid disease and Hashimoto’s.
The adrenals are two walnut-shaped glands that sit atop the kidneys. They secrete hormones – such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine – that regulate the stress response. But these hormones play other crucial roles, many of which are directly related to thyroid health. In fact, as we’ll see in this article, proper thyroid function depends on healthy adrenal glands.
Most people are aware of the obvious forms emotional of stress that affect the adrenal glands: impossibly full schedules, driving in traffic, financial problems, arguments with a spouse, losing a job and the many other emotional and psychological challenges of modern life. However there are sources of stress which are not so obvious: blood sugar swings, gut dysfunction, food intolerances (especially gluten), chronic infections, environmental toxins, autoimmune problems and inflammation. All of these conditions sound the alarm bells and cause the adrenals to pump out more stress hormones. In this context, stress is broadly defined as anything that disturbs the body’s natural balance (homeostasis).
Adrenal stress is probably the most common problem we encounter in functional medicine, because nearly everyone is dealing with at least one of the factors listed above. Symptoms of adrenal stress are diverse and nonspecific, because the adrenals affect every system in the body. But some of the more common symptoms are:
• Decreased immunity
• Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
• Mood swings
• Sugar and caffeine cravings
• Irritability or light-headedness between meals
• Eating to relieve fatigue
• Dizziness when moving from sitting or lying to standing
• Gastric ulcers
Weak 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.
The most significant indirect effect the adrenals have on thyroid function is via their influence on blood sugar. High or low cortisol – caused by any of the chronic stressors listed above – can cause hypoglycaemia, hyperglycaemia or both. And as we saw in a previous article, blood sugar imbalances cause hypothyroid symptoms in a variety of ways.
But adrenal stress also has more direct impacts on thyroid function. The following five mechanisms are the most important.
1) Adrenal stress disrupts the HPA axis
By now many people have heard of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It’s a complex network of interactions between the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the adrenal glands that regulates things such as temperature, digestion, immune system, mood, sexuality and energy usage – in addition to controlling the body’s reaction to stress and trauma.
Countless studies show that chronic adrenal stress depresses hypothalamic and pituitary function. And since these two organs direct thyroid hormone production, anything that disrupts the HPA axis will also suppress thyroid function.
2) Adrenal stress reduces conversion of T4 to T3
Remember that although 93% of the hormone produced by the thyroid gland is T4, it is inactive in that form and must be converted into T3 before it can be used by the cells. The inflammatory cytokines I listed above not only disrupt the HPA axis, they also interfere with the conversion of T4 to T3.
The enzyme 5′-deiodinase catalyzes the conversion of T4 into T3 in peripheral tissues such as the liver and the gut. Both Th1 and Th2 inflammatory cytokines – IL-6, TNF-alpha, IFN-gamma and IL-1 beta – have been shown to suppress the conversion of T4 to T3. In patients without thyroid illness, as levels of IL-6 (a marker for inflammation) rise, levels of serum T3 fall
3) Adrenal stress promotes autoimmunity by weakening immune barriers
The GI 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, weakens the immune system in general, and promotes poor immune system regulation.
The leaky gut-thyroid. When the gut becomes too permeable, immune barriers are breached large proteins and other antigens are able to pass into the bloodstream or brain where they don’t belong. If this happens repeatedly, the immune system gets thrown out of whack and we become more prone to autoimmune diseases – such as Hashimoto’s.
4) Adrenal stress causes thyroid hormone resistance
In order for thyroid hormone circulating in blood to have a physiological effect, it must first activate receptors on cells. Inflammatory cytokines have been shown to suppress thyroid receptor site sensitivity.
If you’re familiar with insulin resistance, where the cells gradually lose their sensitivity to insulin, this is a similar pattern. It’s as if the thyroid hormone is knocking on the cell’s door, but the cells don’t answer. Research has shown that inflammatory cytokines block the receptors.
5) Adrenal stress causes hormonal imbalances
Cortisol is one of the hormones released by the adrenals during the stress response. Prolonged cortisol elevations, caused by chronic stress, decrease the liver’s ability to clear excess oestrogens from the blood. Excess oestrogen increases levels of thyroid binding globulin (TBG), the proteins that thyroid hormone is attached to as it’s transported through the body.
When thyroid hormone is bound to TBG, it is inactive. It must be cleaved from TBG to become “free-fraction” before it can activate cellular receptors.
When TBG levels are high, the percentage of free thyroid hormones drops. This shows up on labs as low T3 uptake and low free T4/T3.
Aside from adrenal stress, the most common causes of elevated TBG secondary to excess oestrogen are birth control pills and oestrogen replacement
Balancing the adrenals
Here’s the tricky thing about adrenal stress: it’s almost always caused – at least in part – by something else. These causes include environmental toxicity, (chemicals, hydrocarbons, toxic metals, bleaches, EMF), Secondary opportunistic infections such as (fungi, bacteria, virus, parasites and other microbes) anaemia, blood sugar swings, gut inflammation, food intolerances (especially gluten), essential fatty acid deficiencies, and of course, chronic emotional and psychological stress.
In order to balance health we need to balance the effects of stress on the Adrenal glands, and the knock on effect that has on our Thyroid function, metabolism and general wellbeing. Treating Thyroid alone is often ineffective . It is essential to determine the exact root cause in each individual as these will vary. We do this by offering a Meta root cause analysis process and tailored treatment plan. The results my client’s get are exciting.