by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
The brain controls both the adrenal and thyroid glands
How stress affects your thyroid gland
Tips for improving thyroid and adrenal health
Key points in this article
- Chronic stress leads to overproduction of the hormone cortisol.
- Cortisol and its precursor (CRH) can inhibit thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Cortisol can also inhibit conversion of the thyroid hormones T4 into T3.
- Low T3 can lead to hypothyroid symptoms.
- Simple nutrient and lifestyle modifications can support thyroid function and lower the impact of stress on your overall health and well-being.
Some years ago in my clinical practice I began to notice a pattern: thyroid dysfunction was really common in my stressed-out patients. Though I hadn’t spent much time on this relationship in medical training, I felt as a female practitioner caring for women of all ages, shapes, and walks of life I should start to pay more attention to this connection. And the more I learned, the more I realized there is a very tight physiological connection between a woman’s thyroid function and her stress response.
Yes, we all know stress isn’t good for our health, but we don’t always make the connection between stress and thyroid problems — nor how to change our lives in response. Continuous stress leads to high levels of stress hormones, which can have a negative impact on thyroid function, especially if levels stay high over the long-term.
What’s exciting is that we have many natural ways to stop this cycle — without drugs. Over the years, I’ve developed some very effective tools to help women support their thyroids by reducing stress. Whether you’re experiencing symptoms or not, let’s take a closer look at how the adrenal and thyroid glands impact one another, so you can lighten the stress load on your already busy thyroid and prevent thyroid imbalance.
Adrenal and thyroid function originates in the brain
Hormones are molecules released by one area of the body to carry messages to another area in the body. The thyroid’s main job is to produce the right amount of thyroid hormone to “tell” your cells how fast to burn energy and produce proteins. The adrenal glands’ primary job is to produce the right amount of stress hormones that allow you to respond to stress of a zillion kinds.
The stress–hypothyroid connection
Think of the thyroid and adrenals as guardians, or protective intermediaries of the endocrine (hormone-producing) system. They both function as complex sensors, continually responding to ever-changing conditions within the body, and relay information back and forth between the brain and the body.
HPT–HPA interactions & feedback loops
Because both of these endocrine loops trace back to the pituitary and hypothalamus in the brain, and the hormones produced along these two axes interact, chances of dysregulation are higher along one axis when the other loop is overactive- or underactive.
CRH = corticotrophin-releasing hormone; TRH = thyrotropin-releasing hormone; ACTH = adrenocorticotropic hormone; TSH = thyroid-stimulating hormone; T4 = thyroxine; T3 = triiodothyronine.
Yet the signaling for release of both sets of hormones originates in an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which sends hormonal messages to the tiny gland in the brain called the pituitary. From here, hormonal messages are relayed to both the thyroid and the adrenal glands (along with other destinations beyond the scope of this article). The adrenals and thyroid, in turn, produce hormones and provide feedback to the brain. We call this negative-feedback loop the HPTA (hypothalamic–pituitary–thyroid–adrenal) axis.
You need just the right amount of cortisol for your thyroid to function optimally. An imbalance can arise all along the HPTA axis and result in either an overactive or underactive thyroid or adrenal glands. As you can see from the diagram, the hormones from each loop interact, and cortisol and thyroid hormone work in concert. So when one of these loops is overactive or underactive, disruption along the other is more likely. This is one reason symptoms of thyroid dysfunction can show up even when your thyroid lab tests appear “within normal limits.” Let’s look at how this happens.
How stress can cause thyroid symptoms
Much of the medical literature has focused on hyperthyroidism and a condition called Graves’ disease as the main effect of stress on the thyroid. Graves’ is generally caused by an autoimmune response that prompts the thyroid to make too much thyroid hormone. This has been known to occur after a sudden stressful life change. But too much stress can also lead to a slowing of the thyroid, hypothyroidism.
Any kind of stress prompts the brain to release CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone). This hormone tells the pituitary to send a message to the adrenal glands: make cortisol! But both cortisol and CRH can inhibit thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and the conversion of thyroid hormone T4 to T3. Because every cell in the body uses T3 for healthy function, the decrease in T3 can lead to symptoms like:
hair loss and more
This inhibition of your thyroid and hormone receptors often takes place quietly behind the scenes for years without causing overt symptoms. And this is why so many women are caught off-guard when they are diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. They think everything has been going fine and all of the sudden, they feel horrible. The fact is, if you’ve been experiencing chronic stress, stress hormones may have been inhibiting your thyroid function for years. Some patients can even remain in what we call subclinical hypothyroidism, where their lab results are still within the standard normal ranges, but they’re experiencing symptoms.
Thankfully, there are many ways to reset your stress response and reestablish communication along your adrenal–thyroid pathways.
Tips for breaking the stress-thyroid connection
Supply the raw materials. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to promote healthy thyroid hormone production with nutrients. Selenium, iodine, and vitamins A, B, C, and E are all necessary players in the production of thyroid hormones. So a high-quality multivitamin–mineral complex like the one we offer in our True Health Program is essential for thyroid support.
Eat for your adrenal and thyroid health. Regular meals, especially breakfast, including high-quality protein with each meal and snack, avoiding sugar, and moderating caffeine intake can make you much more resilient to stress. (For in-depth guidance see our articles on eating to support your thyroid and eating to support your adrenals — you’ll notice a lot of overlap between the two!)
Sleep. If you want healthy hormonal balance, set a reasonable bedtime — and stick with it. The ideal time to sleep is between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM. Allow yourself adequate time to unwind before bed, and give yourself a quiet time during the day, too, if you need to. This downtime will help turn off the adrenal response to stress, and reset your neuroendocrine system so it can respond appropriately to whatever challenges come your way.
Counter your daily stress. There are many ways — some requiring more of a commitment than others — to help your body relax. From deep breathing exercises to scheduling a massage or day at the spa, you always have options. Some women are devotees of yoga, qi gong, or other meditative practices, while others prefer prayer or taking a peaceful walk each evening. Exercise is wonderful, but over-exercising can put your adrenal glands back into stress mode and elevate cortisol levels, so take it easy.
Meeting life’s larger challenges. With training in both psychology and functional medicine, I’ve always tried to help women understand the links between their emotions and their health. I understand how daunting it can be to make lasting emotional changes in your life. But you can start by allowing yourself the opportunity to explore patterns in your life, both negative and positive. Many of my patients have had great success with the Hoffman Quadrinity Process and the Emotional Freedom Technique for helping to break life-long patterns of stress.
As a busy healthcare practitioner and mom, I understand that life is stressful! We can’t just eliminate stress from our lives. But we can support our bodies during stressful times and try to lighten the load. If you have a family history of thyroid dysfunction or if you’ve been told by a practitioner that you have a subclinical thyroid condition, take comfort in the fact that you can support your thyroid naturally. Remember that even small changes, especially if you stick to them, can add up to a dramatic difference!