How Stress Impacts Thyroid Function

Thyroid hormone is one of the most misunderstood hormones. It is so misunderstood that as many as 60% of people who have a thyroid issue don’t even know it.  

Your thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ at the base of your neck. It releases thyroid hormone, which regulates your metabolism, energy levels, brain function, and more.

If your thyroid is not working at optimal function, here are some possible signs:

  • Exhaustion
  • Forgetfulness
  • Mood Problems
  • Feeling Cold
  • Weight Gain
  • Constipation
  • Irregular periods
  • Thinning Hair
  • Dry Skin
  • Brittle Nails

Some people who experience these symptoms end up being diagnosed with hypothyroid. Others struggle with these issues and are told their thyroid labs look normal. This can happen because the normal lab ranges are not necessarily optimal or because not all forms of thyroid hormone have been looked at in the test.

It is possible to have suboptimal thyroid function even if your routine thyroid labs look “normal.”

How could it be possible to experience thyroid-related problems even when routine labs show that thyroid function is “normal?” Let’s break this down.

Here’s how your thyroid works:

A hormone called TRH is released from your hypothalamus (deep inside your brain), which triggers TSH release from your pituitary gland (also in your brain). TSH travels through your blood to trigger thyroid hormone production in your thyroid gland (at the base of your neck).

Your thyroid gland produces 2 active forms of thyroid hormone that circulate through your body:

  • T4 (thyroxine)
  • T3 (triiodothyronine)

Even though your body makes much more T4 than T3, your T3 is about 4 times as powerful and considered an even more active form. Your body can also produce reverse T3 (rT3), which actually blocks thyroid function.

The most common screening test for thyroid function is TSH. Even when that falls within the lab’s normal reference range, here are some possible scenarios to explain suboptimal thyroid function:

  • Insufficient production of T4
  • Insufficient conversion of T4 → T3
  • Increased production of reverse T3 (rT3)

That’s why—if you are struggling with unexplained exhaustion, brain fog, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, brittle nails, or any other signs of thyroid imbalance—it’s so important to have your doctor run a more comprehensive panel of thyroid tests.

Of course, the next question to ask is what could be causing suboptimal thyroid function? Here are just a few of the possible root causes:

  • Exposure to environmental toxins. Many chemicals disrupt thyroid function. Exposure to the herbicide RoundUp may impact thyroid function for example.
  • Autoimmunity. Anti-thyroid antibodies can be detected in many people with suboptimal thyroid function. There are approaches to lowering these antibodies that may help improve thyroid function.
  • Under eating or over exercising. Your thyroid controls your metabolism, so your lifestyle can throw it out of whack.
  • Nutrient insufficiencies. A word of caution, this is a very personalized area of thyroid treatment. Let’s discuss your unique symptoms prior to starting any supplementation.
  • And Stress!  This is a big one.

Do you know what your body does when you experience stress?

It produces cortisol.

Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that is meant to help your body respond to stressful situations. But…too much and too often can have damaging effects on your thyroid. Here’s why:

  • Cortisol increases the production of reverse T3 (rT3), which blocks thyroid function.
  • Cortisol decreases TSH, which is needed to stimulate thyroid hormone production.
  • Cortisol can indirectly lead to higher levels of TBG, which decreases the amount of free thyroid hormone available for cells.

There really is a quite complicated relationship between thyroid health and stress because of the hormones involved with each.

But there’s a pretty simple takeaway message here:

If you want to support optimal thyroid function, you cannot ignore the effects of stress—and that means anything your body PERCEIVES as stress (including things like undereating or overexercising!).

Here are a handful of things you can do to reduce your stress and support your thyroid:

🍏Eat in a way that supports healthy blood sugar balance (you might need to be open to including some carbs!)

👟Exercise the right amount for your body (movement is key but not in excess!)

🧘‍♂️Take breaks (your body needs rest as much as it needs activity!)

💤Aim for sound sleep (this might mean cutting the glass of wine or social scrolls at night!)

In naturopathic and functional medicine, we always aim to understand the root cause of your health concerns. We dig deep to look for patterns and explanations. And most importantly, we want to OPTIMIZE your health—because when you are not feeling your best, it affects every area of your life.

Curious how your stress level may be impacting your thyroid function. Make an appointment and we will dig deeper.

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