Did you realize that there is a strong adrenal-thyroid connection?
Most women who come to see me show signs of an adrenal-thyroid connection problem. However, many of them don’t realize how closely related these two glands are to each other.
Hypothyroidism is On the Rise
Hypothyroidism is a growing concern for women, especially as they get older.
They gain weight, feel depressed and tired, and have very low energy. Some other symptoms of hypothyroidism include cold hands and feet, poor concentration, infertility and hair loss.
Your thyroid could even be under-achieve without showing any symptoms, too. Often these symptoms show up years after an initial thyroid problem arises, and many doctors only test for a small subset of the thyroid properties needed for a thorough, accurate picture of what’s going on.
One of the biggest contributors to hypothyroidism is chronic stress. Perceived stress that we deal with every day, like traffic jams or finding time to fold the laundry, stimulates the adrenals to secrete the stress hormone cortisol.
And, as we’ll see, cortisol is a big player in hypothyroidism!
The Adrenal-Thyroid Connection
The adrenal-thyroid connection is one that many people don’t realize exists. In fact, the adrenals and thyroid glands are strongly tied to one another. The thyroid cannot properly function if the adrenal glands are unhealthy.
With respect to adrenal and thyroid health, there is an intricate network of messengers in our bodies. This network is called the HPTA axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid-adrenal axis. Without this network, our bodies wouldn’t know what to do.
(Sometimes you’ll see HPA-axis, which is strictly the messaging system for the adrenals. It works independently from the thyroid but the adrenal-thyroid connection is so intertwined that it’s nearsighted not to consider the thyroid as part of this system.)
The HPTA axis helps to regulate our body temperature, digestion and energy use. This axis also helps to control the body’s response to stress. And, the thyroid needs the right amount of stress hormones to maintain balance.
The HPTA axis functions as a negative feedback loop.
The hypothalamus signals the pituitary to release hormones that tell the thyroid and adrenals to do their thing. Thyroid hormones and stress hormones are then secreted into the blood. Then, this message is sent back to the hypothalamus so that it knows not to trigger the release of anything else. This is how the HPTA axis works in a healthy person.
Chronic Stress, Hypothyroidism and the Adrenal-Thyroid Connection
Perceived stress, like self-criticism or our reaction to a bad driver, triggers cortisol release by the adrenals. Chronic stress, then, is when our bodies continue to pump out cortisol because we perceive a lot of stress.
This chronic stress response has a negative effect on the thyroid and on blood sugar. High cortisol signals the release of glucose from cells, which triggers insulin production by the pancreas. When cortisol is chronically high or low, a person can experience hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia or both.
Adrenals become weak when overstimulated, so they no longer produce enough cortisol to respond to stress. This, in turn, causes the thyroid to stop performing optimally and our thyroid function falls, leading to hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism symptoms can also show up without the thyroid having any problems, though, due to chronic stress. However, low thyroid issues can go on for years before you start to notice symptoms; you continue to test within the normal range on common thyroid tests yet still have a thyroid issue. This issue is known as subclinical hypothyroidism.
Not coincidentally, adrenal dysfunction also shows many of the classic hypothyroidism symptoms too – feeling cold, low energy, fatigue, and weight gain.
Other Health Effects of Adrenal-Thyroid Connection
Severe stress results in your body dialing down its thyroid function to conserve energy.
Stress also uses up important nutrients. Selenium and magnesium are needed for hormone production and for protecting the thyroid from inflammation.
Cortisol reduces the conversion of T4 to T3. Your thyroid releases T4 into your blood but it needs to be converted to its active form, T3, by other parts of the body, like the liver. Cortisol interferes with the T4 receptors in the liver so T3 cannot be made.
So, you may show classic hypothyroidism symptoms but really, your thyroid is functioning fine. It’s your liver that’s having trouble because of elevated cortisol.
A substance called Thyroid Binding Globulin (or TBG) is made by your body. TBG is a protein that attaches to thyroid hormones to move them around.
Thyroid hormones are not usable when they are bound to TBG because they are essentially stuck to their carrier. Therefore, too much TBG can also manifest as hypothyroidism.
Long-term elevated cortisol decreases the liver’s ability to detoxify excess estrogen from the blood. Estrogens increase the level of TBG in the body, which can lead to hypothyroidism. And, excess estrogen can exacerbate elevated cortisol issues because it promotes more fat cell growth in the abdomen.
Chronic, long-term stress places the body in a state of catabolism where it tries to break down amino acids into glucose. To conserve energy, the thyroid will slow down the metabolism as a protective mechanism.
Important nutrients are depleted because our body is busy using them for thyroid and adrenal hormone production. And, other organs in the body require these important nutrients too. Cholesterol can be severely depleted from stress because it is the backbone of cortisol.
Nurture Your Adrenal-Thyroid Connection With Real Food
Even if you’re taking hypothyroidism medication, you can still benefit from nourishing whole foods. A healthy diet gives your adrenal and thyroid glands the nutrients they need to work effectively for you.
Most importantly, your stress-busting diet is easy because you eat only whole foods!
Foods that are especially nourishing to your adrenals and thyroid include:
- Unrefined, organic virgin coconut oil
- Brazil nuts
- Raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
- Wild-caught salmon and halibut
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Organic, free run eggs
- Antibiotic and hormone-free poultry and meat
- Organic, fresh fruits and vegetables
- Seafood and sea vegetables for their iodine content
- Himalayan rock salt
Whole grains can be consumed in moderation – I highly recommend sticking to gluten-free whole grains because gluten is typically a food intolerance, even without manifesting as obvious symptoms (like gas or diarrhea).
Avoid refined sugar and artificial sweeteners, alcohol, caffeine, and fatty fast food or processed items. And avoid iodized table salt – it’s not as healthy as it sounds!
And, of course, make activity a part of your daily schedule. A moderate amount of exercise will stabilize the stress response, promote detoxification of excess hormones, and improve your body’s ability to burn energy.