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 How stress affects our thyroid (and what to do about it)

After my first thyroid-related post, I thought I’d write more about what affects this tiny organ’s functioning in everyday life. And, consequently, how to prevent its disorders. Clearly, it’s impossible to eliminate all triggers. I’m sharing this with you to create awareness of how daily habits impact our wellbeing.
Today it’s all about stress – the psychological kindto be precise. That’s because stress for the body is so much more than feeling anxious…it can be blood sugar imbalances, oxidative stress or ongoing sleep deprivation. But I’ll talk about those more another time. Here I want to focus on chronic stress – anxiety, fear, depression and so on.
But wait… what does that have to do with thyroid disorders?
So you’ve probably heard of cortisol, a stress-related hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, which means it’s responsible for breaking down molecules, like carbohydrates. It increases the body’s use of energy. These are, of course, just the basics of how cortisol works.
Why is cortisol released when the body is under stress?
When you’re in a life-threatening situation, cortisol is released to break down carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose is our fuel  – the brain needs it to react effectively in stressful situations. Cortisol also raises our heart rate to provide cells with more oxygen faster. It’s basically a lifesaving mechanism. These days we don’t necessarily have many life-threatening situations like our ancestors did, but our body reacts to other stressful stimulants the exact same way.
Why am I mentioning cortisol here? Because it has a direct influence on our thyroid function. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – our body’s systems are all connected to each other.
Physiologically, cortisol is essential for our organism to function properly. It’s when there’s too much or too little that cortisol becomes harmful.
If we expose ourselves to stress more often than is normal and necessary for the body, our adrenals have to produce more cortisol. If this excess production is long-term, meaning that if we worry chronically, it might trigger a thyroid disorder.
How does that happen?
1. Cortisol inhibits the conversion of T4 to active T3

Like I mentioned here, T3 is the active thyroid hormone that is converted from T4. Just like selenium deficiency, excess cortisol may also cause poor T4 ⇒ T3 conversion. [1][2][3]

So to put it in the simplest way, excess cortisol makes the thyroid underactive which we otherwise call hypothyroidism.

2. Cortisol decreases TSH =  the production of thyroid hormones is lowered
TSH is a hormone that stimulates the thyroid to produce T3 and T4. In hypothyroidism, TSH is often elevated – that’s because there aren’t enough thyroid hormones and the body produces more TSH to stimulate the thyroid. We can say that TSH is our thyroid’s ‘helper’.
So if cortisol decreases TSH, it means that we don’t have so much of our ‘helper’ to stimulate the thyroid anymore. This causes a drop in T3 and T4 – the thyroid hormones.
When the body is being pushed too hard (by us stressing, for example), thyroid hormones drop because the body senses that it needs to protect itself and needs to slow down. In hypothyroidism that’s exactly what the body is doing – slowing down…
The symptoms don’t seem so serious – fatigue, muscle weakness, weight gain and having a puffy face. But an underactive thyroid may also cause issues that really affect our day-to-day life like depression, impaired memory or even infertility.

Working on the stress we’re experiencing

Hopefully, now you have a better idea of how constant stress affects thyroid health. So how can we take more control of our negative emotions and unhelpful thoughts? What you will read below might seem obvious at first, but these concepts are so simple yet overlooked so often. Everyone is different and what might help some of us, might not work at all for others. The key is to find a daily ritual that’s effective for you. Here’s what I found really grounds me when I’m stressed out.
Writing down thoughts
This is something I do very often. It can be long sentences or a few keywords – as long as it’s enough for you to make sense of what you’ve written. Seeing your worries come onto a piece of paper doesn’t make any problems go away. But by simply getting them out of your head, it creates a sense of order and somehow the thoughts are no longer overwhelming. I find that this exercise is calming in itself.
Getting out of your head and into your body

After I write down any thoughts troubling me, it’s so much easier to come up with a solution to a problem. But most of the time, I worry about things I cannot change. It’s natural for the brain to wander off and start giving you reasons to stress about. What helps then, is any activity that forces me to concentrate on the body. Usually, it’s yoga or another form of physical exercise. Meditation works wonders as well. It’s all about being in the moment and practising being present as often as possible. That’s when there’s no place for any emotional stress.

Books, books and more books…

The Happiness Trap is a special read. I haven’t finished it yet, but I can honestly say it’s helped me so much already. The book gives you really effective techniques on how to stop struggling with any difficult and unhelpful thoughts that bring anxiety into your life. The truth is that we will never be able to get rid of negative emotions. The Happiness Trap teaches you to work with these thoughts – because avoiding them is virtually impossible.

…What would you add to this list?
Stress management is talked about so much nowadays, yet we still tend to forget that caring for our mental health is just as important as eating a nutritious diet. When we’re anxious, we usually feel it within our body and unpleasant symptoms appear immediately or after some time. Personally, I always experience very painful periods after a stressful month. The body’s reaction is an invidual matter for everyone but there’s no doubt that constant strain on the mind has a destructive impact on health.
Writing about the psychological side of things on here is quite new to me, even though most of the books I read are about psychology, relationships or mental health.
Perhaps it will become a regular thing?
Till next time,
Zuza xx

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