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How Stress Can Affect Your Thyroid

Making changes to reduce chronic stress can support thyroid health.
How Stress Can Affect Your Thyroid

What is hypothyroidism?

The thyroid, a small gland located at the base of your neck, produces two hormones - one, thyroxine (T4), and the other, triiodothyronine (T3). These two hormones stimulate the metabolism of almost every tissue in the body - heart, brain, muscles, and other organs.

The pituitary gland in the brain regulates thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which triggers the production of T4 and T3. When thyroid hormone levels in your body are low, the pituitary gland makes more TSH. Elevated TSH may be a sign that the body isn't producing enough thyroid hormones, indicative of hypothyroidism.

When your thyroid hormone production drops, your body processes slow down and change. Hypothyroidism affects virtually every system in your body. This condition can feel like being stuck in second gear - everything slows down. 

Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

· Tiredness, sluggishness

· Depression

· Trouble concentrating

· Joint and muscle pain

· Sensitivity to cold

Impact of stress on the body

Like any other system in your body, the endocrine system is sensitive to stress. Not to say all stress is bad. Some level of stress can be positive. For instance, stress can incentivize us to meet challenges or achieve goals, adding positive value to our lives.

Many of us, however, operate on a steady diet of unhealthy stress that leaves us depleted and our systems on overload. Research in the field of neuroendocrinology links the body's stress response to nearly two-thirds of all disease.

Too much stress can throw our endocrine system out of balance, including the levels of thyroid hormones produced. In response to stress, our bodies sometimes slow the production of thyroid hormones to conserve energy; sometimes, stress increases these hormones.

The adrenal-thyroid connection

The adrenals are small glands located above the kidneys that produce the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol controls how you respond to stress. It also controls how your body fights infection, adjusts blood sugar levels, and regulates blood pressure.

A 2012 study published in the Thyroid Research Journal suggests that elevated thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is associated with high cortisol.  

One reason for the positive TSH-cortisol relationship may be the metabolic stress caused by hypothyroidism, which puts pressure on the adrenals leading to an increase in stress hormone production.

It's important to learn healthy ways to manage stress for a host of reasons - a sense of well-being, better sleep, less illness. Managing stress with healthy habits gives the entire endocrine system a break.

Stress relief tips for hypothyroidism

Eat a healthy diet

The more dietary stress you put on yourself, the more likely you are to experience inflammation. This inflammation can worsen your autoimmune reactions or interfere with your thyroid function.

Fuel your body with healthful foods. Refined sugars can spike blood sugar and cause it to crash, increasing your stress levels. Instead, reach for healthy, thyroid-friendly foods like avocados, eggs, and nuts that are full of healthy fats. These goods support satiety, mood regulation, sleep, and energy.

Prioritize sleep

Stress can keep you up at night, ruminating on all that you need to do or should've done or how little time you have left to do it. Hypothyroidism can already cause irregular sleep patterns, so stress certainly isn't helping the quality of sleep. 

Take steps that allow you to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. A survey from the American Psychological Association says that adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night report higher stress levels than those who sleep at least eight hours a night. Keep your room cool, dark, and comfortable, and practice a relaxing bedtime routine. You might consider turning off all electronics one hour before going to sleep and avoid alcohol or caffeine too close to bedtime. 

Move your body

Low thyroid hormone production can leave your muscles weak, achy, or stiff. In addition to reducing the body's levels of stress hormones, movement stimulates the production of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood elevators, according to Harvard Medical School. Don't overcomplicate this one, either. A 20-minute walk is all you need to soak in some benefits.  

Alternative therapies

Though not a substitute for your thyroid medication, some alternative therapies like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation may help you manage your thyroid symptoms.

Meditation is no longer considered the sole province of mystics and spiritual gurus. Coming on the heels of yoga, millions of people have met meditation in the final pose of savasana, or corpse pose. In savasana, participants lie flat in stillness after all of the balance and stretching poses. 

Meditation is the simple act of sitting and being in the moment. All you need is a quiet place and the willingness to observe your thoughts. Most styles of meditation include some "anchor" to focus your attention. Observing the breath is one of the most common anchors. 

Close your eyes, and take a few deep, slow breaths to begin. You can meditate anywhere - at your desk, on the train, in your prayer room, or surrounded by your kid's dirty laundry. Observe your breath as it enters and exits your body. When you lose focus, bring your attention back to your breath. 

Seek support

With more people working from home, and our interactions shifting to virtual platforms, it's more important than ever to prioritize our social networks. Isolation and loneliness can have profound effects on our health, with impacts equal to those of obesity and smoking.

The flip side is that seeing your BFF has a protective effect on both physical and mental health. There are incredible health benefits to being around people we love. Positive social connections can lower stress levels, reduce inflammation in the body, increase longevity, and lower anxiety and depression. Having positive face-to-face interactions can kickstart a positive spiral of feeling emotionally and physically.

Leaning on a trusted person may help you manage stress. If not a friend, try a family member, therapist, support group, coworker, or religious institution. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. 

Give thanks

Mom was right. Writing thank-you letters and keeping a gratitude journal can build resilience, reduce the tendency to compare ourselves to others, and improve our relationships. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude can decrease depression and lead to better sleep. Try writing or reciting five things you're grateful for as part of your bedtime routine and see for yourself if you whether you can nod off more quickly.

There are few among us who do not experience an overload of stress. Still, there are simple strategies that can help us manage stress so our bodies can relax and heal some of the damage.

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