We are so used to hearing "it's just stress" from healthcare practitioners, and let's face it, doesn't that feel like a blowoff? Doesn't it feel like the doctor is saying that your real physical symptoms are somehow all in your head? And when you're hypothyroid and struggle with debilitating and confusing symptoms, it's especially frustrating when the doctor tells you that your symptoms are "stress."
So, what's stress got to do with it?
The truth is that stress has everything to do with your hypothyroidism—including unresolved symptoms—and many other health challenges as well.
What is stress?
Some people think that stress is feeling "frazzled," but stress is so much more, from a medical sense. Stressors can include mental, emotional, and physical stress. You may experience stress from family issues, money, or your job, for example. Still, you may also experience stress from surgery, poor nutrition, chronic infection, and yes, even hormonal imbalances like hypothyroidism.
When you are under short-term and long-term stress, it affects many physiologic functions in your brain, muscles, heart, circulation, digestion, immune system, and hormones.
If you're hypothyroid and struggle with thyroid symptoms, your first step is to work with a thyroid-savvy practitioner to get optimal treatment for your thyroid condition.
But even after your thyroid treatment is optimized, you still need to identify your stress points, what you can to reduce them, and, most importantly, proactively adopt practices to inoculate yourself against its effects on your health.
I can hear some of you already saying, "But I'm not stressed!" You may not think so, but…
Are you experiencing stress?
How many of these common stressors are you experiencing?
- Short sleep (less than 7 hours a night), or interrupted, un-refreshing sleep?
- An imbalanced diet, low on nutritional food, and heavy on sugar and processed foods?
- Frequent consumption of caffeine, nicotine, or other stimulants? (Be honest here, and remember, one venti Starbucks is like three servings of other coffee!)
- Unresolved hormonal imbalances?
- Common chronic infections, such as gingivitis, Epstein-Barr virus, or candida?
- Recent surgery or injury?
- Life-related stress: family, relationships, marriage, job, finances, commutes, news, politics?
If any of these factors sound familiar, you are experiencing stress!
And don't forget that we are all experiencing an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime stressor right now: COVID-19. The pandemic has upended our daily lives, creating many new stressors, such as isolation, shutdowns, travel restrictions, economic hardship, and health fears.
Stress makes your hypothyroidism symptoms worse
You may not realize, any chronic stress—mental, emotional, or physical—can worsen symptoms that you may assume are due only to your hypothyroidism. For example, stress can trigger or worsen what I call the "big three" symptoms of hypothyroidism:
Stress also contributes to other common hypothyroidism symptoms, including:
- Hair loss
- Sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
- Muscular, joint, and body pain
Stress can wreak havoc on your immune system in many different ways:
- Can impair your immune system and your ability to fight off and recover from illness
- May worsen inflammation in autoimmune disease, including Hashimoto's, the most common cause of hypothyroidism
- May trigger autoimmune diseases and their symptoms
As if that's not enough, stress also can further imbalance your other hormones, including:
- Sex hormones, which can trigger or contribute to infertility, menstrual irregularities, low sex drive, and worsening peri-menopause and menopause
- Adrenals, which can destabilize your thyroid treatment
Finally, stress increases the risk—already elevated in hypothyroidism—of other diseases, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
With all these potential issues involved, we can't afford to "keep calm and carry on," ignoring the role of stress on our health—especially, hormonal and immune system function!
How to reduce and protect against stress
Herbert Benson, M.D, is a distinguished mind-body professor of medicine at Harvard University and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine. His famed book, The Relaxation Response, has earned him the title "Father of Mind-Body Medicine." In the book, Dr. Benson explained how physiologic stress-reducing activities—like meditation—could both prevent and reduce the proven health effects of stress. Since his book's publication, Dr. Benson continues to release groundbreaking findings on the impact of stress and the benefits of stress reduction. Most recently, Dr. Benson's research found that just 10 minutes of practicing stress management daily even causes positive genomic and genetic changes!
Specifically, daily physiologic stress reduction can do the following:
- Reduce depression and anxiety
- Reduce food cravings
- Improve your immune health
- Reduce blood pressure
- Improve sleep
- Improve hormonal balance
- Reduce mental and physical fatigue
Before you grab that bowl of popcorn and settle in on the couch for a Netflix binge, let's clear something up first. Physiologic stress management isn't always what you may think of as "relaxation." As fun and relaxing as it may be, that Netflix binge does not qualify as a physiologic stress-reducing practice!
So, what does qualify?
Stress management activities include those that I refer to as the "Three M's of Stress-Busting:" Mindfulness, Movement, and Manual.
Mind-based activities involve minimal movement and include:
- Meditation and guided meditation
This category includes gentle, movement-based activities—with the emphasis on gentle—including:
- Gentle yoga
- Tai Chi
- Qi Gong
- Contemplative walking
(Here's a hint: if an activity involves twisting your body into a pretzel, intense breathing, pain, losing the feeling in your extremities, or an elevated heart rate, it does not count!)
These are activities involving your hands that allow you to get into a relaxed, calm state of mind, such as:
- Playing a musical instrument
- Painting, drawing, or coloring
- Crafting, carpentry
- Needlework, like knitting, crocheting, or embroidery
- Weeding, gardening
- Making bread
There's no need to sit on the floor in a lotus position for hours on end! Instead, commit to ten minutes of your chosen activity to shut down the chatter in your mind, calm your body, and put you into a state of mindful "flow." Those few minutes help you to get all the benefits!
Need help incorporating stress reduction practices?
Do you need some ideas on how to easily and quickly incorporate stress reduction practice into your life? Here are just a few suggestions:
- The Thyroid Meditation is an inexpensive guided meditation audio program designed explicitly for thyroid patients.
- Guided sleep meditations to bring calmness and awareness to your body to lower your stress.
- This YouTube video features a free 15-minute guided walking meditation.
- The Calm app features many free guided meditations and breathwork sessions—with even more options for paid subscribers.
- This free website lets you color in a mandala online for free. (Some studies have shown that coloring complex geometric shapes can significantly reduce anxiety!)
So, join me, and let's start by taking a deep, slow breath, all the way down to your belly. Hold it for a few seconds. And then, slowly exhale. Don't you feel even a little bit better already? That's the power of stress reduction. Now, imagine what ten minutes a day will do for you—and your thyroid!