The Link Between Your Thyroid and Your Stress
The thyroid gland, it’s often misunderstood and at the same time, it gets quite a bit of flack from us.
We often call it out as the blunt of blames and frustrations when it comes to different health struggles...especially weight related, but also hormonal.
The thyroid may not necessarily be the root cause of your weight or hormonal issues, of course it could be contributing to them, but people are quick to blame the complex thyroid for their difficulties.. but most of the time, there is more to the story.
In this post, I hope to offer some understanding around this often misunderstood gland so we can cut it a bit of slack and gain a better grasp on how best to support healthy thyroid function on a daily basis.
It is important to understand how the thyroid connects to the rest of your body and to remember how innately intelligent your body is. Everything that is happening to you hormonally right now, is happening protectively and intelligently in your body's attempt keep homeostasis/balance. We sometimes forget that.
Today, I want to share a really simple overview of how the thyroid is controlled and some of the things that influence it-- with the goal of connecting a few dots for you-- it's funny, sometimes when you simplify this picture-- the optimal starting place for balancing presents itself.. and it's often way less complex than you thought.
Let's jump in!
WHAT CONTROLS YOUR THYROID?
In short-- the Hypothalamus.
YUP! The SAME Hypothalmus that is part of the HPA axis (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis).
That thing that links your nervous system to your endocrine system.
That thing- the Hypothalamus.
HOW DOES THAT CONTROL WORK?
The hypothalamus acts like a sensor inside the nervous system.
It sends signals to the pituitary gland (yes, that other part of the HPA axis) letting it know if it should make MORE or LESS of certain hormones, including an important one called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH).
Thyroid Stimulating Hormone is a hormone that then tells (or STIMULATES) the thyroid to make more or ease up on the production of different hormones; two important ones are T3 and T4. These hormones help control how your body stores and uses energy and they are largely made up of the mineral, iodine.
KEY TAKE AWAY:
TSH gets its instructions from the hypothalamus and is made in the pituitary gland. TSH then stimulates the thyroid to make essential thyroid hormones, T3 and T4. This all happens along the Hypothalamic Pituitary Thyroid Axis (HPT).
Our bodies make much more T4, but T3 is the more potent and active hormone of the two.
When needed, T4 can be converted by the body into the active form, T3 . This occurs in organs like the liver, intestines, kidneys, and lungs. This is important to be aware of because, for many, this conversion can be impaired if these organs aren't doing their thing as optimally as they could be (...leaky gut sufferers, take note!).
MAKING SENSE OF YOUR LEVELS: HYPO OR HYPER THYROIDISM
Okay, so maybe you got your blood work done and are wondering how it's being looked at.
Blood tests are looking at the levels of thyroid hormones like T3, T4 and TSH, and what these levels are like- relative to one another.
If your TSH is high (which essentially means the brain is telling the thyroid to make lots of thyroid hormones-- T3 and T4), and if your thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) are low.. then this appears that the TSH is yelling at the thyroid for more hormones to be made, but the thyroid isn't making enough to keep up with the demand... so it will appear like your thyroid is under-functioning (HYPOthyroidism).
If your TSH is low compared to the amount of T3 and T4 your thyroid is making, it's the opposite situation-- it's like TSH is saying "no more" but the thyroid isn't listening... making MORE hormones than demanded by the brain, which then appears that the thyroid is actually over-active (HYPERthyroidism). In this case you'll have HIGH thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) relative to TSH, so it appears the thyroid is making TOO much.
Okay, now there's another important hormone to throw into the mix..
THYROXINE-BINDING GLOBULIN (TBG).
TBG is important because it's a carrier protein. It binds with T3 and T4 and brings these hormones to the tissues that need it via the blood. Essentially, it brings the thyroid hormones to where they need to go.
Most of the T3 and T4 made will be bound and carried to the tissues via TBG-- so you can see why the amount of TBG and the ability of T3 and T4 to bind to it would be important for bringing usable hormones to the tissues that need them, right?
Here's the thing:
The production of TBG and the ability for thyroid hormones to bind to TBG can be influenced by other hormones such as estrogen..and dun dun dunn... cortisol. Interruptions from factors like this can confuse the thyroid and can influence how much and how effectively thyroid hormones are carried in the blood to the tissues that require it and this can effect how things appear on our blood test... and of course, how we feel.
What this means: sex hormone imbalance (like estrogen dominance) or stress hormone imbalance (due to adrenal overwhelm) can throw off the efficiency and effectiveness of how this all works.
CONNECTING THE DOTS- WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
To summarize, here are some common reasons why your levels might not be not be showing up properly on your blood tests or why you are showing signs and symptoms of thyroid imbalance.
Nutritional Deficiency: Sometimes our bodies lack the building blocks to make hormones like T3 and T4 effectively. Iodine and selenium are key minerals used by the thyroid to make them.
Conversion Issues: Sometimes it's issues with the conversion like I mentioned above.
When T4 can't be converted to the active form T3, it leads to demands for more hormones from the body. This keeps the thyroid working hard to make more thyroid hormones to keep up wiht the demands, but due to an imbalance in usable hormones due to conversion issues you can see how things can start to get messy.
Binding Issues: Other times, it's that thyroid hormones can't BIND to the TBG carrier protein because of sex or stress hormone imbalance and/or influences from diet or our environment -- factors such as excess fluoride or bromine consumption, heavy metal toxicity, adrenal stress, high estrogen, certain medications, and high stress hormones.
"High stress hormones", she says... hmm.
I see where this is going...
THE IMPACT OF THE ADRENALS ON THE THYROID
In many cases... or dare I say, MOST cases, the communication occurring along the Hypothalamic Pituitary Thyroid Axis (HPT).. is being disturbed by the messages being delivered along the SOS Hypothalamic Pituitary ADRENAL (HPA) axis.
Which one do you think will take precedence-- the survival response or the metabolic response?
Saving your life and surviving is always a priority.. so the HYPOTHALAMIC PITUITARY ADRENAL axis communication takes the reigns in this situation.
The adrenals come into play when there is stress present that the body needs to deal with, whether that stress be physical stress, inflammation, work stress, emotional stress, life-threatening stress, lack of sleep stress, etc.
The adrenals are also told what to do based on what that bossy pituitary gland is telling them to do.
HOW THE THYROID IS AFFECTED
Oh wait, double edge sword here---
When stress hormones like cortisol are elevated and our body is in a perceived state of stress, metabolism regulation from the thyroid is no longer a priority to the body-- in this case the pituitary gland will tell the thyroid to ease up on making more thyroid hormones (it's got bigger fish to fry right now), add this to underlying issues with conversion or thyroid hormone binding issues and you can see how this can be a bit of a cascading disaster.
The bottom line is that your adrenals come into play with this whole thyroid cascade.
Regardless of what type of thyroid issues you are experiencing, the adrenals are worth addressing, paying attention to and giving some TLC to. Sometimes when you do this, everything else has a funny way of working itself back into balance.