Chronic Stress Contributes To Reduced Thyroid Function
In my practice as a doctor of naturopathic medicine in Portland, Oregon, one of the most common problems people see me for are issues related to thyroid and other endocrine functions. My status as a licensed primary care physician does allow me to prescribe medications, however, when possible, I prefer more natural, gentle methods of restoring thyroid and other endocrine functions. The idea that a doctor can simply run an easy test, see that thyroid levels are low and write up a prescription ignores the complex reality of how all of the body’s hormones interact with each other. Sometimes, we need to make many small adjustments that may even be as simple as food and lifestyle changes to bring about positive changes in how our bodies internally balance our hormones.
Some in the medical field resist the concept of “adrenal fatigue”; however, those same doctors will all easily acknowledge the widely proven negative health effects of long-term stress. Elevated stress hormones (such as cortisol) over long periods of time suppress thyroid function while also depressing everything from one’s immune system to metabolism and mood. Long-term stress leads to increased instances of heart disease, diabetes, muscle pain, depression, digestion and ultimately greatly reduces life expectancy. So, whether you call it “adrenal fatigue”… or argue that adrenal fatigue isn’t real and name it “chronic long-term stress” instead, the fact remains that long-term stress does overstimulate the adrenal glands which leads to unhealthy changes in our bodies’ levels of stress hormones. And, those over-produced stress hormones that are secreted by the adrenal glands do fatigue and prematurely wear out the body over time. But alas, we digress into fruitless semantics.
Adrenal Fatigue… or Chronic Stress?
All this is to say, that “adrenal fatigue” or “chronic stress” clearly leads to a number of serious, life-threatening health consequences, not the least of which is lowered thyroid function. The adrenal glands are small mountain peak-shaped glands located on the top portion of the kidneys. The adrenal glands are responsible for producing and secreting various hormones, predominately stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine/adrenaline, norepinephrine/noradrenaline and aldosterone. What most people are not aware of is that the adrenal glands also secrete a small amount of sex hormones. In post-menopausal women and middle-aged men, the adrenal gland are responsible for producing small yet noticeable amount of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (and yes, healthy women do produce small amounts of testosterone just as healthy men produce small amounts of estrogen). The symptom for which a patient seeks medical attention varies because of the wide array of bodily hormones affected by endocrine imbalance.
Imbalanced Blood Sugar & Chronic Constipation May Be Related to Thyroid Issues
Among the other, lesser-known symptoms of low thyroid levels are digestive problems such as chronic constipation and imbalanced blood-sugar. These symptoms can be associated with long term stress, which is tied to reduced thyroid function. And, from what I’ve witnessed in my clinical practice, many patients have historically been treated for low thyroid hormone while the underlying cause of long-term stress’s effects on the body went untreated. When the adrenal glands are repeatedly overtaxed due to chronic stress, thyroid function is reduced. In an ironic twist of fate, conditions such as chronic blood sugar imbalances or underlying infections are side-effects of stress but also cause more stress on the body. As strange as it sounds, imbalanced blood-sugar and being prone to infection are both causes of stress and effects of stress at the same time.
While most of us are familiar with the usual suspects of emotional and environmental sources of stress, other things like inflammation or digestive issues due to diet, nutritional deficiencies, autoimmune responses and toxic exposures can also play a major role in increasing stress. Even simple things like the light exposure from staring at a smartphone screen too long can interfere with the body’s melatonin response, which reduces the length and quality of sleep, which increases our levels of stress hormones in the body. As mentioned in some of my other thyroid and endocrine articles, the alcohol and caffeine can also increase stress hormones thereby reducing thyroid function over time. For this reason, one of the main treatments I often have to focus on with my patients is restoring proper balance to the adrenal glands through treatments and also through lifestyle and diet changes. Sometimes small changes in lifestyle or even mindset can have noticeable, positive effects on thyroid function.
Constant Stress is Harmful to Health & Proper Thyroid Function
When fight-or-flight hormones are being constantly released into the body due to poor nutrition, work/life stress and lack of time for relaxation, symptoms such as early insulin resistance, weight gain, anxiety and of course: poor thyroid function begin to take hold. In situations of combined chronic stress/adrenal-fatigue there is usually a corresponding symptom of reduced thyroid function. This cluster of stress and a poorly functioning thyroid often corresponds with digestive issues such as lowered metabolism, slowed digestion and chronic constipation. Often, when I have a chance to work with patients to clear up the underlying cause of stress (and by extension, heal thyroid dysfunction) relief of constipation and other digestive issues are a welcome bonus of having a healthier, more balanced endocrine system.
While the idea of adrenal fatigue may be hard for some in the medical community to accept, everyone practicing medicine is acutely aware that long-term stress left unchecked is a deadly condition that brings with it a host of health complications. Waiting until someone’s endocrine system is so out of balance that the patient develops adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s Disease), hypercortisolism (Cushing’s Disease) is a mistake with grave consequences. Ignoring adrenal fatigue/chronic-stress because they don’t fit neatly into one-size-fits-all medical tests gets us nowhere. Every day, real people are experiencing adrenal fatigue with no medical intervention until a life-threatening condition related to long-term stress like heart disease, diabetes or clinical depression crops up.
*NOTICE: This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. While the information herein is presented by a physician, this article is not a substitute for personalized medical care administered by a licensed professional.