Have you ever felt a surge of energy, or a sense of fidgety awareness when asked to do something difficult or that you would rather not do? Then you have experienced stress, the body’s natural reaction to dangerous or threatening situations. When we feel threatened or unsure our body activates its fight or flight response which assists in snap decisions and quick reactions. However, if this system is constantly active it can cause serious damage to the body, particularly the thyroid.
What Systems Are Involved in Stress?
There are two primary systems that produce hormones when we experience stress. The thyroid and adrenals work together to respond to the body’s ever-changing status in order to relay information to the body and the brain. The thyroid acts as the primary producer of hormones that are utilized in by every cell in the body. It is also in charge of making hormones that promote protein production and proper energy usage in cells. The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing stress hormones such as cortisol. As one of a number of hormones that moderates stress and therefore how we react to it, cortisol’s interaction with the body can have great impact.
Stress on the Thyroid
For some people, stress is an ever-present part of their lives. When chronic stress occurs, the thyroid becomes overworked. This is why it is fairly common for one’s thyroid condition to reach a more serious level when experiencing chronic stress. This situation can contribute to notable conditions such as hypothyroidism (sub-optimal thyroid function) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Due to its thyroidal impact, highly stressed individuals can experience significant swings in their weight, either gaining or losing.
A number of actions take place in the body when responding to stress. The brain recognizes the situation and releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone directs the pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, to inform the adrenal glands it needs to produce cortisol, the stress hormone. This is a good thing when there is a situation that requires heightened action and awareness. However, if the stress is generated from our own thoughts and there is no real threat, the body’s reaction is causing more harm than good. If cortisol, or any hormone for that matter, is overly produced a hormonal imbalance can occur leading to inflammation which can promote other conditions and diseases.
Both CRH and cortisol have the capacity to reduce levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), a critically important hormone in the production of T4 and T3. In a study conducted by Holtorf Medical Group, it was shown that chronic stress resulted in a decrease in D1 activity and an increase in D3 activity; both of which are enzymes responsible for activation and deactivation of thyroid hormones. This lead to an increase of T4 conversion into Reverse T3, which inhibits cell processes, as opposed to T3 which promotes healthy cell growth and maintenance. Ultimately, stress was shown to cause reduced levels of TSH production, reduced levels of tissue T3, and an overabundance of Reverse T3. Low levels of T3 can result in weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, poor concentration, cold intolerance, depression, and infertility. Clearly the impact of stress on the thyroid can cause significant damage to one’s body.
How You Can Reduce Stress
Eating Well: In addition to three nutritionally balanced meals per day it is recommended to fit in two healthy snacks that are filled with quality protein. Eating breakfast every day is a good way to wake up your metabolism as well as keeping blood sugar and hormone production regulated. High consumption of caffeine and sugar, particularly foods such as coffee, soda, and chocolate, have been linked to increased levels of stress. By reducing your consumption of these items it may lower your overall stress.
Getting Appropriate Sleep: By getting enough good quality sleep our body’s neuroendocrine system can reset in order to better regulate our hormones. In regards to quality sleep it is important to ease into sleep to allow for effective melatonin production. Melatonin is important in helping you go to and stay asleep. You can improve sleep quality by avoiding TVs and computers right before bed. As a bonus, this period of relaxation allows for the adrenal glands to slow stress responses leading to more restful sleep.
Controlling Your Thoughts and Self-Talk: Negative and overly critical thoughts can be a significant contributor to one’s stress levels. By recognizing and halting deprecating ideas and thoughts you can flip a negative mood into a more positive one, thus relieving stress. A technique known as “thought-stopping” may be useful. When you recognize negativity in your mind you can literally say “stop” verbally or mentally in order to transition to a different train of thought.
Working up a Sweat: Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress, improve mood, increase self-esteem, and improve energy levels. When you exercise your body releases endorphins, a hormone that gives a sensation of euphoria. Additionally, exercise can act as a good way to distract yourself from negative or stressful situations that would otherwise be on your mind. Moderate and regular exercise is highly beneficial in overall well-being, however it is important not to over exercise, which has been shown to increase stress levels.
Herbal Supplements: Adaptogens are a class of herb that can have a positive impact on your body’s stress levels. These herbs are recognized as providing increased energy and a greater sense of calm. Most commonly used adaptogens include ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil, schisandra, shatavari, and eleuthero. The easiest way to consume these helpful herbs is through tea and may be a good alternative to coffee. All adaptogens are considered non-stimulating aside from Chinese ginseng.
Don’t Stress the Small Stuff
Regardless of where stress in your life originates from it is important to see its impact on your thyroid as well as your overall wellness. Imagined stressors can have a very real physiological impact on the body. Because the thyroid is such an integral system in the body it is critical to monitor environmental factors and mental habits that are inhibiting the thyroid’s ability to perform efficiently. By utilizing the above techniques, you can assist your body in maintaining healthy hormone activity. In addition, by reducing stress, you improve your quality of life in pursuit of a more well-balanced lifestyle.