Debbie Potts Coaching

12 Ways to Reduce Stress and Improve Your Thyroid Function

The implications of stress for thyroid health, and the health of the entire body, can’t be ignored. Thyroid-damaging stress can come in the form of physical, mental, and emotional stressors. Proactively addressing these stressors reduces the burden on the HPA axis and may improve your thyroid health.

1. Balance Your Blood Sugar

As I mentioned earlier, physical stressors activate the stress response and the HPA axis. Blood sugar dysregulation is a significant physical stressor that disrupts HPA axis function. Diabetes has been found to impair the HPA axis response to hypoglycemia, while insulin treatment to reduce blood sugar levels normalizes it. (24) By dampening HPA axis activity and normalizing the stress-related pathways that cause hypothyroidism, improved blood sugar regulation may boost thyroid function. For more information on the relationship between thyroid function and blood sugar, read my article “Thyroid, Blood Sugar, and Metabolic Syndrome.”

2. Heal Your Gut

Gut dysbiosis is another physical stressor that takes a significant toll on the HPA axis and thyroid function. Research has found that germ-free mice, which lack balanced gut microbiota, demonstrate increased HPA axis activity; this finding suggests that an abnormal gut microbiota activates the body’s stress response. (25) The gut–brain axis is linked to the HPA axis through certain neural pathways. Elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines and bacterial lipopolysaccharides in the gut, characteristic of gut dysbiosis, activate the HPA axis and raise cortisol. (26) In addition, multiple studies have linked gut dysbiosis to autoimmune hypothyroidism. (27)

Given the research, it’s reasonable to assume that gut dysbiosis may be a significant stressor underlying hypothyroidism. Correcting gut dysbiosis with antimicrobials, dietary modifications, and probiotics may help reduce the stress response. Probiotic strains that reduce HPA axis activity, as indicated by lowered cortisol and ACTH, include Lactobacillus plantarumL. helveticusL. fermentumL. rhamnosus, and L. casei. (28)

3. Identify Your Food Intolerances

Anything that triggers inflammation in your gut is seen by your body as a physical stressor. Food intolerances are no exception. For example, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) has been found to trigger inflammation of the central nervous system and cause gut–brain axis dysfunction. (29) The interconnection between the gut–brain axis and HPA axis suggest that NCGS, and potentially other food intolerances, may represent a form of chronic stress to the body. In the case of NCGS, avoiding gluten may reduce your body’s stress response and normalize your HPA axis activity.

4. If You’re Suffering from a Chronic Infection, Treat It

Chronic infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus and Lyme disease, cause the body to produce large amounts of inflammatory cytokines, which impact the HPA axis. (30) Resolving chronic infections reduces inflammation and can help normalize your HPA axis activity.

5. Avoid Environmental Toxins

Certain environmental toxins can disrupt the HPA axis and set off the stress response. In animal studies, bisphenol A (BPA) can cause hyperactivity of the HPA axis, resulting in anxiety and depression. (31) Lead, a heavy metal and a known neurotoxin, also induces HPA axis dysfunction. (32) Reduce your exposure to these and other environmental toxins by filtering your drinking and bathing water with a high-quality water filter and by using glass or stainless steel storage dishes and water bottles, rather than plastic.

6. Fix Your Sleep Cycle

Circadian rhythm disruption is a grossly overlooked but significant source of chronic stress that we all face in the industrialized world. Circadian rhythms are the set of biochemical processes in our bodies that follow an approximately 24-hour cycle and regulate many aspects of our behavior and physiology. Signals from our external environment such as light exposure, temperature fluctuations, and food intake sync our circadian rhythms. When we receive signals at inappropriate times during a 24-hour cycle, our circadian rhythms are disrupted and the physiological processes governed by those rhythms suffer. The HPA axis is one of the physiological systems impaired by circadian rhythm disruption. (3334)

Minimizing disruptions to your sleep cycle is crucial for normalizing HPA axis function and may improve thyroid health. To optimize your circadian rhythm, avoid blue light exposure at night by wearing blue light-blocking glasses. Banish all blue light-emitting devices from your bedroom, as even these seemingly benign light sources disrupt circadian rhythms. You may also want to stop eating at least three hours before bed because late-night eating enhances the stress response and induces circadian disruption. (35)

7. Take Sleep Seriously

Sleep deprivation is a significant source of stress for many people and has been associated with abnormal thyroid function. (3637) To reduce your stress and optimize the function of your HPA axis and thyroid, aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night. The quality of your sleep is just as important as the quantity. Keep your bedroom completely dark and free of light pollution from street lamps, digital alarm clocks, and other electronic devices. If you struggle with disordered breathing issues, such as obstructive sleep apnea, I recommend you seek corrective help. Obstructive sleep apnea is associated with HPA axis dysfunction and a slew of other health problems, including subclinical hypothyroidism. (38) That’s where your TSH may be high, but your levels of other thyroid hormones are within a normal range.

8. Exercise, but Not Too Much

Exercise is essential for optimal health. However, over-exercising is not healthy; in fact, it activates the body’s stress response and causes serious damage both over the short and long term. The amount of exercise that a person can handle without going too far depends on the individual. For guidelines on how to avoid over-exercising while still enjoying yourself and getting benefits from physical activity, check out my podcast “Exercise and ‘Adrenal Fatigue’.”

9. Try Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are plants that help the body adapt to stress, protecting it through various mechanisms:

  • Adaptogens induce the production of proteins that protect the cells when the body is under stress (39)
  • Adaptogens increase neuropeptide Y, a stress-responsive hormone that stops the HPA axis from overactivating (40)
  • Adaptogens modulate stress-induced gene expression (4142)

Ashwagandha, a popular adaptogen that has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine, has stress-reducing effects and has been found to improve thyroid function in those with subclinical hypothyroidism. (43Rhodiola rosea, an adaptogen native to Siberia, increases neuropeptide Y and reduces the hypothalamic expression of the stress-related gene c-Fos. (4445) These adaptogens may be beneficial additions to protocols designed to normalize HPA axis activity and improve thyroid function.

10. Think about Your Stressful Experiences Differently

While all of us face stress in our daily lives, we can influence how we respond to stressors by changing how we perceive them. In psychology, this strategy is known as “reframing.” Reframing gives us some control over how we respond to stressful events in life and can thereby reduce our stress levels and HPA axis activity. You can read more about reframing, and how to incorporate it into your life, in my article “5 Simple (But Powerful) Tools for Fighting Stress.”

11. Start a Mindfulness Practice

While stress initiates the release of thyroid-damaging inflammatory cytokines, stress-reduction practices decrease these cytokines and may improve thyroid function. (4647) In a group of 80 healthy women, consistent mind–body training (MBT) decreased TNF-alpha and IL-6, two inflammatory cytokines that have been associated with impaired thyroid function. (4849) Mind– body training refers to a practice that incorporates rhythmic movements with deep breathing exercises and meditation. Yoga is another mindfulness practice that may improve thyroid function by reducing stress. A small study found that six months of yoga practice decreased TSH, an effect associated with increased thyroid function. (50) Mindfulness practices also tend to have antidepressant effects. Antidepressants have been found to directly improve thyroid function in rats. (51) Other stress-reducing, mood-boosting strategies that don’t involve antidepressants may also help hypothyroidism.

12. Make Play a Part of Your Life

Play is a powerful tool for reducing stress and enhancing resilience. (52) While play can take countless forms, it has one defining factor: it’s an activity you engage in for enjoyment or recreation. Here are just a few examples:

  • Roughhousing with pets or children
  • Playing make-believe
  • Playing organized sports such as soccer, baseball, or basketball
  • Engaging in other forms of physical activity such as rock climbing, skiing, surfing, or ultimate Frisbee
  • Playing board games
  • Dancing
  • Going outside and walking in nature
  • Engaging in creative expression such as making art, music, gardening, or cooking a meal
  • Performing creative, innovative work (yes, work can be play!)
  • Engaging in playful banter at your job or a party
  • Having a playful relationship with your partner or spouse

Set aside time in your schedule for play, just as you would for other commitments such as work and exercise. I think you’ll find this to be one of the most enjoyable stress-reduction strategies listed here! You can read more about the benefits of play in my article “10 Benefits of Play.”

If you struggle with hypothyroidism and have tried medications, dietary changes, or supplements with minimal results, it may be time to consider the influence of chronic stress in your life. By taking proactive steps to reduce physical, mental, and emotional stress, you can set your body on the path toward optimal thyroid health.

Can Chronic Stress Cause Hypothyroid Symptoms?

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