The Secret Life of Hormones: The Adrenal Thyroid Tango
Americans are the most overworked and overstressed in the developed world. The reasons for this are vast and multifactorial: from culture to sleep hygiene to being constantly accessible via technology. Regardless of the causes, the bottom line is that we’re overworked. It seems there’s no reprieve and nowhere to hide. Our hormones do acrobatics trying to compensate for such stress, to buffer its negative effects and allow things to keep whirring along without a hitch. But, we pay a dear price. After all, stress is hormonally mediated, mainly via our adrenal glands, and there is a finite supply of these hormonal modulators. We eventually hit a wall. So how does that look? How does prolonged stress negatively affect our physiology? I’ll give you a hint: it starts with our adrenal glands (the hats on the kidneys) which eventually impact our thyroid function.
The Adrenal Connection
Wait...what do the adrenals do? Well, first off, they help us wake up, focus, and think clearly - when cortisol is released in an appropriate amount, at the right time. Second, they help regulate blood pressure via production and release of aldosterone - a hormone that, along with cortisol, helps us maintain our blood pressure (aldosterone’s release is inhibited in those of us with chronically high blood pressure with ARBs or ACE inhibitors). Most importantly, when adrenals are properly balanced, they orchestrate the conversion of our “mother of all adrenal hormones,” pregnenolone, into its various products (aldosterone, cortisol, DHEA, estrogens, and testosterone). But, what happens when we’re chronically stressed? Unremitting stress creates a phenomenon called a cortisol steal. As the name implies, chronic stress leads to chronically high levels of cortisol, effectively stealing all the pregnenolone. As a result, other hormones aren’t made in the right amount. Our testosterone drops; estrogens and progesterone drop; and our cells eventually become numb to cortisol and we become wired and tired. We’re chronically exhausted, yet good sleep eludes us.
Health Risks of High Cortisol
- Abnormal blood sugar
- Cortisol raises our blood sugar. It’s a stress hormone that prepares us for fight-or-flight. When we see a lion stalking us on the savannah, we need plenty of energy to fuel our muscles. Not so adaptive when the stress is chronic .
- Stress lays fat down around our midsection. Fat cells here have 4x more cortisol receptors than fat tissues in the body .
- Brain and mood issues
- Chronically high cortisol leads to poor emotional processing, perception, and regulation. Not to mention, excess cortisol leads to a shrinking brain, causing cognitive impairment and decreased brain activity associated with Dementia and Alzheimers .
- As our adrenals get more and more dysregulated, so do our sex hormones, which are crucial for pregnancy .
- Poor sleep
- Take it from me - the times during which I experienced insomnia were directly linked to the amount of exam stress I was under.
- Have you ever noticed that you rarely get sick during a particularly stressful time, but get smacked with a cold or the flu the second you catch up on sleep? Cortisol is a steroid hormone - prednisone is the synthetic form. They both downregulate the immune system. This is great for managing the symptoms of autoimmunity or inflammation (a product of the immune system), but not so great at preventing an infection or flu from gaining a foothold.
The Adrenal-Thyroid Tango
The adrenals and thyroid gland are coworkers. They help regulate metabolic function in profound ways. When our adrenals are functioning correctly, the thyroid gland secretes proper amounts of T4 and converts it to T3 (the active form) as needed and everything works as it should. However, when long-standing stress is present, cortisol inhibits the proper conversion of T4 to T3 and creates a molecule called reverse T3. As the name implies, reverse T3 is a mirror image of T3, binds the same receptor, yet exerts no physiological response - making you functionally hypothyroid . To make matters worse, low thyroid function negatively impacts fertility and output of sex hormones from the ovaries. Hypothyroidism has been associated with the altered ovarian function, menstrual irregularities, subfertility, and higher (recurrent) miscarriage rates, illustrating that thyroid hormone affects the reproductive system . If this all sounds complex, that’s because it is. Vastly complex. The interconnections of the endocrine (hormone) system are so extensive that they haven’t been fully studied, much less appreciated. Because of this fact, assessment and treatment is diverse and multifactorial, as multiple systems are involved. At DBC, we have many tools in our endocrine toolbox. Here are a few (of the many) that are specific to adrenal and thyroid function:
Adreset: This supplement is a specialist for those who are constantly reaching for caffeine or coffee to wake up and focus. The three main ingredients (Rhodiola, ginkgo, and cordyceps) are often used by high altitude endurance athletes to keep their adrenals pumping on long races . Not to mention, Rhodiola when used alone, or in conjunction with ginkgo, has been shown to improve mental clarity, focus, and decrease cortisol levels .
Adrenevive: As a broad spectrum adrenal revitalizer, this blend of ingredients is designed to calm, focus, and improve resilience to stress. This blend not only lowers cortisol, but also heart rate and improves memory .
Thyrotain: This supplement is packed full of nutrients and botanicals that have been clinically shown to decrease reverse T3, improve T4 to T3 conversion, and strengthen the adrenals .
Thyrosol: This product, put out by Metagenics, is a triple threat against thyroid dysfunction. First, it improves conversion of T4 to T3. Second, it decreases autoantibodies that attack the thyroid gland via its reformulation to include myo-inositol . Finally, it has Rhodiola to support adrenal function as well.
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Very interesting information. Also expressed in layperson's terms - easy to understand. Thank you!