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A functional medicine approach to supporting thyroid health (or any other health issue) involves widening the lens to consider the bigger picture.  All bodily systems are interconnected, and when there are imbalances in one area, there are typically knock-on effects into other areas too. The holy grail therefore for any functional medicine practitioner is to dig deep to uncover and then address underlying imbalance(s) that may be contributing to a health problem.  This means that when health improvements are made, these are likely to be more longer lasting.

Stress is often the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to alterations in thyroid function.  In fact, stress and thyroid health are incredibly closely connected, and it is impossible to fully address thyroid health problems without at least considering the possible involvement of stress.

Here’s a snapshot of 5 ways that stress affects thyroid function; the aim is simply to encourage you to widen your view when considering thyroid health:

1. Stress affects thyroid hormone conversion
Many people have heard of the hormone thyroxine (T4) when it comes to thyroid health, since 95% of the thyroid hormone produced by the body is in this form, and this is also the form that is prescribed when an underactive thyroid gland has been diagnosed. However, the body must then convert the majority of thyroxine (T4) into tri-iodothyronine (T3) which is actually the most active form of thyroid hormone. The conversion of T4 – T3 is neither a guaranteed nor straightforward process. During highly stressful times, T4 may be converted to reverse T3 instead, an inactive form of T3 that the body can’t use.

2. Stress impacts cellular sensitivity to thyroid hormones
Thyroid hormones are carried around in the bloodstream ‘bound’ to thyroid binding proteins (thyroid binding globulin). When they arrive at cells where they are needed, they are described as ‘free’ and are able to exert their physiological effects. Stress may increase the activity of thyroid hormone binding protein so that hormones are unable to enter cells. And similar to the process of insulin resistance, cellular receptors may also become less sensitive to thyroid hormones, especially under chronic stress.

3. Stress affects the thyroid-pituitary axis
Thyroid hormones are regulated by the thyroid-pituitary axis. Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is released from the pituitary gland to stimulate the thyroid to produce thyroid hormones. Stress may suppress pituitary gland activity and affect TSH production.

4. Stress as a risk factor for autoimmune Hashimoto’s
Chronic stress influences immune regulation and inflammatory processes, both of which are significant risk factors for autoimmune Hashimoto’s whereby the immune system attacks the thyroid gland.

5. Chronic stress causes nutrient depletion
Like every other aspect of health, thyroid health relies on key nutrients for optimal function. Chronic stress is an energy-intensive and nutrient-hungry process, and over time, this can lead to sub-optimal levels of many of the key nutrients which are also needed for optimal thyroid function such as tyrosine, vitamin C, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium.

Individuals who are suffering from chronic stress may therefore require additional adrenal support in order to fully support optimal thyroid health:

• Adrenal support begins by accurately identifying and addressing the source of stress; lifestyle changes to reduce and manage stress are often the first port of call.

Blood sugar balancing dietary changes are essential for adrenal support.

• Supplementation with key nutrients such as vitamin C, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium that are commonly depleted during stress but needed for thyroid function too.

• The amino acid tyrosine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones and is also necessary for the production of steroid adrenal hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline.

• Adaptogenic herbal ingredients such as Ashwagandha, Rhodiola rosea, Asian ginseng & Cordyceps sinensis provide support to help the body to ‘adapt’ more positively to stress.

• Adrenal support can work synergistically alongside targeted thyroid support.

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