Adrenal function, stress and thyroid autoimmunity connection
Adrenals are endocrine glands which sit on top of kidneys. They produce many hormones and are involved in stress management. Cortisol hormone is made by adrenals and it is involved in managing stress and balancing of the immune system. It is produced continually in small quantities but spikes when a person is experiencing stress.
Adrenals and thyroid glands work together in stress management. They need each other to work properly. Optimal (not too high or too low) levels of cortisol are required for thyroid hormone to work well at its nuclear receptor. This in turn affects the conversion of thyroid hormone T4 into active T3 hormone. Thyroid hormones do not work optimally with chronic levels of high or low cortisol.
Imagine a tug of rope game with adrenal glands on one side and thyroid gland on the other. When both glands work optimally and pull with the same strength on each end, the health is maintained and everything is balanced. Stress adds weight onto the rope and makes the endocrine glands work harder.
When a person is experiencing high degree of intense stress (physical or emotional), the adrenals pump out high levels of cortisol in order to release nutrients around the body necessary to deal with stress. This depletes these essential nutrients. Cortisol increases heart rate and changes utilization of certain nutrients like copper by making it more available for the immune system. High levels of thyroid stimulating hormone are connected to high cortisol level and stress.
If stress is chronic, adrenals get exhausted eventually. This process occurs in stages. The balance in the tug rope game is lost. Thyroid gland is left with the job of overcompensating for a poor adrenal status and keeping the ‘rope’ tight (as it is seen in Graves’ disease). Some degree of adrenal exhaustion (from mild to severe) can be seen with autoimmune disorders. Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone and stops the immune system from over reacting. When adrenals are exhausted due to a chronic stress, the production of cortisol is lowered. No wonder, people are given Prednisone (cortisol like steroid) to lower the autoimmunity and restore the balance of the immune system.
Some people tend to be more prone to adrenal exhaustion. I suppose it relates to personality traits and life experiences. For example, children separated from their mother at an early age or infancy (length of separation did not play a role) showed positive association with higher cortisol levels upon wakening and a flatter pattern of cortisol levels during the day for the rest of their life in a study (1). It is evident in many studies that stress is a strong factor in the development of autoimmune disorder.
How can you tell if you have some degree of adrenal exhaustion? Here are some questions to consider. Are you sleeping well? Is it usually difficult to get up from bed in the morning? Are you getting frequent colds and allergies? Do you experience high level of stress? Did you experience a significant stressful event like a loss of a loved one? Do you feel tired /wired often? Do you suffer from autoimmunity problems? If answer is yes to one or more, the adrenals may need some support.
Getting adrenals to work optimally can reduce autoimmunity problems, restore energy levels and lower stress.
How can it be done in the following conditions?
Lower your stress levels (changing thought patterns, prayer, rest/work balance), eating better, reducing sugar in the diet, nutritional support, resting, sleeping enough, limiting over exertion, deep breathing exercises, meditation, tapping technique, acupressure, adrenal support herbs, vitamins and minerals (Magnesium is important). Important vitamins for adrenal support are these from B group, vitamin C (natural like from Camu Camu root powder) and D (get adequate sun exposure). Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) tea is very calming and helpful for Graves’ disease.
I refer you to my book: ’Thyroid and Graves’ disease unmasked’ for a more detailed list.
- For people living without the thyroid gland (after treatment such as surgery or radioactive iodine treatment) a good adrenal support containing vitamins, minerals (especially Magnesium) and herbs (such as Rhodiola Root extract) may be of a benefit.
I have had my thyroid removed due to Graves’ disease and have to say my favorite adrenal support is Adrenal day formula by Dr Berg or Rhodiola relax by Nature’s Sunshine.
A very important point for people living without a thyroid gland is to have an optimal hormonal replacement. It is important to look at the levels of both T4 and T3 hormones. Without adequate levels of T3 hormone, adrenals get exhausted, they are unable to work properly. More about that in my book.
Please speak to your doctor before any herbs, supplements, dietary modifications and other changes are undertaken.
- M. Kumari, J. Head, M Bartley, S. Stansfeld, M. Kivimaki. “Maternal separation in childhood and diurnal cortisol patterns in mid-life: findings from the Whitehall II study”. Psychological Medicine. 2013 March; 43 (3): 633–643.
- Edgar Morillo, MD and Lytti. Gardner, MD. Clinical report. Bereavement as an Antecedent Factor in Thyrotoxicosis of Childhood: Four Case Studies with Survey of Possible Metabolic Pathways Psychosomatic Medicine. 1979 November; 41(7): 547
- Kimberly N Walter, Elizabeth J Corwin, Jan Ulbrecht, Laurence M Demers, Jeanette M Bennett, Courtney A Whetzel, and Laura Cousino Klein. Elevated thyroid stimulating hormone is associated with elevated cortisol in healthy young men and women. Thyroid Res. 2012; 5(1):13.
- James L. Wilson. Adrenal fatigue. The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Smart Publications. USA. 2003.