Stressed out: How prolonged stress affects your thyroid functions

Stressed out: How prolonged stress affects your thyroid functions

Everyday stress is normal. But when it’s prolonged, stress can have detrimental effects on the entire body.

The thyroid can be seriously affected by chronic stress. The small gland, found at the base of the neck, produces hormones that control the body’s metabolism. Under normal conditions, stress causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Prolonged stress leads to excess cortisol production, which can cause weight gain, blood sugar problems and a host of other issues. Another negative effect of excess cortisol – the inhibition of the thyroid’s hormone production, known as hypothyroidism.

“While stress does not cause thyroid problems, it can worsen the symptoms of an existing condition,” says Dr. Lee Stratton, an endocrine surgeon at Aurora Medical Center – Oshkosh in Oshkosh, WI.

Dr. Stratton says in instances of hypothyroidism, individuals take medication to supplement the hormone their body isn’t producing. Long-term stress can lead to having to adjust the amount of hormone needed.

If an individual suffers from hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, chronic stress can spark what’s known as a thyroid storm. This can be life threatening, with symptoms including high fever, rapid heartbeat and sweating.

Thyroid disorders are relatively common in the U.S. More than 12% of the population will develop a condition in their lifetime, according to the American Thyroid Association.

A difficult component of thyroid disorders: symptoms can be hard to identify. In fact, the Association says about 60 percent of individuals with thyroid disease aren’t even aware of their condition.

“Things like easily feeling cold, experiencing chronic fatigue, having problems losing weight, brittle hair and nails and hair loss can all be symptoms of hypothyroidism. These symptoms are vague, and many people often attribute them to normal life,” says Dr. Stratton.

On the other hand, signs of hyperthyroidism tend to be more obvious. Heat intolerance, unexplained weight loss, sleep disturbances, diarrhea, general jitteriness and feelings of anxiety may indicate an overactive thyroid.

“If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of a thyroid disorder, talk with your primary care physician, who can order a simple blood test,” he says.

And when it comes to stress, Dr. Stratton emphasizes the importance finding ways to manage it.

“It’s critical to cope with stress in a healthy way that’s right for you,” he says.

Now is the perfect time to make an appointment with a primary care physician. Whether you live in Illinois or Wisconsin, it’s easy to find a doctor near you. 

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About the Author

Holly Brenza
Holly Brenza

Holly Brenza, health enews contributor, is the public affairs coordinator at Advocate Children's Hospital. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her free time, Holly enjoys reading, watching the White Sox and Blackhawks, playing with her dog, Bear and running her cats' Instagram account, @strangefurthings.