13 Ways Stress Makes Thyroid Disease Worse

Mary Shomon | Nov 30, 2017

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It’s a “chicken or egg” question. Does stress cause autoimmune thyroid disease, or does having an autoimmune thyroid condition like Hashimoto’s or Graves’ disease cause stress? The answer? Both are true. Stress is associated with the onset of autoimmune conditions but stress can also make your thyroid disease and related symptoms more problematic. Research shows that stress is associated with a number of negative health effects. Here are 13 ways stress makes thyroid disease worse.

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Stress makes it more difficult to sleep

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Stress is a known cause of sleep problems and insomnia. A full night of restorative sleep is essential for energy, to relieve fatigue, and for optimal hormone balance and immune system function. Sleep is also the period when your thyroid, adrenal, and sex hormones rebuild. Lack of sleep is also associated with weight gain, a key complaint of many thyroid patients.

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Stress can affect your adrenal health

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Stress causes cortisol levels to increase. Chronic stress can lead to an inability to make enough cortisol, known as adrenal insufficiency or adrenal fatigue. Adrenal insufficiency can worsen thyroid symptoms such as exhaustion, weight gain, and depression, and make optimal thyroid treatment more difficult.

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Stress can suppress your immune system

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Several studies have shown that chronic stress suppresses your immune system, and makes it harder for your body to have appropriate, rapid immune reactions to viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. This makes you more susceptible to infections and illness. Immune suppression may also complicate treatment for autoimmune thyroid disease.

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Stress can make it harder to recover from illness

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The immune-suppressing effect of chronic stress also makes it harder to recover from illnesses. Even the common cold can take longer to resolve, and you may find yourself taking a longer time to recover from more serious bacterial or viral infections.

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Stress can affect your fertility

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Thyroid disease can make it more difficult to get pregnant and maintain a healthy pregnancy. Chronic stress, however, has an additional impact, lowering fertility and the chance of conception significantly.

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Stress increases your risk of heart disease

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Thyroid patients face an increased risk of heart disease, even after treatment. Stress adds to the risk of heart disease, contributing to elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.

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Stress causes weight gain

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Thyroid disease, especially hypothyroidism, is associated with weight gain and difficulty losing weight. Stress is an added factor, as increased cortisol levels common in chronic stress are significantly related to weight gain and a higher waist circumference.

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Stress causes anxiety

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Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are associated with increased rates of anxiety and risk of anxiety disorder. And let’s face it: living with a chronic disease, in general, can increase your anxiety. When you add stress to the mix, the problem is compounded, as stress is an important factor in triggering and worsening anxiety and anxiety disorders.

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Stress can negatively affect your sex hormones

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Your thyroid is part of the endocrine system, along with the adrenal glands, and sex organs. Imbalances in sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are more common in thyroid patients and can cause low sex drive, menstrual irregularities, and fertility problems. Stress can add to the challenge, reducing levels of your key sex hormones and exacerbating these problems.

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Stress can increase your depression

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Depression is a common complaint even after thyroid treatment. Chronic stress is linked to increased rates of depression and mood disorders.

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Stress may trigger some autoimmune diseases

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Some studies have shown that up to 80 percent of people with autoimmune disease report significant stress before the onset and diagnosis of their autoimmune condition. This is a common finding in people with Hashimoto’s disease, and even more so in Graves’ disease.

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Stress worsens autoimmune disease and inflammation

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Inflammation is a characteristic of Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease. The inflammation can affect not only the thyroid gland but organs and tissues throughout the body, contributing to other illnesses, as well as pain. Chronic stress can worsen inflammation and, in particular, antibody levels and symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases.

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Stress can negatively affect other hormones

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It’s not uncommon for people with thyroid problems to have other imbalances affecting insulin, DHEA, melatonin, growth hormone, and other hormones. Stress contributes even more to these imbalances, which can increase your risk of muscle loss, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.

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Don’t stress about stress!

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If this slideshow has stressed you out, remember that there are effective ways to reduce stress, and combat its effects, including a nutritious diet; reducing stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine; sufficient sleep; friends and social support; exercise; therapy, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); supplements or prescription drugs for anxiety.

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Practice active stress reduction

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It’s also important to incorporate active stress reduction into your daily life. Your goal is to find a number of practices that help you generate the relaxation response, lowering your heart rate and cortisol levels. Some effective activities include prayer, journaling, needlework, crafts, gardening, coloring, meditation, and breathwork.

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Stress management resources

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Learn more about managing stress at the American Psychological Association’s Stress Center. Some other recommended resources include the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Guide to Managing Stress; breathwork (pranayama yoga breathing and Transformational Breathwork; and meditation (the Thyroid Meditation, Health Journeys meditations).