Today we’re giving you an overview of the thyroid and adrenal hormones. We’re going to start by giving you a bigger picture of some of the hormones. We’ll start with our endocrinology, looking from above: all of our hormones start in the brain.
The hypothalamus is a spot in the brain that sends signals down to the pituitary. The pituitary sends hormonal signals out to all of the other glands in the body: the thyroid glands, the adrenal glands, the gonads, which are the ovaries or the testicles. Each of those glands has its physiological function; part of that function is to send feedback to the brain to tell it what to continue to do with those hormones, either increase the production of those hormones or decrease the production of those hormones.
There are also external factors. For example, when you are exposed to light, the light tells the brain whether to make melatonin. Or if you’re stressed, the stress will tell your body whether or not to make more of your stress hormones.
There’s a constant feedback loop going from the brain down to the organs and then back up to the brain and out to the body. People ask, “What’s one of the best ways that I can naturally balance my hormones?” One of the best ways to balance their hormones is to be aware of their experience around them. What are you exposed to? What is your brain interpreting? This is why lifestyle medicine, meditative practices, yoga, and Tai Chi work. Because those naturopathic medicines support the brain’s experience of what we’re experiencing, you can literally change your hormone production by tuning into the brain.
The thyroid is a gland that sits in the neck, and it is stimulated to secrete thyroid hormone from the hormones coming from the brain. To me, the thyroid is almost like the foundation of all of your hormones. The hypothalamus releases TRH, thyrotropin-releasing hormone, which then goes to the pituitary, and the pituitary secretes TSH, which is thyroid-stimulating hormone.
Anyone who has ever been told they have hypothyroidism is probably familiar with TSH. It’s the hormone conventional doctors will measure to see how well the thyroid is functioning. If the thyroid is functioning really well, then TSH will be calm and low as it does not need to stimulate the thyroid hormone anymore. If they are not functioning well, then the brain will be interpreting that there’s a downstream sluggish metabolism. And the brain is going to compensate by raising how much TSH it’s making, yelling at the thyroid, and saying, “Do your job, do your job.”
The thyroid secretes two hormones: T4, which is then converted into T3, which goes out to the body and stimulates the metabolism of every cell in the body. The thyroid regulates our heart rate, our temperature, metabolism, growth, pretty much every bodily function. There are thyroid receptors on every cell in the body. This is why it’s so essential that thyroid function is working well for the rest of the body to work well.
Imbalanced Thyroid Symptoms
- Constipation: one of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism is constipation. Pretty much 90% of the time, when we see constipation in our practice, we’re like, well, we need to check your thyroid, and probably 50% of the time, the thyroid is sluggish.
- Brain Fog: another one of the most common systems we see is brain fog. A lot of these symptoms will worsen when there are other hormonal things out of whack. So you’re going to end up having some of these symptoms worse during PMS.
- Low Energy: the thyroid regulates our blood vessels, which means it will affect our blood pressure and the rate at which cells burn fuel into energy. The number one symptom of the thyroid is energy.
Signs of Hypothyroidism
The signs of hypothyroidism will be all of the symptoms that make sense when these functions are not working. Our hair falls out, our temperature goes down and we get cold, fatigue, depression, difficulty with memory, concentration, the heart rate will often slow down, metabolism slows down, constipation, weight gain, menstrual problems, muscle problems, joint problems… this is actually a short list, I have a list running now, and I think it’s about 75 symptoms long of all of the symptoms that are associated with hypothyroid. Pretty much any condition will worsen if the thyroid is not working optimally.
Causes of Hypothyroidism
- Hashimoto’s: The number one most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimotos. This is the autoimmune version of hypothyroid. It can be detected with blood tests, specifically thyroid antibody tests.
- Nutrient Deficiencies: if you are low in some of the ingredients the thyroid uses to make the thyroid hormones, you’re going to be low. For example, iodine, selenium, tyrosine, any of those nutrients, if they’re deficient, then the thyroid will not be working well.
- Stress: stress affects thyroid function.
- Inflammation: inflammation affects thyroid function.
- Toxins in the Environment: specifically the halides on the periodic table of elements: fluoride, bromine, and chlorine. They are very similar to iodine in their structure and so in thyroid production, if these are high in the person’s body, it’ll interfere with thyroid hormone production.
- High Levels of Goitrogens: millet, turnips, cabbage, horseradish, mustard, soy, peanuts, pine nuts – these are foods that have conventionally been thought of as not being good for the thyroid. However, I’m not too worried about them unless the patient is eating lots and lots of them raw. So unless you’re eating an entire head of cabbage a day, I don’t tell patients to avoid cabbage if they have hypothyroidism.
Conventional Tests for Thyroid Function
There’s the TSH test we talked about earlier, and you also want to have your free T3 and free T4 checked. This will tell you how much available hormone is floating around in the blood. If you do not measure the free, then you’re only measuring the total. And the problem with this is that there’s a binding protein, it’s called thyroid-binding globulin, and if you have too much of this, it’s going to bind to all of your thyroid hormones, and you’ll have low free hormones.
This can happen on the pill. One of the most common problems with the birth control pill is that it makes too much of our thyroid-binding globulin and grabs all of the free hormones, and then you’re left being hypothyroid. This is why weight gain, acne, and depression are common symptoms on birth control pills.
Reverse T3 is a measurement that tells you how well you are converting from your storage form to your active form. Then, there are the two thyroid antibodies there at the end, which is to check for Hashimoto’s disease, the anti-TPO antibody, and Thyroglobulin antibody.
We like to empower patients and teach them. These are the labs that you want to get tested; ask your doctor for them. Ideally, work with a doctor who is familiar with, not just superficially checking to see if the thyroid works, because a lot of doctors will just check TSH, and if TSH is normal, then they say, “Oh, your thyroids’ normal. That’s not your problem.” But unless you thoroughly look at all of these and you match it to the patient’s symptoms, then I think that many, many people are getting not properly diagnosed
Adrenal Gland Functions
The adrenals are these little glands that sit right on top of your kidneys. There is an inner portion that makes adrenaline and an outer portion that makes a whole bunch of our other sex steroid hormones: estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. But this picture is great because you see the kidneys in the back, and right on top of the kidneys are these little adrenal glands.
The figure below shows the hormones that are made in the outside part of the adrenal glands.
- Cholesterol: our body uses cholesterol, and then cholesterol gets converted into pregnenolone.
- Pregnenolone: we kind of call this the mother hormone because it can get converted into all these different hormones, depending on the body’s needs.
- Aldosterone: helps with our sodium, either our salt absorption or reabsorption. So whether you pee out your salt or you hold on to it. This is going to affect things like swelling, ankle swelling, bloating.
- Cortisol: is our primary stress hormone.
- DHEA: which gets converted into testosterone.
- Testosterone: gets converted into our estrogens.
- Estrogen: we’ve got three types of estrogen. We’ve got estrone, E1, estradiol, E2, and estriol, which is E3. These are all called our sex steroid hormones.
Cortisol and Thyroid
Cortisol, one of our stress hormones, is a hormone that is what’s called diurnal, which means that it is high in the morning and low at night. You can do saliva testing to measure what your stress hormones are. If cortisol is too high, which happens when a person is super stressed, then cortisol causes all sorts of problems: it messes up thyroid function, it makes you gain weight, makes you puffy and bloated.
So this picture is a saliva sample of myself at the beginning of my residency. And my morning cortisol should have been in this green zone. And instead, you can see that it is too high in the yellow zone. Later in the day, it calms down, but during my first year of residency, I was like a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, kind of terrified new doctor, and busy, overwhelmed, stressed, not sleeping a lot, probably living more on adrenaline and caffeine than I should have been.
Now later, this was me at the end of my residency. I was waking exhausted; my cortisol in the morning was way too low. I made it okay through the day in the afternoon, and then at night, I would come home from residency, and I was wired. I couldn’t sleep. I was still stressed, but that was actually my better time of day, but I couldn’t fall asleep. And then my nighttime sleep was getting jacked. And then the next morning, I would wake up, and the cycle would just worsen. So cortisol is our stress hormone, supposed to be high in the morning and then low as the day progresses.
We think about, “How were our bodies designed to experience stress?” And our bodies were really designed to experience intense, short spurts of stress and adrenaline. Our stress response was designed to help us either survive or die.
Before it was about: do we have something to eat, running from the tiger, not getting eaten. Nowadays, our stress is everywhere. If you spend a day trying to be conscious about when do you feel stressed. And I think what happens nowadays is that we’re all so accustomed to feeling adrenaline and feeling stressed that you don’t notice that your body is kind of in that high rev. When, our bodies were designed to go through the day in this calming, more peaceful, fewer revolutions per minute, kind of a thing.
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That is an overview of the thyroid function and the adrenal function. In our next article, we will go into detail about the functions of ovarian hormones. If you would like more tips on regulating your hormones, schedule a free brief meet and greet with one of our naturopathic doctors by calling 480-588-6856.