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Connecting Adrenal Fatigue and Low Thyroid Gland Function

The human body is complex. Many of its functions occur completely unconsciously and hidden from view. This is why it can be so difficult to identify the underlying problems when something goes wrong. This is particularly true when it comes to thyroid gland function. Your thyroid performs a number of essential tasks in the body, including producing key hormones in association with your adrenals and reproductive organs. And the issues that can arise when it's unhealthy can be very frightening and even dangerous. This basic guide covers how the thyroid functions and how to identify some possible dysfunctions.

Learn More:

» Read our in-depth article on Adrenal Fatigue and low thyroid gland function
» Adrenal Fatigue FAQs
» Take our 3-minute test to see if you may have Adrenal Fatigue

What is the Thyroid Gland?

An image of a thyroid glandThe thyroid gland is located at the base of the neck in front of the windpipe. It’s shaped like a small butterfly and is only about 2 inches wide. Despite this small size, the thyroid performs a number of essential tasks in your body.

Hormone creation is the most important thyroid gland function. This small organ makes several hormones that are vital to growth, development, and metabolism. This is why thyroid health is absolutely vital in childhood, and it’s still important in adults.

The hormones created by the thyroid are known as thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are critical to human health at all stages of life. In infants, they help with the development of the skeleton and the brain. In children, they stimulate the production of proteins in tissues to aid with growth and development. And in both adults and children, thyroid hormones perform a number of tasks including helping with the regulation of the metabolism.

The Most Important Thyroid Gland Function

In adults and in children, the most important thyroid gland function involves the hormones that regulate your metabolism as well as growth and development. T3 and T4 are essential hormones that help regulate:

  • Body weight
  • Bone loss
  • Breathing
  • Body temperature
  • Muscle control and strength
  • The menstrual cycle
  • Heart rate
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Energy use
  • The central nervous system (CNS)

That’s why it’s so important that the thyroid stays healthy, so that these hormones can continue to maintain all these key functions.

How the Thyroid Gland Works

Like other glands in the endocrine system, the thyroid produces hormones that are released into the blood. The thyroid produces the T3 and T4 hormones using iodine, which the thyroid picks up from your bloodstream. This makes iodine critical to the health of your thyroid.

More than 99 percent of these hormones are bound to blood proteins known as TBG. This renders them inactive. Only free T3 and T4 hormones have any effect on your body. This binding creates a reservoir of hormones in case of thyroid inactivity and helps the body maintain the needed hormone levels.

It’s vital that your body maintains the right levels of T3 and T4 hormones, and the job of retaining this balance is performed by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland.

The pituitary is a small gland buried deep in your brain near the base. Despite its size, its involvement in the production of hormones means that it influences almost every part of your body.

The hypothalamus is near the center of your brain, and its main purpose is to maintain homeostasis in your body, which is why it's involved in hormone balance and production.

When your levels of these hormones are too high or low, the hypothalamus creates the TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH). This hormone signals the pituitary, which increases or decreases the levels of another hormone called the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). When TSH levels are high, the thyroid produces more hormones, and when they are low, hormone production in the thyroid slows.

Obviously, this is a complex system. And there’s a lot that can go wrong with it at every stage.

Symptoms of Thyroid Hormone Imbalances

The T3 and T4 hormones travel in your blood to almost every cell in the body. That’s why symptoms of imbalances can be so severe. Problems with the thyroid can occur because the thyroid itself is unhealthy, or because of disorders that affect the hypothalamus, pituitary, or blood proteins.

These kinds of problems tend to cause the thyroid to become underactive, called hypothyroidism, or overactive, known as hyperthyroidism. The thyroid can also become enlarged, known as a goiter, or become cancerous. All of these issues will affect how the thyroid produces T3 and T4 hormones as well as your overall health.

When your T3 and T4 levels are too high, in hyperthyroidism, you may experience:

An image of a woman with hair loss

  • Mood disorders or moodiness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Missed or light menstrual periods
  • Nervousness
  • Sensitivity to high temperatures
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling

If T3 and T4 levels are too low, in hypothyroidism, you may experience:

  • Dry hair and skin
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Problems with concentration
  • Mood disorders
  • Cold sensitivity
  • Heavy periods

Many of these issues can also have other serious causes, which is why it's vital that you visit your doctor if you suspect a problem.

Identifying Thyroid Problems

Identifying problems with your thyroid gland function can be difficult. You will need to visit your doctor for blood tests to measure your T3, T4, and TSH blood levels.

However, interpreting these results can be difficult. For example, high TSH levels and low free T4 levels can mean there’s a problem with your thyroid gland. But it may also indicate problems with your pituitary gland. Similar issues can arise when you have low TSH and high T4 levels.

This is why it’s so important that you see an expert in thyroid gland function if you suspect there’s a problem. Otherwise, you could end up taking medications that don’t correct the original problem and cause additional stress and damage to your body at the same time. This can be very dangerous if your thyroid function is connected to other issues like adrenal fatigue.

The Link Between Your Thyroid and Adrenal Fatigue

Thyroid problems are especially common if you are under chronic stress, due to the thyroid's close connections to the adrenal glands.

The adrenals are susceptible to Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), which occurs when you’re under stress for a long time and the usual mechanisms in your body that help you cope with stress start to break down. The body’s NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response is the primary system that helps you cope with stress. But it’s only designed to be active for short periods.

When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands produce more cortisol, known as the stress hormone. This activates the NEM stress response and prompts a variety of reactions throughout your body that prepare you to fight or run from the cause of the stress. These changes also help strengthen your body so that it isn’t harmed by the high-stress levels.

But if you’re chronically stressed, as so many people are in the modern world, the body requires high cortisol levels all the time. This fatigues the adrenal glands, which can start to malfunction and even break down over time. The ongoing high cortisol levels also cause problems with NEM stress response because it keeps the body in overdrive, not allowing necessary rest and repair processes to take place. This causes imbalances and malfunctions to appear. If this situation isn’t corrected, the malfunctions can become severe and even life-threatening.

Thyroid gland function problems are closely linked with AFS because of the issues that this disorder causes in the Hormonal Circuit.

The Hormonal Circuit in AFS

The thyroid is one of the three components of the Hormonal Circuit, the others being the adrenal glands and the ovaries or testes. These components are interconnected, and malfunctions in one tend to affect the function of the others as well.

For example, if your adrenal glands are fatigued due to the high demand for cortisol in AFS, it can cause malfunctions in the thyroid gland and the ovaries or testes. As AFS progresses, thyroid function naturally slows down as the body tries to conserve energy. This could make any pre-existing issues with thyroid function worse.

The opposite is true as well. If your thyroid gland is malfunctioning for another reason, it will naturally affect the health of your adrenal glands. It could also cause additional stress and may bring on adrenal fatigue.

Another way the adrenals and thyroid are connected is through the HPA axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. One of the HPA’s primary duties is to control the adrenal glands and the more than 50 hormones that they produce, including cortisol. The release of hormones from the thyroid is also controlled by the hypothalamus and the pituitary. So issues that affect the hypothalamus or pituitary glands also affect the adrenals and thyroid. And when the adrenals become fatigued because of AFS, the resulting malfunctions in the HPA axis will also affect the health of the thyroid.

Because of the interconnected nature of these glands, it is important that any medical professional you see understands these connections, rather than just looking at the surface symptoms. This will give them the best chance of undercovering the deeper issues behind any problems that you’re experiencing.

Learn More:

» Read our in-depth article on Adrenal Fatigue and low thyroid gland function
» Adrenal Fatigue FAQs
» Take our 3-minute test to see if you may have Adrenal Fatigue

The Takeaway

An image of a woman having a thyroid ultrasoundIf you’re concerned about your thyroid gland function, then you need to get it checked out immediately by an expert. The thyroid is part of a complex system and identifying the underlying causes of any symptoms or problems that you experience is essential. This will help you achieve the best outcome possible from any measures you take to alleviate your symptoms. It will also help you avoid some of the long-term problems that can occur when this organ is dysfunctional.

Here’s what you should do if you suspect a thyroid problem:

  1. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and get tested.
  2. Ask for a referral to an endocrine expert if the tests reflect a problem.
  3. Make sure you look for and identify any other problems with your lifestyle or diet that could be causing some of your symptoms and eliminate them.

For more information about how your thyroid help can impact AFS or vice versa, talk to our team at +1 (626) 571-1234 for a free initial consultation, or click here for our Ask the Doctor system.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The most essential thyroid gland function is hormone production. The hormones produced by your thyroid gland affect every cell in the body and help control metabolism, growth, and development in adults and children. That’s why your thyroid health is so essential to your overall health at every stage of life.

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