Most people don’t want to talk about glands—they’re complicated and kind of gross, even the word is kind of gross. However, your glands are important to good health! They’re a part of your endocrine system, which controls the production and secretion of hormones. Some of the major endocrine glands in your body include the pituitary, thymus, thyroid, parathyroid, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands. It’s easy to think that each gland has its own job, working independently of the others; however that’s not the case. An important example of the relationship between hormone-producing glands is the connection between your adrenal glands and thyroid.
Your adrenals are small, pyramid-shaped glands that sit on top of each of your kidneys. They help regulate things like immunity, metabolism, blood pressure and how you respond to stress. Your adrenals produce two types of hormones: those that help your body respond to emotional or physical stress, and steroid hormones that regulate such functions as metabolism, immunity, inflammation, electrolyte and water balance. Cortisol is one of the main steroid hormones that your adrenal glands produce in response to stress.
Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland found at the base of your neck. It produces hormones that control your body’s metabolism. This means it regulates how quickly you turn fuel into energy, and how much energy to use. It affects your heart rate, digestion, bone maintenance and even your body’s thermostat. A weak thyroid gland can cause symptoms such as fatigue and low energy levels, weight gain, intolerance to cold, constipation, muscle aches and depression.
And here’s the thing; your adrenals can become weakened and drag down your thyroid. Here’s how:
When you’re stressed out, your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland (both hormone-regulating glands in your brain) to mobilize your adrenals to pump out some hormones to help your body deal with the crisis at hand. Those hormones help your body shut down some of the functions that aren’t needed right in the moment, such as digestion and immunity, and ramp up others that help you prepare to run or fight. Your heart rate increases, pupils dilate and your muscles become tensed and ready for action.
This is all good news except for the fact that in our modern lives, stress often lingers. Your annoying neighbor, intolerable colleague or unmanageable work load don’t necessarily come and go quickly. This translates into chronic stress, in which your adrenal glands are constantly working to pump out stress hormones. Over time, a couple of things happen. First your adrenals pump out cortisol, which in high levels can signal your hypothalamus and pituitary to slow down so as not to trigger any more stress hormones.
Second, prolonged stress depletes your adrenal glands, and combined with poor diet, overworking and lack of sleep, this depletion becomes something called adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue can affect the balance of adrenal hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, and it can throw insulin (a hormone produced by your pancreas that regulates blood sugar) off balance.
How does all this affect your thyroid? Well, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in your brain also regulate the output of thyroid hormones. So, when these two glands signal a slow-down, it can slow down your thyroid as well. In addition, adrenal fatigue puts your body into something called a catabolic state, which simply means that your body is breaking down more cells than its building. When this happens, your thyroid slows down as a way to counter this process. Ironically, in some cases your thyroid works harder as a way to prevent this cellular breakdown, causing it to go into overdrive—a condition called hyperthyroidism. This causes your metabolism to speed up, causing anxiety and nervousness, insomnia, intolerance to heat, hyperactivity and diarrhea. It’s important to note that both hyper and hypo thyroid states can affect your menstrual cycle and fertility.
To recap what may seem like a confusing explanation:
- Your adrenal glands produce a number of hormones, including those that help your body handle stress.
- When stress becomes chronic, it can overtax your adrenals, causing adrenal fatigue.
- Adrenal fatigue can also affect the function of your thyroid hormones, which regulates metabolism throughout your body, causing a number of significant symptoms.
So what can you do to protect your adrenal and thyroid glands?
At BodaHealth, we understand how devastating chronic stress can be to your body. Our first line of treatment for stress is acupuncture, for a couple of reasons. Scientists have documented that acupuncture can help regulate the hormones produced by your hypothalamus and pituitary glands. They’ve also found that acupuncture increases the circulation of certain neurotransmitters that counter stress and produce a feel-good sense of calm. Acupuncture also helps to relax tense muscles and calm down the part of your nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response. Instead, it promotes what we call the “rest and digest” response that helps you recover from stress.
Our practitioners at BodaHealth also provide herbal and nutritional solutions to help balance your blood sugar, promote good nutrition, support your digestion, counter food cravings and help you get better sleep. Cold laser therapy may also be used to treat adrenal fatigue, as it delivers light therapy that gently penetrates deeply into your body’s tissues to repair and regenerate damage at the cellular level.
The bottom line is that stress is often at the core of many health conditions, and the effects of chronic stress can often act like negative dominoes in your body. Understanding these complicated relationships and treating imbalances is key to staying healthy despite lives that are often stressful and challenging. Contact us if you’d like to know more about adrenal health, stress, thyroid conditions or any other health concerns. We’re here to help you.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.