How Does Stress Affect Hypothyroidism?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
African American woman at computer with headache

Stress is a part of your daily life; whether you’re trying to get to work on time or a family member calls with a personal crisis, it’s inevitable. But it’s not always such a bad thing. You need a little bit of stress so your body and mind react correctly when you’re in a life-threatening situation, like a near-miss incident while driving.

The problem is when stress gets so out of control that it affects your health. If you had an underlying thyroid condition, stress could cause it to turn into a full-blown health problem, like hypothyroidism. Anyone can get hypothyroidism, although it’s more common in women older than 50, and you’re more likely to have mildly underactive glands instead of full-blown hypothyroidism.

Signs You May Have Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism (also called an underactive thyroid) is a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones. You might have symptoms that include weight gain, fatigue, depression, cold hands and feet, achy muscles, headaches, decreased libido, weakness, water retention, menstrual irregularities, dry skin, coarse hair or hair loss, constipation, or possibly feeling cold

The Effect of Stress on Your Thyroid

When you’re under constant or chronic stress, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol. But if there’s too much cortisol surging through your body, it can wreak havoc on your thyroid. Too much cortisol makes your thyroid gland work harder to produce enough thyroid hormone. This process can tax the thyroid gland and lead to imbalances of the thyroid hormone in your body.

If you just finished a huge work project only to find yourself sick the following weekend, you probably know that being under stress for long periods of time can compromise your immune system. Researchers have found evidence that links cells in the immune system to the regulation of thyroid hormone activity during normal physiological conditions and when the immune system is stressed and fighting off infection.

So when your body is fighting off an illness, the immune system jumps in to help regulate activity of the thyroid hormone. This may also hinder the immune system from using all of its resources to fight off the infection itself. If your immune system gets thrown out of whack frequently, you’re more likely to be prone to autoimmune diseases.

Adrenal Glands and Hypothyroidism

The adrenal glands are responsible for secreting the stress-response regulating hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. While these glands affect nearly every response in the body, when the adrenals are weak, they can cause hypothyroidism symptoms like those mentioned above. Some research has found inflammatory cytokines, which are released into the body during a stress response, can reduce levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). When you have a thyroid illness or imbalance, you’re more likely to have inflammation in the body, which can lead to other diseases and health problems.

How Stress Can Be Extremely Dangerous

Rarely, people with an underactive thyroid develop myxedema coma. Myxedema is more likely to occur in people who’ve had the thyroid gland removed, either surgically or by radioactive thyroid ablation. Severe, ongoing stress, infections, and surgery can trigger myxedema coma. Symptoms to watch out for include a severe drop in body temperature, difficulty breathing, slow heart rate, constipation, seizures, and weight gain due to fluid buildup in the body.

If you have hypothyroidism, talk with your doctor for suggestions on how minimizing stress, vigorous exercise, and relaxation techniques can help you. Also ask about dietary recommendations and possible medication adjustments to help you manage stress and your thyroid imbalance.

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  1. Hypothyroidism. University of Maryland Medical Center.
  2. How Stress Affects Your Thyroid.
  3. How accurate is TSH testing? National Academy of Hypothyroidism.
  4. Ranabir, Salam. Stress and Hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Jan-Mar;15(1):18–22.
  5. Klein, JR. The immune system as a regulator of thyroid hormone activity. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2006 Mar;231(3):229-36.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 17
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