Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stress: the Thyroid's Enemy #1

Stress! It kicks all our butts. They've done studies about which countries are the most stressed out and hey the USA is close to the top of the pack (I'm shocked. Shocked, I say! Not.). Here are some numbers from the Expat Channel. A list of the four most stressful locations to move to: South Africa, USA, Australia, Southern Cyprus. According to Forbes, the most stressed out cities in the USA won't surprise us: They are (in order): Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington, DC. There are also studies on the most stressful jobs. 

People are out there studying stress because let's face it, it's a killer. (In case you need more proof, here's a list of scholarly work on stress and heart disease. I know I could find other ways in which stress kills, but I'm sure you get the point.) Here's an American Psychological Association study that links stress directly with depression and obesity. "And respondents who reported higher levels of stress were more likely to be obese or suffering from depression." (This is from a yahoo article about the study.) Another shocker: stress leaves you depressed and makes you gain weight.

Here's the thing: Two of the most prominent symptoms of hypothyroidism: (unexplained) weight gain and depression. So far, no studies have confirmed the direct link between stress and hypothyroidism. But, I'm here to tell you that I think it just hasn't been discovered yet. In my personal tale, the only time I ever go deeply hypothyroid is during stressful times in my life. At my most stressed out, my TSH level hit an all-time high 83 (remember normal range is somewhere around 0.1-~4.5).

I believe stress kicks the butts of people with the potential to become hypothyroid straight into the desolate land of the Exhausted, Zombie Hypothyroidics (yes, I know it's not a real word, and no I don't care, because I've written "people with hypothyroidism" way too many times already. In fact, I think from here on in, I will refer to us as EZHs.)

EZHs tend to gain weight easily and they have a hard time taking it off regardless of their exercise level or healthy eating habits. In my opinion, a lot of exercise (depending on the type you choose to do), will lower a EZH's metabolic rate even further. That will lead to less energy and more weight gain. Talk about irony... So, even when you do all the right things, if you are a EZH, you might just be making yourself worse, rather than better.

For example, they say that we should get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise five times a week for optimal health (Here's the CDC list of recommendations on that). Or they want an hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise a week. But, and this is a big "but," intense aerobic exercise when the thyroid is already sluggish, makes the thyroid go into a tale spin (at least it does to mine and I don't know about studies on that so this is my opinion, here). Depending on what's causing your pituitary to pump out TSH (testing for Thyroid Stimulating Hormone [TSH] levels is the usual way medical professionals first test you for hypothyroidism and often what the diagnosis is then based on), you could be doing yourself damage by keeping up with a lot of exercise if you are an EZH. 

What's good for the goose, isn't necessarily good for the gander, here. EZHs need to look at what they are doing to raise their heart rate extremely carefully. Yes, we all need to exercise our hearts and our entire cardiovascular systems. No question. But, EZHs need to monitor themselves and not do too much (and that is going to be based on the individual) because I believe they will knock themselves further down the EZH Hole of Doom.

The same goes for the food we eat. We are told: eat dark, leafy greens. Yes! Let's do that. Let's eat lots of spinach. If you are an EZH, however, you need to watch your spinach intake. Spinach is a goitrogen. It contains substances that interfere with the production of thyroid hormones. Read more on foods to eat or not to eat, here. So, while regular people can and ought to eat spinach, EZHs might want to be wary of it. And the same can be said for other foods that regular people can and ought to eat. More on that later.

So, when EZHs are stressed or have gained weight or are depressed, we might reach out to exercise to help with that. We might start eating those dark, leafy greens. After all, that's what we're told to do. But, those very things can make things worse for us. So, then, we need to figure out what we can do.

First and foremost, Deal. With. The Stress. Alleviate what you can and try to handle what you can't. And breathe. Keep coming back to your breath when you start to feel like you are in that never ending loop of craptastic stress. Your breath can calm you down and get your nerves and stress levels under control. So, next time you find yourself in that "Crap! I'm perpetually reenacting the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader fight scene from the end of "The Empire Strikes Back," (You know. It's the one where Vader tosses too many things at Luke and Luke just ends up flailing and failing.) just stop and take three, full, deep breaths. Stand or sit still for a minute and just breathe. You will feel a trickle of your own power and (dare I say it) sanity, return. That will alleviate some of the immediate pressure on your thyroid and your adrenals and that will help you take the reins again more calmly. Then, you can take this opportunity to take a stand for your own health, to lay claim to your own well being.

Take the power into your own hands to look at what you and your body need. It's incredibly empowering and can also be really frightening to stand up and take our own health in hand. I'm not saying ignore your medical professionals. I'm saying work with them. I'm saying educate yourself on the literature. I'm saying check in, really check in with your body. No one, and I mean no one, knows your body better than you. You live in it every day and you know your aches, your pains, your issues, your victories, your everything better than anyone else on the planet can possibly know. The thing is that sometimes, exactly because we live only in our own bodies, we start accepting our aches, pains, and issues as normal. This is my life, we might think, and this pain/pressure/fatigue, etc. is just how it is. 

Maybe other people experience it the same way and maybe they don't, but it doesn't matter. Your pain is your pain and your thyroid is your thyroid and ultimately, the person responsible for the state of your health is you. The doctors, the medical professionals, physical therapists, nurses, acupuncturists, faith healers, whatever - they can tell you the diagnosis, they can prescribe the meds, they can lay out your options, they can suggest what you should do. They can even tell you strongly. But ultimately, the decision on whether or not to follow the advice, take the meds, go on the regimen, get the treatment, stop eating high-fat food, stop eating sugar, start eating carrots, start exercising, read up on your condition, or do none of the above? It rests with you.

So what to do? I'm going to ask you to sit down, right now, and make a list. Write down the things that you enjoy doing, the things that relax you. Are they: reading? Walking? Listening to or making music? Seeing a movie? Meditating? Write them all down. Make the list as comprehensive as you can. Write down anything you can think of that makes you feel peaceful and relaxed. 

Are watching television, surfing the internet, or drinking alcohol on the list? If so, those are the three biggies, I would advise against doing. They all get you out of your body and what you need to do when trying to do things naturally is be absolutely in your body so you can note and acknowledge (and perhaps act on) your status and any changes. (If you want to share some of your relaxation activities, please comment here and let me know. I'd love to see them.)

Once you have your list, start choosing one or perhaps two to do every day. Do only what you can. Remember, you don't ever want to put unnecessary pressure on yourself or your thyroid. Take it slowly. Start small. If you only spend two minutes dancing like a crazed marionette in your living room (one of my relaxing rituals), you will reap incredible benefits by opening the steam valve, even a little. (More on opening the steam valve at later date.) Do the things that will help you relax and remove some of the stress on your thyroid. It will thank you. Mine has thanked me by coming down to a TSH level of only 4.79. I am this close, .04, from being in the normal range. And I'm going to keep working on getting it completely back to being smack dab in the middle of that range. It's more work but it's worth it.


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Please Note

Welcome to Natural Thyroid. This blog details my process of treating my hypothyroidism naturally. Please note: I am not telling you *to* do or not to do anything with my posts (remember to work with your medical practitioner, whether it's an allopath or an alternative medicine practitioner).