What is the Thyroid – Stress Connection?

An Interview with Dr Elie Klein, ND

Dr. Elie Klein is a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, author of Read This If You Have A Heart – The Book on Lowering High Blood Pressure, Cholesterol and Blood Sugar Naturally, as well as co-owner and formulator of natural health products with My Health Supplements and Nanton Nutraceuticals.

Jason Sebeslav: Dr Klein, we know that chronic stress can lead to thyroid problems, and that chronic thyroid imbalance can create stress in terms of poor cognition and even depression. In simple terms, how are these seemingly circular health issues connected?

Elie Klein: There are various sources of stress. Psychological stress, chemical stress (such as toxins or harmful food) and physical stress (prolonged periods of darkness as in the winter for example). Any source of long-lasting stress results in increased levels of the stress hormones, such as cortisol. Stress hormones interfere with many functions that affect our physical and mental or cognitive well being, including thyroid function.

JS: So what does the thyroid gland actually do and how can we support it?

EK: The thyroid gland regulates the generation of energy and the production of important hormones, and it has a huge impact on most body systems. Thyroid function diminishes when it’s not getting enough nutritional support. We need iodine to produce the thyroid hormone thyroxine, or T4. Iodine is found in all foods from the sea, but the richest source is brown kelp, a type of seaweed. We also need selenium, as it is required to convert T4 into the active form triiodothyronine, or T3. One of the richest sources of selenium is brazil nuts – only 2 to 3 of these nuts meets the daily requirement! Limiting intake of vegetable oils can also support thyroid function.

JS: What are some of the tell-tale symptoms of thyroid imbalance?

EK: Poor thyroid function may result in low energy levels, poor metabolism, poor sleep quality, constipation, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, dry skin, hair loss and brittle nails.

JS: What are the most important tests we should be asking for to gauge the health of thyroid function?

EK: Blood tests for thyroid stimulating hormone and free T4 and T3 are most common, but aren’t always accurate. While they may reveal normal thyroid levels, they may not reveal poor function due to reduced ability of the hormone to perform its work.

JS: But since these are the test many people will get, what ranges would you be looking for to indicate healthy thyroid function? Are there alternative tests?

EK: As a naturopath, I’d be looking for TSH levels, commonly performed as a preliminary thyroid function test, of well below 2 mU/L – where the current “normal” range is 0.5 – 5 mU/L. I actually prefer the simplicity of monitoring oral or ear temperatures. They tend to be below 36.5 C and the pulse tends to be slower in those with hypothyroidism, or low thyroid function.

JS: Iodine is a trace mineral known to be vital for thyroid function. Do we get enough in a standard diet, and if not, what can we do about it?

EK: Kelp is the richest source of iodine and a small amount can go a long way. Milk products and fish like cod provide a decent amount as well.

JS: So many people complain of low energy or fatigue. How does energy fit in with the thyroid/stress connection?

EK: Ongoing stress not only supresses thyroid function, it also supresses the ability of the cells to absorb and utilize glucose, which is metabolized to provide energy.  This affects also mental and cognitive well being, as the brain is heavily reliant on glucose metabolism, requiring about 120g per day.

JS: You formulated a supplement called Rhoziva based on the herb Rhodiola. How does this work for stress and energy and how strong is the research?

EK: Rhodiola, also known as arctic root, grows in the stressful environment of the sub-arctic across Europe, Asia and North America. The compounds in its root that help the plant to overcome its stressful growing environment have a similar effect for humans. It’s been shown to help reduce the feelings and effects of stress in humans by reducing elevated stress hormone levels and balancing neurotransmitters that govern mood. Studies show increases in energy levels, fast recovery from strenuous physical activity, improvements in cognitive function, learning, memory and symptoms related to depression and anxiety.

JS: Other than supplements, what would you say are a few of the most important diet and lifestyle changes that could improve both thyroid function and stress levels?

EK: I’d say limit the intake of vegetable oil, eat lots of fruit and veggies, about 80g of protein per day, be physically active, walk, engage in breathing exercises and mindfulness technique to increase oxygen and reduce stress.

Rhoziva is available at The Peanut Mill Natural Foods Market.