Whenever people see a physician about almost any kind of medical condition, healthcare providers often suggest reducing stress to improve a wide variety of symptoms. Of course, that's easier said than done. But why is this suggestion so common these days?
Stress, whether physical or mental, can shift our body into overdrive, which messes with our hormones and other systems. When put under enough stress, some people's bodies will start showing physical manifestations of the stress. Hyperthyroidism is commonly associated with stress, which makes many people ask, "Can stress cause hyperthyroidism?"
In short, no. Current evidence¹ does not support the claim that stress can directly cause hyperthyroidism; but it certainly can make existing hyperthyroidism, and other thyroid conditions, far worse. Learn more about hyperthyroidism as a whole, how stress can make it worse, and more, below!
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Hyperthyroidism is perhaps best explained by breaking down the word itself. The prefix "hyper-" means extra, beyond, or above, while thyroidism refers to an illness or condition of the thyroid. The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland that sits in the front part of the neck, and it is responsible for many hormonal processes in the body.
One of the most important functions of the thyroid is supplying thyroid hormones to other parts of the body, which regulate many vital functions. Some of these functions include:
The thyroid works in close conjunction with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, both of which are located in the brain. When the hypothalamus and pituitary gland detect that hormone levels are low, they prompt the thyroid to release more thyroid hormone. Conversely, when they detect that thyroid hormones are too high, they prompt the thyroid to release less.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid continuously releases too much thyroid hormone. When this happens, especially over a sustained period of time, many functions in the body are put into overdrive.
Who develops hyperthyroidism?
Although anyone can develop hyperthyroidism without warning, there are several risk factors that can increase the odds of experiencing thyroid issues, especially hyperthyroidism. Some of the most common risk factors include:
Being 60 or older
Having a family history of thyroid disease
Having an autoimmune condition
Experiencing a recent pregnancy
If any of these risk factors apply to you, pay close attention to how your body feels to see if you notice any of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism below. If you have concerns about your thyroid health, speak to your primary care physician.
Because hyperthyroidism involves too much thyroid hormone, many functions in the body are heightened and operate faster than they would normally. Hyperthyroidism often comes with the following symptoms:
Increased heart rate
Tremors in hands and fingers
Feeling hot, sensitive to heat
More frequent bowel movements
Younger people tend to be easier to diagnose, as they usually show multiple symptoms at once. Older patients tend to only present one or two symptoms² of hyperthyroidism, so many older adults can go undiagnosed with hyperthyroidism for a long time.
As mentioned earlier, hyperthyroidism isn't caused by stress, but that doesn't mean the two aren't related. For those that already have symptoms of hyperthyroidism, physical or mental stress can make them even worse. Physical stress might include injuries, illness, or infections, all of which can increase the amount of stress hormones circulating in the body.
Mental stressors, like job worries, financial insecurity, or health problems, can trigger the same onset and release of stress hormones. No matter which type of stress you experience, often both at the same time, you may notice a worsening of your symptoms. For example, you may feel even hotter or have an even more difficult time sleeping when experiencing stress.
For those that are not already diagnosed or being treated for a thyroid condition, stress can lead to a thyroid storm.
What are thyroid storms?
A thyroid storm is a serious condition triggered by physical stress in a person with undiagnosed or untreated hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease. Because the person has not received any treatment, their thyroid hormones are already far out of balance, but the physical stress tips their body over the edge. The symptoms of thyroid storms include:
A person experiencing a thyroid storm needs medical attention immediately, preferably at an intensive care unit. When left untreated, thyroid storms can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, or a coma. Thyroid storms are extremely dangerous, but they can be prevented by getting regular check-ups and bringing up concerns about hyperthyroidism to your doctor if you suspect you may have thyroid issues.
Those who have been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism should also take medications and follow the treatments prescribed by their doctor to prevent thyroid storms.
Hyperthyroidism can lead to various complications, all of which may be difficult for anyone to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Fortunately, there are some treatments available that can drastically reduce symptoms and keep your body feeling as normal as possible.
The first line of treatment for hyperthyroidism is often radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications. Radioactive iodine is taken by mouth and gets absorbed into your thyroid, where it causes the gland to gradually shrink.
This treatment helps symptoms get better within a few months, and the body expels the radioactive iodine within a few weeks of being consumed.
Antithyroid medications work to reduce your symptoms by preventing your thyroid gland from producing too much thyroid hormone.
If you experience more severe symptoms, like rapid heart rate or tremors, your doctor may also prescribe a beta-blocker. These can help reduce the discomfort you feel while receiving treatment, and are usually only prescribed for a limited time.
Finally, your healthcare team may decide that you need thyroid surgery. A thyroidectomy involves a doctor removing a part or whole of your thyroid gland.
This method is used when the hyperthyroidism isn't responding to other treatment options, or if the patient is pregnant so that radioactive iodine therapy cannot be used.
The procedure results in reduced thyroid hormone production. However, those who receive a thyroidectomy will have to take supplemental thyroid medication, levothyroxine, for the rest of their lives.
It may be concerning to see some of the above symptoms of hyperthyroidism and realize that some apply to you. Just because you have one or two of the symptoms, however, does not mean you automatically have hyperthyroidism.
You should talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you have experienced a rapid heartbeat, swollen neck, and/or unexpected weight loss.
If you have more than a couple of the above symptoms, or you have any concerns about your thyroid, you can always bring it up during your annual physical or make an appointment to talk it over with your doctor.
Your healthcare provider will ask several questions about your symptoms, and they can run numerous tests to see whether you have hyperthyroidism. If the results come back positive, your doctor can then provide treatment options for reducing or eliminating your symptoms.
Stress is inevitable in life, and it can be helpful in small doses. However, chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body, especially if you have hyperthyroidism.
If you struggle with stress and hyperthyroidism, it's important that you make time in your day to relax and unwind. This can be difficult for busy people with stressful careers or families to look after, but it can drastically improve your symptoms.
Some ways to reduce stress include:
Talking to a friend or journaling
Listening to music
Reading a book
Taking a warm bath or shower
Saying no to more obligations than you can handle
Asking for help when you need it
Although stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably, stress has more to do with external factors, while anxiety tends to come from within. Stress typically disappears shortly after a trigger is gone, while anxiety often lingers.
Both can play a role in worsening hyperthyroidism, but anxiety may also require professional treatment.
While stress and hyperthyroidism are certainly related, there isn't enough evidence to pinpoint stress as a direct cause for hyperthyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism and stress can both be life-changing on their own, but they can be especially difficult to manage when they come together.
As always, speak to a qualified physician about your concerns, and be sure to take care of your physical and mental health on a regular basis.
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