Is There a Link Between Emotional Trauma and an Underactive Thyroid?

Is There a Link Between Emotional Trauma and an Underactive Thyroid? July 17, 2023

thyroid problems
thyroid problems
Image via Zohre Nemati via Unsplash

The connection between an underactive thyroid and emotional trauma is a fascinating topic. Both conditions share the following symptoms — depression, stress, loneliness and anxiety. Plus, researchers have confirmed thyroid problems often coexist with mental issues due to the imbalance of hormone levels.

Defining Emotional Trauma

Extremely frightening and stressful events — such as accidents or natural disasters — can trigger a fight-or-flight mode. This state helps you survive unfortunate circumstances. The body should revert to normal functioning through coping after the event. When it doesn’t, you may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Each person responds differently to traumatic circumstances. Some can get over the fear and distress quickly, while others get stuck in survival mode, unable to move on from the negative experience for months. Even if you’re safe, your body responds as if you aren’t.

Trauma includes the following symptoms:

  • Exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Panic attacks
  • Fear
  • Emotional numbing
  • Confusion
  • Loneliness

Defining Underactive Thyroid or Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a common thyroid disorder where the butterfly-like organ in front of the neck doesn’t supply enough thyroid hormone for the body’s use. The two hormones — thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) — are vital in metabolism. They affect how the body converts food into energy. If there isn’t enough supply, metabolism slows down.

Almost five in 100 Americans have mild hypothyroidism. Symptoms of underactive thyroid are: 

  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Dry skin
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression

Link Between Emotional Trauma and Hypothyroidism

The connection between psychological symptoms and thyroid disorders points to comorbidity. Hormones play an essential role in mood, including the thyroid hormone. Changes in its amounts can impede other chemical processes in the body. Like how low estrogen levels can lead to mood swings, inadequate amounts of T3 and T4 hormones can trigger mental and physical effects.

The body has a brain-hormones control system consisting of the hypothalamus, pituitary and thyroid called the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis that regulates metabolism and stress. Your brain releases a hormone to stimulate the organ or gland next to it to create T3 and T4 hormones. The production of thyroid hormone begins in the hypothalamus as it releases thyrotropin-releasing hormone, stimulating cells in the pituitary gland to make another hormone — thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).

TSH dictates how much T3 and T4 the thyroid should create. If it detects there isn’t enough, the pituitary releases more TSH to tell the thyroid organ to work harder to make more T3 and T4 hormones. When it can’t, this leads to hypothyroidism.

Psychological Symptoms and Thyroid Disorders

Insufficient thyroid hormone leads to slower metabolism, weight gain and mental stressors. Discover how four psychological symptoms — depression, stress, loneliness and anxiety — are associated with an underactive thyroid.

Hypothyroidism and Depression

Depression is a feature of emotional trauma that occurs with an underactive thyroid. In one study, patients with underactive thyroid experience a type of depression resistant to treatment. Likewise, patients with depression have been found to have underlying hypothyroidism.

The correlation between hypothyroidism and depression is a two-way effect. Researchers conclude people with depression are at a high risk of hypothyroidism and those with hypothyroidism are likely to develop depression. They recommend a health screening for those with depression or hypothyroidism to evaluate their risk for comorbidity.

Hypothyroidism and Stress 

In another study, patients with hypothyroidism divided into two groups. Those in group one had clinical hypothyroidism, while group-two patients had asymptomatic hypothyroidism. The aim was to measure the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) scores between the two groups by asking patients 10 questions about their thoughts and feelings during the previous month.

Researchers found a substantial difference in the PSS scores between the groups. Diagnosed patients had higher PSS scores than those who weren’t. The study concludes people with clinical hypothyroidism perceive stress more intensely than those with asymptomatic hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism and Loneliness

People inevitably feel lonely when they’re sick. One study on 231 patients identified how this emotion affects hypothyroid patients. Researchers discovered all patients experience loneliness at different levels. Out of 231 participants, 2.2% experienced a high degree of loneliness. The rest had low levels (47.2%), moderate (34.6%) and moderately high (16%) degrees of loneliness.

Hypothyroidism and Anxiety

Experts conducted a study to determine the connection between subclinical hypothyroidism (SCH) — a hypothyroidism without noticeable clinical symptoms — and anxiety for patients with depression. They use The Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale to measure participants’ anxiety severity.

Almost 16% of 520 outpatients with depression and comorbid SCH experienced anxiety. Moreover, TSH levels were also higher, indicating the thyroid gland wasn’t producing enough thyroid hormone. Experts conclude TSH levels may predict moderate and severe signs of anxiety in people with depression and mild hypothyroidism.

Causes and Diagnosis

There are direct and indirect causes of thyroid problems. A primary reason is an autoimmune condition like Hashimoto’s disease that attacks the thyroid and interrupts the hormone production flow. A secondary cause is when the pituitary fails to produce TSH to stimulate the thyroid to create its hormones.

Other primary causes include: 

  • Iodine deficiency
  • Genetics — hypothyroidism is more common in women than men
  • Thyroid inflammation
  • Radiation — the thyroid is extremely sensitive to radiation
  • Surgical removal of the thyroid

A blood test can look at the levels of TSH and T4 in the blood to assess thyroid problems accurately. A high TSH and low T4 could indicate you have an underactive thyroid. High TSH but normal T4 means you could develop an underactive thyroid. 

Health Management Tips for Hypothyroidism 

An underactive thyroid is treatable through a daily supplementation of levothyroxine — a hormone tablet that increases T4 the thyroid gland can’t produce enough of. Hypothyroidism can be a lifelong condition for people with naturally low levels of thyroid hormones. It requires management for as long as they live.

In addition to medications, positive lifestyle changes can also help enhance your quality of life despite having the condition. Here are some recommendations.

1. Get Enough Sleep

Sleep troubles are linked with thyroid disorders, so ask your doctor how to improve your sleep quality and get enough rest.

2. Engage in Relaxation Practices

Stress affects your immune system and thyroid. It also makes the symptoms of thyroid problems worse. Whether you travel, spend time outdoors or splurge on shopping, adopt a relaxation practice to destress.

3. Try Mindfulness

Meditation, yoga and other mindfulness strategies can ease psychological symptoms and thyroid disorders. By taking care of your mental health, you can reduce the potential adverse effects those stressors can have on your thyroid.

4. Exercise Regularly

Moving has several benefits to health, including better sleep and mood. When you feel sad, a 30-minute workout in the gym might help you feel better.

5. Tweak Your Diet

Load your plate with vegetables, fruits and wholesome selections. A modified paleo diet may lessen fatigue in people with Hashimoto’s disease. Others advise a gluten-free diet to maintain a healthy weight for those with slow metabolisms caused by various thyroid problems. Ask your doctor or dietician what your diet pattern should look like if you have an underactive thyroid.

Studies Confirmed Emotional Trauma and Hypothyroidism Are Associated

Mental and physical health are interconnected. They’re two strands of one fabric, so what happens to one affects the other.

Unsolved emotional trauma often co-occurs with hypothyroidism, as the lack of hormones can lead to psychological symptoms of mood swings, depression and anxiety. Hypothyroidism is a potentially lifelong condition, so health management through lifestyle changes is essential to preserve your quality of life.

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