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The Thyroid-Adrenal-Weight Loss Connection

by Lynda Buitrago
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You’ve been gaining weight even though you ate well and exercised regularly all last year. You even tried eating fewer calories and increasing your exercise, but nothing’s been working! “Why?” you wonder.

You’re feeling desperate, so you’re considering cutting your calories even more, or to train for a marathon this year to get that stubborn weight off once and for all. Before you do either of these, or go on a fad diet or sign up for a fitness boot camp, Crossfit or spin class, read on, because all of these could work against you, leaving you tired and maybe injured, but still fat.

If your reaction is, “Thank goodness, I’m way too tired to work harder,” that tiredness is another symptom that’s too important to ignore.

This is because fatigue, weight gain and the inability to lose weight even with dieting and exercise are symptoms of both adrenal dysfunction and hypothyroidism. So if this sounds like your story, I highly recommend that you find out the state of your adrenal and thyroid health before starting on a weight loss program.

The adrenal glands are intimately connected with the thyroid gland.  As the adrenal glands start to dysfunction so does the thyroid.  In many cases, by getting adrenal function back to optimal, thyroid function also normalizes. So, any time a thyroid problem is suspected, it’s essential that adrenal function must also be tested.

What are the adrenal glands?

The adrenal glands are two walnut-sized glands that sit on top of each kidney. The adrenal cortex, comprising the outer 80% of the gland, produces and releases hormones including cortisol, DHEA, estrogens, androgens, testosterone, pregnenolone and progesterone.

The adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress of any kind, whether emotional, physical, or chemical, such as loss of a loved one, an infection, or exposure to mercury fillings.   The stresses don’t even have to be monumental, just constant. A tough commute every day to a job you tolerate, low-grade inflammation from eating gluten, or eating genetically modified processed food that came in a plastic package are also potent stressors over time.

Too much stress for too long damages our adrenals by forcing them to make excessive amounts of cortisol day after day. Eventually, the adrenals tire out, and when this happens, cortisol levels drop below normal.

Cortisol is needed for nearly all processes in the body, including protein synthesis, blood sugar control, muscle and bone building, fat metabolism, and the proper conversion of thyroid hormones.

When Adrenals Are Fatigued, They Slow Down the Thyroid

As cortisol levels leave the normal range – low or high – thyroid function drops and utilization of existing thyroid hormones becomes a lot less efficient. With adrenal fatigue, the body will tell the thyroid to produce less thyroid hormone in order to ease some of the stress on the worn-out adrenal glands. This metabolic brake is your body’s way of telling you to slow down and take care of yourself, but in modern life we rarely stop to do that, so you soldier on with your life and your hypothyroid symptoms just get worse.

Adrenal dysfunction is a common example of secondary hypothyroidism, meaning that the “thyroid symptoms” such as weight gain (especially around the belly) are caused by a system other than the thyroid.

Since adrenal fatigue is probably the most common cause of secondary low thyroid function, it’s critical to assess and address adrenal health any time a thyroid problem is suspected. In fact, in my practice at Depke Wellness, we’ve looked at over 4,600 adrenal tests, and only five have come back normal. Not 5%, but only five people!

Adrenal Hormone Imbalances Affect Thyroid Hormones

Remember that the adrenal glands produce not only stress hormones like cortisol, DHEA, and adrenaline, but also reproductive hormones including progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. All of these hormones are derived from the “mother hormone,” pregnenolone.

There are a few ways that adrenal fatigue directly affects your thyroid hormones:

  • As mentioned earlier, low cortisol lowers thyroid hormone production.
  • Low pregnenolone or low progesterone (aka “estrogen dominance”) interferes with the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone (T4) into active thyroid hormone (T3).
  • High estrogen: Excess estrogen binds to thyroid transport proteins in the blood so that T3 can’t get delivered to the cells. This is why weight gain often happens to women on birth control pills or estrogen replacement therapy.
  • High testosterone also binds to thyroid transport proteins, interfering with T3 uptake by the cells. In women, this is most often found in PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome).

Both T3 and Cortisol Are Needed to Start Our Cellular Metabolic Engines

When either T3 or cortisol levels are low, your metabolism is “broken.” Cortisol works in conjunction with the active thyroid hormone T3 in the cellular receptors. Both T3 and cortisol need to bind to their specific receptors on each cell – like two ignition keys – for your cells to properly regulate metabolism and energy creation. So when cortisol levels are low, thyroid hormone is used far less effectively, leaving you feeling tired and fat.

How Do I Lose Weight If I Have Low Adrenal and Thyroid Function?

The first step is to do an adrenal saliva test as well as a complete thyroid blood panel to determine the health of your adrenals and thyroid and to uncover other body systems that may be affecting their function.

We use the BioHealth #205 adrenal saliva test kit with our clients at Depke Wellness and as a part of the Adrenal Recovery System.

You may request a full thyroid panel from your doctor, but most medical insurance will not approve the full panel of 10 thyroid markers that I recommend for suspected hypothyroidism, so you may have to order this panel elsewhere. Here is the full list:

  • Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH)
  • Free T4
  • Total T4
  • Free T3
  • T3 uptake
  • Reverse T3
  • Free thyroxine index (T7)
  • Thyroxine-binding globulin (TBG)
  • Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO) antibodies
  • Antithyroglobulin antibodies

*To get a low-cost comprehensive thyroid test we recommend Walk-In-Lab for the Comprehensive Thyroid Panel #4.

Once we know what we are dealing with, we may need further testing for infections and food sensitivities. Liver function and a healthy balance of good to bad gut bacteria are also important to adrenal and thyroid function.

Last but not least, you will likely need to make some lifestyle changes. Short bursts of anaerobic exercise are far more effective than cardio for someone with adrenal fatigue. Cardio will further deplete your adrenal glands and will slow your metabolism even more.

Getting more good quality sleep is hugely important. Sleep, especially between the hours of 10pm and midnight, will do more to boost your metabolism than any other lifestyle change. So if you are getting to bed at midnight most nights, you are missing some of the best hours of rest and repair for your adrenal glands.

When it comes to calories, we’re concerned with increasing food quality rather than reducing quantity. Reducing and managing the stresses in your life is another fundamental action to support your overall health and get you back to a healthy body.

Follow this advice and your weight loss resolution will have a far better chance of coming true this year!

If you’d like to know the likelihood that your adrenal function is depleted, I invite you to take the complimentary Adrenal Stress Questionnaire.

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