Why having too much estrogen can wreak havoc on your thyroid – and how to get things back to normal.
Have you and your thyroid gotten acquainted with each other lately?
Indeed, you may have, if you’re one of the 13-27 million Americans with thyroid disease Shockingly, that number is on the rise, and women are five to eight times more likely than men to get it. Why?
There’s an intimate relationship here with one of the main female hormones – estrogen – and thyroid. But first, let’s look at the thyroid gland itself, and what some common thyroid issues are.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck, right underneath your Adam’s apple. According to the Mayo Clinic, every aspect of your metabolism is regulated by thyroid hormones, which maintain the rate at which your body uses fats and carbohydrates, regulate your body temperature, and help maintain the production of protein. When people talk about having thyroid problems, they’re typically talking about “hyperthyroidism” (an overactive thyroid) or “hypothyroidism” (an underactive thyroid) – the latter of which affects many women around the same time as, or just after, menopause. It’s also associated with stubborn weight gain. (More on that in a moment.)
Here is a partial list of symptoms for hyperthyroidism, courtesy the Mayo Clinic:
- Sudden weight loss, even when your appetite and the amount and type of food you eat remain the same or even increase
- Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) — commonly more than 100 beats a minute — irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or pounding of your heart (palpitations)
- Increased appetite
- Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
- Tremor — usually a fine trembling in your hands and fingers
- Changes in menstrual patterns
- Increased sensitivity to heat
- Changes in bowel patterns, especially more frequent bowel movements
- An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), which may appear as a swelling at the base of your neck
- Fatigue, muscle weakness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Skin thinning
- Fine, brittle hair
The causes for hyperthyroidism are many, with autoimmune disorders causing a large percentage of cases. It runs in families, and as with hypothyroidism, occurs more often in women than in men.
Now let’s turn our attention toward hypothyroidism, where the thyroid gland isn’t active enough. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Feeling cold when other people do not
- Muscle weakness
- Weight gain, even though you are not eating more food
- Joint or muscle pain
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Feeling very tired
- Pale, dry skin
- Dry, thinning hair
- Slow heart rate
- Less sweating than usual
- A puffy face
- A hoarse voice
Any of it sound familiar?
Again, thyroid disease has many potential causes. But sometimes, women find that their particular thyroid problems are linked to estrogen levels, which play a vital role in your cells’ acquisition of thyroid hormones. Let’s look at why.
When the body is low on progesterone production (as is common with stress or aging), the delicate balance with estrogen gets thrown off, causing the body to react with too much estrogen production. This results in a body state of “estrogen dominance,” which affects all kinds of functions in your body – and can hit well before menopause, even before you hit your 30s.
For most women, progesterone production starts to gradually decrease beginning at age 35. However, stress and environmental endocrine disruptors also affect hormone production, and these chemicals – the most infamous being BPA – are not found in remote, radioactive plants, but in everyday items that most of us touch regularly. Think receipts, food cans, and even feminine hygiene products. (You can get a good primer on endocrine disruptors and the top “dirty dozen” here, at Environmental Working Group’s site.)
When progesterone dips, estrogen increases, creating an uncomfortable state of affairs in your body. But for your thyroid specifically, when estrogen is out of control, the liver starts producing high levels of “thyroid binding globulin” (or TBG): a protein that binds (just like its name!) the thyroid hormone, thereby decreasing the amount of thyroid hormone that can be properly utilized by cells.
The result? Hypothyroidism, and all the attendant symptoms that come with it.
We’ve listed mostly physical symptoms above for this condition, but it’s worth considering the one emotional symptom we’ve included, depression, and the subtle ways thyroid disease can provoke it. By now, you are most likely seeing the vital connection between healthy progesterone production and estrogen levels as it affects your body. Now, let’s look at how they affect your emotions – and why your thyroid health affects them.
According to Dr. Christine Northrup, hypothyroidism and depression are related on many levels. If you don’t have enough T3 – one of your thyroid hormones, in addition to T4 – available, a whole host of neurotransmitter abnormalities can ensue, including suppression of serotonin and norepinephrine, which stabilizes mood and anxiety. That’s because ample amounts of T3 are found in the limbic system of the brain, the area that helps process emotions such as joy, panic, anger, and fear. Moreover, T3 is actually a neurotransmitter that helps regulate serotonin and norepinephrine: themselves neurotransmitters that turn on your brain’s calm, peaceful switches.
So when progesterone production wanes, and your body starts pumping out estrogen, the liver goes into TBG overdrive. And as we now know, that limits the amount of oh-so-important T3 available to your cells. When your limbic system is starved of T3, serotonin and norepinephrine suffer, and you? You, our dear reader, are sad, depressed, and sapped of motivation – and have no idea why.
For both your body then and emotional health, it’s critical to get to the root of the problem, and bring hormones back into balance. Given the above, you may think the root of all this is in tackling estrogen…and it is, in a way. But to treat it naturally and effectively, it’s best to turn to progesterone.
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