Do you have trouble getting going in the morning or do you jump out of bed ready to go? If you need caffeine before it is safe to talk to anyone, then you may want to think about melatonin. Low melatonin shows up fairly often on lab work, even in those who sleep well. Melatonin has many actions in the body and it works closely with other hormones like cortisol.
Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR)
Your CAR feels like a shot of caffeine. When you open your eyes first thing in the morning, cortisol levels naturally begin to rise. Half an hour later cortisol is still increasing quickly and an hour after waking levels peak and then begin to fall. Measuring this rise of cortisol upon waking gives us a look into our stress response. The technical term for stress response is the HPA axis (hypothalamus pituitary adrenal).
A Low Stress Response
A low stress response makes you less resilient to everyday life and you likely wake up feeling tired. Psychological burnout, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), poor sleep, PTSD, chronic fatigue and chronic pain can cause a low CAR. Autoimmune disease, hypertension, digestive dysfunction and postpartum depression can also cause an underactive HPA axis response.
Cortisol is an important anti-inflammatory. It works with other hormones and chemical messengers to maintain energy, appetite, sleep and mood while decreasing pain. It makes you a “happy upon waking” person.
Cortisol & Antidepressants
Job-related stress, blood sugar dysregulation, pain, and depression all increase our cortisol response. Having looked at over 80 comprehensive cortisol tests this year, I can tell you that high cortisol is more common than a low response. By assessing both circulating cortisol and total cortisol, I get a clear picture of what is happening in the body.
I also see how antidepressants affect cortisol and neurotransmitters. Everyone who is prescribed an antidepressant ought to have full cortisol testing beforehand. SSRI’s work on cortisol. Doesn’t it make sense to check it?
Why Melatonin is Magic
Melatonin rises when we unwind in the evening. It works with the cortisol awakening response by ensuring we rest well at night. Melatonin is a master antioxidant. You can find it in foods like sour cherry, pistachios, cranberries, peppers, button mushrooms, grapes, wine, roasted coffee beans, bananas, mustard, almonds, lentils and tomatoes.
Melatonin is produced in your gut and your pineal gland. Like cortisol, it’s anti-inflammatory and modulates your immune system. Melatonin improves cardiovascular and glucose markers too. So put on your blue blocking sunglasses at night and enjoy these yummy foods. You’ll likely sleep more soundly and have better energy in the morning. Why not huh?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released from the pituitary gland. It acts like a hormone giving you a feeling of confidence, excitement, motivation and energy. When it is released you can feel pleasure, satisfaction and increased willpower. It is the chemical of reward and success. Dopamine depression comes with a significant amount of fatigue, apathy, inability to think clearly or feel enthusiastic about anything. For those who sleep excessively and feel a lack of self-confidence it may be due to lack of dopamine, not serotonin.
What Weakens Dopamine?
Chronic stress and a dysregulated cortisol response make it harder for the body to produce it. Low estrogen or thyroid hormone also weaken this neurotransmitter. In fact, hypothyroidism can look a lot like low dopamine. Tyrosine is the the precursor to both thyroid hormone and dopamine. This is an amino acid that I use a lot in clinic because it is safe and effective for those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and depression.
Pleasure & Movement
Dopamine can help you access pleasure and euphoria. This means people can desire more of it leading to addiction. Levels in the brain and body are increased by thrill-seeking activities, caffeine, sugar, recreational drugs, gambling, sex, food and devices. If you require constant access to any of these you may have a dopamine deficiency. On a physical level, this neurotransmitter affects motor control and movement.
Replenish Your Dopamine
Recovering from deficiency in a natural way is possible. Here are six ways you train your self back into a state of balance. I always start with diet and lifestyle alongside any supplementation.
Sleep, real rest & downtime: By real rest I mean time unplugged either meditating, reading or connecting with a loved one. Insomnia is a major contributor to dopamine deficiency. Your brain needs this time to restore dopamine levels.
Tyrosine: I mentioned supplementing with tyrosine already. Start with 500mg in the morning. You can go up to 1500mg per day and split the dose into two if you experience afternoon crashes. Some people just need more and others need less. Take a day off every week.
Foods rich in tyrosine and its precursor L-phenylalanine: turkey, chicken, wild game, walnuts, yogurt, and yes, dark chocolate! You can also supplement with l-phenylalanine if tyrosine didn’t help as much as you wanted.
B-vitamins: especially B6 in the P5P form (pyridoxal phospate). This helps the hypothalamus and pituitary communicate effectively so that they are producing the right amount of dopamine.
Strength training: Building muscle increases the human growth hormone and dopamine. Circuit training, resistance training and HITT (high intensity interval training) are smart ways to increase dopamine. Aim for about 40 minutes three or four times per week.
Meditate: this simple practice whether it is 5 or 20 minutes a day cultivates well-being like nothing else. It is simple and intelligent.
Feeling Happy All Year
Chronic high stress and elevated levels of cortisol cause both dopamine and serotonin to drop. Each small step we take towards lowering stress ripples out. Notice how you feel after a short meditation or a half an hour of strength training. We can set off a cascade that allows us to feel more calm, connected and satisfied. We are less likely to shop, smoke, drink and overeat. Our physiology is able to function with more ease and we can experience more pleasure. Our thoughts don’t take over and send us into negative self-talk as easily.
The hormone testing I do now includes a dopamine assessment. This morning I was reviewing this test with a patient who has had more challenges than most beginning in childhood. Her dopamine response is excellent which didn’t surprise me. The resiliency and satisfaction that she experiences speak louder than any of her challenges. May we all experience this kind of pleasure.
Both cortisol and adrenaline help us respond to the everyday stress but there are some important differences. Find out why some people handle stress more easily. Learn to recover better from good stress. If you are chronically stressed, you can change this. It will protect you from illness and injury.
Adrenaline has a quicker response time than cortisol because it bypasses the HPA Axis. That initial surprise you get when your kid jumps out of the closet is adrenaline. It is made in the medulla of the adrenal gland and triggers the brain to slow motility in your gut, mobilize your skeletal muscles and increase your heart rate immediately. Adrenaline is a both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.
Your body breaks down adrenaline within two minutes after the intial shock unless your have a specific genetic mutation. A COMT ((Catechol-O-Methyltransferase) or MAO (monoamine oxidase) SNP. (single nucleotide polymorphism). If you have one of these SNP’s then you may be agitated for longer because your body is slower to process adrenaline. Some people process adrenaline faster. These are the people who are fazed by nothing.
Cortisol is a little different. As you may remember cortisol has an important anti-inflammatory component. Learning to regulate cortisol throughout your day can decrease pain and speed up recovery time. The brain releases ATCH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) from the pituitary signalling the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol. This process takes about ten minutes so it’s not immediate like adrenaline.
A stressful event will amp up your physiology and prepare to put all systems into fight/flight or freeze mode in a similar way to adrenaline. Your digestion slows down and glucose gets mobilized. Coming down from a cortisol takes about an hour after you’ve resolved the issue. The tricky part is that most modern day stresses don’t find resolution so many people are living in a wired and tired state most of the time.
Train for Everyday Life
Our physiology is wired to respond to stress in a specific way. Imagine a time when you needed to protect yourself from predators and this was the main stress. Mimicking this in your lifestyle will help you thrive. Training ourselves to resolve stress quickly supports optimal health and mitigates symptoms of chronic illness. Here is what you can do:
Build strength. Muscle mass tells your physiology that it can handle whatever life brings.
Rest. Deep rest and meditation means being completely unplugged for a period of time everyday. Start with 5 minutes and build.
Social contact. Real, in-person relationships calm our nervous system. We are wired to survive and thrive together.
Heart rate. Get your heart rate up a few times each week doing an activity you enjoy.
Pleasure and unstructured time. This creative time is how we resolve and move through stressful events.
People with metabolic insulin resistance or neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can benefit enormously from a ketogenic diet. Others just want to have better focus, improve their game or stop eating processed foods.
Many of these people thrive with the shift but others don’t. So who doesn’t and why not?
Perhaps you have a friend who has tried a keto diet and done everything by the book but it hasn’t worked. This person may be feeling worse even after the initial adaptive phase.
When the HPA axis is stressed keto can make things worse. The body interprets this low carb diet as just another added stress to deal with. This’ll happen if cortisol, our primary stress hormone, is out of whack.
Symptoms of constant overwhelm, afternoon crashes, insomnia and poor waking energy indicate ‘adrenal fatigue’. The cause is chronic or acute stress that is more than the body can handle. Learning to regulate cortisol and recover from the stress has to come first. Otherwise switching to a ketogenic diet is unlikely to work. It may even make things worse.
It’s similar with thyroid health. Nearly every tissue in the body requires thyroid hormone. If you have a low body temperature, are losing hair and have thinning eyebrows you may want to have your thyroid checked. In fact, I screen all my patients for thyroid levels. This is because I see it so commonly missed and is essential to metabolism.
When it comes to keto or low carb diets caution make sense. Thyroid function requires consistent fuel. This fuel is most accessible through carbohydrate. Although the body can adapt it makes more sense to stabilize the thyroid first. The endocrine system as a whole has this check and balance system of negative feedback loops. The benefits of keto won’t roll out if thyroid health is not at a certain level of stability.
Often in clinic there is a dual presentation.This is why medicine is personal and individualized. As a practitioner I tease out what is possible. For example, a patient with a cortisol imbalance who has a family history of diabetes may benefit from keto if stress management is taken seriously. If this person’s life doesn’t allow space for meditation or good sleep hygiene then keto should be avoided.
Many people with adrenal or thyroid require specific nutrients. If symptoms flare on keto then electrolytes become even more important. Not enough electrolytes can cause cortisol to rise which interferes with the conversion of T4 to T3 which is the active form. Stay tuned because my next article is all about electrolytes.
Getting enough sleep, sunlight, movement and social contact optimizes our health in ways that diet doesn’t. Ignoring these aspects of health is common especially for anyone who likes to fixate. Experiment and keep a curious mind. For those with a history of disordered eating or addiction its important to notice if you are becoming neurotic about the details. After an initial phase switching to keto shouldn’t take too much thought.
Keep in mind that overeating is another stressor. It’s easier to eat less with keto because fat and protein is much more satiating than carbs are. You may have noticed feeling hungry if you have just a piece of fruit. If you add some nuts or cheese your snack last longer. This is a really simple example but it works. On keto cutting carbs down to less than 25% of your caloric intake means your body begins using fat as fuel. And we know healthy fats have benefits throughout the body from nourishing the joints, brain and gut.
As we enter a new era in Canada, it’s important to look at what’s happening in other places. Medical marijuana is legal in the majority of states in the USA. It is also legal in Australia although it is much more difficult to get. The supply is limited and there are no dispensaries. Medical marijuana in general doesn’t make it accessible to most people. Finding a doctor who will prescribe it isn’t always easy. Only a limited number of conditions are approved. What medical marijuana does is increase quality because the product is lab tested.
Recreational use is legal in Canada and in nine states of the US. This designation makes it much easier to obtain and quality can be determined by the consumer. In these states we find labs creating cleaner products that are free of fungus, pesticides, bacteria and chemicals. We can also get specific amounts of CBD:THC which allows is important for targeting specific symptoms. I’m looking forward to these kinds of labs emerging in Canada. At this time we can’t import across the border safely. It can be hit or miss what you get from a dispensary.
CBD For Pain
Medical marijuana is antispasmodic. Women who experience intractable pain during their cycle, CBD can help relax the muscles. It also dampens the communication from the pain receptors to the brain. What people report is still feeling the pain but it doesn’t bother them in the same way. This is important because the body can begin to heal when the pain response is lower.
Medical marijuana is anti-inflammatory. Therefore we see an improvement other symptoms as well. The side effects of other anti-inflammatories and pain medications can be severe. Not to mention that many of the stronger pain killers are habit forming and can result in overdose. I had a patient yesterday with a severe back spasm. The hospital denied him pain medication. NSAIDs don’t work for him because they are hard on the gut. He suffers from gastritis. He has no history of addiction to opiods. So why was he denied?
Another patient of mine had suffered with endometriosis for years. CBD was the only pain medication that helped her function. Once her pain was down she was able to make important decisions about her health, her career and her family.
Why does it work? How to take it?
The endocannabinoid system is part of our body. It’s a modulatory system that affects brain, endocrine, and immune tissues. Our body has endocannabinoid receptors. We produce chemicals naturally that are very similar to the chemical cascade of what occurs when we take CBD.
Smoking causes harm. Vaporization is a good alternative as are oils or tinctures. Suppositories can be excellent for severe abdominal and pelvic pain. Women who suffer from pain during intercourse are experiencing relief. But again we need to have standardized products. I have had two patients who experienced high anxiety and paranoia using products from a dispensary.
Endocannabinoids appears to play a very important regulatory role in the secretion of hormones related to reproductive functions and response to stress.
Women are using CBD for symptoms associated with PMS including painful periods, anxiety and insomnia. During perimenopause and menopause women are experiencing relief by using CBD particularly for insomnia and anxiety.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
There are only a few small studies on the subject of use in pregnancy. The results show a propensity towards pre-term labour and delivery. They also showed use over 20 days during pregnancy may result in lower birth weight. It is difficult to do clinical trials during pregnancy but this limited evidence shows that caution is warranted. Use during breastfeeding exposes the infant so the benefits need to be weighed carefully against the benefits.
One circumstance where more research could be valuable is when nausea/vomiting during pregnancy are extreme. Given that malnutrition of both mother and fetus is a concern, careful administration of CBD likely offers less risk than other medications that are used in this circumstance.
Dr. Rachna Patel is an expert in use of medical marijuana. Her website is an excellent resource.
Sleep is the cornerstone of health. Everything from immune function to mood & behaviour issues are all linked with poor sleep habits. Researchers are learning so much from experimenting with how sleep deprivation inhibits our ability to thrive.
Let’s get your sleep dialed so you can live well. Here are some of the facts that will help you do it.
Duration & Timing of Sleep
Duration is how long you sleep. Research shows that we need between 7-9 hours each night for optimal health. You’ll need to be in bed a little longer to achieve this because we all need transition time.
Timing is when you sleep. Sleeping during the day is very hard on the body. Natural light, temperature and seasonal changes all relate with timing.
The habits of three hunter-gatherer groups were recently studied. They went to bed, on average, 3.5 hours after sunset. Were they in front of screens during this time? Of course not. They were dancing, telling stories and singing. What’s very interesting is like us parents, they woke before sunrise. Why?
Temperature is a big deal when it comes to sleep
People wake up when temperature rises and this often happens prior to sunrise.
Having a hot bath before bed raises your temperature but when you get out you cool down rapidly. In fact your core temperature cools down and this can make you drowsy.
Alcohol raises your body temperature so you’ll often sleep worse after a drink. NSAIDs like tylenol drop temperature slightly but I don’t recommend using this as a sleep aid.
The Time You Spend in Bed
Allowing yourself a sleep period of 8 hours ensures that you’ll get the rest you need. How long we sleep varies but extending the time you have in bed means you’ll more likely get what you need. Keep in mind that recovery from a work out or an infection requires longer rest periods.
What is fascinating is that the tribes that were studied would be asleep for an average of 6 hours every night but in bed for 8 hours. So this brings us to why an extended sleep period is so effective for increasing sleep satisfaction.
This is the feeling of being rested, energetic and alert when you wake up. You may need even more sleep if you are using your brain a lot or want to optimize memory. This is why college students need almost as much as infants or toddlers.
The hunter-gatherer people who were studied were not affected by light exposure. Obviously this is because they have a consistent environment without artificial light. There is no jet lag and fewer changes in general.
Blue light at night, shifts in time zones and more stimulus at the wrong times all have an effect. Lack of daytime light exposure is a major contributor to circadian disruption. We all need at least 30 min of outdoor day light to set our clock. With people working indoors all day this is an important factor to address. In terms of productivity, cutting blue light during the day can be helpful. We are alerted constantly when exposed to blue light & don’t perform as well. Wearing orange tinted glasses is calming. It can help with focus. Take a walk outside at lunchtime will do the same thing.
Light is measured in lux. Although devices don’t have a high output most people hold their device too close. I’ve thought about how as a kid I never was allowed to sit that close to a television.
The intensity of light exposure is quadrupled if your device is a foot away versus two feet away. This is because of how directly the light penetrates into your eyes.
All Kindle type apps are now backlit. This can create a similar circadian disruption especially if you don’t get daytime light exposure & have your ebook lit up at bedtime.
Nature, distance & movement
Being in nature regularly is important too. Looking at a body of water, a field or the forest uses different parts of our eyes and brain. I was struck by how calming it is to look out at the mountains where I live.
Eye movement has a massive impact on learning and physicality. We know this from studying infants growth. I study this through a movement practice. I always sleep better after moving my body in different ways.
Every week I see women who are told their thyroid labs are normal. Often there is a general sense of feeling unwell. Symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, hair loss and feeling cold are common. Being told you are fine when you know you are not is confusing and painful.
What’s being missed and why?
The number one reason is that the root cause of most thyroid disease in the developed world is not iodine deficiency. Hypothyroidism that is autoimmune in nature is called Hashimoto’s. Many are undiagnosed because it is rarely tested in conventional medicine
Secondly, lab ranges used for TSH is based on the initial research that included participants who had Hashimioto’s but they didn’t know it. This became apparent in subsequent research but the conventional markers don’t reflect this evidence.
Breaking Down Thyroid Markers
TSH: Thyroid stimulating hormone from the pituitary causes the thyroid to release T4. The functional range of TSH is anything under 2.5 or even 2. The conventional range only flags it over 4 or 5.
T4 is normal when the thyroid is doing what it needs to do. It then gets converted into T3. This happens in the liver, gut and peripheral tissues which doesn’t always happen. T3 is the metabolically active form so if the conversion doesn’t happen then we see symptoms.
Then there is total and free T4/T3. Free means its unbound from its protein carrier and is a better way to assess function.
Hormones are fat soluble and need to be attached to a protein carrier to circulate around the body. Thyroid binding globulin is required for this.
Finally thyroid antibodies indicate if there is an autoimmune reaction going on. I always include this as part of basic work up for new patients because it is so common.
Just last week a patient told me they had started taking high doses of iodine because she suspected her thyroid was off. This is not a safe approach. In fact there is evidence that iodine restriction can be helpful in Hashimoto’s. Supplementing with thyroid nutrients is not a good starting place. Food is a much safer route to take.
Iodine is crucial for thyroid function. Deficiency is much less common today due to iodized salt. However many health conscious people switch to mineral or sea salt. If this is your plan make sure you eat sea vegetables. Cod is another excellent source of iodine.
Selenium is crucial for thyroid function. But it has a u-shaped curve meaning supplementation, even small amounts in a multi-vitamin, can be problematic after awhile. Eating brazil nuts is a much better choice.
Goitres are still a problem. In some patients it may be the only indication of Hashimoto’s. This isn’t completely understood but its linked to the next section.
Stress and inflammation
Thyroid hormone is required to metabolize cortisol. The testing I do shows both free and total cortisol. If these two markers are discordant it can indicate a thyroid issue. In some cases this will show up before thyroid markers go out of range. Keep in mind that stress is a trigger for autoimmune conditions. The common colds can also make symptoms worse and thyroid symptoms can flare with any type of stress.
Patterns to Rule Out
Often a patient comes to me convinced she has a thyroid issue but in fact something else going on. With a full panel we can see what’s actually happening. Here is a summary of the patterns that can happen:
Pituitary dysfunction: TSH is low or normal but T4 and T3 are not.
T4 not converted to T3: this is caused by inflammation, gut issues or nutrient deficiencies.
Thyroid binding globulin: high estrogen is common and can inhibit this transport system.
Low TRH (Thyrotropin-releasing hormone) from hypothalamus: this is caused by leptin/insulin resistence/inflammation.
Cellular resistance to thyroid hormone. caused by stress, cortisol and/or inflammation.
Don’t Treat Yourself
Given how thyroid is being mismanaged by our system its not unusual to see patients who are attempting to treat themselves. Ordering pharmaceuticals from Europe or trying high doses of iodine is not recommended. Get proper testing and find someone you trust to work with.
You can begin by doing an autoimmune protocol. Its worth trying this elimination diet at least once and it is something you can safely do at home. I have a course that walks you through it. I lead a group each spring or fall so people have support and somewhere to ask questions. Send me a note if you are interested.
Another therapy to consider is low dose naltrexone. I’m seeing lots of excellent results with this in patients who have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition.
Two additional nutrients to consider getting tested are vitamin D and glutathione. These both stimulate t-regulatory cells for immune health. It can be as dangerous to have too much vitamin d as it is to have too little. This is why I suggest testing especially if you are supplementing. Enough daylight exposure is the best source along with cod liver oil at 1 tsp/day. Glutathione an important antioxidant involved with cellular energy production and immune function. It can be tested with a urine organic acids lab. Finally curcumin, in a bioactive form, combats inflammation and stimulates the immune system’s t-regulatory cells.
The term HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) dysfunction is the medical term for what is commonly called adrenal fatigue. There is complex interdependence between the brain, glands and cells that make the stress response function. In most cases adrenal fatigue has nothing to do with low output of hormones by the adrenals. High cortisol is often what causes symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue.
Cortisol Helps Us
Cortisol has an impact on inflammatory response, thyroid function, glucose levels and the list goes on. Early life events and how our parents regulate cortisol, sets our HPA axis and cortisol regulation. Adapting our stress response is possible at any age. Research on neuroplasticity and meditation confirms this.
Cortisol has a daily rhythm that helps us with sleep cycles, energy levels, mood and pain. Chronically elevated cortisol is not ideal and stress management, regular eating habits and social contact all play a role in regulation this important stress hormone.
Causes of Low Cortisol
Cortisol can be low when the pituitary gland’s output is low. Receptor sensitivity can cause cortisol signalling to be disrupted. Reduced bioavailability happens at the tissue level when cellular transcription or binding globulins aren’t doing their job. We also shunt cortisol into its inactive form, cortisone. The HPA axis is much more nuanced than the concept of adrenal fatigue lets on.
Research and Testing
Much of the research on cortisol is done using saliva tests which only show free circulating cortisol. Free cortisol levels can be very different, even opposite from total cortisol. Improper treatment can easily result. Looking at both of these markers can lead to early detection of thyroid issues, blood sugar problems and leptin resistance. Chronic high stress contributes to every modern disease although conventional medicine still doesn’t always recognize this.
Debunking the Pregnenolone Steal
DHEA is an important steroid hormone. There is a common misconception that cortisol can ‘steal’ from DHEA’s precursor pregnenolone. Physiologically this is impossible. Pregnenolone and DHEA are produced in different tissues. Additionally cortisol is regulated outside of the adrenals. Location and function debunk the myth of the pregnenolone steal. Supplementing pregnenolone has no effect on DHEA.
Three ways of looking at Cortisol:
1. Total cortisol low or high? Prolonged stress, insulin resistance, gut issues or thyroid issues are all factors.
3. Impaired cortisol metabolism? Clearance of cortisol can point to other issues like liver or thyroid involvement.
Evolutionary medicine reminds us that humans are really good at adapting to our environment. Enjoy positive stress that moves your life forward. Keep other stresses in check. Notice when to back off. This is a skill that requires constant refinement.
Stress is by far the number one factor influencing health today. The HPA axis is what allows us to regulate stress appropriately. We all have times when stress becomes too much. Knowing which tools to engage and how to recover is key to resiliency.
We all know that sitting a lot isn’t good. You may have heard the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’. Its true that blood sugar and cardiovascular risks go up significantly for people who find themselves in sedentary jobs. How can we mitigate these health complications when life requires a certain amount of work at a desk? Why is stress a major factor in every chronic illness?
Continual activity throughout the day is more beneficial for improving glycemic control than a single bout of structured exercise. Just meeting recommended levels of physical activity isn’t enough. By spending the rest of the day sedentary, people are still at risk for insulin resistance leading to diabetes and a disrupted gut microbiome. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Avoid sitting for extended periods.
Engage in frequent light activity breaks throughout the day.
Set up a standing desk and alternate with sitting.
Treadmill desks can improve focus and productivity.
Ensure that your leisure activities do not involve screen time.
Stress management like meditation is very helpful.
Skipping Meals, Caffeine and Stress
I love my work. When I have a lot to do I often can forget to stop and eat. This in combination with sitting at a desk increases my stress. On the weekend I have no trouble with blood sugar but this isn’t true when I’m sitting which confirms what the research is saying.
Packing enough of a lunch and starting my day with some movement helps tremendously. I go for a walk, a swim or do some resistance training. On my research days I also have a yoga mat out in my office so I can take creative breaks or do some push-ups. Putting on dance music can also inspire me when needed.
I hear this from many of my patients about how caffeine is a contributor to stress. The connection between memory loss, blood sugar dysregulation and caffeine addiction is very real for many people working in tech. The rise in young people with memory loss is not separate from the rise in diabetes.
Life is better when you move
Activity breaks can include taking a walk outside over the lunch hour, or simply getting up to walk to the water dispenser every hour. Include some social time as this helps to regulate our nervous system. Having a fun activity to look forward to does as well. This may be the most important part of your work day.
Of course activity breaks can’t be considered a replacement for other physical activity. Recent research recommends that activity breaks be used daily in the context of an overall healthy lifestyle. Aiming for 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise is essential as a baseline.
“But I don’t feel stressed!” I hear this a lot from patients when their body is telling me otherwise either through lab work, radial pulse or other clinical factors. Explaining that there are many physiological causes of stress often is helpful. Financial or relationship stress is just part of the picture when it comes to cortisol.
1. Gut Health
For example, a gut infection is a major stressor to the body and when we resolve this a lot of energy is freed up. The next step is to rebalance the HPA Axis after a year of living with a parasite.
Commuting and posture are some of the factors that can raise your stress response. Running too much is another common one along with caffeine. Frequent marijuana use affects both cortisol and prolactin.
4. Sleep, Sleep, Sleep
Reduced Sleep – A loss of sleep for just one night leads to higher cortisol levels the next evening.
Staying up late – Cortisol goes up when we are awake during normal sleep times.
5. Other Hormones
Thyroid: “The effect of thyroid hormones on the adrenal axis was not secondary to changes in the level of circulating corticosteroids.”
Estrogen: Estradiol regulates the CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone) which is “best known for its role in activation of the mammalian stress response.”
Leptin: This study looks at CRH in relation to adiposity and leptin. Furthermore, “the modulatory role of glucocorticoids could be altered in obesity.”
I was working with a patient the other day and a noise I didn’t notice outside was causing her to feel unsettled. It reminded me of how we all respond differently to stressors. Noise can be a significant one for many people.
7. Toxic exposure
This study looks specifically at heavy metals following an oil spill and the affect on the cortisol. This links back to how there can be physiological stressors that affect our endocrine system and stress response past its limit without us knowing.
I have a couple questionnaires I use to help assess both the stress we know about and the stress we don’t know about. Applying more than one method to figure out what is going on at the root is key to successful treatment.
With the astonishing rise of autoimmune diseases, we need effective treatment strategies. Studies on low dose naltrexone (LDN) are encouraging. We can use this information along with what is being seen clinically or anecdotally. Treatments that are safe but don’t bring in lots of money are unlikely to be given much attention by the conventional system. Research dollars will also be limited.
Research on LDN
The studies that do exist include treatment on cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, and autism. For patients with Crohn’s the rate of remission was 70% with complete healing of the gastrointestinal mucosa without any side effects. If you know anyone with Crohn’s disease you’ll understand how debilitating the disease can be and conventional treatments are often ineffective so this is very encouraging.
Hashimoto’s, Infertility & Arthritis
In my clinic I have seen LDN work in a variety of autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome. It is also used in neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In the United Kingdom, it is being used by one clinic to treat infertility with excellent success. The reason it is working is because it is regulating the immune system and reducing inflammation. In Functional Medicine, we know these two factors are at the root of most chronic disease.
I’ve had patients who don’t feel well but don’t know why. This can be a major factor in mental health especially when their doctor has told them their symptoms are in their head. I look for indications of specific autoimmune disorders in lab work. When a patient feels better on an autoimmune protocol this is sometimes enough to explore LDN as a treatment. With no side effects and positive results, there is little reason not to. One patient was able to stop daily use of opiods after 20 years of use. These stories are why I do what I do.
I’m going to tackle some of the most common autoimmune conditions by looking at the latest research. What is significant for autoimmunity is that conventional treatments fall short. New approaches are badly needed. Good results are being found with an anti-inflammatory diet like the autoimmune paleo reset along with prebiotic fibres that nourish beneficial bacteria. I also use herbs to soothe the intestinal lining and further reduce inflammation. Other therapies like low dose naltrexone have been very helpful for my patients.
Genetics and environment play an important role in autoimmunity. An ancestral diet with significantly more fibre and no processed foods has excellent outcomes. It is naturally lower in carbohydrate. Processed grains and grains in general were introduced recently in our evolution. Our biology does not tolerate these foods especially in the quantities they are being consumed. The high carb, low fat diet has led to many problems including overeating. Higher fat whole foods are more satiating and safe as long as they aren’t combined with refined sweeteners.
Blood Sugar Solutions
Diabetes is on the rise in both children and adults. In this disease the immune system attacks the pancreas preventing it from producing insulin by attacking it. A study done this year found an association between inflammation and microbial imbalances in those with type 1 diabetes (T1D). In biopsies of patients with T1D, two specific strains of bacteria associated with gut inflammation were out of balance. The study concluded that those with TID have a disrupted gut microbiome which plays a role in the disease 1.
Research on Lupus
Gut bacteria serve as immune protection against pathogens but in some cases they have taken over and contributed to transmission of a disease. This in unusual but is what happens in Lupus. Again it is an imbalance in specific strains of bacteria against others that contribute to the disease. By supplementing with the anti-inflammatory strains of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium symptoms of Lupus were reduced. In animal studies both lymphadenopathy and glomerulonephritis were affected by this simple intervention. Treatment with just bifido prevented the immune system from becoming over activated.2 A disrupted gut microbiota is associated with decreased DNA replication and repair. Impaired carbohydrate and amino acid metabolism have also been associated with gut dysbiosis. Therefore, we see dysbiosis epigenetically harming the body’s repair system and metabolism.
Rheumatoid Arthritis & the Microbiome
Increased levels of aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans (Aa) in oral cavities due to peridontitis may be connected to rheumatoid arthritis. Research suggests that the oral microbe Aa may trigger autoimmunity in rheumatoid arthritis. Therapies that treat Aa infection and improve the health of the oral microbiome may be valuable in the treatment of RA. Confirming the presence of Aa and then treating it would be the first step. Dietary interventions to reduce inflammation and probiotics specific to the oral microbiome would ideally be part of treatment.
Why are these 3 G’s so damn important right now? One out of every six people in North America suffer from an autoimmune condition. By 2050, it’s predicted that 600,000 kids will have type 1 diabetes given the current rate. This is alarming and I really think we can do better for our children.
Autoimmunity is complex and has many causes. In this article I discuss three diseases and the research connecting gut health to autoimmunity. Today I’ll focus on a specific genetic marker present in some autoimmune conditions and the strain of bacteria associated with it. We’ll also discuss how a lower carb, ancestral type diet is indicated.
Gluten increases inflammation even in those who are non reactive. It is also a filler food meaning its highly processed and modified. It lacks any nutrient value unless it is fortified which can actually cause more problems. For those who are reactive, gluten leads to several disease processes including neurological issues, joint problems, malabsorption and yes, autoimmune disease.
What is HLA?
HLA means human leukocyte antigen. Leukocytes are the white blood cells. They protect the body from infection and foreign substances. Antigen means the protein on the surface of immune cells. Genes determine which proteins are present on the surface of the immune cells. HLA is a highly polymorphic gene, meaning there are many different possible gene set variants, or haplotypes.
Humans have incredibly adaptive immune systems because of the number of haplotypes available. However, certain haplotypes predispose a person to specific immune system diseases. HLA-DQ haplotypes have also been associated with celiac disease (1), while HLA-DRB1 has been associated with rheumatoid arthritis (2). Mold illness may affect one person and not another due to the individual’s haplotype.
Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, reactive arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis (AS) and uveitis are all associated with HLA-B27. Fusion of the spine in AS is the most common condition associated with this haplotype. An estimated 88 percent of people with AS are HLA-B27 positive. Some subtypes of this gene are protective against AS while others increase the risk of developing the disease. Keep in mind that you can have this haplotype and never develop an autoimmune condition.
A connection has been made between Klebsiella and HLA-B27 since 1980. Studies have found that this gut bacteria has two molecules that closely resemble HLA-B27 (3, 4). The immune system naturally produces antibodies against Klebsiella in an effort to remove it, but these antibodies can also bind to HLA-B27.
Can a Low-Carb Diet Help?
Studies have shown that Klebsiella does not grow on cellulose from plant starches but can grow on simple sugars (5). Simple sugars are absorbed in the small intestine whereas some starch makes it to the colon where bacteria live. Klebsiella can manufacture an enzyme called pullulanase, a starch-debranching which allows it to break down starch into simple sugars for energy and growth (6).
Human studies confirm that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet significantly reduces klebsiella in fecal samples (7). Another study found that a low-starch diet reduced the immune response in AS patients (8). The majority of these patients reported remission or at least a reduction in symptoms.
And Finally Back to Gluten
In four out of 5 randomized, double blind trials gluten showed to increase symptoms in patients. The patients who received the rice pill instead of the gluten pill continued to have symptoms improvement. This doesn’t mean that all people need to be strictly gluten free but it does mean that up to 80% of people who are struggling with chronic illness are reactive to gluten. I explain to patients who want to get better that removing gluten is an excellent starting place given the medical literature. Most testing available to the public only looks at alpha gliadin and wheat. More accurate testing is available. It covers 24 markers. I highly recommend this if you are questioning whether or not to remove gluten from your diet. Remember that diet and environment turn on genes that would otherwise be dormant. One step to preventing autoimmunity can be as simple as eating more vegetable and eliminating gluten for 2 weeks to see if you feel better.
Especially when two-thirds of adults don’t get the minimum required to meet basic physiological requirements. In fact, less than 7 hours per night can shorten lifespan significantly. Inflammation increases when we miss a night of good sleep. Other sleep research shows up to 29% lower sperm count in men who sleep poorly vs those who regularly get enough rest. Athletes performance drops 10-30%.
Why Parents are Crazy
As a parent of a young child I can vouch for how difficult it can be to get enough sleep. When your infant finally starts sleeping through the night your cortisol and melatonin production is so confused insomnia becomes a thing. Catching up is not actually possible especially as a single parent. Through trial and error I’ve discovered the ridiculous reality of living in a state of constant sleep deprivation. Caffeine stops working. You think everyone hates you and life is out to get you. This is the real reason parents are crazy a lot of the time! Anyone doing shift work or work late at night can be included in those who suffer the most.
Adults really do require 7-9 hours of sleep
Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hrs
Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hrs
Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hr
Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
Elementary school age (6-13): 9-11 hrs
Teens (14-17): 8-10 hrs
Adults (18-64): 7-9 hrs
Older adults (65+): 7-8 hrs
Sleep Hygiene: Focus on What to Do
1. Be consistent with your sleep schedule
Set a realistic bedtime. Train your brain to develop a regular circadian rhythm by going to bed at the same time most of the time.
2. Establish a bedtime routine
This can include a warm but not hot bath or shower. Journaling in a book, meditating, stretching gently or reading are all appropriate activities. Dim your lights and listen to relaxing music to unwind from your day.
3. Your bedroom needs to be quiet, cool and comfortable
Sleep is better when your room is cool rather than warm. You can keep a door or window cracked for circulation and to avoid stuffiness. Keep all lights off, including night lights, and lights from electronic devices. Sleep on a comfortable mattress. Turn off the extraneous noise. A white noise machine is fine. If your pets wake you up, keep them in another part of the house.
4. Turn off electronic devices in the evening
This allows for more connection, better digestion and a general parasympathetic or relaxed environment where you can reconnect and let go of the day. Electronic devices emit blue light which stimulates the brain. Cortisol and melatonin get confused and these hormones play a huge role in insomnia.
5. Exercise during the day
Exercise promotes continuous sleep. Its also great stress relief. Avoid intense exercise in the evening as this can interfere with deep sleep. Stress management is crucial to sleeping well.
6. Eat enough during the day
Blood sugar dysregulation causes spikes in cortisol and makes it more difficult to rest later on. In fact, having enough carbohydrates during your evening meal has been shown to support better sleep. Choose root veggies and unprocessed, gluten free options. Often times food reactions cause an internal stress response that we aren’t aware of.
7. Use caffeine with caution
We know that 50% of people don’t metabolize caffeine. This means it stays in the body for much longer and therefore amount matters. Cut down on caffeine and avoid it after noon entirely. This includes chocolate. Uncooked cacoa is easier on you. Matcha has a longer burn than coffee and many health benefits. Find alternatives like peppermint or dandelion tea. Golden tea is a delicious alternative as well. I know its not easy to change this habit especially when you are sleep deprived but it can be done. It may be the most important change you can make.
8. Get out of bed if you aren’t sleeping
Do a guided meditation or find another relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. This is part of training your body that bed is for sleep. Have a comfortable chair in your room and make a cup of sleepy tea. Simple rituals like this work.
9. Avoid large meals later at night
A small protein rich snack before bed can help with night hunger but large meals late at night create a burden for the liver. Finish meals a few hours before bedtime. The liver kicks into gear at 11pm so being asleep by then is ideal.
10. Reduce fluids before bedtime
I’m training my son to drink more during the day so he won’t need pull-ups at night. Just pretend you are 5 years old! My mom has sage advice for parents. Ask yourself if getting your kid up to pee in the night is more of a priority than your sleep.
11. Nap or no nap?
I teach meditation to my patients. I find if someone calms their nervous system for 5-20min during the afternoon it can support a deeper sleep later. People may or may not nap as part of the practice. I don’t see any problem with this however long naps may inhibit sleep later on.
12. Avoid these because we know they interfere with sleep
Alcohol raises our body temperature and requires that the liver clear it. Ever wake up between 1am and 3am after having a drink? Cigarettes and some medications also make sleep more elusive.
13. Black out your room, hide the clock and wake naturally if possible
This is basic but an incredibly important game-changer. Buy black-out curtains. Don’t use night-lights except in the bathroom. Turn your digital clock away from your bed while you sleep. Don’t wake to an alarm as much as possible.
14. Creat an extended sleep schedule
For anyone who has suffered from sleep problems an extended sleep schedule can support getting more sleep. Research shows that allowing a longer period of time in bed does increase the amount of sleep people get.
15. Only use your bedroom for sleep and sex
Train your body to expect only rest and pleasure in this space by creating this. Bedrooms ought to be a place of sanctuary from the world.
An Important Ally: Your Morning Awakening Response
Its best to get up when you first wake up. By exposing your eyes to bright full-spectrum light you are stimulating the cortisol awakening response (CAR). This accounts for half or more of our daily cortisol secretion. Remember the cortisol is anti-inflammatory and an important hormone that works synergistically with melatonin. Doing any kind of movement first thing supports morning cortisol. This could be carrying a child, going upstairs, walking your dog or going for a run. Daylight stimulates cortisol release, and darkness stimulates melatonin.
Blue light boxes improve sleep and depression simply by stimulating this early morning response during the winter for those who have to get up before dawn or who can’t go outside first thing in the morning. Beginning to notice this response and working with it can help repair your sleep-wake cycle if its been disrupted.
HPA-D is not Adrenal Fatigue
I’ve written extensively on this topic and the reason I bring it up is because you’ll see a bunch of recommended supplements for adrenal fatigue. Insomnia is a symptom of a much more complex disorder called HPA-D. (hypothalamus pituitary adrenal dysregulation). By testing cortisol thoroughly we can see that pattern of dysfunction and supplement accordingly. Giving adaptogens to everyone is not the answer. Nervine herbs on the other hand are safe and interestingly ashwaghandha is both an adaptogen and a nervine. Some of my other favourites include skullcap, passion flower and camomile. Anything that makes you feel groggy upon awakening is inhibiting the cortisol awakening response so avoid this. Be careful using licorice as this potent herb increases cortisol. L-theanine is an amino acid that is safe to use for anyone.
Certain patterns of HPA-D require increasing cortisol at certain times of day or decreasing it. Often there’s an issue with hormone clearance pointing to excess inflammation, inhibited liver function or thyroid issues. The testing I do looks at both free circulating cortisol and total metabolized cortisol. These are not always the same. In many cases only free cortisol is tested resulting in treatment that is not neccessarily exact.
CBD is both anti-inflammatory and promotes sleep. This is why standardized extracts need to made available. For those experiencing recalitrant pain CBD can bring down the pain where other pain medications won’t. A patient of mine with insomnia and endometreosis began using CBD. Once her pain came down she was able to sleep and could start making decisions about her health. She had been unable to work for many months. I’ve seen this with backpain as well.
Thorough blood work including iron, blood sugar, thyroid and inflammatory markers is required to see a full picture and get a sense of what is going on. A gut work-up is also important. Neurotransmitters play a role in HPA-D through the gut-brain axis. Healing the gut so its producing neurotransmitters again and absorbing nutrients is the key in some patients. Supplementing with precursors like 5HTP are helpful in these patterns during treatment. You may be noticing that it can take time to get to the root cause of insomnia. Often we are also addressing trauma during treatment. When we find out what works and are sleeping more, people report feeling that they got their life back.
Scientists no longer see genetics as set in stone. In the last two decades we’ve learned that genetic expression and variation is much more complex. It’s strongly influenced by environmental factors. These actually can create molecular changes that aren’t encoded in the DNA but do get passed down to our children and grandchildren. Factors like poor methylation can be addressed through optimizing specific nutrients.
The sum total of all the environmental factors in our lives is called the exposome. This includes stress, diet, activity level, social contact and toxin exposure. There’s a complex interaction between our exposome, which includes what our parents and grandparents were exposed to, and our genes. The exposome regulates the activation, suppression and expression of genes. Epigenetic is the word that describes how our genes can vary in expression without changing the actual code.
Epigenetics and Methylation
Epigenetics show us that there is that a lot that was considered unchangeable than can be modified simply by shifting the environmental influences. Let’s use poor methylation as an example. You can have a gene mutation that would predispose you to certain deficiencies but it’s also possible that these are not expressing because of a multitude of factors. Eating more folate while avoiding supplemental folic acid could be all that is needed to turn poor methylation around.
The methylation cycle is complex and involves the coordination of several enzymes. Gene mutations like MTHFR are now talked about alot. It stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. There are 7 keys ones. COMT influences estrogen metabolism for example. We are learning more about these all the time. A genetic test like 23 and Me will show you if you have a mutation but as I mentioned above it does mean anything unless you have also checked our how you are actually methylating using another test and having it interpreted properly. MTHFR is not a disease but can make you more susceptible to specific deficiencies and conditions.
Gene Expression 101
If you receive the same mutation from both parents you’ll be considered homozygous. If you’re heterozygous for a mutation it means you have a single normal, non-mutated copy of the gene and then you have another copy that’s mutated. Homozygous mutations are often more serious because whatever enzymes this particular gene codes, are not going to be produced.
Symptoms don’t always show up though even when enzyme activity is reduced significantly so it’s really an individual. I’m treating an athlete right now with poor methylation. It’s unlikely that we’ll do genetic testing however we will look into some underlying causes. You see we really can isolate environmental factors. A gut infection, stress from undereating or overtraining, a cortisol or thyroid imbalance can all be triggers for these mutations. The trick is to catch them prior to full-blown illness.
Increasing methylation capacity is certainly a starting point. Often people will have low levels of folate, B12 and glutathione. Specific metabolites from the methylation cycle may also be missing and there also may be more inflammation.
These are potential markers for poor methylation which also set up a system with increased susceptibility to toxins and infections. Impaired detox capacity and immune dysregulation can cause histamine intolerance, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, infertility, and miscarriage.
An Important Difference
Methylation mutations are not like mutations in genes that cause conditions like cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. A mutation in these genes guarantees a person will develop these diseases. With methylation there’s a lot more variation. It’s a predisposing factor meaning that it could lead to or be a factor in health issues. This is really dependent on all the environmental factors as well as other factors that we don’t even fully understand yet.
Testing Beyond 23 and Me
In my practice there are two tests I use that have methylation markers. One is a hormone test that I use primarily to look at cortisol along with a number of other hormones and their metabolites. The other is a test I use when there are cognitive issues or for a general health overview. A new test is coming out in 2020. Stay tuned as I start to integrate it into my work with people.
Cortisol is our number one stress hormone. It has far-reaching effects on our physiology and health. The wisdom of what it does can be harnessed if we understand how it works.
The number one action of cortisol is that it is anti-inflammatory when its properly regulated. If its not regulated life quality of life plummets. Insomnia, pain and weight can all increase. Energy levels, cognitive function and libido decrease. Here’s why:
Cortisol gives us a source of immediate energy by releasing glucagon from the liver. The down side is that it can lead to high blood sugar, pre-diabetes or insulin resistance if we are chronically drawing on it. Weight gain and estrogen dominance can also result.
Cortisol also releases stored amino acids when in fight or flight mode to meet the heightened energy requirements. The negative result of this is similar to the first one. We want to be in the rest and digest mode most of the time so we absorb amino acids from our food.
Cortisol increases the uptake of glucose to make fat tissue. This is hard-wired in us for times of famine. Body fat stored around the abdomen and trunk is due to running on cortisol.
Cortisol breaks down bone to provide minerals to meet the energy needs. This weakens bones leading to osteopenia and osteoporosis. This is the same effect that taking steroid medications for too long has on bone health.
Cortisol makes up happy. There’s a heightened neural excitability. This is the good side of stress. Perceptual and neural abilities are amplified.
Cortisol mobilizes the immune system. More antibodies are produced when we are stressed. The body is ready to deal with injury. The negative side is that modern-day stressors are different from those of our ancestors. Sitting in traffic is stressful but we are not likely to get a sprained ankle the way we would running from a tiger.
Cortisol increases our circulating neutrophils. Our immune systems are often in a state of hyper reactivity. Meditation trains us so we can come down.
Our resources are diverted. T cells and lymphocyte production changes. This is why we get sick when we are stressed or when a period of high stress ends.
Cortisol changes the thyroid function especially the conversion of T4-T3. When cortisol increases, thyroid hormone decreases. This is an attempt to maintain homeostasis.. Thyroid issues will develop when stress goes on for long enough. This is a major contributor to why we have the current epidemic of thyroid disease.
Cortisol changes secretory IgA. Deactivates all the immune functions that aren’t needed for flight and fight mode. Mucosal tissues are weakened. Low grade infection can become chronic. Food reactions develop.
Ground breaking research highlights the role of social connection on long-term health. It’s fairly well accepted that smoking cigarettes is bad for health. However, sitting at computers for work, pleasure and social connection is widely accepted.
Getting up from your chair to interact with real people has a real impact. Structuring movement into your daily routine and quality time with those you love feels good. Leave your device at home or turn it off to mitigate the effects of constant distraction on your relationships.
Stress in Times of Change
The physiological impact of high stress on the body is significant. When life events like job loss, divorce or death compound and create a prolonged stress response, a cascade of health risks result. These include: insulin resistance, inflammation, memory and learning problems, poor metabolism, weight issues and lowered immunity.
Social isolation can happen during times of change, usually after the initial shock settles. Social networks shift while financial worries increase leaving fewer resources for recovery and connection.
The transition to motherhood is unlike any other. Ideally a new mother receives a lot of support. She needs sleep and enough nutrients to recover from birth and to breastfeed. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.
The demands of returning to work for one or both parents can make it difficult. The nuclear family lends itself to social isolation as the demands that previously were shared are put on two adults. A baby grows quickly. The needs of both mother and child also change quickly. It can be difficult to maintain relationships under these circumstances.
The transition to parenthood touches every aspect of life. It can take years to find a balance. New friendships emerge with other parents whose children have similar needs. Finding time for self-care or the social activities one used to enjoy can seem impossible at times.
Find stress management tools that can adjust with your lifestyle. Recently a friend and I have been working out with our kids. He uses them as weights which distracts them enough for me to do a few reps. This morning I practiced qi gong while my son played me guitar. Yesterday I swam lengths. My son put on some flippers and tried to keep up.
Motherhood is a wild endeavour. It’s an endless endurance feat that at times can be incredibly mundane and a lot of work. Other times it is wonderfully engaging and challenging. A lot depends on sleep and social support.
What is Enough?
New mothers are vulnerable for several reasons. It’s a time of life when social expectations change dramatically. At the same time societal judgements are stronger. The guilt of never being or doing enough is real. Hormones, emotions and the enormous responsibility of raising a child all play in. I remember walking with my newborn one day. We bumped into an old friend from my dance community. He remarked how I was doing the most important job around. This simple acknowledgement goes a long way.
A Kidless Culture
As parents our own early life trauma response can be triggered when we have our own children. This alone can be overwhelming. With significantly less time and resources it can be difficult to find the right support. Parents do the best that they can. Often parenthood brings on mortgages, career moves, marriage or separation. These are some of the biggest stressors in life. And they occur as we are learning a job that most of us were never taught to do.
One new mom told me she had never been around babies or children until she had her own as is common in the modern world. This is a far reach from how we evolved. That being said there is wisdom in our genetic memory or our bones so to speak.
In one study of depression where medication didn’t help, fifty percent of patients improved once their thyroid was treated. The link between thyroid and mental health is confirmed. The root cause of anxiety, panic, PMS, sexual dysfunction and chronic fatigue can also involve impaired thyroid function.
In another study, 75% of women with clinically reported PMS tested positive for hypothyroid. When this was treated, 60% enjoyed a complete resolution of associated symptoms.
Two types of thyroid problems
The first is a supply problem. Thyroid hormone is not producing enough to meet the needs of the body. A marker called TSH or thyroid stimulating hormone will be high. The conventional range considers anything over 4.5 to be a concern. This is based on research that included both diagnosed and undiagnosed thyroid patients. More recent studies removed thyroid patients and a more accurate range has been established at 2.0 – 2.5.
The second problem is a conversion or uptake problem. TSH may be normal in this case.It will stimulate the release of T4 which is the inactive form of the hormone. T4 needs to be converted to T3 to be used in the body.Reverse T3 (rT3) is another marker. If there is significant inflammation or too much synthetic hormone replacement this marker can be high. The body can’t use rT3.
Stress and Inflammation
Women are more likely to develop thyroid issues. Pregnancy is the most common onset. Other major life events that increase stress and inflammation can also be triggers. Remember that the stress hormone cortisol helps reduce inflammation when its regulated well. In chronic illness, gut infection, heavy metal toxicity or food allergies cortisol may be dysregulated. One night of poor sleep can increase inflammation. Any inflammation can impair thyroid conversion. So can low testosterone.
Testing for thyroid antibodies is rarely done in conventional medicine. This is very unfortunate because over 80% of hypothyroid cases are autoimmune. Hyperthyroidism can also be caused by an autoimmune response. This is called Graves disease. Often one autoimmune disease will occur with another exacerbating symptoms. For this reason alone it is important to catch the autoimmune component. Preventing further disease processes from developing and paying attention to early warning signs saves both the patient and the system resources.
Specific nutrients are crucial for thyroid health include iodine and selenium. Its safest to get these from food sources. Iodine can be found in kelp and bladderwrack. It works synergistically with selenium and the daily intake should be 800 mcg. Selenium reduces TPO (the antibody production in Hashimoto’s). It is also needed for conversion. Two brazil nuts per day gives an adequate amount. Supplementing selenium should be done with caution and only as a short term measure at 200 mcg.
A synthetic form of T4 is what is commonly prescribed in cases of hypothyroid. This replacement therapy doesn’t always work. In some cases can make symptoms worse and in others the dose continues to be increased. You may not need T4 and it may be impacting thyroid hormone conversion negatively. Decreasing T4 & rT3 can be achieved by changing the medication to desiccated thyroid or by using T3 if this is what’s needed. What I like about desiccated thyroid is it has been around as a treatment for over a hundred years. It includes T4, T3, T2, T1 and calcitonin. Our Canadian brand ERFA is very good.
8 Steps You Can Take For Your Mental Health and Thyroid
1. Reduce immune response to food. Support detoxification pathways by switching from a standard diet to an anti-inflammatory one.
2. Optimize Vitamins B2, B12, C, A, D, Zinc, Magnesium and Iron. Testing is important.
3. Autoimmune diet: remove nightshades, eggs, nuts and seeds to see if reaction.
4. Reduce the negative effects of goitrogens and nitriles by cooking them.
5. Ensure a moderate carb diet. Nutraceutical vitamin and herbal support.
6. Manage stress, sleep and rest more.
7. Optimize blood sugar.
8. Increase the amount of movement, play and pleasure in your life.
Talk to your healthcare provider about these:
2. Commiphora mukul (Guggul): increases T3 levels & lowers when too high
3. Curcumin, boswellia, EPA/DHA, pro and prebiotics for inflammation and gut health
Gluten is associated with autoimmune disorders which most thyroid hormone imbalance is caused by. Molecules that shouldn’t to enter the bloodstream get through because of a protein called zonulin. This triggers an immune response that can never fully resolve. Remove gluten. I offer the most comprehensive lab test on gluten. It only just became available in Canada this year.
Step two: Stress
Cortisol is anti-inflammatory and therefore important in any immune response. If stress management is not central to treatment this hormone will have a negative impact on the thyroid especially if it is under an autoimmune attack. Cortisol spikes at night and may cause night hunger. A high protein snack before bed can help.
Step three: Nutrients
Having sufficient iodine in the diet is critical. Often 800 mcg of iodine is suggested for a period of time. Brazil nuts are high in selenium as is fish. Kelp and bladderwrack are good sources for iodine. Eating a variety of sea vegetables is good.
Step four: Magnesium
Add 300-500 mg magnesium glycinate at night is helpful for a variety of reasons including metabolic.
Step five: Goitragens
Dietary advice includes reducing nitriles and goitrogenic foods. Cooking these reduces the negative effects.
Step six: Healthy Carbs
A moderate carbohydrate diet (around 30% of total calorie intake) is recommended as thyroid hormone conversion requires adequate amounts. Stick to plant sources of carbs from root veggies.
Step seven: Regulate Insulin
Studies shows diabetics often have thyroid disorders. This is a bidirectional relationship, meaning thyroid disorders increase blood sugar problems and vice versa. Chronically high blood sugar leads to insulin resistance and inflammation. Repeated insulin surges increase the destruction of thyroid gland.
Step eight: Gut Health
Improving gut health is critical for all forms of thyroid disease. An autoimmune protocol is a starting place with individual variation that is found by experimenting. Thyroid hormones affect the tight junctions of small intestine and stomach. lipopolysaccharides, an endotoxin from the cell walls of pathogenic bacteria, can escape the gut and trigger an autoimmune reaction. This leads to inflammation and a decrease in thyroid hormone production. I recommend sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, taro, yuca, and winter squashes for adequate starches with fermented veggies as a condiment. A wide variety of other proteins, fats and plants can be eaten. Removing nightshades, eggs, nuts and seed is a standard autoimmune protocol as many react to these foods.
Step nine: Selenium
Selenium deficiency is common and more so with those with gut issues and inflammation. Adequate selenium protects against the effects of iodine toxicity. Selenium is needed for the conversion of T4 to T3. Supplementation has been shown to reduce TPO antibodies and inflammatory activity Hashimoto’s.
Step ten: Blood Sugar
The cycle of low blood sugar leading to increased cortisol from the adrenal glands in order to promote glucose production. Cortisol is a glucocorticoids meaning that its role is to increase the amount of glucose available to the brain and muscles. Its will curb digestion, growth, and reproduction in order to do this. Continual release of cortisol can suppress the pituitary and therefore thyroid hormone output. Repeated cortisol release caused by episodes of low blood sugar can suppress pituitary function and reduce thyroid hormone output. Hypothyroidism will affect metabolic rate by reducing glucose sensitivity.
Hypoglycemia can result and trigger more cortisol and this is a vicious cycle. Stress reduction is a very important part of treatment. Stress often induces and can exacerbate autoimmune disease, insulin-resistant hormone imbalance, and reduce total thyroid hormone output. It increases inflammation, decreases T4 to T3 conversion and weakens the immune barriers in the gut and brain. Stress reduces sensitivity to thyroid receptors leading to thyroid resistance. It also impairs estrogen clearance and increases thyroid-binding globulin levels. You can see why blood sugar and cortisol need to be understood in relation to one another especially when looking at thyroid hormone.
The key nutrients for thyroid health are iodine and selenium. It is best to get both of these nutrients from food sources. Supplementing long term with these two is not recommended. Seaweeds are by far the highest source of iodine. Nori is not as high but consumed the most. Integrating some kelp, kombu, arame, wakame and other sea vegetables is an excellent way to optimize iodine. Cod is particularly high too.
Many people have removed iodized salt from their diet and there are very few other sources. Interestingly, dairy has iodine in it due to the cleaning agent used on the equipment that processes dairy. This has been shown to be a primary iodine source in today’s population.
Why not a multi-vitamin?
Selenium is found in most multi-vitamins and this is part of why I don’t recommend using these without taking breaks. Supplementing selenium can be dangerous long-term due to toxicity. There is a u-shaped curve to supplementing with these nutrients. You can get your levels checked and maintain adequate selenium through eating 2 Brazil nuts daily. Other sources are fish/shellfish, kidney, mushrooms, meat and poultry.
Food & Light Exposure
Adequate amounts of zinc, magnesium, vitamin A, C, D, B12 and B2 are also crucial for proper function. Magnesium glycinate is a good form and safe to supplement. Cod liver oil is a good way to get enough bioavailable vitamin A and D along with adequate sunlight exposure. omnivores will likely get enough B12 but it’s always good to check as health conditions related to low B12 can be debilitating.
Ensuring iron ranges are optimal is also important as this is often too low but also can be too high. I check a number of markers beyond hemoglobin and ferritin in order to get an accurate iron profile. Clams are highest in iron and magnesium. Zinc can be found in oysters, liver, crab, beef and lobster. Vitamin C is highest in red pepper, kiwi and citrus fruits.
Limiting Goitragens for Thyroid Health
Avoiding goitrogens will optimize thyroid health and iodine levels. The best practice is to simply limit raw goitrogens to a couple servings per week. Cooking these foods reduces the harm for example cooking yucca reduces goitrogens by 90%. Cooking kale reduces them by 33%. Many of these foods have high nutrient densities so we don’t want to remove them completely. Nitriles also have an effect on the thyroid. A great example of this is sauerkraut reduces nitriles but is cabbage which is a goitrogen. The benefits of raw sauerkraut outweighs the risk in this case and this is partially because nitriles are more of a concern than goitrogens.
As you can see there are some complexities but keeping it simple is key. Except for sauerkraut just steam or cook these foods these foods. The autoimmune protocol can also be of great benefit if you have a thyroid that is sluggish. I’ve seen many people recover fully from autoimmune conditions and this is excellent to prevent other autoimmune disorders from developing later. It also reduces the internal load of physiological stress which frees you up to enjoy life more!