How Eating Disorders And Thyroid Disease Are Linked

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How Eating Disorders And Thyroid Disease Are Linked
Health And Wellness

Eating disorders and thyroid disease are closely linked, and it makes sense why.

Stress is one of the most common underlying conditions associated with thyroid disease. And individuals with eating disorders have stress, in spades.

Sometimes, it's the stress that causes an eating disorder. Sometimes, it's an eating disorder that causes stress.

But stress is always involved and in many cases, so is the thyroid.

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Thyroid disease involves the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal axis. These are the three glands that are involved in providing the hormones that the thyroid needs.

Having an eating disorder, particularly anorexia, bulimia or bulimarexia and even excessive weight gain, puts a lot of pressure on all three of these glands, which can damage the thyroid.

Did you know that being anxious is fattening?

If you're starving yourself, the system goes into panic mode when it registers that there's no fuel in the fuel tank, so to speak. So, it tries to protect you by making you conserve energy by forcing your metabolism and energy expenditure into hibernation.

In other words, excessively high levels of cortisol, the anxiety hormone, tells your thyroid to stop producing T3, the thyroid hormone that triggers the body to burn calories, which causes weight gain.

It's an adaptive mechanism that will save your life by causing you to stop burning calories. But it's not very adaptive in modern society.

In fact, if high levels of anxiety are constant, which is likely if you have an eating disorder, it puts a lot of stress on your thyroid. In fact, it ends up shutting it down, causing weight gain.

Think about that. We already know that weight gain can cause anxiety but anxiety can also cause weight gain.

With anorexia here, the brain requires 20 percent of the energy we consume to do its basic functions.

When deprived of the energy needed to function, it goes into red alert, creating "symptoms" by releasing adrenalin and cortisol in the hope that you will be motivated to eat.

You may get anxious, feel sweaty, or get the cold chills and your brain fogs up. All of this is caused by the stress hormones being pumped out to jog you into food-seeking behaviors.

When it works, you suddenly want sugar, carbs, and fat — anything with energy — and you want it now. If you're anorexic, you think about food all the time.

If you ignore the call, the exhaustion, fatigue, and irritability set in. You feel overwhelmed at this point and you're pumping out a lot of cortisol, besides the adrenaline.

It's like having mini panic attacks, all day long.

You pace, stress out, lose your temper, withdraw from family and friends, stay up all night, sleep all day, miss class, and miss work — it’s meltdown time.

Been there?

And if this isn’t bad enough, your brain starts working at cross purposes, sending messages to the hunger hormones to do the opposite of what they are supposed to be doing.

When this happens you can get something called "Leptin Resistance" where you can feel hungry all the time even after you have eaten.

This usually affects obese individuals. However, it can also impact someone with anorexia because your hormones have turned on you.

Over time, this state causes wear and tear on your muscle and bone, causing osteopenia, or worse — osteoporosis, which is permanent and can lead to developing a hunchback.

You can’t sleep, your blood sugar levels drop, you don't digest food well so you're bloated when you eat, and even more anxiety.

Eventually, the brain does a reset, as if recognizing that it can’t keep pumping all this stuff out to protect you because it’s not working.

So, it stops producing so much adrenaline and cortisol. Now, your adrenal glands slow down the production of these important mediators of mood and energy.

Then, you become unmotivated, lethargic, depressed, exhausted, depleted, and easily overwhelmed.

Sound familiar?

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If you consult with a conventional physician or even an eating disorder specialist, they will likely say you're "just depressed" and put you on an antidepressant.

This is a big miss, as the immune system goes into overdrive and you become more at risk for autoimmune disease. Enter psoriasis, PICO's, rosacea, hives, Renaud’s, Lupus, multiple sclerosis, etc.

The last thing to happen is that the old part of your brain recognizes that the only thing it can do is try to conserve energy by dialing down your metabolism.

How does it do that? By slowing down your thyroid function.

Cortisol tells your thyroid to stop making the building blocks of the active thyroid hormone, T3, and to produce a form that the body cannot use, which is Reverse T3.

Reverse T3 blocks free T3 from getting to the receptors, preventing you from "over-drafting" your energy bank account. This is just another way of saying that it slows down your metabolism.

The brain also diverts energy away from tasks you don’t need urgently, like regular digestion (so you become constipated) and making reproductive hormones (so you stop having periods and may become infertile).

This leads to the digestive and hormonal symptoms that are so common with eating disorders and thyroid disease.

These are all things I was seeing in my patients since I started this journey 10 years ago. I became fascinated with the relationship between polluted food and the poor health of Americans.

Initially, I could not figure out what all of these autoimmune symptoms were and where they were coming from.

What I discovered was that there was a direct connection between eating disorders and damage to the thyroid, hypothalamus, and pituitary and the onset of autoimmune disease.

Take note, this can happen with any kind of restrictive eating pattern.

You don’t have to have a diagnosed eating disorder to be struggling with the impact of eating too little to maintain healthy adrenal glands and thyroid function.

In other words, excessive cleansing and detoxing, yo-yo dieting, or even skipping meals regularly because you’re so busy can have a very negative impact on your thyroid, and consequently, your metabolism.

What can you do to prevent this?

If you destroy your thyroid, whose one and only job is to burn calories, you'll always worry about your weight. Restricting eventually damages the thyroid.

To get out of survival mode and reset your thyroid, your brain must realize that you’re safe and that it can turn off the alarm.

Here are 4 ways to heal and protect your thyroid:

  • Test for thyroid disease and damage, and treat accordingly.
  • Make clean eating a habit. (Eat six to seven organic fruits and vegetables, six servings of healthy proteins every day, a lot of good fiber, plenty of clean water, and little to no processed sugar, so lose the chewing gum and diet soft drinks.)
  • Determine if you're iodine deficient as the thyroid has to have iodine and supplement if necessary.
  • Reduce stress and engage in fitness activities. Try the adaptogenic herb Ashwagandha, use Emotional Freedom Tapping, yoga, pet a dog — in other words, take active steps to manage your stress.

Sometimes, anxiety is created by a diseased thyroid and restricting food becomes the focus. Or, the weight gain from a sluggish thyroid is intolerable for someone with anxiety. 

Anorexic tendencies and restricting seem like the solution, but it doesn't matter. The results are the same: You develop a full-blown eating disorder, and you damage your thyroid.

It's important for anyone treating eating disorders or thyroid disease to understand this connection.

RELATED: 4 Things You Need To Know About Why You Have An Eating Disorder (And How It Relates To Anxiety)

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Renae Norton is a psychologist. For more information, visit her website, Eating Disorder Pro.

This article was originally published at Eating Disorder Pro. Reprinted with permission from the author.