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Boost Thyroid Function and Immunity with Exercise and Stress Reduction

November 11, 2013

Regular exercise and stress reduction can act as kindling for your thyroid. As the igniter of metabolism, the thyroid gland regulates energy production in the body. It also responds to stress by lowering carbohydrate metabolism, and it modulates activities of great importance including immune function.

Energy  Production

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is spread across your throat, crossing just below the Adam’s apple. Glands produce substances, including hormones, for use elsewhere in the body. For example, the adrenal gland makes cortisol and an ovary produces estrogen. Hormones emitted from the thyroid gland are responsible for making sure that all cells in the body have enough oxygen and are producing adequate energy. Boosting thyroid function can be accomplished through health choices like engaging in a regular exercise practice and coping effectively with stress.
Weight gain and exhaustion are two common features of an underactive thyroid. Deficient metabolism is associated with many factors including the following:

•   Sedentary lifestyle
•   Lack of good quality sleep
•   Nutrient deficiencies including zinc, selenium, vitamin D, and iodine
•   Chronic stress
•   Chronic inflammation

•   Toxic exposures including halides and heavy metals

Low to Moderate Intensity Exercise is Key

       Exercise can increase the amount of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream and thereby increase metabolism. By increasing the need for energy production in muscles, exercise stimulates metabolism. Regular, low-to moderate intensity  exercise is key to proper thyroid function.

       There are a few specific considerations. The intensity of exercise has to be low to moderate. It is commonly understood that aerobic exercise protects against heart disease but intense exercise like training for a marathon impedes thyroid function and slows metabolism. Exercising in moderation five times weekly increases thyroid hormone blood levels, which then boosts metabolism.

Eat a Healthy Snack Before or After Exercise

         Another consideration is diet. Modern medicine recognizes that as long as energy expenditure exceeds that of calorie intake, a loss of body weight must occur. Basically, to lose weight, one needs to burn more calories than consumed. However, it is important not to restrict calories to the point where the body feels like it is starving and slows metabolism. Severely decreased caloric intake leads to lower thyroid function whereas stimulating the thyroid gland will enable you to burn more calories. To allow the body to increase metabolism, the best advice is to eat a healthy, antioxidant-rich snack within a few hours of exercise.

Stress Reduction

Is there a psycho-emotional piece to underactive thyroid that can be addressed through reducing stress? Thyroid hormone levels are not static but in constant fluctuation in response to signals released during stress. Stress interferes with proper functioning of hormones in general and chronic stress lowers metabolism. Since stress blocks thyroid activity, anything one can do to decrease stress could potentially increase metabolism.

Yoga and  Tai  Chi

         To combat the negative effects of stress on the thyroid gland,choose an exercise that emphasizes the mind-body interaction. Which form of low – to moderate – intensity exercise has the most impact on stress management and potential to boost thyroid function? Any form of movement is better than a sedentary lifestyle but the benefits of yoga and tai chi extend well beyond the traditional benefits of exercise. Regular exercise reduces stress, anxiety, and depression but yoga and tai chi also instill a sense of wellbeing well known in medicine to be associated with optimal health. Yoga andare both recommended for management of chronic disease, as well as for a wide variety of complaints including hypertension, balance issues, pain, anxiety and depression.

         Interestingly, yoga and tai chi were both developed in systems of medicine that are marked by a fundamental understanding of  body energy flow. Whether you call it Prana or Qi (Chi), the life force inside a person, or the ‘will’  is clearly a force in health. Both types of exercise have components that are forms of meditation and somehow tap into a deep level of health. Yogis are known for their ability to increase body temperature at will. It is truly amazing that people can heat themselves up through a learned practice. The demonstrated ability of yoga practice to increase body temperature implies a stimulation of the thyroid gland. Yoga is unique in that it focuses on your breath and posture leaving you with an inner feeling of peace or calmness. Tai chi also focuses on deep diaphragmatic breathing through a series of slow, graceful movements that encourages proper flow of energy. Both yoga and tai chi can be done at home and require very little, if any, investment in equipment.

     The most important thing you can do to improve thyroid function is exercise regularly. A yoga or tai chi practice provides the intensity of exercise associated with boosting thyroid hormones and offers ideal stress management.

Kara Burkhart, ND, LAc is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist. She practices in West Hartford, CT at New England Integrative Health Associates and West Hartford Yoga, and currently is an adjunct faculty member of the University of Bridgeport School of Naturopathic Medicine.

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