Movement for Supporting Thyroid FunctionSep 23, 2021
Our energy and vitality are bound up in optimal function of a small, but important gland in our throat. Whether you have been diagnosed with a specific thyroid condition or simply feel sluggish and have difficulty losing weight, supporting the health of your thyroid may help improve how you feel.
Our energy levels are profoundly linked to our mental health and those with thyroid issues often reported that it feels like “life is passing them by.” From an Eastern perspective, the thyroid is associated with the throat chakra (energy wheel). Yogis believe this area represents expression and an energetic blockage here may have its roots in fear, inability of self-expression and frustration. Exercise is shown to support thyroid function, but ironically when it is under-functioning, motivation to move can be lost.
The thyroid gland is a butterfly shaped organ in the neck that produces thyroid hormones that travel to cells throughout the body. One of its major jobs is to regulate metabolism; this is not just about weight management, but the rate at which we burn food as fuel - the efficient use of the energy we derive from nutrition. If it the thyroid is underfunctioning (hypothyroidism), symptoms can be; difficulty waking in the morning, needing lots of sleep, fatigue, cold hands and feet, depression, hearing issues, hoarse voice, thinning hair and loss of the outer third of the eyebrow. Lower levels are usually associated with weight gain, but people follow individual expressions.
In this article, we mainly focus on low thyroid hormone levels, but the exercises themselves are designed to support the body’s modulatory processes, not simply to fix a problem of too high or too low. Stress affects negatively whether we tend to low or high thyroid function (hyperthyroidism), throwing off our systemic ability to come to a ‘normal’, balanced resting place.
Many people may have suspected their thyroid function is low and had a test at their GP that says ‘normal’. That’s because it’s possible to have a thyroid functioning slightly short of the medical classification of hypothyroidism, or because your body is not utilising the hormones it does make. If this sounds like you, especially if you recognise some of the symptoms above, chances are you will benefit from the thyroid-supporting exercise and balancing blood sugar through nutrition, including dietary sugar reduction. If you are taking thyroxine (T4) and have had symptoms relieved by medication, supporting your thyroid naturally is still important. Have your thyroid function regularly tested with your GP to check your medication levels are still right after making any changes to diet and lifestyle.
Stress is a major factor in thyroid expression, because continual ‘constant alert’ and ongoing perceived danger from chronic stress signals the need to conserve energy. This is because the fight-or-flight response has us expecting there will be high action in fighting or running away to protect our lives. Subsequently, the adrenal glands tell the thyroid gland to go-slow by down-regulating metabolic rate as a survival mechanism; one of the ways in which stress can contribute to weight gain and difficulty losing excess weight. When the adrenal glands become tired from years of stress, thyroid hormones can struggle to reach body tissues; constant feelings of coldness, poor circulation and fluid retention can result. Since low thyroid function has been associated with anxiety, this can become a vicious cycle. Naturopaths believe that when stress is chronic, the body may start to ‘ignore’ the thyroid and this may account for autoimmune diseases focussed there.
Exercise can relieve high stress levels when that is not to a point where it creating strain in itself – a marathon when you are feeling burnout at work can exacerbate the issue, whereas an intelligent movement programme can support thyroid regulation.
Constipation is also linked to low function or hypothyroidism and can be part of the cause and the effect; a lowered metabolism slows down gut function allowing toxins and used hormones to be reabsorbed into the gut, impairing thyroid function. To the back of the thyroid is the parathyroid gland that regulates calcium into and out of bone, so its health is key to good bone health. Exercise both increases lymphatic and blood circulation which supports digestion, as well as created fluidity in the fascia around digestive organs and the gut and when weight-bearing supports bone density.
Surprisingly, there is little research into the effects of exercise on those with lowered thyroid function, certainly little with a consistent message. Studies often focus on athletes and results differ widely, with many researching alongside cortisol, a major stress hormone. Many studies show that the maximum aerobic activity provokes maximum thyroid hormone output in athletes, but in one such study, when comparing with conflicting findings states “The confounding results of thyroid hormone levels seen following exercise might be mediated by elevated cortisol levels however; additional research is required to establish this connection.” (Neuroendocrinol Lett 2005; 26(6):830–834).
Thyroid hormones are associated with greater efficiency of skeletal muscle, so an increase is to be expected with higher muscle usage, but differences in T4, T3 (tri-iodothyronine) and TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, produced in the pituitary gland in the brain) differ widely according to the research. T3 is the thyroid hormone picked up by cells for utilisation; it is mainly converted from T4 (thyroxine) and that conversion relies on movement as one factor and is inhibited by stress. One study stated that these mechanisms are still being understood, but that factors like age, sex, obesity, stress and inflammation all affect metabolic efficiency (Obesity, 2013; 21(2):218-28). Several studies showed that overtrained athletes showed thyroid function and blood glucose regulation impairment (J Physiol Pharmacol. 1998; 49:457–66/ Eur J Appl Physiol 2003;88:(4–5):480–4), maybe due to raised cortisol levels.
A 2013 study on resistance (weight) training and thyroid function showed “conflicting results” (Euro. J. Exp. Bio., 2013, 3(2):443-447) with much discussion on studies noting that although an initial rise in exercise can lower levels as the introduction of a ‘new stress’, eventually levels normalised or even rose as fitness grew. This may go some way to support the need to find regular, medium intensity exercise in your life that both supports thyroid function and reduces stress levels to support metabolism, but also immunity, mental health and energy regulation.
Much research into exercise and thyroid health simply focusses on thyroid output and metabolic rate; but dismiss yoga as supportive as it does not necessarily increase the rate of calorific burn. This is of course depending on how a slower, system like yoga, t’ai chi or pilates is practiced, as there are is always a range of slow to more dynamic. This may be missing the point though, as much support of a gland isn’t simply in a boost in output in response to a challenge, but rather in its ability to regulate appropriately between periods of activity and rest.
A 2016 pilot study of 22 women with hypothyroidism (all taking thyroxine, aged 30-40 years old) charted the effects of 6 months’ yoga practice on lipid profile, thyroxine medication needed and TSH (J Complement Integr Med. 2016;13(2):189-93). Their practice of one hour daily for four days a week showed “significant reduction in thyroxine medication score” and looked promising for future studies. A larger study of 216 perimenopausal women compared 111 in a test group for yoga with 105 in a test group doing regular exercise; each for 45 minutes every day for 12 weeks, measuring TSH, blood sugar factors and cortisol levels. The TSH was unaltered in each, but cortisol lowered in the yoga group (J Clin Diagn Res., 2016;10(8):KC01-4), which could have long-term effects for the relationship down the pituitary-thyroid-adrenal axis.
A few key pointers for those with low thyroid function:
- If you prefer to exercise in the morning, this could be thyroid-related as the thyroid works better in the morning through exercise – be mindful to not overdo this here, but stretch thoroughly after to bring down stress hormones.
- Tiredness in the morning is more thyroid-related, more adrenal (stress) related in the afternoon – support the adrenals either way through stress relief and active rest.
- Walk daily for a minimum of 15 mins and if possible more than once – this most natural of human movements is necessary for lymphatic flow and a loosening of the fascia (connective tissue) up from the feet, through the inner legs and up through the core (deep front line) to the throat. Being sedentary for long periods reduces metabolism as the thyroid receives the information that little energy is needed for movement.
There is some discussion of thyroid issues being related to neck injuries, particularly whiplash after a trauma like a car crash (Endocr Pract., 2003;9(1):5-11). Whether this is part of your history or not, modern hunched postural patterns tend to create tension in the neck from looking down at phones or desk-sitting. Freeing natural movement in the neck can create elasticity in the thyroid area and encourage circulation for nutrient and oxygen delivery, toxin removal and carrying thyroid hormones to the rest of the body.
Neck motions lying down take out the tension needed to lift the heavy head from the ground. From lying with knees bent, feet hip-width apart, roll the head to one side as you exhale and back to centre on an inhale. Spend a good few minutes here and when you feel tissues freeing down the spine, you can add in a twist with the knees falling to the opposite side to the head on the out-breath, sighing out tension.
‘Gravity pose’ allows tension the spine to decompress and blood flow to the thyroid. Firstly, lift just the arms to feel their weight releasing the shoulders and neck. You can wriggle into them (and move the head) as feels right and then lift the legs with soft knees to where your lower back feels happy.
Freeing tissues and fluids to the thyroid
Creating elasticity up through the fascia from the lower spine up into the neck encourages circulation to the thyroid and surrounding tissues. In these spinal undulating movements, filling the lungs as the chest is lifted and drawing the chin towards the chest creates a compression around the thyroid that allows a flooding of fluids there as that hold is released.
- From the same position, inhale to arch your back and rise the belly, lifting the waist and moving the tailbone down towards the ground.
- With the exhalation, let the chest and belly drop as your lungs empty.
- As the motion becomes free, allow the chin to move down the meet the chest as you breathe in and let it lift to the ceiling as you exhale.
- When the movement and breath synchronise, you can increase the wave-like effect by lifting the balls of the feet as you inhale and rocking on the feet to lifting the heels as you exhale.
- Continue this movement for as long as feels right, stopping to feel the ripples in the breaths that follow.
We have the same chin-to-chest movement in a bridge pose and this version with the arms lifted up and over the shoulders creates more focus into the throat, lifting up the shoulder blades towards the thyroid.
- From lying, feet on the ground, feel good contact with the base of the big toe, so that as you inhale and bring the arms up and over the shoulders, you direct the lift into the chest rather than the lower back. Open the arms as wide as the shoulders feel comfortable and can drop down.
- On the exhale, peel the spine back down again - vertebra by vertebra – hands coming to meet the ground at the same time the tailbone does.
- Lift up and down as long as your breath can stay long, your face and jaw soft, eventually holding the pose up for as long as you feel neither stress nor strain.
Come back to ‘gravity pose’ above to decompress the spine.
Dynamic opening up from the ground
- From a lunge position with front heel under the front knee and feet hip width apart, start with the back knee on the ground to lift up from the lower belly and open the chest. Have the arms above the shoulders or open to the sides; wherever you can soften down the inner edges of the shoulders blades. Lift the back and sides of the neck to create opening in the throat without compression at the base of the skull – the place we can create much tension that can impede thyroid circulation when we hunch and then lift the chin to look up.
- Follow that into a twist, inhaling up the spine and turning the belly towards the inner front thigh. Retain good grounding through the front foot and shin to lift up and open the collarbones. Breathe fully to relieve any stress in the neck and shoulders.
Opening the front body fully
A similar body shape to the strong lunge is to come into a back bend that naturally opens the throat. Bow pose here positions the shoulders so they open the thyroid area without tension and really get into the area between the shoulder blades where we can hold much physical and emotional tension. Breathe to feel the pose naturally rocking on your belly and do one leg at a time if the version is stronger than your range of motion.
After lying face down and rolling the hips to release the lower back, come back to ‘gravity pose’ to decompress the spine.
Twisting for freeing tissues to the throat and neck
In any comfortable seated position (could be on a chair) where you can easily lift up through the spine, come into a twist from the belly and spend a few moments feeling the neck and throat floating up above the ribs and opening the collarbones. Then counter-rotate the head so the chin is over the front shoulder to increase circulation around the collarbones. There are lymphatic nodes here that are stimulated in this position to support immunity in the thyroid area. This action needs open and releasing breath so the pose doesn’t include tension in the shoulders.
Resting inversion for blood flow and stress reduction
This pose supports you whilst your world is ‘turned upside-down’ to allow blood flow back to the thyroid and also the head and heart, so it is fully restful. Placing a low bolster (or stack of folded blankets or towels) a little way from a chair seat, sit on and swing your calves on to the seat, tucking your bottom under to find the back of your pelvis fully supported. Come down to the ground with chin tucked in to protect your neck and place your arms where they are most comfortable. Stay for up to 15 minutes or when you feel ‘cooked’. Lie curled on your side for a while before coming up.
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