Can alcohol consumption negatively impact thyroid function?
Many people may be unaware of the deleterious effects of drinking alcohol on the functioning of the thyroid gland. If you suffer from a thyroid condition such as hypothyroidism it may be prudent to try and achieve a healthy social life and health status without the excessive consumption of alcohol.
The link between alcohol intake and thyroid function is nuanced but in short, those evening or weekend drinks with friends and family may be causing more damage than you realise. Together, let’s explore a few mechanisms by which alcohol may affect your general health and your thyroid condition.
The effects of alcohol on your brain and body
Alcohol’s impact on your body starts from the moment you take your first sip. While an occasional glass of wine with dinner isn’t a cause for concern, the cumulative effects of drinking alcohol can take its toll. Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can lead to:
Abnormal activation of digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas - a build-up of these enzymes is likely to lead to an inflammatory condition known as pancreatitis, which can become a long-term condition underlying some serious health complications
Altered communication between your brain and body affecting your central nervous system - this is often experienced by numbness and tingling sensations at your body extremities, long-term memory loss, and a reduced ability to think clearly and make rational decisions
Circulatory system complications such as higher blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heart disease, etc., and impairs vitamin and mineral absorption, often leading to anemia
Alcohol and hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism can lead to increased susceptibility to varying side effects relating to alcohol intolerance and/or increased sensitivity to alcohol-induced flare-ups also known as skin-flushing. This may be caused by, at least in part, the fact that the primary site of alcohol metabolism is the liver, which is also where thyroid hormones are converted into their biologically active forms.
Direct effects of alcohol on the thyroid gland are described below:
Toxifying effects on thyroid cells lead to thyroid suppression and reduced thyroid volume - alcohol has been shown to reduce levels of hormones Triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4)
Alterations in enzymatic activity in type II 5’-deiodinase enzyme lead to reduced conversion of the inactive T4 hormone into its T3 active form and consequently may reduce levels of T3 which results in medical symptoms such as, weakness and fatigue, weight gain, dry skin, difficulty sleeping, etc.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) blockade - Research has shown that alcohol intake inhibits the release of TSH and, in cases of severe alcoholism, this has been shown to reduce the size of the thyroid gland
Alcohol acts as an estrogenic agent - estrogen is the main female hormone with many biological roles within the body, such as menstrual cycle regulation and female fertility. Estrogen rises as a consequence of alcohol intake, and this leads to a progesterone drop, which can cause estrogen dominance and lowered levels of thyroid hormones to be produced
Alcohol stimulates the flight or fight response - levels of cortisol and norepinephrine raise in response to the consumption of alcohol and this can negatively impact the thyroid by further depleting progesterone. This exacerbates oestrogen dominance. Yes, you guessed it - it’s a vicious cycle!
The impact of alcohol on the immune system
We have all experienced the dreaded feelings of sickness during a hangover. This is mediated by the negative effects of alcohol on immune function, which are known to:
Increase the intestinal permeability - also known as leaky gut syndrome, a condition implicated in many chronic diseases, especially those autoimmune in nature. Alcohol intake makes the lining of the intestinal wall more permeable by creating small holes which allow bacteria and toxins to leak into the bloodstream. This can lead to a host immune response and, in the long term, cause chronic systemic inflammation
Lower blood cell count - white blood cells, such as neutrophils and macrophages play a critical role in immune function. These innate immune cells are responsible for mounting a response to infections and eradicate harmful pathogenic organisms. Alcohol intake reduces white blood cell migration to the site of infection and lowers their ability to destroy the pathogen.
Our tips on how to limit alcohol consumption
Practice moderation - not all alcohol intake is dangerous, the dose can make the poison. Drinking in moderation may even confer some protective benefits depending on the drink consumed. For example, red wine contains high amounts of polyphenols which have been shown to have metabolic and cardioprotective effects. Red wine even lowers the plasma concentration of pro-oxidant and inflammatory molecules, improving insulin resistance, and blood pressure
Ask yourself why you drink alcohol - while we all enjoy a glass of red wine in the evening to unwind or socialise with our friends if you have hypothyroidism or other immune-related diseases, can you still socialise without worsening your disease state? You could try replacing the alcoholic beverage with non-alcoholic alternatives (i.e, carbonated water with a slice of lime/lemon and mint leaves, or coconut water with fresh berries)
Remove yourself from environmental triggers - location plays a big role in our habit formations. If you are more likely to consume alcohol when you meet your friends at the pub, you could opt for a different location to meet to socialise (i.e., a coffee shop). Similarly, you are less likely to reach for that glass of wine if you do not store it at home (out of sight, out of mind)
Learn how to say ‘no’ - say no to your alcoholic drink and ‘yes’ to improved health. In a disease state, the negative effects of alcohol intake may not be worth the temporary feeling of relaxation or high that you get from a glass of wine
The take-home message
To drink or not to drink? It depends! If you are able to drink alcohol in moderation with no ill effects continue to do so. However, if alcohol is wreaking havoc with your health and contributes to making you feel worse then consider alcohol-free alternatives or skipping alcohol intake altogether. Like with everything in biology and health, context matters.