The Impact of Alcohol on the Thyroid
There are certain effects of alcohol that are well-known. Whatever walk of life a person comes from, alcohol is only a shop visit away. There are people who are abstinent, those who enjoy a casual drink on a special occasion, to others drinking every day.
Wherever a person is on the scale, the repercussions of drinking alcohol have varying effects. It’s helpful to know what these areas where the knowledge can be used to make conscientious and personal health choices.
Usually, not much thought is given to the “invisible” effects that drinking alcohol has. It’s common knowledge that the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is affected when drinking in the short term. This type of drinking causes people to experience a change in mood, their movements and speech might slow down, they could fall over, feel dizzy, and throw up.
As one study points out, “alcohol affects almost all organs and systems of the human body”.  Soon, we’ll consider the interaction between alcohol and the thyroid. Before that here’s a little bit about alcohol and some of the ways it affects health in general.
Alcohol and health
Alcohol consumption has a huge influence on a person’s overall health. The reasons for drinking in the first place are useful to keep in mind. Why do people first experiment with drink? Here are two common reasons:
- To relax.
- To increase self-confidence.
One study reported the following reasons :
- To enhance sociability.
- To increase power.
- To escape problems.
- To get drunk.
- For enjoyment.
- For ritualistic reasons.
What’s a safe amount of alcohol to drink?
There is conflicting evidence as to whether small amounts of alcohol on an occasional basis can have a positive influence on overall health.
The NHS states that there’s no “safe level”. However, there is some suggestion that small amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can reduce the risk of thyroid cancer. Alcohol ablation (injecting tumors with ethanol) is sometimes used to treat thyroid cancer.
Note: The NHS advises no more than 14 units spread over 3+ days for those who drink often.
Risks of regular drinking
There are many risks associated with alcohol consumption. It can be easy to ignore these, especially when alcohol often feels like such an easy way to unwind or cope with daily stress. However, thinking about how alcohol can cause other types of stress, such as those connected with illnesses and disease, might influence how much and often you drink in the future.
Drinking alcohol is said to increase blood pressure and the risk of stroke.  Cancer Research UK states that alcohol causes seven types of cancer and increases risk of developing cancer if you don’t drink at all.
The less you drink, the lower the risk.
For those who drink regularly but don’t consider themselves to have a drinking problem, it’s still apparent that alcohol has an effect on feeling as though you have a “foggy head”. Brain cells are damaged and destroyed by drinking. When alcohol is reduced, there can be a very obvious impact on feeling as though you’re more clear-headed.
Alcohol also impairs memory and cognitive functioning. At its worst, it can cause alcohol-related brain damage.  However, research suggests that a year of abstinence highly improves brain functioning.
When a person drinks a lot and regularly they’re increasing the likelihood of damaging all bodily systems. Here are a few other areas where damage is caused:
- Nutritional deficiencies can cause health consequences (i.e Wernicke’s encephalopathy is caused by a lack of vitamin B1).
- Vital organs such as the liver and the stomach. Excessive drinking is linked to three types of liver disease (according to the Liver Foundation). It can also be responsible for leaky gut and gastrointestinal cancers.
- The cardiovascular system.
- The endocrine system (glands that produce hormones and homeostasis within the body).  This includes the thyroid.
What’s the purpose of the thyroid?
The thyroid is a piece of cartilage found at the front of the neck. It impacts the sound of a person’s voice and releases two very essential hormones known as:
The T3 hormone is used in every single part of the body (every cell, organ, muscle). Every inch of a person needs T3.
The T3 and T4 hormones are responsible for the following:
- Maintaining temperature.
- Controlling energy levels.
- Balancing the metabolic rate
Some people have thyroid problems. Two types of thyroid issues a person can experience are:
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive). This can make you gain weight and feel cold, tired, and depressed.
- Hypothyroidism (underactive). This can make you lose weight, feel hot, and anxious.
People living with hypothyroidism that are dissatisfied with treatment report having an “impaired quality of life”.  There is a connection between hypothyroidism and mood. There is also evidence suggesting that the thyroid axis (how regulated or balanced the thyroid system is) affects cravings for alcohol. 
Whether a person’s life might be impaired due to treatment issues or an imbalance in the thyroid, there are various factors that can influence a person with thyroid issues in wanting to drink alcohol.
How alcohol affects the thyroid
The majority of research is based on chronic alcohol drinkers and the link to hypothyroidism. Alcohol reduces the functioning of the thyroid gland. Long-term drinking causes damage and an imbalance in how the thyroid works. 
Alcohol severely reduces the production of T3 in the body. Also, the T4 hormone has to be converted into T3 before the body can use it. The main place this change happens is in the liver.
When the liver is busy metabolising alcohol it doesn’t have time to convert T4 into T3. This results in making people feel slow, fatigued, and unmotivated.
Also, during a hangover the body produces acetaldehyde. This compound stops the thyroid from working properly as well. This imbalance can go on to cause issues when there is no alcohol in the system.
There is evidence, however, that for people with thyroid issues, small amounts of alcohol can be preventative against the development of goiter (an enlarged, over-productive thyroid gland).
Thyroid levels and alcohol withdrawal
Craving alcohol has a range of contributing factors. There are also both physical and psychological cravings.
In a person who has thyroid problems (whether they always existed or were created by alcohol abuse), cravings for alcohol can be extremely difficult.
According to research, “Peripheral thyroid hormones are suppressed during withdrawal and the degree of suppression of their levels has been associated with the severity of withdrawal.” 
This means that preventing relapse can be especially difficult for people who live with severe alcohol addictions as well as those who have thyroid issues.
It’s due to factors like this that an alcohol detox must be overseen by doctors, nurses, and addiction staff with experience and knowledge. Professionals are better able to prescribe for and support a person’s detox when they understand the full picture of a person’s health.
Alcohol consumption creates inflammation within the body (due the toxins in it). In terms of the immune system, it’s incredibly harmful. A healthy gut is linked to a better immune system.  A person who drinks a lot and regularly is likely to develop an inflamed gut. Leaky gut can also occur. This reduces the efficiency of their immune system in fighting off illnesses.
Another area to consider is that women are more susceptible to thyroid conditions because estrogen increases inflammation. The liver is unable to process estrogen as well as it needs to when there is alcohol present. Therefore the higher levels of unprocessed estrogen can cause inflammation and reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.
An excess in estrogen can also trigger the stress response which causes an imbalance in hormones and so the drinking cycle can continue because stress is often a cause of drinking.
Interesting note: the stress response in relation to an excess in estrogen is also linked to premature aging. 
Drinking alcohol needs to be done with a conscious attitude. There might be some studies that link moderate drinking to certain health benefits, but the advice is conflicting and the line between “a little” and “too much” is easily crossed. Also, what benefits one person won’t help another. This is due to genetics, environmental factors, and individual personalities.
Although alcohol ablation is used by some medical professionals in treatment for thyroid cancer, drinking alcohol at home should never be used to “treat” a thyroid condition. This can lead to ongoing problems around self-medication and alcohol abuse and dependency.
Whoever you are and no matter what state of health you’re in, the less you drink, the fewer health risks there are. For those with thyroid issues, alcohol is better off avoided unless in small amounts.
As with all health issues, it’s advisable to consult with your local GP in advance of drinking when you have a medical condition and/or take medication for it.