The Thyroid Connection to Cold

Updated: Jul 20

Morozko Cold Coach Adrienne Jezick recently recounted her remarkable recovery from Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, which was (until now) thought to be a permanent and degenerative condition. Her medical doctors had prescribed drugs and exhorted her to take them for the rest of her life, under penalty of premature death.

Last week, blood tests proved that her Hashimoto's condition has... disappeared? She has discontinued her thyroid meds, and her health is better than ever.

By any medical measure, she is cured.

Her story, and others like hers, begs for further, scientific investigation. One of the more popular home remedies for symptoms of Hashimoto's is an anti-inflammatory diet, which Adrienne adopted at the beginning of her recovery.

However, Adrienne's recovery also included something that other hypothyroid patients typically do not: cold immersion therapy.

The connection between hypothyroidism and deliberate cold exposure has long been a topic interest in the medical community. For example, it is well understood that patients with hypo- (under active) thyroidism suffer from cold intolerance, and it makes sense. The thyroid is something like a thermostat for the body. When we are exposed to cold, the thyroid signals our brown fat cells to begin metabolizing the energy stored in our white fat, to produce heat to keep us warm.

The process is called thermogenesis.

The problem is that in highly industrialized countries like the United States and Western Europe, technologies like central heating, a trend towards urbanization and office jobs, and a preference for thermal comfort have resulted in a population that is so rarely exposed to cold that most adults have lost nearly all brown fat (Wang et al., 2015) -- so there's nothing left for the thyroid to signal. In fact, brown fat is so rare in adult humans living in highly industrialized setting that until the 1970's medical scientists thought brown fat was just baby fat that adults eventually grew out of. In fact, regular exposure to cold in adulthood will recruit new brown fat cells, increasing our capacity for thermogenesis.

Without brown fat, most of us experience discomfort when we're cold, partly because our bodies use the only other metabolic pathway available to keep us warm.

We shiver.

Shivering is an involuntary tremor in our muscles that is fueled by glucose from the bloodstream. Energy extracted from blood glucose is released as heat within our muscles, which may help prevent hypothermia for a short time. It's the body's emergency back up response to cold exposure when brown fat thermogensis is unavailable.

For most modern adults, and especially those with an underactive thyroid (i.e, hypothyroidism), brown fat thermogenesis is never available, so cold exposure results in the body signalling an emergency and initiating shivering.

That's why the conventional medical advice for cold sensitivity due to hypothyroidism is to "keep your home warm," and "avoid unnecessary exposure to cold weather (Wentz, 2015). Although this is a prescription for avoiding discomfort, it may be exactly the wrong thing to do to cure Hashimoto's.

By doing the opposite of the traditional medical advice and intentionally plunging herself into freezing cold ice water several times a week, Adrienne stimulated her thyroid, signaled her body to recruit new brown fat cells, and cured her Hashimoto's.

Existing studies of the relationship between thyroid activity and brown fat have already established the role of thyroid hormones in activating brown fat thermogenesis. For example, the Annals of Medicine (Contreras 2014) reports that brown fat "displays a high expression of thyroid hormone receptors. In fact, thyroid hormones work synergistic with norepinephrine and are required to generate a full thermogenic response." A subsequent study (Broeders et al. 2016) showed "that higher levels of thyroid hormone are associated with a higher level of cold-activated BAT."

As a consequence of this understanding, several pharmaceutical companies have undertake to develop drugs that initiate brown fat thermogensis for weight loss, without cold exposure. For example, a recent scientific article published in the journal Molecular Endocrinology suggests that activating brown fat metabolism is an effective mechanism for weight loss But rather than recommending regular cold exposure, the article suggests that synthetic drugs (called "pharmacological interventions") might provide the metabolic benefits without the thermal discomfort (Ahima 2016).

Morozko says that's a bunch of nonsense, because there is no need to develop a drug to do what the human body is already perfectly capable of doing for itself.

What almost no one is studying are the feedback effects that additional brown fat might have on the thyroid. Hypothetically, the thyroid doesn't just signal brown fat -- brown fat could also be signalling back to the thyroid. That is, because the thyroid stimulates under active brown fat activity, couldn't brown fat also stimulate an under active thyroid?

Lapa et al. (2015) reported findings related to that question in the Annals of Medicine. Evaluating thyroid cancer patients after total thyroidectomy, their study determined that patients with active brown fat tissue had significantly higher levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone in their bloodstreams than a control group without active brown fat. In other words, even after total removal of the thyroid gland, those patients with active brown fat were still producing hormonal signals intended to stimulate thyroid activity.

But of the 126 patients in their study only 6 were found to have active brown fat.

The only way to recruit and maintain brown fat is regular cold exposure, and it's entirely possible that Adrienne's cold plunge practices contributed more to her cure than her noninflammatory diet.

What this suggests is that hypothyroidism, like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and a host of other ailments may be just another symptom of what Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) called 'Industrial Disease' -- i.e., a suite of maladies exclusive to western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD, Henrich et al. 2010) countries characterized by technological comfort, ultra-processed diets, and a lack of cold exposure.

Take note of the way Knoplfer's lyrics characterize a typical visit to the doctor's office.

Doctor Parkinson declared "I'm not surprised to see you here "You've got smokers cough from smoking "Brewer's droop from drinking beer "I don't know how you came to get the Bette Davis knees But worst of all young man you've got Industrial Disease'"
He wrote me a prescription He said "You are depressed "But I'm glad you came to see me "To get this off your chest "Come back and see me later - next patient please! "Send in another victim of Industrial Disease." Dire Straits - Industrial Disease Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Morozko prescribes the temporary discomfort of the cold over a lifetime of dependence on "pharmacological interventions".

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