High & Low Cortisol Effects on Thyroid Hormone, and Dispelling an Internet Myth

Higher cortisol levels reduce TSH (through the effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary system). A reduced TSH does two things:
  1. For those patients with working thyroid tissue, lower TSH will decrease thyroid hormone production.
  2. Lower TSH also reduces T4 to T3 conversion, resulting in even less T3 (active thyroid hormone)

Lower cortisol levels increase TSH. An increased TSH does two things:
  1. For those patients with working thyroid tissue, higher TSH will increase thyroid hormone production.
  2. Higher TSH also increases T4 to T3 conversion, resulting in even more T3. Studies have found that in severe cortisol deficiency, the TSH and FT3 are often high. Cortisol (HC) supplementation in these people, normalises the TSH and FT3.


We do know that cortisol and T3 are both required to increase mitochondrial energy production. So a lack of cortisol is likely to reduce T3’s effectiveness in the mitochondria. But there are probably other mechanisms at work, yet to be discovered 

T3 and cortisol both need to be at good levels. Cortisol increases T3-effect, and T3 increases cortisol-effect – they are in a partnership within the cells. T3 helps to keep cortisol levels up as it stimulates the hypothalamic-pituitary system more than T4. This latter point is why thyroid medications that contain T3 help to keep cortisol levels higher. Low cortisol is very common in thyroid patients, as many have lower T3 levels during the day and in the night than they had when they were well (for reasons I have discussed in my books and in various other blog posts). For all the reasons above, it should be clear that with low cortisol, T3 does not work as effectively as it should do. High cortisol also causes problems and can reduce the effectiveness of T3 within the cells, hence thyroid patients with high cortisol often complain of feeling hypothyroid even when they appear to have reasonable FT3 levels.
However, I know of no evidence whatsoever that T3 is less able to enter cells when cortisol is low. That would require cortisol to affect the T3 transporter molecules in the cells’ membranes. There is no evidence that cortisol does this, and I do not know of any researchers who believe this (and I have spoken to some about this specifically). I stated this clearly in the first edition of Recovering with T3. I said that cortisol was not required to allow FT3 to enter the cells. 

If someone comes to me and says that their FT3 level seems quite good or high, but they are not feeling well still, it simply means that there is another problem that needs to be resolved. If low cortisol is behind the problems, it can result in slightly higher FT3 due to the mechanism that I have described above.

The bottom line is that a high FT3 on a T3 combination treatment is not unusual, and this does not mean the T3 is not getting into the cells (‘pooling’ as some people call it). The T3 is still getting into the cells. The issue is simply that having enough FT3 is no guarantee that metabolism is going to work correctly. Many other things need to also be right, including the cortisol level, as T3 and cortisol work synergistically.
Cortisol does not help FT3 enter the cells. There is no evidence for cortisol having any effect on FT3 transport into the cells at all. 

As I stated in the opening paragraph here, low cortisol does have some effect on raising TSH, which also increases T4 to T3 conversion. So, people whose cortisol is low may get a small amount of extra FT3 from this. But their cellular FT3 will also be a little higher too. It isn’t that the T3 cannot reach the cells.

When someone is still not feeling well, and their FT3 levels look good to high, it could be assumed that T3 is not getting into the cells. There are many reasons for metabolic rate not to be correct, including low cortisol.

However, cortisol has no bearing on the entry of FT3 into the cells. The ‘pooling’ concept may scare some patients to rush into cortisol supplementation because for many thyroid patients they have come to associate this word with low cortisol issues. Yet, there can be many reasons for thyroid treatment not working. Yes, these need to be resolved. However, the reason for thyroid treatment not working is not always low cortisol.

A good FT3 level does not mean the T3 is not available in the cells – it will be. I have written about many reasons for thyroid treatment not working properly in my latest book, The Thyroid Patients Manual. Please see:
https://paulrobinsonthyroid.com/the-thyroid-patients-manual/ for more information on the book.

If someone is on too much thyroid hormone treatment, but it is not working well, and the issue that fixes the problem is resolved, they can feel hyper-thyroid. This is not a sudden rush of FT3 into the cells – the FT3 is already there!  It is simply that they were taking too much thyroid hormone to begin with. The issue that has been resolved has simply allowed the biologically active T3 to do its job. These people will need to adjust their thyroid medication and ensure that they are not taking too much. Of course, once whatever issue has been resolved the person may find that they are on the right amount of thyroid medication already or even too little still. 

It is important to not rush into using synthetic cortisol (HC, Cortef, adrenal glandulars), as soon as thyroid treatment is not working and FT3 appears to be good-high. Cortisol needs to be tested fully (cortisol saliva testing and an 8:00 am morning cortisol test), and other vitamins and minerals need testing – see The Thyroid Patient’s Manual for details on these.

The word ‘Pooling’ has been used a fair amount on the Internet. However, there is no substantive evidence for any real pooling. It is just good-high FT3 levels that are not being effective, for one reason or another. It is a misleading term that different people interpret in different ways (sometimes in a rush to use hydrocortisone/HC).  If I could be given $1 or £1 for every person that spoke to me and said, “I have been told I am pooling, and need to begin using hydrocortisone”, I would be a rich man. What is always important to focus on is what is stopping a treatment working, fixing it, and getting the treatment to be successful. 

I hope you found this helpful.

Best wishes,

Paul

Paul Robinson

Paul Robinson is a British author and thyroid patient advocate. The focus of his books and work is on helping patients recover from hypothyroidism. Paul has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on thyroid and adrenal dysfunction and their treatment. His three books cover all of this.

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6 Comments

  1. Barb on 30th June 2020 at 10:36 pm

    I am on NDT (30 in am and 30 in pm) I am also on Cortef. I have tested my cortisol via saliva twice and both times my cortisol showed I was very low. I am presenting as Hyperthyroid. Every time I try to lower the ndt (I am not taking much) because I am presenting high my blood pressure goes up. When I got off of Cortef for several months, that too raised my blood pressure. I am back on both again and I know it will show me as hyperthyroid but my blood pressure is back to normal. So how is this phenomenon possible.

    • Paul Robinson on 1st July 2020 at 10:12 am

      Hi Barb,
      That is a very specific question and I would need a lot more information to answer it.
      This website is not the best way to go about discussing such specific details.
      For example ‘presenting as hyperthyroid’ – if this means your labs suggest it, well I don’t think lab test results are always the best indicators, e.g. low TSH should not be used to suggest ‘hyperthyroid’ and even high FT3 can be misleading. If you mean hyperthyroid because you have high heart rate, this could be because your cortisol is low and your body is compensating with adrenaline.
      Basically, there isn’t enough information above to tell and I can’t discuss more details on the site via comments to blog posts. I do offer 1-1 coaching and this is the only way in which I focus on individual people and try to assess what might be going on.
      I do suspect it is all perfectly explainable though.
      Best wishes, Paul

  2. Suzanne on 25th July 2020 at 12:37 am

    Hi Paul, I have been taking 5mcg of t3 for a few months now. I live in the tropical rainforest and considering moving because I now have mould illness which has caused inflammation full stop to cut a long story short I am 10 kilos overweight. I see an integrative Doctor Who’s tried to manage my levels however there’s really been no significant changes over the last 12 months. We have tested my reverse T3 many times and it’s been up and then it’s been a good level full stop the last 2 months I have quickly put on another 2 kilos and so have decided to increase my medication 15mcg. I have been on this amount for one week and it is not making any difference to my weight I just can’t lose any. I eat gluten free and a clean whole foods diet. I must have missed I don’t do much exercise as I have suffered chronic fatigue for many years and of course it made me feel worse to do too much. Having said that I am just able to tolerate more thyroid hormone because I am now on iron tablets 3 days per week. We finally found the right amount to sustained me. For as long as I can remember my iron levels are always low and the symptoms from that have been not good as you would know. So surprisingly I’m now able to tolerate more than 5mcg. It’s been a week now that I it’s been a week now and I have had no adverse effects from increasing the T3 dose. However I I’m still not losing any weight . I am not on any other medication except for iron and zinc and some other supplements. I am postmenopausal and was on all the bioidentical hormones for many years. I was given hydrocortisone for 12 months about 5 years ago and it ruined my life. I went from being a size 8 to a size 16 in a few months. That drug absolutely terrifies me!! What I am asking is do you think I should wait another week or two and see if I can push the T3 by another 5mcg, considering I am now tolerating it with good iron levels. Thank you so much for your page.

    • Paul Robinson on 25th July 2020 at 8:40 am

      Hi Suzanne, it sounds like you’ve had quite a struggle but might finally be on the right track. I obviously cannot work on detailed suggestions on this site but low estrogen and progesterone would not be helping with weight loss either. T3 takes time to slowly find the right dosage and 15 mcg is very little T3 if the person needs more thyroid hormone. So, patience is usually needed because it is important to go very slowly with thyroid hormone changes for safety reasons.
      I wish you the very best of luck!
      Paul

  3. Tracey catchpole on 19th August 2020 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve been on T3 only treatment for ten years.. Feeling very unwell.. I go up and down it never makes a difference.. Dr’s have told me that it’s in my blood but they can’t help me get it into the cells and that I’m one of 10% of people that it doesn’t work for. My health is just declining as I stay hypo…would like to have call with Paul can someone please tell me how to arrange this.. Many thanks.

    • Paul Robinson on 19th August 2020 at 5:31 pm

      Hi Tracey,
      Things sound tough indeed.
      See the front homepage of this website there is a short section near the bottom of the page about coaching and a contact button.
      Best wishes,
      Paul

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