6 Dietary Solutions to Manage Adrenal FatigueDr. Miranda Wiley, ND
December 11, 2018
If you are a busy bee in today’s modern world there’s a chance you are familiar with the term “adrenal fatigue”, but what does it mean? The adrenals are small powerful glands that respond to stress signals from the nervous system in order to keep us alive when under threat. If they are overworked and under-supported, they can burn out and the whole body may suffer as a result. At first, they may falter a little with some adrenal dysfunction or adrenal insufficiency, but if the underlying issues are not addressed then full blown adrenal fatigue may result.
It’s important to remember that stress is a natural part of life and a key component of physical, mental, and personal growth. The goal is not to avoid stress completely so much as it is to minimize unnecessary stress and to come away from stressful situations stronger and more resilient than before. The Finnish practice of bouncing from sauna to snowbank and back is a HUGE stress of temperature extremes on the body that ultimately leads to more robust health and stronger immune function. [NB: Don’t dive into this practice (no pun intended!) without clearance from your health care practitioner! The stress it places on the body may be too much for systems that aren’t used to this type of stress training and could, therefore, be extremely dangerous. I mention it only as an example of a traditional practice that uses stress for a benefit.]
The adrenals release various hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine, in response to perceived stress. Provided the stress goes away, then hormone levels should normalize, and the adrenals maintain the status quo until the next threat. If the stress is somewhat prolonged (such as a family tragedy) then the adrenal response is modified to allow us to adapt to the new state for an extended period, but with the expectation that it won’t last forever. If the stress is chronic and unrelenting (modern day life for many people) then the outcome is exhaustion as energy reserves become depleted. At any point on that timeline it is possible to recover and return to baseline with healing happening faster in the early stages, and taking much longer once in an exhausted or adrenally fatigued state.
Because of the continuum from mild, short-lived stresses to chronic, on-going stresses symptoms of adrenal dysfunction may vary but the classic signs and symptoms to pay attention to include fatigue, general body aches and pains, light-headedness or seeing stars with standing up too quickly, low blood pressure (in the later stages although blood pressure may be elevated in the early stages), salt cravings, dark spots (hyperpigmentation) after injury, sugar cravings, un-refreshing sleep, and/or changes in body composition – unexplained weight loss or weight gain, or a shifting of weight to the “spare tire” around the middle.
THIS SOUNDS LIKE ME!! What can I do?
Start with your diet (always…and for everything…)
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid meaning it helps to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream (so that you have sufficient energy to survive via “fight or flight” mechanisms). And blood sugar extremes of too high or too low are additional strains on the body! So irregular eating patterns and/or poor dietary choices can contribute to adrenal fatigue, and adrenal fatigue can predispose us to poor dietary choices as we seek that quick boost to energy levels through high glycemic foods.
- Ensure Adequate Protein Intake at Each Meal
Protein is digested more gradually than carbohydrates so the blood sugar rise that follows protein intake is sllllooooow and steady. This makes it just what you need to regulate the peaks and valleys of wonky energy during the day. For optimal energy ensure that protein is eaten at each meal or snack rather than having it all in one sitting. In general, the protein requirement for humans is 0.8mg/kg of body weight, so the average 150lb/70kg adult needs 56g of protein each day, or roughly 20g of protein three times per day. Athletes and pregnant women need more protein, while kidney patients need less protein.
- Eat the Fat
The fat-phobic 80s are behind us. Now we know the key value in consuming good quality fat for helping to regulate appetite and food consumption, hormone balance, metabolism, cardiovascular health, immune function, and so on. As long as the fat has been minimally manipulated by humans and their machinery it should be fine. Clean, cold-processed coconut, olive, avocado, flax, and grape seed oils should be used along with grass-fed butter, ghee, and a good quality fish oil for non-vegans. Fats that are refined, bleached, oxidized (think deep fryers), or hydrogenated have no place in your diet or in your body.
- Choose Your Carbs Consciously
Regardless of our ancestry, our indigenous diets were all very low in sugar as such easy carbs were hard to come by. Perhaps there were some sweet berries for a few weeks during the summer, or you and your tribe stumbled across a beehive and were willing to risk the stings for the sweet, sticky honey within, but a quick burst of sugar was a rarity for the most part.Starches were a bit more available in the form of roots and tubers, grains, tree fruit, nuts, and seeds. We evolved to appreciate their subtle sweetness as we ate them in their whole form complete with their natural fibres that slow the energy absorption.Colourful carbohydrates also provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Dark green, leafy vegetables contain B vitamins which are also useful for supporting stress response, while red and orange plants give us antioxidant carotenoids that help with tissue repair.
- Fibre Up
As refined, accessible carbohydrates have infiltrated the diet they have displaced the easiest sources of fibre for our bodies. Focus on whole foods – whole grains over white grains, whole fruits and veggies over juices, and make room for leafy greens and legumes – in order to eat enough fibre each day. Not only does fibre help to maintain portion control by making us feel fuller, but fibre feeds the microflora in our colon too!
- Don’t Skip the Salt
Provided the diet is whole foods based and made up of minimally processed plant-based ingredients then a little daily salt can be excellent medicine for adrenal recovery. [If the diet is mostly processed fast food then salt intake will be more than necessary…and you should go back to steps one through four!]
Nerve function depends on the right ratio of potassium to sodium. Plants are rich in potassium so to keep the balance and smooth out the nervous system some added sodium can be helpful. Since low blood pressure is a symptom of poor adrenal tone the addition of ¼ tsp of good quality salt to the diet once or twice a day can help the adrenals to regulate blood pressure effectively again.
- Find the Meal Frequency that Works Best for You
Depending on your metabolism and where you are on this journey to optimal adrenal health you may need to eat small meals frequently at first, but my ideal for most people is 2-3 meals each day that are so well balanced that there is a comfortable appetite for food ahead of each meal rather than a hangry body demanding appeasement every few hours. Start gently and see if you can extend the intervals between meals by playing with the ratio of protein:fat:carb:fibre with each meal or snack in order to feel comfortably full for longer periods, along with mental clarity and physical energy.
Of course, while addressing dietary changes in order to maximize your physical health it is important to address the stressors in your life as well. There are many adaptogenic herbs that support the nervous system and the adrenals. Mindfulness and meditation are excellent practices for changing our stress response and healing the adrenals – and mindfulness can also be practiced while eating if you want to stay diet-focused! Learning how to set boundaries, say “No”, and treat ourselves with empathy and self-love are also excellent tools to practice.
I wish you all a successful journey to a calm and happy state of grace with strong adrenals that help you to see stressful situations as an opportunity for growth and enhanced personal power.