It is imperative for long-term health to maintain healthy support of our adrenal glands. Our adrenals are where our stress response originates from and where cortisol is produced. Adrenal glands are what allow us to focus under pressure, boost our performance, keep us awake, endure hardship, and process and respond quickly to danger. These are healthy responses and our adrenal glands are up for the task, however, they only work as well as we allow them to. In other words, we get to choose how healthy our stress response is by how well we nourish and support our adrenal glands. As with anything else in our body (and our life in general), if we don’t care for it things will start malfunctioning and affect other areas of our life. When our adrenal glands don’t have the resources to meet our constant, high-stress demands (figuratively and literally), adrenal insufficiency, also called adrenal fatigue, creeps in.
What is adrenal fatigue and how does it develop? When does stress become unhealthy? How does chronic stress affect other areas of our body and health? These questions, and more, are addressed in part one of this blog. Part one provides a great foundation of knowledge to help you identify negative stress and the red flags of adrenal fatigue. You can read part one here!
This is part two of our blog on adrenal fatigue. After covering the causes and stages of adrenal fatigue, as well as the downstream effects of chronic stress, we’re going to move forward and discuss what to do about it. In this blog, we’ll cover what nutritional supports can reverse adrenal fatigue. Specifically, we’ll discuss an eating plan for adrenal recovery as well as specific supplements to restore adrenal health and cortisol levels. But wait, there’s a part three to this blog series! Part three is where we’ll cover healthy habits for managing stress and improving sleep. Check it out here!
Don’t Make Your Adrenal Fatigue Worse
Oftentimes the simplest way to learn how to make things right is to first see what went wrong. As discussed in part one, we know that adrenal fatigue is caused by ongoing stress. But there are other factors that perpetuate adrenal fatigue after it has already taken hold. Developing adrenal fatigue is hard enough on our body, but here’s some elements that make the process decidedly worse and more difficult to overcome:
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- Poor glucose control
- Ongoing exposure to environmental and household toxins
- Overconsumption of sugar, caffeine, or alcohol
- Sleep deprivation or staying up late
- Repeated use of antibiotics
- Having co-occurring chronic disease(s)
- Fighting off recurring infections (whether bacterial or viral)
All of these things are stressors in and of themselves and are capable of launching the stages of adrenal fatigue. However, if we cut out all other chronic stress from our lives but still retain one or more of the above items, we will have a harder recovery.
Start With Your Diet
The key to correcting underlying causes of most chronic conditions, whether or not we have digestive symptoms, is to first make sure we’re feeding ourselves properly. The nutrients in our food each play very specific roles in the biochemistry of our body. Any lack in these nutrients and our biochemical processes slow down, affecting everything from our detox pathways, thyroid health, inflammation, fertility, mental health, and (you guessed it) adrenal health.
For those in any stage of adrenal fatigue it is critical to first support your adrenal glands through a healthy diet. Eating in this way provides all the nutrients you need for your body to heal from any stress-induced damage while rebooting the health and function of your adrenal glands.
Foods To Eat
Eat the following foods to support and restore the health of your adrenal glands:
Vegetables: 30-40% of your diet will come from vegetables, particularly those that grow above ground. Vegetables should be eaten either raw or lightly cooked to retain the most nutrients. The most helpful vegetables for adrenal recovery are sea vegetables (seaweed) and leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, etc). Avoid white and red potatoes as they are high-glycemic (discussed later on). Always rotate your vegetables so you consume a good variety. Include vegetables of every color and purchase organic vegetables where possible). Aim for 6-8 servings of vegetables per day.
Proteins: This includes lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and legumes. Collectively, these protein sources should account for 20-35% of your diet. Ensure organic meat and dairy products as well as pasture-raised eggs.
Healthy Fats: These include monounsaturated fats as well as select saturated fats. Foods in these categories are nuts, seeds, nut butters, olives, olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, canned coconut milk, and all of the protein sources listed previously. Healthy fats should compose 20-35% of your diet.
Whole Grains: Whole grains are unprocessed and thus retain their outer layer (bran) and inner core (germ). These are rich in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Refined grains, on the other hand, are processed to remove the bran and germ. Not only does this remove important nutrients but it also creates a grain that is high-glycemic, meaning that it produces large spikes in blood sugar. About 20-25% of your diet should come from whole grains. Examples of whole grains include oats, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, corn, barley, and whole wheat. Avoid gluten grains if you are gluten intolerant.
Whole Fruits: To get the most nutrients and fiber out of your fruit, be sure to eat them with the pulp, seeds, and peel (edible parts only). Some fruits help lower increased cortisol. These are blueberries, strawberries, apricots, papaya, pineapple, and mango. Other fruits should be avoided during adrenal recovery such as those containing potassium or have a high glycemic load (reasons for this are discussed further on). Fruits in these avoided categories are fruit juices, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, all melons, dried figs, raisins, and dates. 5-10% of your diet should be whole fruits.
Fermented Foods: These contain probiotics which are great for gut health, immune health, blood sugar balance, and cholesterol levels. Fermented foods are found in sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, plain yogurt, tempeh, and miso soup.
Salt: Those with adrenal fatigue often have an increased potassium to sodium ratio. Specifically, their bodies contain too little sodium and too much relative potassium due to low aldosterone levels. This imbalance leads to low body fluid and low blood pressure. To remedy this, it’s important to hydrate throughout the day with the addition of salt in your water. Add one half to one teaspoon of salt into a full glass of water. Repeat throughout the day, starting in the morning. Increase salt on your food too, by sprinkling liberally to taste. Only choose between sea salt or Himalayan salt. Common table salt, including kosher salt, is heavily processed, contains additives, and lacks minerals.
Foods To Avoid
An adrenal recovery diet avoids foods that we commonly associate as being unhealthy. These include added sugars, artificial sweeteners, soda, alcohol, refined carbs, baked goods/desserts, snack foods, excess salt, vegetable or seed oils, and fried or greasy foods. Avoiding these foods will improve adrenal health (and overall health).
Unlike many other healthy diets, however, the diet for adrenal recovery further avoids all caffeine (including chocolate), alcohol, foods high in potassium, and any high-glycemic foods.
What’s so bad about caffeine? Caffeine in coffee, teas, soda, and chocolate, stimulate your already depleted adrenal glands and perpetuate the cycle of energy crashes every few hours. Even without the blood sugar spike from added sugars, caffeine creates a forced energy expenditure that is unsustainable (and quite harmful) for those with adrenal fatigue.
No alcohol?? While our brain might think that alcohol helps calm our nerves and help us relax, it’s really just the alcohol convincing us of that. Alcohol only serves to mask our symptoms, as evidenced by how our stress returns as soon as the alcohol wears off. More than that, alcohol places more stress on our body, physically. It not only taxes our liver but also our adrenal glands, increasing cortisol production. Even after alcohol consumption is stopped, high levels of cortisol remain in the brain; the area of the brain where the stress response begins. Lastly, alcohol causes sleep disturbances, specifically cutting out REM sleep which is the most restorative stage of sleep. Breaking up this sleep pattern disrupts our normal cortisol curve and sleep/wake cycle. Overall, alcohol consumption can worsen and perpetuate adrenal fatigue.
Why avoid potassium? As discussed above, adrenal fatigue can cause an increased potassium to sodium ratio. These minerals are balanced out by increasing sodium while decreasing potassium in the diet. Foods high in potassium are bananas, oranges, grapefruit, dried figs, raisins, and dates.
High-glycemic foods, and the importance of avoiding them, are discussed in the section below.
Lastly, as with any new diet, it is always a good idea to continue avoiding any foods you are sensitive to such as gluten, dairy, or others.
Balance Your Glucose
A diet that supports the adrenal glands must maintain a constant blood sugar level throughout the day. In a healthy state, cortisol (produced by our adrenal glands) works alongside insulin to keep glucose within a tightly controlled range throughout the day. This provides a steady supply of blood sugar to maintain our energy. When our adrenal glands are in distress, cortisol production drops below normal causing our blood sugar to drop below the healthy range. Low blood sugar puts further stress on our adrenals and prevents us from regaining a healthy cortisol rhythm (cortisol curve). It also causes symptoms of hypoglycemia such as dizziness, light-headedness, and weakness. Therefore, it is up to us to regulate our glucose levels through proper meal timing and eating low-glycemic foods. The following guidelines speak to this:
- Aim for three small meals and 1-2 snacks per day, separating all eating by 2-3 hours (do not graze). This helps maintain balanced blood sugar and ensures a steady supply of nutrients through the day. Eating 2-3 hours apart prevents an overloaded digestive system while ensuring that food is moving through (and out of) the body.
- Eat at the same time each day to prevent glucose crashes and inappropriate cortisol spikes. Breakfast should be within an hour of waking and no later than 10am. Lunch should be between 11am and noon, and dinner around 5-6pm. A great time for a snack would be between 2-3pm.
- Eat breakfast and keep dinner small. In the morning, our body needs to replenish its low reserves of nutrients and glycogen after not eating (ie sleeping) for several hours. Come evening time, our digestion slows down so we want to avoid eating heavy foods before bed that take longer to digest.
- Breakfast should be high in protein and fat. Avoid glucose-spiking breakfast foods such as fruit, fruit juice, yogurt, bagels, or refined cereal. Choose eggs, quality meat, nuts/seeds, leafy greens, avocado, and small amounts of whole grains, like oats.
- Avoid high-glycemic fruits and grains. These are ones that contain “fast” sugar, supplying you with a quick surge of glucose (and energy) and then dropping off quickly a couple hours later. If you have compromised adrenal glands, you want to regain a steady rhythm of energy and wakefulness throughout the day. Eating high-glycemic foods interrupts the normal cortisol cycle and can cause an adrenal crash. Focus on low to moderate glycemic foods instead. See here for a list of high and low glycemic foods.
Support With Supplements
In addition to the above eating plan for adrenal fatigue, it may be helpful to further support recovery through specific supplements. The following supplements act to restore adrenal function and alleviate stress:
Adaptogenic Herbs: This collection of herbs has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine as balance-restoring substances. Adaptogens are so called because they help a person “adapt” to stress. They contain particular substances that improve our resistance to stress, balance cortisol, improve mental work capacity, and protect us from stress’ negative effects. They also have a balancing effect on several body systems including the immune system, nervous system, and cardiovascular system. There are several herbs that are classified as adaptogens. Some of the more common ones include, ashwagandha, panax ginseng, rhodiola, magnolia, and holy basil. Supplement companies often package adaptogens together into one blended product. This provides support from several angles without purchasing multiple supplements.
Glandulars: Some people benefit from taking small amounts of the actual adrenal tissue of animals, specifically either bovine or porcine (pig). These animal organ products are meant to stimulate the activity of that organ in humans. Not everyone with adrenal fatigue needs stimulation however. Those who have reduced adrenal activity and a low to no cortisol curve (normal diurnal pattern is not present) can be helped by taking glandulars. But those with high cortisol are over-stimulated as it is and upregulating adrenal activity with glandulars would make their situation worse. For this reason glandulars should not be taken for extended periods but rather used for short-term purposes under the guidance of a knowledgeable physician.
Licorice Root: This is one of the best known herbs to help treat adrenal fatigue. It also helps with immune disorders, digestive issues, and mood support. Licorice root helps our adrenals by preventing the breakdown of cortisol to help maintain energy levels. This provides the extra reserve we need to respond better to stress. Smaller does are best so that healthy cortisol levels are maintained and don’t get too high. Because it raises cortisol, licorice root should be reserved for those with low cortisol. Lastly, this supplement should not be taken by people with hypertension.
Phosphatidylserine (PS): This is a type of fatty acid found in our cell membrane. Supplement versions of PS are derived from soy. PS supplements help normalize the stress response by regulating the hormone that stimulates cortisol production. This action helps maintain normal cortisol levels throughout the day.
Vitamin C: This vitamin is not produced by our body and so can only come through our diet. It is most highly concentrated in our adrenal glands where it helps synthesize steroid hormones including cortisol. Our adrenal glands require more vitamin C during states of high stress than they otherwise would. Vitamin C acts to slow down any increased rate of cortisol production, making it helpful for those with high cortisol. It also helps improve psychological stress responses. High doses are often required to achieve these effects.
B Vitamins: Several B vitamins are needed for the production and secretion of stress hormones. Stress itself requires more B vitamins than our body usually needs and so must be replenished. Niacin, pantothenic acid, folate, thiamin, biotin, and B12 all support a healthy stress response. Niacin and B12 further support a healthy circadian rhythm, which is diurnal critical release.
Magnesium: An estimated 75% of the US population do not consume adequate amounts of magnesium. A deficiency in this mineral can lead to a low tolerance for stress, manifesting as anxiety, lethargy, depression, and irritability. Furthermore, stress increases the need for magnesium, further raising the likelihood for deficiency. Supplementing with magnesium can have a positive impact against stress and anxiety.
Supporting our adrenal glands and maintaining a normal cortisol pattern is critical for everyday functioning. As the moderators of our stress response, our adrenal glands carry the responsibility for getting us through the day as awake, focused, calm, and resilient humans. Chronic stress threatens this stability and burdens our adrenals, making it all the more imperative to support them with the nutrients they need. An eating plan designed for adrenal recovery is the first place to start. Adding specific supplements may also be necessary depending on the stage of adrenal fatigue. In addition to diet changes, lowering and avoiding high stress is paramount to adrenal recovery, as is building a healthy sleep pattern. Both of these are discussed in our third (and last) installment of this adrenal fatigue blog. Check out part three here!