Although it’s not discussed very much in conventional medicine, the diagnosis of adrenal fatigue is becoming increasingly common in alternative medicine circles, and is a subject that comes up in athletic and health circles. The adrenal glands are on top of the kidneys, and they produce hormones, including cortisol (which is connected to stress) and adrenaline (which is connected to energy), that affect metabolism and blood pressure, as well as inflammation and levels of blood sugar. These are hormones that respond to stress, and can be impacted by lifestyle choices. Diet plays an important role as well.
What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
We evolved with a fight-or-flight response to stress that was intended for occasional, short-term panic. Longer-term stressful situations can push the adrenal glands harder than they’re meant to handle. There are a number of different situations that can lead to this: major life changes (especially negative ones, such as death of a loved one, unemployment, or a big move); infections, serious injuries, or other ongoing health problems; overwork, including by students; too much exercise and physical exertion; too much sugar, and other poor diet choices; stress from perfectionism; not giving yourself enough time to relax or sleep, or intense family responsibilities. In general, adrenal fatigue is a problem that can arise simply from not taking good care of yourself, and from anything that wears down your body and your mental energy. The adrenal system can also be stressed by drug or alcohol abuse, or by high-carb diets causing excessive shifts in blood sugar.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
There are a number of symptoms that can develop when adrenal fatigue starts to affect your health. The main one is lower than normal energy throughout the day. Thyroid function can also start to go down, causing hypothyroidism. Blood pressure becomes lower than normal; there may be increased dizziness when standing. Headaches and general lightheadedness can be a problem as well. There is a loss of libido and a weakened immune system, leading to increased vulnerability to illness, and increased difficulty losing weight. You can start to develop cravings for salt and sugar. There can also be psychological symptoms, particularly anxiety and depression as well as a feeling of psychological exhaustion. Absent-mindedness and lack of mental focus can also be symptoms.
Because adrenal fatigue is closely connected to stress, adrenal fatigue is one of the potential health problems you should be aware of when going through particularly trying times, especially if they are extended in nature.
After comparing your current condition to what was previously your norm, you can confirm a diagnosis of adrenal fatigue with a series of saliva tests to check how your cortisol levels change throughout the day. A naturopath or other natural health practitioner can do this for you. They may also be able to help you get other forms of hair or tissue mineral analysis to help determine your particular needs.
Once you’ve been diagnosed, it’s important to make adjustments to your diet as well as your lifestyle in order to help put your system back on track. The main basis in your diet quest for adrenal fatigue recovery should be a paleo diet. This means a diet high in proteins and unprocessed produce, with few if any legumes and no processed grain, processed sugar or vegetable oils. You can take this online course to find more paleo diet details.
In all of your meals, you’ll want to keep a good blend of healthy carbohydrates, fats and proteins and make sure not to take in too much of any one thing. You should try to avoid eating meals low in protein, especially earlier in the day. As a general rule, stick to fresh, whole, “real” foods instead of packaged foods with more ingredients (which is also a good idea in general). Adopting a holistic approach to your diet is also helpful, even when you are not treating a specific ailment.
- Good Carbs
There are still healthy ways to get your carbohydrates from less processed foods, of course. Fresh fruits and starchy or root vegetables are important to help maintain blood sugar levels, which is one of the problems involved in adrenal fatigue. Whole grains are good to have in moderation. As long as you stick with these healthier options, you should keep carbohydrates at about one-fifth of your diet. This isn’t a good time to go low-carb. You may want to try gluten-free carbs, though.
Although you may be craving sugar and grain products, these can cause trouble with blood sugar levels, even hypoglycemia. Controlling blood sugar is an important part of recovering from adrenal fatigue, since too much sugar can stimulate adrenal production, and since the disruptions in cortisol levels seen in adrenal fatigue can contribute to insulin resistance.
- Fruits and Vegetables
For fruits and vegetables, try to limit higher-potassium foods such as bananas, dates and figs. Many other lower-fructose fruits provide good options, although you’ll want to try and keep them later in the day. Keep in mind that if you’re having problems with blood sugar and carbohydrate intolerance—problems that can be intensified by adrenal fatigue—fruits can be overly high in sugar, especially the way many modern fruits have been bred. Dried fruit in particular can be overly dense in calories and sugar. Lower glycemic fruits such as berries are a good option.
Also be sure to eat lots of more colorful vegetables, including leafy greens high in magnesium. At least half of your vegetable intake should ideally be raw, to increase the nutrient levels. Sprouts and sea vegetables are good for concentrated nutrients and are easy for your digestive system to process.
- Good fats
You also should avoid a low-fat diet while recovering form adrenal fatigue. Healthy fats to stick to include butter, coconut oil, pasteurized whole eggs, and grass-fed meats, as well as monounsaturated fats from avocados and olive oil. Fish and fish oils are also good sources of fats and fatty acids. You’ll want to keep from eating too many nuts and seeds, although (as with many fruits) they’re beneficial in moderation, and definitely avoid vegetable and plant oils—try not to cook with them; olive oil is better—as well as processed meats or cheeses. Lightly cooked or even raw meat, as long as it’s prepared safely, can be very beneficial.
- High Salt
Because adrenal fatigue can also reduce the hormones that monitor salt levels in the body, you’ll want to take in an increased amount of salt in order to replenish your sodium levels. Lack of sodium can lead to low blood pressure and dizziness. Feel free to add a touch to anything and everything you eat, but make sure it’s unrefined, not processed table salt. Sea salt or Himalayan salt will have higher nutritional value.
- Lower Fluid
At the same time, you’ll want to keep from drinking too much water, along with other fluids, which could stress your metabolism and dilute sodium further. Too much fluid can affect thyroid function, which is connected to the adrenal system (Remember, one symptom of adrenal fatigue is hypothyroidism.) Green tea or barley tea, as well as vegetable juices, can help to even out your system. Above all, you should avoid alcohol and caffeine as much as possible, since those will just put more strain on your adrenal glands as well as act as diuretics. Soda and fruit juices will have too much sugar for your body to handle.
- What to avoid
As has been mentioned above, along with looking for which foods are helpful for recovery, there are a number of things you should keep away from if at all possible. Here’s a more comprehensive list:
- Processed carbohydrates and sugar that can spike blood sugar levels
- High-potassium or higher-carbohydrate fruits
- Processed meats and cheeses that can be difficult for your body to process
- Vegetable shortening or vegetable oils, as well as margarine, that can disrupt the processing of healthier fatty acids
- Fried foods or junk foods that are hard to digest, and generally unhealthy
- Alcohol or caffeine that can put stress on your metabolism
- Fermented and pickled foods, including cheese and mushrooms
- Nicotine and other drugs
- Artificial sweeteners
- Any foods you may be allergic or sensitive to
As is often true when treating medical conditions, starting the day correctly is especially important in recovery from adrenal fatigue. You should have breakfast, or at least have a small snack, within half an hour after getting up, preferably before 10:00 A.M. As part of your paleo diet, you’ll want your breakfast to be high in protein. Don’t have too much fruit or juice early in the day, though, since your metabolism won’t be ready to process a high level of sugar yet.
Throughout the rest of the day, it’s important to keep eating frequent small meals, rather than a few larger ones, to keep your hormone and blood sugar levels more consistent throughout the day. You may want to have snacks as often as every two hours, including something small, like soaked raw nuts, at bedtime. You also won’t want to try any forms of fasting or cleanses, which will only put more strain on your body from not taking in proper food. Try not to rush your meals and eat too fast, since this will make it harder for your body to process your food.
Vitamin C is often recommended for adrenal fatigue, although synthetic ascorbic acid isn’t a particularly healthy option in the long term, as it can impact normal digestive bacteria. Plant-sourced vitamin C supplements can be helpful, though. B vitamins, fish oils and other omega 3 fatty acids are also good vitamins to take, as well as magnesium.
If you decide to use glandular treatments, stick to a low dosage and make sure they’re high quality. There are also adrenal supplements and essential oils that can be taken to help add to your own hormone levels, although you’ll want to be very careful about which ones you use. It’s best to consult a professional before starting a regimen with any of these types of supplements. You will also want to get professional supervision before using direct hormone therapy such as DHEA or progesterone.
Sautéed pasture-raised liver can also play an important role in helping to recover from adrenal fatigue, by providing a better source of usable vitamin A than many vegetable sources. Vitamin A is important for general hormone balance as well as for your recovery.
Besides diet, there are other changes you’ll want to make in your lifestyle to help reduce stress. The most important thing you can do for yourself is to make sure that you get enough sleep. When you start the recovery process from adrenal fatigue, try setting an early bedtime for the first month. At that point, you can reevaluate how you’re feeling, but sticking to a reasonable time to get to bed at least for those first few weeks will help you make sure you get the rest you need.
You’ll also want to make time for rest during the day—not napping, but making sure you have some time for simply sitting and relaxing, such as practicing meditation. If you haven’t practiced meditation in the past, this great course from Udemy will help you learn the basics in order to bring calm to your mind. This will help you keep your adrenal and other hormone systems from becoming too run down.
At night, you’ll also want to limit your exposure to artificial light, especially that from electronic screens, which can disrupt your hormone systems and put further pressure on your body. Don’t depend on melatonin supplements, though. Long-term, these are not generally helpful for hormonal balance.
During the first few weeks of recovering from adrenal fatigue, you should try to limit your exercise and physical activity as part of limiting physical stress. Casual walking is a good idea, but more strenuous activity, including strength training, should only be worked in more gradually, and should be kept in check. Yoga and stretching are good choices to keep moving without doing anything too strenuous. This online yoga course can help you get started.
Along with giving yourself more space to relax, you’ll want to do some self-evaluation and look for ways to either change the parts of your life that are affecting you negatively, or to figure out how you can cope more effectively.
Changing your diet, along with a more calming lifestyle, can gradually help you recover from adrenal fatigue and maintain healthier, stable hormone levels. Lowering stress can be a complex, difficult process. You can get additional help in living better from this online stress-reduction course. At the end of the day it is about a more healthful you, and any steps that you can take to ensure that are good steps for your life.