by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN, NP
Chronic stress is a major culprit in women’s lives, contributing to ongoing cycles of fatigue, poor nutrition, waves of exhaustion, mood swings, and hormonal imbalance. When I ask my patients what they think is the reason for their symptoms, their answers have one common thread: too much responsibility that is impossible to manage. Trying to help themselves through each day, many women find themselves overloading on caffeine, sugary snacks, alcohol, and even sleep aids to manage stress, all of which can disrupt our body’s normal rhythms.
Research shows that when we experience chronic stress, our adrenal glands, or the tiny glands that moderate the stress response as well as regulate other hormones, will suffer. The adrenals, which are the size of walnuts, have an enormous job. They produce many hormones that regulate our body’s functioning, including cortisol, a hormone activated when our stress levels rise, signaling our body to enter a heightened state of emergency. But high cortisol levels are intended to be short term, not remain elevated. Since our adrenals do not know the difference between stressors, they can continue to work hard to do their jobs, whether we are stressed due to a true emergency or are simply stressed out.
When our cortisol levels stay elevated, it interferes with many functions in our body, including immune function, digestion, sleep, and even the ability to produce other essential hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and thyroid hormones. This can lead to high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess abdominal fat, and inflammation. In the meantime, our health is compromised, along with our moods, and even our sex drive.
When the adrenal glands continue to be compromised long term, they have a decreased ability to produce cortisol, and instead produce extra adrenaline, causing us to feel irritable, shaky, lightheaded, and anxious. Adrenal fatigue is a syndrome that can, over time, cause low blood pressure, allergies, and pure exhaustion.
These issues, although very concerning, can also be relieved when adrenal dysfunction is healed. And the good news is, it can be healed. Along with decreasing chronic stress, adjusting our emotional responses to stressors, and changing what, when and how we eat, we can reverse adrenal fatigue. Let’s take a look at some of the dietary approaches we can utilize to not only support our adrenals, but also improve our energy and promote better sleep.
First: time your meals and snacks
When we go for long periods without food, our adrenal glands work hard to release more cortisol and adrenaline, to try to maintain the body’s normal functioning. When our blood sugar dips for extended periods, this creates a stress reaction, taxing the adrenals. It’s important to know that our body always needs energy, even when we are sleeping. Cortisol works to moderate blood sugar in between meals and at night, so regulating our cortisol levels by eating timely, healthy meals and snacks is key.
Cortisol levels follow our natural circadian rhythm. It begins to rise around 6 am, peaks around 8 am, and then throughout the day naturally rises and falls as needed. It tapers off at night, and reaches its lowest levels while we are sleeping.
Timing our meals, and how much we eat, can help regulate cortisol and its natural cycle. Eating larger meals earlier in the day naturally helps support cortisol levels, while eating smaller, lighter meals at the end of the day helps maintain hormonal balance.
Exercise will also increase cortisol levels, so enjoying lighter activities while trying to heal adrenal fatigue is important. To keep cortisol levels as smooth as possible, heavier exercise is recommended in the morning or early afternoon when cortisol is higher, and lighter exercise, such as walking or gentle stretching such as restorative yoga, is better in the evening.
If cortisol is higher in the morning, why am I not hungry?
The old adage about breakfast being the most important meal is actually true. Eating a nutritious breakfast that includes protein within an hour of rising will help balance your metabolism and cortisol throughout the entire day. But it’s hard to eat when we don’t feel hungry, even if we know it’s important.
Here are reasons we may not feel hungry in the morning:
- Corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) levels can dull the appetite when it enters the bloodstream at a fast rate first thing in the morning.
- Decreased liver function can accompany adrenal fatigue, which also can quell morning hunger.
Here are some tips to help support your natural cortisol cycle:
- Try to eat breakfast within an hour of getting up, or by 8 am to restore blood sugar levels that were depleted during the night.
- Eat a healthy snack around 9 am.
- Try to eat lunch between 11 am and noon to prevent a large dip in cortisol levels.
- Eat a healthy snack between 2 and 3 pm to help off-set the natural cortisol dip that occurs around 3 or 4 pm. Many people notice this dip every day and reach for extra caffeine or carbohydrate-loaded snacks, which will actually impede hormonal balance.
- Try to eat dinner between 5 and 6 pm and although it may be difficult at first, try to eat a light meal. Eventually your body will enjoy digesting less food in the evening.
- Eat a nutritious, light snack an hour before bed, but be sure to avoid refined sugars. Nut butters with fresh fruit or cheese are ideal choices.
When we properly time our meals and snacks, we can prevent dramatic drops in blood sugar and support our body’s natural functioning. Our adrenals will not have to continually work to produce cortisol and can instead perform many of their other important secondary functions. We will also have more energy and more happiness throughout the day!
Next: choose the right foods and beverages
It is natural to crave sweets when we have low blood sugar. Fighting adrenal fatigue is exhausting, and reaching for quick, easy, and even tasty snacks such as cookies, doughnuts, candy, colas and coffee drinks is common. Unfortunately the energy we get from these types of foods is short-acting. The quick spike in blood sugar followed by a spike in insulin levels clears from our bloodstream so fast that we refer to this process as a “crash”.
Stress and exhaustion, when combined with hunger, can impede our ability to make healthy choices. When we aren’t aware of the effects that too much caffeine and refined carbohydrates have on our bodies, we may not realize we are affecting our hormones and how they function, as well as our sleep patterns by consuming them. I often recommend a gluten-free diet and limited caffeine to my patients who are suffering from adrenal fatigue.
In addition to cortisol levels, our serotonin may also be off balance, signaling our body to rest. That doesn’t always mean sleep — sometimes deep breathing or a 10-minute walk outdoors can help boost serotonin and ward off fatigue.
Ways to eat to support adrenal health
- Use fresh, whole foods, preferably organic, locally grown, seasonal food for meals and snacks.
- Avoid preservatives, added hormones, artificial colors, dyes, and chemicals.
- Include lean protein with each meal and snack to help stabilize blood sugar and stave off cravings for refined sugars and caffeine.
- If you buy prepared food, try to buy it at a health food store or grocery offering natural, whole foods.
- Try to prepare extra nutritious snacks to have on hand so they are ready and available when you are having cravings.
Beverages also make a difference in supporting adrenal health. Here is a chart showing the alternatives.
|Drinks that contain caffeine||Ginseng [Panax sp.]Eleuthero/Siberian ginseng [Eleutherococcus senticosus] (in the morning)|
|Alcohol||Herbal teas like chamomile, passionflower, valerian|
|Gatorade||Vegetable juice (with salt), like V-8|
Tip: If coffee is a must, try to have one cup in the morning with a nutritious breakfast.
A note on salt and adrenal imbalance
My patients are always surprised when I tell them to give in to their cravings of salt during periods of adrenal fatigue. Salt cravings in adrenal insufficiency are related to low levels of a steroid hormone called aldosterone. This hormone helps the body maintain salt and water as a way to help regulate blood pressure. When cortisol goes up, aldosterone goes down. Like cortisol, aldosterone fluctuates throughout the day, and is also influenced by stress. Chronically low levels of aldosterone can impact electrolyte balance, and sodium intake is one way to help correct this imbalance.
If you experience lightheadedness when you get out of bed in the morning, or when you get out of a hot bath or shower, you may have hypotension or low blood pressure. This is a common side effect of adrenal insufficiency, so adding good quality-salt, such as Celtic sea salt, could be helpful to manage those symptoms.
A final tip on choosing the right foods and beverages
When we make necessary dietary changes, we may often feel stress, which of course does not help break the stress-patterns that have already depleted our adrenal glands. This is when I remind my patients to not feel bad if they veer off course once in a while. Feelings of self-disappointment that are associated with binging may lead to a desire to abandon the course of action. Doing your best 90 percent of the time is all I ask, because guilt is not a healthy way to support your adrenal glands!
Other nutrients valuable to adrenal health
Vitamins and minerals and micronutrients found in a pharmaceutical-grade supplement (like the one in our Program), are essential to restoring adrenal health, and supporting the entire endocrine system. Not only can they help the healing process, but they can provide extra nutrition to our cells, and support proper adrenal functioning every day. Here are some important ones.
- Vitamins C, E and all the B vitamins (especially pantothenic acid and B6) help regulate stress hormones.
- Magnesium provides energy to the adrenal glands.
- Calcium and trace minerals including zinc, manganese, selenium, and iodine provide calming effects in the body.
Herbal support is also a consideration when treating adrenal fatigue. Adaptogens are herbs that actually adapt to the individual needs of your body, providing the additional essential support your adrenals need. Begin with the first two herbs listed below, along with B vitamins. If you do not notice improvement within a few weeks, be sure to consult with a naturopathic or functional medicine provider for evaluation and a program that evaluates your specific needs.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Eleuthero / Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus)
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Rhodiola rosea
- Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
It’s amazing to think that the adrenal glands have so much power over our functioning. When they are working properly they offer balance – providing us with energy when we require it, and helping us feel relaxed when it’s time to rest. The burden is great on our adrenals, and they can become impaired under the heels of long term stress. But we can make small choices that can dramatically impact their functioning for the better. With proper nutrition, exercise, relaxation, and sleep, our body’s natural rhythms will be supported. By reducing stress levels, our adrenal glands will work in harmony with us, and our energy and vitality will be renewed.