We all have stress in our lives and deal with stressful situations whether that's a job interview, financial insecurity, or health issues. For some of us that stress is constant and feels huge and overwhelming. When you're chronically stressed your body goes into fight or flight mode with the help of the adrenal glands. They work hard in an effort to keep up, but this isn't a mode you can live in for too long without ending up depleted and exhausted.
If you're dealing with chronic stress keep reading to learn about what the adrenal glands are, what they do during stressful times and nutritional recommendations for taking care of them and reducing the health effects of chronic stress.
What Are The Adrenals?
The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys. They're small but they do some important things such as producing reproductive hormones, regulating water balance, producing cortisol for our stress response, and epinephrine (adrenaline) for our "fight or flight" response.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
The term "adrenal fatigue" is somewhat misleading because the adrenal glands don't really get "fatigued" and stop working. Adrenal fatigue is not recognized by the conventional medical field as a true diagnosis because abnormal cortisol isn't seen on blood tests like it is in other adrenal diseases such as Addison's disease.
Many naturopathic practitioners will utilize saliva tests to look at how your cortisol levels change throughout the day. Cortisol follows a daily rhythm of being highest in the morning to wake you up followed by a gradual decrease as the day goes on. The lowest levels occur at night so you can relax and go to sleep. Testing like this can clue you into how your adrenals are functioning and whether they're producing cortisol in this normal pattern.
When your adrenals are releasing stress hormones constantly it can take a toll on your body and mood. At first you may feel energized and motivated by the increase in cortisol and adrenaline, but you can't stay ramped up forever. Eventually the adrenals will be dialed back leaving you feeling exhausted and depleted.
Our body's response to chronic stress and it's inability to keep up with it lead to many people feeling depleted, exhausted and overwhelmed.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
exhaustion, feeling "wired" but tired
anxiety, depression, irritability
food cravings especially for salty, sweet, fatty foods or caffeine and alcohol
weight gain or difficulty losing weight
hormonal imbalances like PMS or worsening menopausal symptoms
difficulty sleeping, waking early in the morning around 2-3am
brain fog, difficulty concentrating
Nutritional Support For The Adrenals
I've talked about ways to manage chronic stress and botanical support for the adrenals but in this post I want to talk about nutritional support whether that's coming from the diet, nutritional supplementation or both.
Vitamin C - this is a protective antioxidant for the adrenals and is involved in adrenal hormone production. When you're stressed, your need for antioxidants becomes higher so vitamin C is an important vitamin for stressful times. It's also vital for maintaining a strong immune system. Food sources include citrus fruits, peppers, berries, broccoli and other colorful fruits and vegetables. If you take it in supplement form look for vitamin C with bioflavonoids because these work well together and provide antioxidant protection. Vitamin C can be a laxative so it's best to start with a low dose and work up from there.
B vitamins - these can become depleted in chronic stress and are involved in many pathways that break down our food and produce energy. You can get them in a B complex or in whole grains, good quality meat, eggs, legumes and dark leafy vegetables.
Magnesium - this mineral is involved in hundreds of reactions in the body including muscle and nerve function, energy production, and a strong immune system. It can relax muscles, calm the nervous system and promote restful sleep. It's found in leafy greens, whole grains, spinach, quinoa, nuts, beans and avocado. If you get it in supplement form, look for highly absorbable forms like amino acid chelates, magnesium glycinate, or magnesium citrate. Magnesium can be a laxative so start low and increase slowly.
Vitamin D - this vitamin is essential for immune function, cellular repair, and bone health. You can get it from spending time outdoors in the sunshine or in foods like fish and eggs or in fortified foods. If you supplement with it the D3 form is best because it's closest to what we produce in our own body. Vitamin D is stored in the body and can reach toxic levels if you're not careful. Don't take high doses unless you're working with a healthcare professional and testing your blood levels regularly.
Carbohydrate cycling - There's a book called the Adrenal Reset Diet written by Dr. Alan Christianson that addresses adrenal health with carbohydrate cycling during the day. In his book he reduces cortisol by recommending low carbs in the morning, moderate carbs in the afternoon and the most carbs in the evening. He also recommends exercise and botanicals for improving sleep and mood. If this is something that sounds interesting to you check out his book for more details.
Avoiding caffeine and alcohol - caffeine can stimulate stress hormone release so you may want to either avoid it after 12pm or cut it out entirely for a few weeks. Alcohol in the evening can interrupt sleep cycles, which prevent deep, restorative sleep so it's a good idea to not drink in the evening or avoid alcohol altogether.
Healthy fats - our hormones are made from fats so having healthy fats in the diet to produce cortisol, testosterone and estrogen is important. Some healthy fats to include are coconut, olives, avocado, nuts, fish, flax, and chia.
Eating throughout the day - eating small frequent meals can keep blood sugar steady and prevent your body becoming stressed by low blood sugar. Carry around snacks like protein bars, nuts, fruit, and veggies so you always have something with you and won't be tempted to reach for junk foods.
The adrenal glands are two small but very important organs that are involved in our stress response by producing cortisol and adrenaline. Chronic stress, like many of us experience in our busy lives, can lead to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Although not a formal medical diagnosis, adrenal fatigue encompasses many symptoms including exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, insomnia, weight gain, sleep difficulty, food cravings, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and hormonal imbalances. Dietary recommendations to support healthy adrenal function include various vitamins, magnesium, carbohydrate cycling, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, eating healthy fats and regular, small meals to keep blood sugar steady.
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