Adrenal Fatigue: The Ins & Outs Of How To Cure It Naturally
Stress has a larger impact on our mental & physical health than we think. It has the ability to change adrenal responses & often leads to adrenal fatigue, which affects the body’s ability to cope with & recuperate from physical, mental or emotional stress. Adrenal fatigue is caused by an overstimulation of the adrenals by chronic stress which leads to an inconsistent level of cortisol in the blood, sometimes, more than normal, sometimes, too little.
But wait, what on earth is cortisol & what in the world are the adrenal glands?
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands & acts as the body inner “alarm system”. It wakes us up in the morning & works with our brain to control everything from mood to glucose levels, how well the body reacts & copes with stress, our sleep & wake cycle & our motivation (or lack thereof).
The adrenal glands are organs that sit above the kidneys & make up part of the endocrine system. They are involved in producing almost 50 hormones that drive every single bodily function, many of which are essential for life. Hormones have an effect on every function, organ & tissue in the body, whether directly or indirectly. They react to each other & respond to conditions in the body in an intricate & highly sensitive balancing act. Normally, the adrenal glands release higher levels of cortisol throughout the day to help wake us up, with a decline in this hormone level in the evening to help with sleeping. BUT, when internal or external stress is placed on the body at a rate that it cannot handle adequately, the timing of cortisol production gets thrown off & hormone levels either dip or skyrocket. This internal or external stress can be caused by a number of things: toxins, emotions, trauma, poor diet, lack of sleep etc.
As you can see, adrenal glands play huge role in stress response. The brain registers a threat, whether it be emotional, mental or physical. The adrenal glands release cortisol & adrenaline hormones help react to the threat (fight or flight response) rushing blood to the brain, heart & muscles.
The adrenal glands are also responsible for balancing hormones that balance blood sugar, help with energy & food metabolism, help the body relieve stress & manage immune response, hormones that maintain healthy blood pressure, manage blood hydration level & keep the blood healthy by keeping electrolyte & water levels in balance. They also regulate sex hormones, such as estrogen & testosterone, as well as hormones that affect heart health & make sure that all parts of the body get blood and convert glycogen into glucose in the liver.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue often overlap with symptoms of a number of other disorders. This is why many don’t actually know their adrenal glands are under or over-worked & why it’s so important to be aware of our bodies & to engage in preventative behaviours that are conducive to adrenal health.
Some of the most common symptoms of adrenal fatigue are: brain fog, extreme fatigue, weight gain, insulin resistance, lack of energy, difficulty waking up in the morning (even after sound sleep), inability to fall asleep, or falling asleep but waking up throughout the night, overuse of stimulants, like sugar & carbs, frequent illnesses or taking long to recover from infections, autoimmune conditions, muscle or bone loss, decreased sex drive, moodiness (feeling overwhelmed, powerless, depressed, etc.), muscle loss, depression, sweet & salty food cravings, skin reactions or ailments, insomnia, hormone imbalance, hair loss, reduced energy levels, excess fat storage, reduced immunity & increased heart rate.
Some of the common causes are: death of a loved one, divorce, surgery, prolonged chronic stress, negative thoughts or emotional trauma, lack of sleep, poor diet, pain, food sensitivities, reliance on stimulants, such as caffeine or energy drinks or rheumatoid arthritis. Depression & diabetes are also precursors.
AND NOW, THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION: WHAT CAN YOU DO TO FIX IT?
If you think you might be suffering from adrenal fatigue, DO NOT DESPAIR. There are tons of ways to cope with adrenal fatigue & heal the cortisol production cycle, all of which have to do with taking matters into your own hands & taking the necessary steps to healing your adrenals & helping to replenish your adrenal energy to bring your body back to full health & a state of homeostasis.
DIET & NUTRITION: What you put into your body is a direct reflection of how you feel & how well your organs & body function on a daily basis. The thing about nutrition (& this holds true when targeting any & all health conditions or illnesses) is that it’s not only about adding foods that are conducive to your health, but also (& even more so) about removing foods that are harder to digest & that take a toll on your body.
Before we get into some of the good foods, let’s talk about the ones that might be putting a damper on your adrenal glands.
Caffeine: Caffeine has a direct impact on sleep cycle & makes it hard for the adrenal glands to recover, especially if you drink it in the late afternoon or at night. Many of us have a tendency to reach for a good old cup of coffee the second we feel like we need a boost of energy, right? Believe it or not, if you suffer from adrenal fatigue, coffee may be one of the largest culprits! Try to slowly cut back on the amount of caffeine you consume & try to vary the sources, for example: instead of having 3 cups of coffee a day, try to reduce it to 1 & have matcha or other types of tea throughout the day.
Refined sugars, syrups & sweeteners: High-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners & added refined sugars are found in almost every single packaged & processed food,Try your best to avoid or cut back whenever possible! When we consume excess sugar, the pancreas & adrenal glands produce extra insulin & cortisol to deal with the influx of sugar (& the empty calories). This leads to low energy levels, chronic fatigue & a general lack of “life” & enthusiasm! The sugar crash that follows a blood sugar spike often leads to more sugar cravings (which is why sugar is actually addictive).
Speaking of processed & packaged foods, they also contain preservatives, fillers & gums, which are sometimes hard on the digestive system. They wear out the body’s energy & digestion cycle because reality is, most of these fillers are actually made up of very harmful chemicals & engineered in a lab, a.k.a. they aren’t REAL FOOD. The body deems these ingredients as “foreign substances” & has a hard time absorbing & digesting them. This is why it’s so important to stick to the outer walls of the grocery store & to prep your food whenever you can. Processed & packaged foods are not the best for you, but neither are processed meats! The added hormones in conventional processed meat (especially red meat) can throw the system out of whack. Try your best to incorporate more plant-based protein into your diet to ensure you are getting a wide array of foods in your diet, quality protein & good carbs, vitamins & minerals.
Alcohol: Long-term alcohol use compromises the immune system, disrupts sleep & wake cycles, increases inflammation & disrupts blood sugar levels. Alcohol also contains large amounts of sugar & one glass often leads to 2-3, which can have an impact on the pancreas & liver. In fact, alcohol stimulates the production of the same hormones as when you are under stress & does more harm than good if you are trying to heal from adrenal fatigue.
Deep-fried foods & hydrogenated & partially hydrogenated oils: When you eat foods containing these unhealthy oils that contain toxic free radicals, this can cause oxidative tissue damage in the body & disrupt normal fatty acid metabolism, while using up enzymes that would normally be used to support other bodily functions. These oils are found in almost any & every packaged food. Look for ingredients such as: soybean, canola & corn oil & try your best to stay cut back whenever possible. These ingredients are highly inflammatory & lead to adrenal inflammation. Try to stick to healthier oils, such as: avocado, olive, coconut & ghee.
Now that we’ve covered what you shouldn’t eat, let’s talk about the things you should do regarding your nutrition:
Eat good carbs, such as: squash, buckwheat, quinoa, beans, lentils, legumes. These carbs can actually help lower cortisol levels. Try to incorporate these carbohydrate-rich foods in the evening in order to help reduce your cortisol levels before sleep, as well as improve sleep, maintain healthy blood sugar levels & reduce excess weight. The value of good carbs is severely underestimated. Everyone is preaching to cut carbs, without making the distinction between good & bad ones. Yes, you read right; contrary to popular belief, not all carbs are created equal. Low-carb diets can actually lead to chronic fatigue, low energy levels, hormonal imbalances (cortisol, being one of those hormones), sore muscles & joints & an inability to build strong muscle.
Stay hydrated: Hydration is so important for every single organ & bodily function. Water is the best way to stay hydrated, but if you want to go a step further, you can add sea salt & lemon to your water since adrenal fatigue is often linked to mineral & electrolyte deficiencies & this will help restore it!
Eat the rainbow! Yes, I know, it sounds cliché, but you should always try to have a rainbow on your plate! Having a rainbow on your plate means you’re eating enough fruits & veggies, which provide a huge variety of essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants & fibre!
Never let yourself get to the point where you’re so hungry that you become shaky, cranky, jittery or you feel you can’t focus or concentrate or like you could eat just about anything in sight: When you get to that point, it’s your body’s way of telling you that you have low blood sugar, which is one of the main signals to your brain to go into fight or fight mode (survival mode). Instead, listen to your body when it communicates with you so that you can progressively learn to take charge of your hunger & fullness cues & learn to eat intuitively. This will allow you to naturally learn to respond to your body’s signals.
Eat frequently throughout the day! This helps support sustained energy levels, healthy blood sugar levels & prevents spikes & crashes. And nope, there’s nothing wrong with a nighttime snack. I don’t really believe in stopping to eat before a certain time. I believe in listening to your body & feeding it when it’s hungry! Plus, a few bites of a high-quality healthy snack before bed (such as nuts) supports healthy tryptophan levels, which lead to restful sleep, as well as keep your blood sugar stabilized.
Add in nutrient-dense foods that are rich in healthy fats, good quality protein, fibre & easy to digest & have healing qualities, such as: Coconut, Avocado & other healthy fats, like nuts or seeds, Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels), Fatty fish – salmon & mackerel, Chicken & turkey, Bone broth, Nuts (walnuts & almonds are great), Seeds (chia, flax, pumpkin, hemp), Sea salt, Fermented foods rich in probiotics (Kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, certain dairy products), Foods rich in vitamin C & antioxidants.
SUPPLEMENTS: Food is fuel & should be your primary source of medicine & energy. But, since it can be challenging to get enough of every nutrient our body needs daily, it can sometimes be useful to use certain vitamins & supplements to provide extra adrenal support.
Adaptogens: Adaptogens have been a huge game-changer for me when it comes to coping with my anxiety, stress & emotional triggers. I was offered prescribed anxiety medication on numerous occasions but turned it down every time (even at my rock bottom) because I was so scared to get addicted. I chose to go the alternative route (the road less traveled, as they say) & I used natural herbs & remedies in order to cope. My go-to adaptogens are ashwagandha, cordyceps, reishi, chaga & ginseng. They help calm & nourish the adrenal glands & support the processes controlled by them. They also power cortisol levels naturally & mediate stress responses within the body. Basically, they help your body reach a state of homeostasis (so they work whether you have adrenal overstimulation or adrenal fatigue) & become better able to cope with triggers, anxiety, stress & other external or internal stressors. Think of them as an internal regulator that, when taken consistently, take a load off your back & help you out when you’re faced with a situation that would otherwise make your cortisol levels soar. You can add adaptogens to smoothies, oats, Greek yogurt, baked treats, lattes or take them in capsule form!
Magnesium: Magnesium supports adrenal glands, relaxes stressed muscles & nerves & promotes restful & quality sleep. Stress is a common issue for those who deal with adrenal fatigue, whether it be physical, emotional or mental. Stress causes the adrenals to become fatigued & to work less optimally, making it harder for the body to handle stress. Magnesium is a relaxing mineral that allows the chemicals and hormones in our body to come back into balance after the hormone surge of the stress response. The flood of hormones created by the stress response is great for survival but is only meant to be short term, which is why magnesium is great to help the body and muscles relax & heal post stress-response.
B-Complex Vitamins &/or Beef Liver: B-complex vitamins are crucial for adrenal health, especially B12. Research has shown that B12 deficiency may be associated with stress on the adrenal cortex in some animals. Vitamin B5 is another commonly deficient vitamin in people who suffer from adrenal stress. Moreover, if you are reducing or eliminating your consumption of meat, it’s important to take a B-complex supplement to compensate for what you may be lacking.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C minimizes the effects of stress on the body, as well as reduces the amount of time necessary to bounce back from stressful events. This is due to its high antioxidant content, which fights free radical damage & oxidative stress, both of which tax the adrenal system.
Since adrenal fatigue is strongly related to the health of your thyroid, if your blood results do show that you have thyroid issues, you might consider other supplements, such as zinc, selenium, vitamin A, all of which encourage the thyroid to make the active thyroid hormone.
ESSENTIAL OIL DIFFUSER: Aromatherapy is a very effective remedy when it comes to soothing stress & anxiety as certain essential oils have been linked to having very calming, soothing & rest-promoting effects, such as lavender & rosemary oil. Both these oils have also been shown to help decrease cortisol concentrations in the body & reduce oxidative stress on cells. Peppermint, basil, chamomile, clove, cinnamon are also great when it comes to calming the body.
EXERCISE: Exercise opens the blood cells, gets your blood flowing & boosts oxygen flow in the body & to your brain, which is crucial for repairing the adrenal axis. Exercise can also be a very effective distraction technique & stress-reliever because it allows you to divert the focus away from the anxieties weighing you down on a daily basis & to focus on one thing & one thing only: killing your workout! Exercise is also great for promoting gut-health, which is intrinsically related to adrenal fatigue. When your adrenal glands are functioning properly and your hormone levels are in check, your gut is happy & vice versa; when your gut is happy, less strain is placed on your adrenal glands (& all your organs, for that matter) & hormone levels are in check.
BE MINDFUL. Exercise is a physical stressor & can tax your adrenal glands. This is why it’s crucial to focus on gentler activities, such as: walking outside, yoga, light biking or cycling, swimming, eccentrics, barre, etc. The key is to get your body moving, oxygen flowing & to release endorphins to help boost cognitive function & relieve stress or anxiety. Once you begin to feel better, you can slowly but surely begin reincorporating more strenuous exercise a few times a week. You have to build your way up & build your tolerance gradually! DON’T OVERDO IT. Listen to your body. Be patient with yourself & let your metabolic reserve rebuild itself.
TRY TO FALL INTO GOOD (OR BETTER) SLEEP HABITS: It’s important to fall into a good sleep cycle in order to allow your brain & adrenals to have time to recuperate overnight. We ALL underestimate is just how much sleep we need… it’s not a myth that we need 7-8 hours of sleep per night to replenish the cells & body and to keep our hormones in check. Try to get into a regular (ish) sleep & wake cycle, get anywhere between 6-8 hours of sleep per night & try to wake up a bit earlier in the morning so that you don’t start your day off feeling stressed, frustrated or rushed. The way you wake up in the morning can actually set the tone for the way the rest of your day will go.
FIND WAYS TO COPE WITH YOUR STRESS THAT WORK: You can eat perfectly & still not feel your best if you’re not making a conscious effort to manage your stress. Find something, anything, whatever works for you, to distract yourself from your day-to-day stress & adopt strategies to bring mindfulness & dedicate some time to yourself every day. Be aware of yourself, mind & body, and know when it’s time to defuse your stress levels & calm down, whether it be journaling, baths, self-care, face masks, manicures, adopting habits to relieve your stress, such as: running, writing, walking, exercise, seeing friends, outings, travelling, etc.
When I say time to yourself, I mean “self-care”, whatever it means to you. The goal is to take your being (or body) out of “fight or flight” or survival mode when the adrenal stress response system is over-activated. This will help create a sense of inner safety that allows that alarm system to turn off. It’s your time to give yourself permission to pause & replenish your body, mind & spirit with relaxation!
And last but not least, like with any healthy lifestyle change you attempt to make, be patient. It won’t happen overnight, but rest assured that if you stay committed & motivated, it will happen.