The Adrenal Fatigue Fix
I knew something was really wrong when my son started preschool and I was the only mom who didn’t have another child on the way. I was too exhausted and sick all the time to even think about getting pregnant. Just climbing out of bed took a heroic effort, and thanks to my severe allergies, constant fatigue, chronic colds, and recurrent, months-long sinus infections, my husband and I put off Baby No. 2. Then one day, I nearly collapsed and ended up in the ER. A doctor thought I possibly had an environmental illness, like low-level carbon-monoxide poisoning, so we moved out of our house for two weeks while industrial hygienists tested it for toxins. Their findings? Only cat dander. It took three more years before I finally got a diagnosis—adrenal fatigue syndrome—and a plan to climb my way out by overhauling my diet.
The adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney, convert cholesterol into cortisol and other hormones that regulate many vital body functions, including inflammation, blood sugar production, immunity, tissue repair, and reproduction. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the glands release high quantities of cortisol, which eventually depletes the adrenals so they can’t produce enough hormones. Too much cumulative stress is typically the cause—whether it’s a back injury, a steady diet of espressos and doughnuts, or an unhappy marriage. Symptoms range from the fatigue and chronic illness I experienced to decreased sex drive, panic attacks, mild depression, PMS, stubborn belly fat, absentmindedness, irritability, unclear thinking, asthma, hair loss, and more.
In my case, I often allowed my blood sugar to dip too low, which overtaxes the adrenals as they pump out even more cortisol to raise glucose levels. Add to that my issues with sleep: I gave up my eight-a-night in order to attachment-parent my son, and I took on a book project that kept me writing in all my spare time rather than napping to make up for lost shut-eye.
And I’m not alone. Adrenal fatigue is a growing trend, says James L. Wilson, ND, DC, PhD, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome (Smart Publications, 2001). Since the recession hit in late 2007, he has seen a significant increase in cases of adrenal fatigue. “The most stress-inducing emotion is a sense of helplessness, which many people are experiencing if they have lost income and have no savings in reserve,” he says. Phoenix-based holistic nutritionist Paula Owens adds: “For every minute you experience stress, it takes 60 minutes to remove the flood of adrenal stress hormones from your bloodstream.” It’s easy to see how a few months of chronic stress—and not enough rest—can overwork the adrenals to near exhaustion.
Like me, many people go for years without being diagnosed because doctors rarely recognize adrenal fatigue; most are taught to look only for complete adrenal failure (Addison’s disease) or extreme cortisol overproduction (Cushing’s syndrome). Finally, my acupuncturist ordered a salivary cortisol test that revealed my adrenals were barely making enough cortisol to get me through the day, let alone keep me well. And so I embarked on Wilson’s plan and started eating to support my adrenals. The result? I began to feel better almost immediately.
“In many cases of adrenal fatigue, poor diet is one of its main causes, but in all cases of recovery, a nutritious diet is a major factor,” says Wilson. Eating the right combination of foods is essential. Experts recommend high-quality animal protein, heart-healthy fats, five to six servings of vegetables a day, sea salt (yes, you read that right), and complex carbohydrates. To give your adrenals a rest from keeping glucose levels up, combine the following at every meal and snack:
Eat lightly cooked or raw protein whenever possible to preserve amino acids and naturally occurring enzymes needed to digest food. This reduces the burden on your body to manufacture these enzymes, leaving more energy to spend healing your adrenals, says Rob Streisfeld, NMD. I used this prescription as license to eat more sashimi.
Vegetarians suffering from adrenal fatigue should eat eggs and dairy products to get sufficient B vitamins and essential amino acids. Veronica Hayduk, ND, of Rockville, Maryland, says most of her vegetarian patients don’t eat enough protein, which affects the glucose-insulin balance, making the adrenals work harder.
Best proteins: Sushi, ceviche, steak tartare, eggs, goat’s milk/cheese, whey protein, legumes combined with whole grains, seeds, or nuts
This is a basic building block for the body; it’s also important because some fats (like butter) contain cholesterol, which your adrenal glands need to produce hormones. Fat shouldn’t exceed 20 to 25 percent of total daily calories, unless you’re in the first phase of healing, when you should get
30 to 35 percent.
Best fats: Coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, butter, almond oil, olive oil
Your body metabolizes unrefined, complex carbs in whole foods more slowly than the refined carbs in white bread, pasta, or pastries, sustaining your energy longer and preventing sugar crashes. The result? Your adrenals don’t have to work as hard to maintain proper blood sugar. I keep a container of fresh crudités in the fridge so I can grab and go. I also add a vegetable to my eggs at breakfast: sautéed spinach, mushrooms, or sliced tomatoes. Whole grains are another complex carb option, but only if your body can tolerate them. Robert Bruley Jr., MD, DC, founder of the Bruley Center, an integrative medical practice in Minneapolis, advises patients to avoid the gluten-containing grains wheat, rye, and barley because they are harder to digest and many people are gluten intolerant. Sprouted grains are more easily digested and are higher in nutrients.
Best complex carbohydrates: Spinach, chard, red pepper, yellow and butternut squash, beets, carrots, millet, brown rice, quinoa, low-acid fruits like papaya, mango, plums, pears, kiwi, apples, and cherries
While you likely will need to take supplements several times a day depending on the severity of your adrenal fatigue, try to get plenty of these critical nutrients in most of your meals and snacks as well:
Probably the most important vitamin for adrenal function, vitamin C plays a vital role in converting cholesterol into hormones, a process known as the adrenal cascade. Vitamin C acts as a restorative antioxidant inside the adrenal glands—key since the cascade constantly creates free radicals that impair the production of energy in our cells and cause debilitating fatigue, says Bruley. And the adrenals are the only organs that can store vitamin C.
Best sources of vitamin C: Sprouts, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, red peppers, brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries
This mineral acts as a spark plug for the production of enzymes and energy needed for the adrenal cascade, says Wilson. It also moderates blood pressure, which tends to increase with elevated cortisol output.
Best sources of magnesium: Sea vegetables, nuts, brown sesame seeds, whole wheat (if tolerated), brown rice, peas, beans
While all the B vitamins are involved in the adrenal cascade, the most critical ones are vitamins B5 (pantothenic acid) and B6 (pyridoxine), says Bruley. Both help convert blood sugar into energy.
Best sources of Bs: Whole grains, brewer’s yeast, egg yolks, miso, avocado, peanuts, liver, soybeans, lentils
This mineral calms the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s “fight-or-flight” response.
Best sources of calcium: Sesame seeds, beans, nuts, collards, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, parsley, sea vegetables, goat’s milk
In small amounts, zinc, manganese, selenium, molybdenum, chromium, copper, iodine, and other minerals ease nervousness.
Best sources of trace minerals: Young plants, algae, sprouts, sea vegetables
Aldosterone, the hormone that controls sodium and potassium levels in the body, is secreted on the outside of the adrenal glands. When the adrenals are fatigued and not making enough aldosterone, the body can’t retain sodium or water effectively, so you become mildly dehydrated—and consequently have low blood pressure and crave salt.
Best sources of sodium: Sea salt, kelp, gomasio, dulse, green and black olives, hot red peppers, New Zealand spinach (an heirloom variety with higher sodium content), Swiss chard, beet greens, celery, zucchini
Now, after just a few months of eating this way, I rarely get sick anymore, my insomnia is gone, and I have energy to keep up with my son again. Inspired by this transformation, I recently got another salivary cortisol test. The result? I’m well! It can take anywhere from three to 24 months to recover fully from adrenal fatigue, but luckily, you start to feel the rewards of healthy eating right away. And as my symptoms began to fade, I knew I’d regain optimal health. The time for Baby No. 2 may have already passed, but full of energy, my life has never been sweeter.
Amy Logan is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
15 Foods That Heal the Adrenals
1. Licorice tea
2. Seaweeds—nori, wakame, kombu, hijiki
3. Naturally fermented miso without MSG
5. Soy sauce without MSG
8. Sea salt or salted water, if it tastes good to you
9. Beans combined with whole grains
10. Organic meats like lamb, wild meats like venison
11. Arctic char
12. Alaskan salmon
13. Bone broths with acidic wine or vinegar added
14. Red and orange vegetables
15. Almond oil
15 Foods That Hurt the Adrenals
1. Coffee and black tea (including decaf)
4. Alcoholic beverages
5. Deep-fried foods
6. Rancid oils, seeds, and nuts
7. Soda, including diet soda
8. Processed meats and cheeses
9. Textured vegetable protein
11. White flour in breads, pies, cakes, cookies, and pasta
12. Cow’s milk
13. Artificial sweeteners and ingredients
14. Fast food; junk food; and foods to which you’re allergic, sensitive, or addicted
15. White rice
Timing Is Everything
In addition to what you eat, when you eat is critical. Have breakfast before 10 a.m. and eat lunch around 11 a.m. to keep blood sugar steady. A snack around 2 p.m. will help you through the typical slump in cortisol levels, which starts around 3 p.m. Finally, have dinner no later than 6 p.m. and a few bites of a snack at bedtime. Marcelle Pick, RNC, cofounder of the Women to Women Healthcare Clinic in Yarmouth, Maine, recommends making dinner your lightest meal to avoid stimulating cortisol output when it should be tapering off in time for bed.
Black Bean Salad
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained, rinsed, and chilled
1 mango, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 scallion, sliced thinly
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons minced jalapeno
1/4 teaspoon dried cilantro
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons crumbled goat cheese
Mix everything but the cheese in a bowl. Allow to marinate in the refrigerator for an hour before serving for best flavor. Add cheese just before serving.
nutrition info per serving: 271 calories, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 12 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 11 g fiber, 28 mg sodium
Lava Flow Hand Rolls With Onion-Soy Sauce
1/4 onion, diced
1/4 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
4 tablespoons soy sauce
4 large leaves of red chard
3/4 cup cooked brown sushi rice
8 1-ounce slices of sushi-grade, raw ahi tuna
8 slices of ripe papaya, about the same size as the ahi slices
1 avocado, sliced into eighths
1 ounce of microgreens or sprouts, evenly divided for four rolls
4 roughly chopped macadamia nuts
1. Place onion, vinegar, lemon juice, and soy sauce in a small bowl, and set aside.
2. Lightly steam the chard leaves for 2 minutes. Run under cool water, and pat dry. Stack 2 leaves on top of each other with the underside up and the thick side of the stems closest to you. Fill the center with 2 to 3 tablespoons of rice, flush with the thick edge of the stem, leaving the upper half of the leaf empty.
3. Add 2 slices each of ahi, papaya, and avocado. Top with microgreens and one chopped macadamia, and fold the sides together and the bottom of the leaf up over them. Repeat with remaining chard leaves.
4. Spoon onion-soy mixture inside and serve.
nutrition info per serving: 220.3 calories, 10.8 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 15.3 g protein, 18.4 g carbohydrates, 4.4 g fiber, 720 mg sodium
Carob and Psyllium Shake
1 cup unsweetened vanilla soymilk
1 scoop (24.3 grams) vanilla whey protein powder
1 tablespoon unsweetened carob powder
1 tablespoon psyllium seed husks
2 teaspoons flaxseed oil
1/2 teaspoon probiotic powder
3 ice cubes
Place everything in a blender, and blend until smooth.
nutrition info per serving: 289 calories, 12 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 24 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 6 g fiber, 123 mg sodium
Vegetable Chicken Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound skinless and boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
6 ounces green beans, cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup chopped celery
1 zucchini, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1/2 of a 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon paprika
1 to 2 tablespoons raw honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons minced raw ginger
2 teaspoons pressed raw garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat for several minutes.
2. Add onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft.
3. Add chicken, and continue to stir occasionally to brown lightly on all sides.
4. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, and allow to simmer until vegetables are just tender and chicken is cooked through.
nutrition info per serving: 209 calories, 4.7 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 26.8 g protein, 14.2 g carbohydrates, 2.6 g fiber, 745 mg sodium