An Adrenal Fatigue Diet – How diet can help you deal with stress

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Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics:  What is adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue syndrome is an under-diagnosed but increasingly common condition. The bottom line with adrenal fatigue is your adrenal glands aren’t up to snuff and under-function in response to the stresses you encounter – the results can be low energy, fatigue and poor immune response


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Without enough hormones to mount an effective response to infection and viral attack; or cope with the anxiety of being late for day care pick up; losing your bank card; or being in a bank hold-up: your adrenal reserves can crash and play havoc with your health.

Adrenal fatigues leave you feeling cack with no energy or stamina to deal with the stresses of modern life!

Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics:  When does adrenal fatigue happen?

For most people, adrenal fatigue happens in response to the following:

  1.  one or two severely stressful circumstances; or
  2. extended periods of even mild stress if sustained or repeated enough.


In any of these cases, the adrenals may have been in overdrive for days or months pumping out glucocorticoids, epinephrine and norepinephrine to cope with the crisis. When this release of hormones is combined with little or no recovery period, poor diet, over-consumption of stimulants and poor liver detoxification, the adrenals can stop producing enough stress hormones, even if they’ve given reliable service over many anxiety-filled months or years.

Not surprisingly your stress response becomes blunted!

What is Addison’s disease?
Addison’s disease is a severe under functioning of the adrenal glands because of a defect in the adrenals themselves or the pituitary gland, which fails to signal the adrenals to secrete hormones. Symptoms of Addison’s includes low immune function; fatigue; low sodium levels; dehydration; low blood pressure; dark patches on skin. 70% of Addison’s cases are thought to be autoimmune in cause. In the remainder genetics, or lifestyle and situational factors are implicated. These can include chronic or severe stress such as illness, injury or emotional stress as well as poor diet. If untreated, Addison’s disease can lead to shock and death.

If the under activity of the adrenals is severe enough to be diagnosed by standard hormone level  tests, the condition is called Addison’s disease. If untreated, Addison’s can lead to shock and death.  

Adrenal fatigue syndrome is a milder version. Your blood levels may be within “normal” range for these hormones but not sufficient for you to feel good. Apathy and fatigue, at least some of the time, are the hallmarks of adrenal fatigue.


Adrenal Fatigue Basics: What are your adrenals?

I thought you’d never ask.

Your adrenals are two walnut size glands atop each kidney (which, if you forgot your high school biology, are beside the spinal cord and behind the abdominal cavity). They produce stress hormones including  cortisol and adrenaline, among others, which are responsible for the fight or flight response; the electrolyte balancing hormone aldosterone; the mood and immune enhancing hormone DHEA; as well as small but significant levels of sex hormones including testosterone, progesterone and  estrogen  – the last two of which make the adrenals for women especially important leading up to and during menopause, when the ovaries  produce diminished or no sex hormones.


Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics: So what do adrenal stress hormones do?


The catecholamines that include adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) are the stress hormones responsible for the initial response to stress - fight or flight response.



The glucocorticoids – cortisol and cortisone manage our response to


1.       physical stressors like infection, allergies, injury, running a marathon, chasing your dog at the dog park or a baseball bat wielding intruder; as well as

2.       emotional stressors, like a bad break up; discovering your car window broken; an altercation with the bank clerk ; an overbearing boss or co-worker


In short, stress hormones are responsible for getting us out of bed in the morning and mounting our immune response to the common cold or a cut finger. 

What the fight or flight response is and how adrenal stress hormones make it happen.
The fight or flight response is the physiological reaction of an animal to a perceived threat or danger to ready it to fight or get away.
The release of stress hormones triggers increased blood pressure, lung and muscle function and blood sugar levels. Simultaneously, blood vessels constrict in many parts of the body, immune and digestive function slow, sexual arousal wanes and the bladder and sphincter relax. This hormonal hullabaloo prepares the animal for vigorous muscle action that fighting or escaping pronto requires.
The problem with the human animal is that both life threatening physical stressors and psychological stressors can trigger the same hormonal response.

We don’t go very far or very fast without them!


Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics: How an adrenal fatigue diet is important for everyone, even those who don’t suffer adrenal fatigue syndrome – Why we are all vulnerable to adrenal fatigue


The important thing to understand is that stressors includes more than the physical kind.


The mind and emotional states can trigger the release of stress hormone the same as a physical stressors like infection or injury.


When it comes to the release of heart pounding, sweat producing catecholamines and glucocorticoids, the body does not distinguish between emotional and physical causes.


Feeling stressed appears to be a part of modern life with two income families; long commutes; 24/7 hour news/internet/laundromats and gyms.  We are expected to be continuously available to friends and employers via our communication devices and to respond pronto. …  No wonder, surveys point to an increase in levels of anxiety and depression the last two decades!

Don’t underestimate the effect of this chronic stress on your body. The adrenal glands are on the front lines of dealing with life in the 21st century– a supportive adrenal fatigue diet can be an important part of coping.


Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics: Why are some better at dealing with stress than others?


While we all must deal with stress, both negative and positive, some are better at navigating challenging circumstances than others.

Sometimes the only difference is one of perception.


One person will perceive a situation as negative or overwhelming; while another will view the same situation as an exhilarating challenge.  We are all raised differently and learn different coping skills and attitudes. We also have different physical reserves including hormonal profile, whether because of genetics or lifestyle.


Nevertheless, many of the people who are good at handling “everything” can suffer from adrenal fatigue eventually, if the stresses are sufficient in number or duration. Given the right, or as the case may be, wrong combination of stress, inferior diet and stimulants and do this long enough with no recovery period; adrenal fatigue, even with the strongest constitution, is not a question of “if” but “when”.


Everyone has a breaking point when it comes to stress, with some people hitting their’s later than the next person.


Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics: Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

While not as severe as the symptoms of Addison’s disease, people suffering adrenal fatigue routinely exhibit several of the below symptoms – The constellation of symptoms is why some practitioners call adrenal fatigue a syndrome:

  • Fatigue, especially on waking as well as flagging energy during the day
  • Poor sleep
  • Depression and apathy
  • Anxiety
  • Low blood pressure
  • Cravings for salt or salty food
  • Frequent craving for sweet foods and refined carbs
  • Addiction or overreliance on caffeine whether in tea, chocolate, coffee, cola or other stimulants
  • Disinterest in sex or lack of sexual arousal
  • Chronic Inflammation
  • Poor wound healing and frequent infection
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Loss of body hair
  • Allergies
What are the main adrenal stress hormones and how stress affects them? – The playbook on stress hormones – What happens when?

The stress hormones are a series of hormones, namely the catecholamines that include adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and the glucocorticoids, including cortisol (hydrocortisone) and cortisone, which the adrenals secrete when you experience physical or emotional stress – Their presence triggers both release and suppression of hormones in a series of negative and positive feedback loops that ultimately strive for hormonal equilibrium.

The adrenal hormones (with the help of others released by the hypothalamus and pituitary) are responsible for releasing stress hormones.

First, within seconds of the mind or body perceiving danger, the adrenals secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline. These make you sweat, tremble, feel hyper-alert and anxious. Your bladder and bowels may feel pangs and let loose. Your appetite might disappear – because who can eat when wrestling with a hungry lion or overbearing boss?

The second set of adrenal stress hormones to kick in are the glucocorticoids, which can be felt in minutes and last hours. Glucocorticoids suppress digestion and production of the sex hormone estrogen, progesterone and testosterone along with growth hormone and insulin. Who wants to put energy into something as long term as growing when immediate survival is priority? Glucocorticoids quell inflammation because why divert blood to heal wounds, when you need to deal with immediate danger of the charging lion or irate boss? Glucocorticoids strengthen muscle including heart muscle and increase blood pressure preparing a person to deal with that charging lion or abusive boss.

Not surprisingly with all these glucocorticoids on the scene, sexual arousal goes down the tubes – who wants to make out, let alone make babies, at a time like this? Growth and wound healing can stop; blood sugar levels, by contrast, surge because you’ll likely need energy to cope with the crisis, especially with insulin being less effective. The effect of all that sugar rushing into the blood stream can be euphoric - for a time until the insulin finally does work and your blood sugar and energy tumbles.

Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics: How Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is often misdiagnosed or attributed to other conditions?

Adrenal fatigue syndrome, while recognized and treated decades ago by the medical fraternity, is not listed in the physician’s desk manual, so many conventional doctors don’t or wont’ treat it today even though it was recognized a  half a century ago.



Interestingly, conditions with overlapping symptoms like chronic fatigue, hypoglycaemia and depression, can be caused or exacerbated by problems with the adrenals that fall short of abnormal standard hormone tests.  Unfortunately, many medical practitioners may overlook the adrenal connection and the person won’t get better or their recovery will be delayed because the adrenal dysfunction or under function is not dealt with in addition to the other problems.  


Not surprisingly when recovering from adrenal fatigue or dealing with many of the above adrenal fatigue symptoms, regardless of their cause, the principals of an adrenal fatigue diet may help.

Indeed, when you look at what’s involved in an adrenal fatigue diet, you’ll see that protecting your energy and managing your stress response is mostly common sense self-care.


In fact, there is no downside to following an adrenal fatigue diet and adrenal supportive lifestyle, when you suspect your adrenal function may or will soon come under heavy load. You know that when it happens….

The stress cranks up at work or at home. The mother in law comes to visit. You get in a car accident AND the dog dies. You learn that your child may need surgery.



Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics: What’s involved in Adrenal Recovery – Good Diet – Avoiding the wrong foods and substances– and eliminating or minimizing stressful situations and stressful people

Not surprisingly a healthy balanced diet is an important player in making sure your adrenals get the building blocks they need to produce stress hormone when you need them.  

As well as getting enough of the right nutrients, avoiding the wrong foods and taking the right attitude towards stressful events and high maintenance people are keys to effective adrenal care.


This last part of the adrenal fatigue diet equation can’t be overstated.


You must actively lead a life that either reduces the number of stress triggers or manage the stressors you encounter.  Try to ensure that no stress, physical or emotionalreal or imagined, sends you to the moon on a regular basis.  

 With the last point in mind, if unable to change your stressful job or eliminate your mother in law, you must deal with it and her by changing your perception about how upsetting these factors or people are. This can make a huge difference in your levels of stress and lightening the load on your adrenals.   


Luckily, many of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue can be treated or minimized easily by following an adrenal fatigue diet along with making the above lifestyle or attitude changes.




Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basics - Spotlight on glucocorticoids and how an imbalance can affect  fatigue levels, weight gain and food cravings


Appreciating the physiological effects of the glucocorticoids underscores how a deficiency can severely affect your fatigue levels, resistance to disease and susceptibility to food cravings; and why an adrenal fatigue diet can be important.


·         Cortisol is needed along with the insulin to maintain even blood sugar levelscortisol helps the liver convert glucagon, stored food energy, into glucose, an active form of readily available sugar- insulin ensures glucose enters the cells to produce that energy. When too little cortisol is on the scene, cells can’t get enough glucose. This sends  a person’s blood sugar plummeting to hypoglycaemic levels; this, in turn, leads to low energy and fatigue as well as cravings for the following:


  1. sweet or refined carbohydrates – the body’s quick ticket to replenish blood sugar pronto or,
  2. caffeine  and other stimulants

 that boost cortisol and blood sugar levels like an express elevator going to the top floor. 


These wild blood sugar swings, due to inadequate or irregular glucocorticoids or other reasons, can lead to cravings, weight gain, insulin resistance and eventually Type II diabetes.

Why cortisone is used to control tissue damage in autoimmune conditions – Cortisone, a synthetic version of cortisol (including prednisone), is used in the case of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, because it diminishes the immune response, which in the case of autoimmunity is responsible for damaging tissue.

One problem with long term cortisone use is it can suppress the adrenals’ natural cortisone production. This is why you must come off cortisone gradually with the help of your doctor to give your adrenals a chance to start producing sufficient cortisol naturally.

  • Cortisol helps maintain blood pressure. Too much may lead to high blood pressure (needed in the flight or fight response but not good long term) but too little will lead to the opposite - low blood pressure. This is why adrenal fatigue sufferers often have low blood pressure and dizzy spells on standing.


  • Cortisol regulates heart function  via balancing electrolytes and improving muscle’s strength and endurance – if you have too much cortisol you may suffer from heart palpitations; too little and the ticker won’t tick.


  • Cortisol regulates the body’s electrolyte balance:  with adrenal fatigue, sodium levels can nose dive leading to dehydration and craving for salty foods – by contrast, potassium levels can become relatively high because potassium are and sodium are antagonists.  This is why those suffering adrenal fatigue may crave salt and why potassium-rich foods, can make a person with adrenal fatigue feel worse.



The Basics of an Adrenal Fatigue Diet:

 So what is an adrenal fatigue diet?


There are four parts to an adrenal fatigue diet.


  1. Consume the right kinds of food and supplements to give your adrenals the nutritional building blocks they need to function and produce the hormones they need to support your busy and active life.
  2. Avoid stimulants  that unnecessarily  overwork  or harm the adrenals;
  3. Eat in the right manner  … and we’re not talking table manners;
  4. Lead a lifestyle and assume an attitude that lessens the physical and emotional stressors that come your way, including changing how you perceive stressful events or people, so that they are less upsetting.



Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basic #1 - Give your Adrenals enough of the Right Fuel To Keep them Ready to Rock’n Roll – Nutrients and Foods to Feed Your Adrenals


  • The B Vitamins, especially Vitamin B 5 (Pantothenic Acid) and Vitamin B 3 (Niacin) are building blocks for catecholamines and the glucocorticoids and can become depleted with prolonged stress.


  • Vitamin C is needed for stress hormone production. For more on vitamin C and which foods and supplements are effective, see the benefits of vitamin C.


  • Magnesium functions as an enzyme needed to make glucocorticoids. It also independently has a calming effect on the nervous system and can help the body manage and recover from stress.  Not surprisingly, stress can deplete magnesium. Press here for more about which magnesium foods and supplements are best.



  • Sodium is a mineral, which those with poorly functioning adrenal glands are often deficient. Sodium is needed for niacin to enter the mitochondria, the power generation station located in each cell so is key for maintaining energy. 


  • Tyrosine is an amino acid and building block for adrenaline and noradrenaline.  Meats, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, oats, and wheat are good food sources of tyrosine. You can also take tyrosine supplements to boost energy on a temporary basis while your adrenals recover. Tyrosine is a component of the thyroid hormone thyroxin, so supplements could interfere with your medication or hormone replacement treatment for hyperthyroidism (Grave’s Disease) or hypothyroidism.


  • Adaptogens are substances that gently support, maintain and restore the adrenals as well as other organ systems, like a fortifying tonic would.  
  1. Ginger;
  2. Asian ginseng;
  3. Siberian ginseng;
  4. Ashwandanga;
  5. Rhodiola; and
  6. Reishi mushrooms.



Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basic #2 –Foods and Substances to avoid as they put unnecessary load on your adrenals


As important as a healthy balanced diet , along with adrenal supportive nutrients and food, is to give your adrenals the right building blocks, it is just as important to avoid the adrenal zappers.


A poor diet of nutrient-depleted processed grub aka junk food and overly refined fare puts an unnecessary strain on your entire body, especially your adrenals. 


It’s a no brainer why! 


Your body must expend precious energy metabolizing and detoxifying crud, instead of nourishing and maintaining itself…. Healthy nutritious whole foods do this best.



Look out for the following adrenal zappers in your diet and avoid or minimize...


  • Refined carbohydrates including sugary beverages like soda as well as products made with white flour and added sugars can spike blood sugar. This gives a burst of energy followed by a slump as the body’s insulin kicks in.   No wonder many people use cakes and cookies as stimulants to boost sagging energy during the day. As blood sugar plummet to hypoglycemic levels, the body starts pumping out glucocorticoids to keep the blood sugar ship afloat. The result is rock’n rolling cortisol, insulin and blood sugar levels – enough to stress even the calmest among us. Instead, follow a low glycemic diet containing slow releasing carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein found in whole foods.


  • Stimulants and mood enhancers including caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate and colas as well as nicotine in cigarettes and amphetamines each put a load on the adrenals. All trigger release of cortisol that, in turn, spills glucose into the blood stream from the body’s glycogen stores. The effect is a rush of euphoria or coffee buzz depending on how much you drink.  Unfortunately, as the body seeks balance with no one hormone getting the upper hand; the hormone receptors get used to the caffeine or other stimulant pickling them regularly - so these receptors down regulate and become less responsive. The result is you need increasing amounts of your stimulant-of-choice to get the same thrill. Decaffeinated coffee is not much better than regular from an adrenal fatigue diet perspective; because some caffeine still remains in decaffeinated java, along with two other stimulants theophylline and theobromine (the last is also in chocolate). Instead wean yourself gradually off your dependence on caffeinated foods and beverages as well as pain killers that contain caffeine. This will go a long way to reduce cortisol secretion and calm your sympathetic nervous system as well as improve your sleep.


  • Pure fruit juices and dried fruits. Dilute juice with water. Both can raise blood sugar quickly. Avoid foods high on the glycemic food list. Instead, substitute slow releasing low glycemic foods that have a milder effect on blood sugar. While some fruits are high on the glycemic scale, they are full of important nutrients. Eating them along with a low glycemic food containing protein, healthy fats or complex carbohydrates can help reduce the that meal’s overall effect on blood sugar.  For example, consume a high glycemic fruit with nuts, some oats or a piece of cheese can lower the glycemic effect of the fruit. For more about how to identify low glycemic foods, see low glycemic diets.




Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basic #3 Eat the right way – small amounts and often.

When following an adrenal fatigue diet, how and when you eat, is as important as what you eat.


 Never go too long between eating. This will ensure your blood sugar doesn’t dip into the hypoglycemic danger zone which, we have seen, triggers release of stress hormones to stabilize blood sugar.


This means never skip breakfast – the most important meal of the day.   It breaks the fast from the night before and avoids blood sugar dips that can trigger a surge of adrenal stress hormone. If you can’t stomach a big meal, a snack is better than nothing.


Aim to eat several small meals or snacks during the day at regular intervals, as opposed to two or three large meals with long stretches in between. The latter can send your blood sugar levels into a tizzy followed by a free fall, which only a shot of stress hormone can calm – inevitably these swings can leave you feeling like a dish rag.


The rule is to go no more than a couple hours between eating something nutritious and sustaining.


See above to make sure that, when eating nutrient-dense high glycemic foods like fruits, consume with a low glycemic food that can help stabilize and maintain blood sugar.  Nuts, seeds and cheese are good choices to accompany high glycemic foods in order to reduce their glycemic effect; or snack on raw vegetables.  


Avoid refined foods and low nutrient high glycemic fare that can send blood sugar skyrocketing with the inevitable blood sugar plunge a couple hours later and with no redeeming nutritional value.



Adrenal Fatigue Diet Basic #4 – Support your adrenals by reducing stress and changing circumstances that are stressful or change your perception of circumstances as less stressful.


While your adrenal stress hormones were arguably designed to cope well with the occasional but severe physical challenge like a charging hippo or swimming a flooded river, many of the stressors we confront today are psychological and arise from situations which cannot be solved simply by running from the lion.  


… the problem is emotional stress has an ugly habit of becoming chronic and intractable.


The bad traffic and zany  drivers are same when you drive home from work as they were driving to work. Your in-laws are your in-laws no matter how much you’d like substitutes.



Unfortunately, your body and its stress hormones respond the same to something it perceives as upsetting, by releasing adrenaline and glucocorticoids often in high amounts, regardless to whether the danger is physically  life threatening or merely emotionally harrowing.



Your stress hormones don’t discriminate between something you perceive as stressful and something that is physically stressful like illness, injury or that sprint from the angry hippo.  There is not much problem with this except when the stress and release of glucocorticoids becomes chronic, as is often the case with mental and emotional stress; the result is your adrenal reserves decrease.


For those who repeatedly churn out glucocorticoids  because of stresses at home, on the road, or at work; and who bolster themselves with stimulants to keep going when tired or over the top;  and get comfort from a nutrient-depleted diet of refined foods: adrenal fatigue is a real possibility if not an inevitability….  No wonder these folks’ systems slow down and their stress response over time become less robust!



It’s why it’s important to either change your situation– a bad marriage, chronic pain, a stressful job or living situation – or, alternatively, change your attitude and emotional outlook on how you’ll deal with it.


Biofeedback and other body mind consciousness have been useful to train people to respond differently to stresses and may be worth the effort when trying to change patterns of stress. An adrenal fatigue diet can play a part in altering your response to stress.




Further Reading on Adrenal Fatigue Diet

One of the best books on adrenal fatigue including details on an adrenal fatigue diet is James Wilson’s Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome.

For a great book about the adrenal stress hormones and how our minds can trigger the stress response is Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers.


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