Coming at you with a longer & very informative post today! I think it’s well worth the read when you have a minute to sit down with a warm latte! I mean, let’s be honest, I think all my posts are worth a read, or else I wouldn’t publish them, right? No, but seriously, I think everyone can benefit from this post & become more informed about a very common health condition that’s often underestimated.
Believe it or not, 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.
I personally believe that we will all suffer from a form of adrenal fatigue at some point in our lives, simply because of how stressful the hustle & bustle of everyday life has become & mostly because we’re human beings with emotions & certain events in our lives trigger more intense emotions than normal, which are often difficult for our bodies to adjust to & cope with.
Before we get into it, why on earth am I talking to you about adrenal fatigue? BECAUSE I DEALT WITH IT. Yes, adrenal fatigue is YET ANOTHER struggle I had to overcome in eating disorder recovery. But hey, on the bright side, I learned so much about it that now I get to share my experience & knowledge with you guys in hopes that it’ll help you too.
I’m not going to ramble on & on for days about how eating disorders & adrenal fatigue are intrinsically related, but I do want to give you guys a little rundown of why that’s true in case you’re currently suffering & want to understand why. And by the way, adrenal fatigue can happen with any kind of restrictive eating pattern. You don’t have to have a diagnosed ED to be struggling with the impact of eating too little on your adrenals &/or thyroid. Any excessive restriction, whether it be excessive cleansing, detoxing, skipping meals regularly because you’re too busy to eat, can have an impact.
First off, the mere development of an ED can actually be a sign that the adrenal glands are in overdrive. As a result of underlying life stress, experience or trauma, the normal signals of eating, fullness & body perception are sometimes altered. But, EDs don’t always develop as a result of adrenal fatigue. No matter what the cause of the development of the ED is, the illness disrupts the adrenal stress axis that begins in the brain & eventually leads to increased cortisol & adrenaline production.
How does that happen, you ask? Basically, when the body is not getting enough nutrition & fuel, the brain goes into “fight or flight” mode (a.k.a. survival mode). The brain requires approximately 20% of the energy we consume from food in order to function. But, when it plummets below that, it freaks out & tries to protect you by making you conserve energy & forcing your metabolism & energy expenditure into hibernation mode. Yes, that’s why EDs mess with your metabolism & why it’s so difficult to get it back on track in recovery.
When your brain reacts this way & as fuel intake becomes chronically low, the body pumps out more adrenaline & cortisol, which leads to a variety of symptoms, such as: anxiety, brain fog & cravings for unhealthy fats & refined sugars.
But wait for it. it doesn’t stop there. Eventually, the brain realizes that it cannot continuously pump out cortisol & adrenaline because of all the negative effects it’s having on the body. It then stops to produce those stress hormones, which eventually slows down the production by the adrenals of these important chemical controllers and once again: SYMPTOMS, ranging from: wearing down muscle & bone, hormone imbalances, feelings of anxiety, brain fog, cravings for fat & sugar, discomfort, fatigue, tiredness, sluggishness, feeling cold all the time, digestive issues, gas, bloating, irritability, feelings of depression, chronic overwhelmingness, isolation, dry skin, hair thinning, low blood sugar response, decrease in immunity & an imbalance in neurotransmitter activity, making us lose our hunger & fullness signals, etc.
Finally, with long-term restrictive eating, the hormones become imbalanced. How come? Because the best way for the brain to conserve energy is by turning down the metabolism & slowing down thyroid function. Basically, the thyroid stops producing the building blocks of active thyroid hormone, disposes of the active thyroid hormone produced into a kind we can’t use & prevents the body from over drafting on energy, making cells less responsive. In survival mode, the body also diverts attention away from tasks we don’t need urgently, like regular digestion & making reproductive hormones, which is why digestive & hormonal symptoms are so common with thyroid imbalances.
I said I wouldn’t ramble, but I did. But at least now you have an understanding of how adrenal fatigue happens & the way certain vital organs in the body respond to it.
Some of the symptoms I experienced first hand are: anxiety, brain fog, irritability, chronic fatigue, sluggishness, a need to isolate myself & hibernate, feeling cold all the time, horrible digestive issues & bloating, depression, inability to fall asleep or being able to fall asleep but then waking up numerous times at night, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, feeling a lack of motivation to do anything, constantly feeling overwhelmed & flaky dry skin. All this to say, IT WASN’T FUN!
In case you scrolled through the whole “shpeel” about eating disorders, here’s a more concise definition of what adrenal fatigue is. It’s caused by an overstimulation of the adrenals by chronic stress, which over time, leads to an inconsistent level of cortisol in the blood, sometimes, more than normal, sometimes, too little. In addition to this misbalance in cortisol levels, people with adrenal fatigue often don’t have enough DHEA, which is the hormone responsible for the creation of many necessary hormones in the body. Basically, what happens is that the body & more specifically, the adrenal glands cannot keep up with the amount of daily stress we experience.
Before we get into the symptoms & causes of adrenal fatigue, I’m sure you’re wondering: What on earth is cortisol & what in the world are the adrenal glands, right? Let me explain!
Cortisol is the body inner “alarm system”, if you will. 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). Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands & is basically what makes the body “fight or flight”. Naturally,
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, they release higher levels of cortisol throughout the day to help wake us up, with a decline in this hormone levels 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 cortex then releases corticosteroids to dampen processes like digestion, immune system response & other functions not necessary for immediate survival.
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.
So yes, OPTIMAL FUNCTIONING OF YOUR ADRENAL GLANDS IS CRUCIAL TO MAINTAINING YOUR OVERALL HEALTH!
What does adrenal fatigue feel like?
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue often overlap with symptoms of a number of other disorders, so many people don’t actually know their adrenal glands are under or over-worked, which is 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 include: 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.
What causes adrenal fatigue?
There are TONS of different reasons why some people develop it & often times, it can be a combination of many different factors. Some of the common causes include: 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.
Here are some of my recommendations:
Please keep in mind that 1) I am not a doctor, so it’s always best to check with your doctor before starting any of the supplements or vitamins I recommend & blood tests are always the best reflection of what’s actually going on inside your body & 2) These are the things that worked for ME! I can’t guarantee that they will work for you because I can only speak from my personal experience! It’s all about trial & error!).
DIET & NUTRITION:
I’m a firm believer in the fact that what you put into your body is a direct reflection of how you feel & how well your organs & body function on a daily basis. For this reason, IMO, diet is the most important factor when it comes to healing your adrenal glands & maintaining overall adrenal health. 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 & sometimes 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! I’m not saying you need to cut out caffeine entirely because it actually contains tons of antioxidants, magnesium & can help support healthy insulin & estrogen levels if consumed moderately. But if you believe you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, try slowly cutting 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, from cookies to candy to cakes & breads to condiments & dressings. I know it’s hard to avoid them, but try your best to whenever possible! When we consume excess sugar, the pancreas & adrenal glands produce extra insulin & cortisol in order to deal with the influx of sugar (& the empty calories). This often 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). It’s also important to eliminate refined carbs, such as white rice, pasta & bread because they are filled WITH SUGAR! The best way is to make as much of your food homemade as possible!
- To read more about why I swear by meal prep, click here: Kelly In The Kitch’s Guide to Meal Prep a.k.a. Why The Heck I Swear By Meal Prep!
- Speaking of processed & packaged foods, they also contain tons of preservatives, fillers & gums, which are sometimes hard on the digestive system. They often 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 therefore deems these ingredients as “foreign substances” & has a hard time absorbing & digesting them. They tax the body’s energy as well. This is why it’s so important to stick to the outer walls of the grocery store & to prep your food whenever you can.
- To read more about how to dissect & understand food labels, click here: KITK’s How To Dissect A Food Label & Top Ingredients To Run Away From In Processed & Packaged Foods a.k.a. Get That Stuff Back On The Shelf, Baby!!
- 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, as well as all the vitamins & minerals you need to function optimally on a daily basis.
- To read more about my fave plant-based protein sources, click here: It’s 2017: Let’s Plant-Based-Protein-It-Up! Ya Dig? (No Pun Intended!)
- 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 & often times, one glass 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 (such as: creating high quality cell membranes). Again, these oils are found in almost any & every packaged food. Look for ingredients such as: soybean, canola & corn oil & STAY AWAY. These ingredients are highly inflammatory & lead to adrenal inflammation. The oils I prefer to stick to are coconut, olive & avocado oil (& I’ll use ghee on occasion).
- To read more about healthy oils, click here: GROCERY TIP: The Nitty-Gritty on Chemically-Extracted, Expeller & Cold-Pressed Oils & What Oils I Use (& Don’t Use) In My KITCH!
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 – if you’re someone who deals with higher than normal cortisol levels, it might be a good idea to eat these types of 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” (I HATE THAT WORD) 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.
- To read more about the difference between good & bad carbs, click here: Carbs Are Not The Enemy!
- 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!
- To read more about lemon water, click here: Lemon Water a.k.a. The-Only-&-Healthy-&-Best-&-Yummy-Way-To-Start-Oops-I-Mean-Detox-Your-Day-Right!
- Make sure to include all three macros in every meal to provide a steady stream of energy throughout the day & to prevent energy slumps/fatigue.
- 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 a point where you are HANGRY. In better words, 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 that’s filled with refined carbs & sugars and unhealthy fats. 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. Check out my post all about intuitive eating.
- 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 night time 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) can help support healthy tryptophan levels, which lead to restful sleep, as well as keep your blood sugar stabilized.
- To read more about healthy snacking throughout the day, click here: Everything You Need (& Want) To Know About Healthy Snacking a.k.a. Why I Believe in Snacking If It’s Done Right (& Right Doesn’t Mean You Can Never Let Loose!)
- HEAL YOUR GUT! Eat gut-healing foods & make sure to take a quality probiotic daily. Our gut health is the foundation of our total health, especially brain & hormonal health. An unhealthy gut can lead to inflammation in all areas of the body. Targeting & making lifestyle changes to heal your gut is the key to recovering from adrenal fatigue.
- To read more about how to heal your gut, click here: Everything You Need To Know To Heal Your Gut a.k.a. GO WITH YOUR GUT, ALWAYS.
- 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.
Food is fuel & should be your primary source of medicine & energy. But, since it can most definitely be a challenge 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: You guys know that 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 (from blood sugar, immunity & regulation of hormones & mood). 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. Magnesium is also responsible for over 300 enzyme reactions and is found in all of our tissues, mainly muscles, bones and brain. We need it for our cells to make energy, for chemical reactions in the body to work.
- KRILL OIL: Krill oil supplement is my fish oil supplement of choice because it’s one of the most bioavailable & also contains no mercury (as the fish from which it is derived feed off of marine phytoplankton). When looking for a fish oil supplement, it’s always important to inquire about how & where it’s source, what fish it’s derived from & whether or not it’s bioavailable. The human body is best able to absorb DHA & EPA, so look out for those on your ingredients label. Krill oil helps counteract many adrenal fatigue related symptoms & complications, such as: mental instability & dysfunction, depressive thoughts & feelings, arthritis, immune system function, diabetes, skin issues, acne, breakouts, weight gain, anxiety & stress.
- B-COMPLEX VITAMINS &/OR BEEF LIVER: B-complex vitamins are crucial for adrenal health, especially B12. In fact, 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.
INVEST IN AN 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 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.
HOWEVER, when I say exercise to help relieve adrenal fatigue, I don’t mean strenuous hour or two hour long workouts where you sweat like a pig & put a huge strain on your body. 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. I’m preaching to the choir here, but another thing 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.
The ideal situation? Get into a regular (ish) sleep & wake cycle. But, let’s be honest, that’s not necessarily possible for the average person in today’s day & age. So, settle for this: do your best to try to get at least 6-7 hours of sleep per night & work your way up to 7-8 hours. 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 everyday. 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, adapting 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.