Using Food to Fuel the Adrenal Glands - How to Not Be Tired and Stressed Out
by: Dr. Salna Smith, N.D.
You awake to the abrupt beep! beep! beep! of your alarm clock. Sadly, snooze isn’t an option. You put your feet on the floor, go to stand up, and a wave of dizziness hits you like it does every day. Your foggy mind says: “It’s OK; it’ll just be like this until we have a coffee…” And so the day begins! You hit the ground running as per usual—scrambling to get breakfast into hungry mouths, children dressed, schoolbags packed (not to mention you need to get ready), etc. By the time you’re out the door, you’re exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed. “Why does every day have to start with me feeling so on- edge? Is this the norm?”
You could be suffering from adrenal fatigue, a condition that causes anything from feeling anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, and exhausted to body aches, disrupted sleep, weight gain, worsened PMS, low libido, and cravings for salty and fatty foods. Whew! That’s one long list!
So what exactly is adrenal fatigue? First, it’s necessary to know what the adrenal glands are, and how they function to keep us healthy. Our adrenals are also known as our “stress glands.” They are tiny powerhouses, each the size of a walnut, that perch atop each kidney and, at a basic level, work to manufacture cortisol and adrenaline. Both of these hormones are necessary to help us cope in times of stress —for example, rushing through our morning routine, meeting deadlines, going through a divorce, etc.
How do our adrenal glands do this? There are two fundamental jobs of cortisol production, which are to
1) keep blood sugar balanced and
2) control for the optimal use of hormones by our bodies.
Firstly, this provides us the usable glucose (read: “sugar”) our body and brain require to keep our energy up and allow us to move through the stress. Secondly, our adrenal glands help control how much of our other hormones (e.g. thyroid hormone) are able to be used by the body. Each cell has a wall or cell membrane around it which will allow circulating hormones in only if cortisol “opens a door” and allows this to occur. When cortisol is sufficient and we’re managing our stressors optimally, the “doors” open at the right time, and hormones are able to have their proper effect on the body. This keeps everything running like a well-oiled machine where hormones are balanced, energy is consistent, and we feel great.
When we are managing our life’s stressors, healthy cortisol regulation looks much like a ski slope: it is highest in the morning, allowing us to effectively wake up and start our day, and slowly and steadily decreases throughout the day. This healthy “cortisol curve,” as it is often referred to, provides the lowest amount of cortisol at night, as melatonin levels increase, allowing us a restful night’s sleep at which point, approximately 30–45 min prior to rising (and with light exposure), melatonin is at its lowest and cortisol levels steadily rise and the day begins.
The problem arises when stressors in our lives accumulate (a busy home life, a job we don’t enjoy, relationships that are struggling, etc.) or if a stressor is deemed too taxing on our adrenals (the death of a loved one). Much like a tank of gas, these glands become depleted over time, and instead of helping us cope with stress, their production of adrenaline and cortisol become inconsistent and erratic, leaving us feeling like any new stress could likely be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” With unpredictable cortisol release, we may experience symptoms of low thyroid for instance (weight gain and fatigue), even though our thyroid gland is working properly. This is because cortisol is not available in the proper amount to allow thyroid hormone to have the effect it should on the body, which is to balance metabolism, maintain a healthy weight, and have a steady energy level throughout our day.
There are three common patterns of adrenal fatigue or dysfunction. The first stage is the stressed phase: it occurs if cortisol is too high (as is the case of an acute stress—e.g. you get a flat tire on route to an important business meeting). You feel fueled to solve the problem (i.e. get your tire changed, call and say you’ll be late to the meeting), and you move on.
But if stressful events string together and you find yourself chronically stressed, cortisol begins to deplete, although your catecholamines (adrenaline, norepinephrine) can remain high. This will often leave you feeling high-strung. You feel as though you are “wired and tired,” and while you’re anxious, all you want to do is sleep (even though oftentimes, you’re too anxious to sleep properly).
This can propel you into the final stage of adrenal dysfunction, adrenal exhaustion. In this case, most often cortisol and your catecholamines are depleted, and you become exhausted. Sleep is often disrupted, with either difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. You may notice PMS symptoms worsen, or your menses begins to change. Anxiety and irritability become the norm as well as weight gain, regardless of positive changes to your diet and exercise regime. You may also be worried about a nervous breakdown or burnout in your near future. A fast-paced, high-stress, fear-based lifestyle is a recipe for adrenal exhaustion.
I’m sure many can relate to falling somewhere on this spectrum.
Thankfully, food is a fabulous means to begin to rebuild these glands and offer them some loving support. Certain foods contain nutrients that are concentrated in the adrenal glands and thus work to refill the fuel tanks so energy skyrockets, sleep begins to improve, mood regulates, and you feel like “you” again. Who doesn’t want that?
- ⋄ Being stressed and exhausted is hard.
- ⋄ Taking action to work towards not being stressed and exhausted is hard.
- ⋄ You get to choose your hard.
Imagine an everyday where you have a consistently, high, true energy that fuels your day, allows you to conquer your priorities with more ease, and makes you feel invincible! This is not for the lucky select few.
Now let’s talk superfoods—this term is all the rage, and while it often is overused, it does hold true when speaking of foods that, per amount, contain a dense nutrient profile compared to other foods of equal amount. This means that a little superfood goes a long way. These power-packed foods are also often easily incorporated into the diet and can truly amp up your phytonutrients (i.e. plant vitamins), thus providing
the body with a well-rounded intake of the vitamins and minerals our adrenal glands need to rebuild and sustain themselves. Couple this with lifestyle techniques for stress management, and you’re off to the races!
Listed below are my top 3 superfoods for optimal adrenal health. While by no means exhaustive, and while you should always work with a primary health-care provider to be sure adrenal fatigue is the issue and a plan is tailored to you, foods are a great—and simple—place to start.
Drum roll, please...
Avocado: This amazing fruit has more potassium per gram than a banana; contains high amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, and iron; and is high in fibre and vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid). It’s low-sugar, and two-thirds of its calories are from healthy omega‑3 fatty acids. All of this equals a food source that the adrenals love!
Raw Cacao: Known as the “food of the gods,” this robust bean is full of antioxidants; B vitamins; and minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Together, this makes for a food that not only works to help calm the nervous system and fuel the adrenals, but tastes great too! Pro tip: If you can’t find raw cacao, go for an organic cocoa (note the change in spelling) powder that is unroasted to reap the health benefits of this adrenal superfood.
Sea Salt: We’re taught to stay away from salt, but sea salt is a different story. Unrefined and containing trace amounts of minerals, salts including Himalayan and Celtic Sea Salts have a profile of nutrients that work together to not only hydrate the body (without affecting blood pressure), but provides the sodium the adrenal glands crave so you can stop reaching for chips to satisfy your salt cravings.
Without further ado, let’s put these foods into a superfood snack. The following recipe is very forgiving and you can shift what you prefer based on taste once blended. Your adrenal glands will thank you!
Avocado Chocolate Pudding
- 2 large ripe avocados
- 6 tbsp. raw cacao
- Pinch of sea salt
- 3–4 tbsp. pure maple syrup
- ¼ cup unsweetened mylk (e.g. unsweetened almond, cashew, coconut, etc.)
Directions: Blend using a high-power blender until well-smooth, adding more mylk if needed, to adjust the consistency to that of pudding. Refrigerate 30 min or more in a tightly sealed container and enjoy!