Carrie’s complaints were like many of my clients who came before her: fatigue, sleep troubles, joint pain, anxiety and a constant restless feeling, like she just couldn’t get out of her own way.
She was surprised, as are most of my clients, when I started by asking her about two things: food and stress. I’ve been talking about nutrition, stress and health for decades, because they are all so closely connected. We have so much evidence that shows that food is truly the best medicine out there. There’s also a lot of research that demonstrates how stress takes a huge toll on the body.
Our society pushes fast and easy food, as well as the idea that being under constant stress is just a normal part of life.
Stress may well be “normal” in our modern world, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s healthy! And processed convenience foods are just one more stressor for our bodies to try and manage. Are you surprised to hear that food can be a stressor? It’s true – our bodies perceive all stress the same way, no matter where it comes from.
I wasn’t surprised when Carrie described a constant barrage of stressors big and small, and told me that her eating habits were iffy at best. Between work, marriage, parenting, getting involved at her children’s schools, taking care of household duties, and helping out her aging parents, Carrie never got a break.
She said it seemed like every time she found five minutes to sit quietly, her phone rang again – and it wasn’t someone she felt she could ignore. Dinner was often a mad scramble to get everyone fed before one event or another, breakfast was a cereal bar or similar “easy to grab on the way out the door” food, and she often missed lunch entirely.
She ended up ravenous mid-afternoon, grabbing whatever she could find, which more often than not meant something from the break room or vending machine – typically not healthy options.
Like many of my clients, no one had ever told Carrie that good nutrition and stress relief just might be a viable solution to her uncomfortable symptoms.
In fact, like with many of my clients, her doctor had suggested she try antidepressants. I didn’t think depression was her problem – in fact, I was pretty sure she was suffering from adrenal fatigue, a result of chronic stress.
When I told her this, her frustration was visible in her facial expression. “How am I supposed to change the stress I’m under?” she asked.
There is no easy answer. But I told her the same thing I tell all of the women I see who are impacted by adrenal dysfunction. “Start with baby steps.” For Carrie, that meant staying away from the vending machine.
A healthy diet includes healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and plenty of fresh, organic (whenever possible) fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the American diet leans heavily towards simple carbs, sugar and processed foods – exactly the kind of thing Carrie was defaulting to in those vending machines.
That kind of eating causes blood sugar levels to rise and drop constantly, forcing the body to call upon its built in stress response. Carrie’s long time vending machine habit was almost certainly contributing to adrenal fatigue.
So what is adrenal fatigue?
I’ve written so much about this topic – what adrenal fatigue is, what causes it, and how you can reverse and heal the dysfunction in your adrenal glands. Those articles are all available in my health library if you want more in-depth information, but I’ll give you a brief overview here.
Adrenal fatigue is a source of much debate among medical professionals. Many conventional practitioners refuse to acknowledge it’s a problem at all. That’s partly because the evolution of adrenal fatigue is confusing.
Often, people focus on adrenal insufficiency without considering how they got there. And if levels of cortisol haven’t reached a clinical disease state, they’re often ignored – even if they are hovering at the high or low ends of the “normal” range.
Whether or not you’re in a clinical disease state, when your adrenal glands aren’t able to function properly, you will feel it in your body. While cortisol takes center stage, there is a whole ensemble of hormones that the adrenal glands produce, including adrenaline and norepinephrine, estrogen, testosterone and DHEA. When the adrenal glands can’t function as they should, hormonal imbalances occur. And just as a chorus line number looks like chaos when any of the dancers are out of step, hormonal imbalances can really create chaos in the body.
Cortisol is our primary focus because when your adrenals are being called on to produce more cortisol in response to constant stress, they’ll put production of other hormones on the back burner. And when the demand for cortisol never lets up, eventually the adrenals won’t be able to produce enough of that either! That’s what leads to the late stages of adrenal fatigue, when you may not have the energy to do anything at all.
That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to adrenal health before you reach that point. And one of the easiest ways to support your adrenals is by making sure your body gets the essential nutrients it needs. While supplements can absolutely help you do that, food is really the first, best way to get those crucial vitamins and minerals. But you won’t get them from the vending machine!
Why anti-inflammatory foods are important
Eating for adrenal health is more complex than simply “eating right”, though, of course, that’s important too. Some foods are better at reducing inflammation than others, and some food and beverages actually create inflammation. That’s why you need to know exactly what to eat – and what to avoid.
Inflammation helps the body fight off infection, but when your immune system is functioning properly, inflammation is temporary. Chronic inflammation means your body is under great stress.
Cortisol helps reduce inflammation in your body, but that doesn’t mean that more cortisol is always better! A healthy balance is what you are striving for. An overactive immune response caused by high levels of cortisol can lead to chronic inflammation. And if levels are too low, you may not get any immune response, even when you truly need it.
That’s why eating a range of foods that provide essential nutrients and have an anti-inflammatory effect is one of the best ways to keep your adrenals healthy.
Eat THESE 6 Things to Boost Adrenal Health
This list is a great place to begin your journey to better adrenal health.
- Lean, high quality protein. Protein is essential in supporting your adrenal glands – but not just ANY protein. Don’t rely on processed nut butters filled with sugar or cheap cuts of meat laden with fats and chemicals. Instead, focus on high quality protein such as organic turkey (a particularly good choice since the tryptophan it contains can help reduce stress), grass fed beef, wild caught seafood, nuts, beans, seeds, and eggs. Organ meats, in particular, are great for supporting adrenal health. Though these organ meats are often passed over in favor of muscle meats, they are full of essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, zinc, and vitamin D.
- Carbohydrates. So many people think that carbs are the enemy – but you need carbohydrates as part of a healthy, balanced diet. What you don’t need are simple carbs that quickly convert to sugar! When your adrenals are out of whack, it’s best to limit carbs to 66 grams per day, eat them at the same time as you eat healthy fats and proteins, and avoid anything processed.Great complex carb choices include fresh fruit, legumes, wild rice and quinoa (quinoa is also a great source of protein!).
- Healthy Fats. Just like carbs, fat is NOT the enemy. You need fat to keep your body going strong – especially Omega-3 fatty acids. Avocados are one of my favorite sources of healthy fat. They contain not only high levels of monounsaturated fats, but also lots of fiber which helps you digest and detox. Coconut oil is one of the best options for cooking, and contains medium-chain triglycerides to help your brain function better. Eating wild caught fatty fish, like salmon or mackerel is another great way to get your Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Leafy Green Vegetables. It’s probably no surprise that leafy greens are on this list. “Eat your greens” has been a common refrain among nutrition experts for decades! That’s because they contain plenty of magnesium which your body needs for a wide range of functions. Magnesium is key for relaxation and stress management, as well as for healthy sleep. Don’t stick to lettuce — try a variety of greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard.
- Sea Salt. Salt is important to healing from adrenal dysfunction – but you need the right kind! High-quality sea salt helps balance electrolyte deficiencies that can result from low levels of the hormone aldosterone (important in blood pressure regulation). Sea salt can also help rid your body of toxins stored in fat, such as mercury, lead and arsenic. If you’re craving salty foods, listen to your body! But, of course, if you have heart disease, hypertension or kidney disease, talk with your doctor before adding salt to your diet.
- Oysters. Like organ meats, oysters can be an acquired taste. But they’re packed with zinc, which your body needs to help balance neurotransmitters and adapt to stress more easily. They’re also a great source of vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Avoid THESE 6 things for best adrenal health
The following foods can actually hinder your recovery from adrenal dysfunction. I advise people to avoid the following unhealthy choices as often as possible – but it’s crucial to leave them out when your adrenals are already impaired.
- Unhealthy fats. While your body needs fat, it doesn’t need trans fats! Anything with the word hydrogenated on the label should be avoided. Deep fried foods won’t help you heal either. Air frying is a great way to get that crispy texture without the unhealthy fat.
- Added Sugar. There is a lot of evidence that sugar causes inflammation and poor health, and yet it’s in so many products! It’s hard to avoid sugar unless you’re making all your food from scratch, but it CAN be done. Read labels carefully and know the myriad aliases sugar can use. Added sugar creates major spikes and drops in blood sugar, which places an immense amount of strain on your adrenal glands. So when healing, it’s more important than ever to avoid it.
- White flour. Flour that has been processed and refined converts quickly to sugar in your body – and I already told you what sugar can do! Refined flour doesn’t give you any real nutrition, either. If you aren’t getting anything from it, and inflammation rises when you eat it, it just makes good sense to avoid it.
- Caffeine and Alcohol. This is often the hardest sell when I’m talking about healing adrenals. Give up both caffeine AND alcohol? The truth is, however, that we all know these things don’t add nutritional value to our lives. And the toll they take on our adrenals might actually exacerbate our exhaustion and stress — the very reason many people consume them in the first place!
- Gluten and anything else you may be sensitive to. This kind of sounds like the advice at the end of prescription commercials that say “don’t take X if you are allergic to X.” Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? But unless you have a full blown allergy, food sensitivities often remain hidden and unknown. You may need to try an elimination diet to see if cutting out some common allergens – gluten, dairy, nuts or eggs – helps you feel better.
- Processed foods. Foods that have been highly processed generally contain refined flour, added sugar, unhealthy fats — all those things I already talked about. And the other ingredients on the label are so hard to understand, you probably don’t know what you’re eating. Why put something into your body if you have no idea what it is? Processed foods can be convenient, but with a little bit of pre-planning, you can fill your fridge with quick, healthy options!
Carrie’s first baby step was to avoid the vending machine. To help her achieve this goal, I suggested she have an ample supply of whole fruit on hand, and urged her to do some food preparation on the weekend. She began taking some cheese, cut veggies and nuts to work with her so she had something to reach for when the afternoon slump hit. When she came back, she said she couldn’t believe what a difference that one change had made in how she felt.
That inspired her to try another baby step – cooking simple meals instead of hitting the drive through. Again, prepping things on the weekend helped. She could throw together a stir fry in just a few minutes when the veggies were cut and ready in the fridge!
Cooking from scratch and sticking to whole foods may seem daunting at first, but if you start small by replacing just one unhealthy choice, like Carrie did, you can take steps toward healing.
Food is the best place to begin healing your adrenal health. Carrie said her changed eating habits allowed her to think more clearly about other stressors in her life, and move towards real balance. When you do that, just imagine the happy, healthy life you can lead!
For other tips on healing adrenals naturally, visit the adrenal section of my health library.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD