I’ve been talking about nutrition and the best way to feed our bodies for decades.

One of the first things I ask new clients is about their eating habits. That’s because, as I’ve said many times, I believe that food is the best medicine out there! Some basic foundations of a healthy diet include healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and plenty of fresh, organic (whenever possible) fruits and vegetables.

Another thing I ask every client about is stress. That’s because stress can take a hard toll on the body, and most people don’t even realize it. We’ve been conditioned in our modern society to think that constant stress is normal. And while it might well be a “normal” part of modern life, chronic stress is a big problem!

Carrie came to see me complaining of fatigue, sleep troubles, joint pain, anxiety and a constant restless feeling, like she just couldn’t get out of her own way. It was no surprise to me that she described a constant barrage of stressors big and small, and 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 often she missed lunch entirely.

She found herself ravenous mid-afternoon, and often grabbed whatever she could find, which more often than not meant something from the break room or vending machine – typically not healthy options.

I suspected that her symptoms were the result of adrenal fatigue, which itself is a result of chronic stress. When I told her so, I saw the frustration in her face. “How am I supposed to change the stress I’m under?” she asked. And there are no easy answers. But I told her the same thing I tell all of the women I see who are affected by adrenal dysfunction. “Start with baby steps.”

Although it may not seem like it, food is often one of the easiest stressors to change. Wait, what? Food is a stressor? When it’s unhealthy, processed foods, YES! Your body perceives all stress the same way.

When you are feeding it food that causes blood sugar levels to rise and drop constantly, it will call upon its built in stress response. And when that happens regularly, adrenal fatigue may be the end result.

So what is adrenal fatigue?

I have many articles in my health library about adrenal fatigue, what causes it, and how you can reverse and heal the dysfunction in your adrenal glands, so I’ll just give you a brief overview here.

Adrenal fatigue is a source of great debate among medical professionals, with many conventional practitioners refusing to acknowledge it’s a problem at all. That’s partly because the evolution of adrenal fatigue is confusing.

So many people focus on adrenal insufficiency without considering how they got there. And if levels of cortisol aren’t low enough to indicate a clinical disease state, they’re often ignored even if they are hovering at the low end of the “normal” range. Many practitioners also don’t understand that high levels of cortisol are just as problematic — and often result in very low levels later, if not addressed.

Whatever you call it, 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. If the adrenal glands aren’t able to do their job, a host of hormonal imbalances can really create chaos in the body.

Cortisol is what we focus on, 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! And 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. But some foods are better at reducing inflammation than others, and some food and beverages actually create inflammation.

Inflammation has an important role in fighting off infection, but when your immune system is functioning properly, inflammation is temporary. When inflammation is constantly present, 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. When cortisol levels are too high your immune response may be overactive, leading to chronic inflammation. When 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 by no means comprehensive, but if you start by focusing on these six areas, you’ll be well on your way to better adrenal health.

  1. Lean, high quality protein. Protein is essential in supporting your adrenal glands. But the type of protein you choose matters! Don’t rely on processed nut butters filled with sugar or cheap cuts of meat laden with fats and chemicals from the way the animals are fed. 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 far less commonly consumed than muscle meats, organ meats are full of essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, zinc, and vitamin D.
  2. Carbohydrates. So many people think that carbs are the enemy – but you need carbohydrates as part of a healthy, balanced diet. When your adrenals are out of whack, however, it is best to limit carbs to 66 grams per day, eat them with healthy fats and proteins instead of on their own, and avoid anything processed.Great complex carb choices include fresh fruit, legumes, wild rice and quinoa (quinoa is also a great source of protein!).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Sea Salt. Salt is important to healing from adrenal dysfunction – but not just any salt! 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.
  6. 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

Just as there are foods that can help you heal more quickly, there are things that can hinder your recovery. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 whenever you can.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

There are so many things you can do to care for your adrenal health naturally. Food is a great place to start! Cooking from scratch and sticking to whole foods may seem daunting at first, but start by replacing just one unhealthy choice per day if overhauling your whole diet seems impossible. Little-by-little you can take steps toward healing.

When you’re eating well, you just might find you have the energy to address the other stressors in your life and find real balance. And when you do, you can achieve the happy, healthy life you deserve!

For other tips on healing adrenals naturally, visit the adrenal section of my health library.

Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD