Adrenal fatigue is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the functional medicine space. While conventional doctors are quick to dismiss it as a “made up” diagnosis, the symptoms of low energy, dizziness, and trouble sleeping that patients experience are very real.
Recovering from adrenal fatigue requires a multi-pronged approach that targets mental, physical, and chemical stressors, as well as nutrition. Modifying your diet to support HPA axis function can go a long way in easing your symptoms and restoring energy.
In this article, we’ll explore what adrenal fatigue is, what causes it, and what to eat if you have adrenal fatigue.
What is Adrenal Fatigue
A more physiologically accurate term for adrenal fatigue is HPA axis dysfunction. It’s not so much that the adrenal glands get worn out; rather, the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain (the H and P in HPA) sense that the body is under chronic stress and signal to the adrenal glands to respond accordingly. It is an adaptive response to chronic stress.
In the early stages of the stress response, the brain signals the adrenals to increase production of stress hormones. When stress has been ongoing for a long time, eventually the body switches to a chronic state of decreased adrenal hormone production.
Causes of Adrenal Dysfunction
So what causes HPA axis dysregulation? In a word, stress. Remember, stress comes in many forms. It’s not just feeling tense and jittery before an interview or overwhelmed with your kids’ schedules. Chronic infections, lack of sunlight, fresh air, or nutrients, unresolved trauma, and environmental toxins from polluted air, food, or bodycare products are all perceived by the body as stress.
Your body reacts the same way to the persistent stressors of modern life (crazy traffic, distressing news stories, a demanding job) as it would to the truly life-threatening events (an angry bear chasing you) experienced by our ancestors. The problem is that now we are bombarded with constant stress, and our bodies are simply not designed to cope with that long term. Burnout and “adrenal fatigue” are the result.
Perhaps you’re wondering, do I have adrenal fatigue? While a salivary cortisol test is the best objective measure, assessing your symptoms can give you a good sense of whether this is an issue for you.
Common Signs of Adrenal Fatigue
- Trouble sleeping
- Tend to be a “night person”
- Slow starter in the morning
- Tend to be keyed up, trouble calming down
- Cravings for salt and/or sugar
- Feeling wired or jittery after coffee
- Clenching or grinding teeth
- Chronic low back pain
- Afternoon fatigue
- Dizziness when standing up
- Heachaches with exertion
What to Eat if You Have Adrenal Fatigue: Practical Strategies
If this sounds like you, know that there are dietary changes you can make right away to support your body in recovering from burnout. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind when dealing with adrenal fatigue.
1. Balance Blood Sugar
When it comes to supporting the adrenals with diet, balancing blood sugar is key. This is because one of the jobs of the adrenals is to raise glucose when levels in the blood drop too low. They do this by secreting cortisol and adrenaline, which break down tissues in the body and convert them into glucose to quickly raise blood sugar levels back up to normal.
If your adrenals are already overworked responding to the stressors of everyday life, demanding that they also kick in to stabilize blood sugar is adding extra stress to an already stressed system. This is where we can intervene with dietary strategies that eliminate stressful blood sugar spikes and crashes.
Eat frequent, macro-balanced meals
Rather than asking your body to go long periods of time without eating, have meals at regular intervals throughout the day (every three to four hours is a good starting place). It’s also helpful to get a balance of protein, fat, and fiber-rich carbs at each meal. This could look like:
- Scrambled eggs (protein), avocado (fat), and fresh fruit (carb) for breakfast within an hour of waking
- Walnuts (protein and fat) with berries (carb) for a mid morning snack
- Roast chicken (protein), roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts (carb/fiber), and honey mustard olive oil dressing (fat) for lunch in the early afternoon
- Grass-fed beef burgers (protein) with a big green salad (fiber) and coconut milk butternut squash soup (fat and carb) for dinner several hours before bedtime.
Eat carbs with protein, fat, and fiber
Eating a high carb food all by itself can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, which stresses the adrenals. However, pairing carbs with protein, fat, and/or fiber will slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, resulting in stable energy.
Get carbohydrates from whole-food sources
Rather than eating refined carbs like bread and pasta, opt for whole-food sources of carbohydrates, which come along with fiber and the micronutrients needed to metabolize them. These include:
- Sweet potatoes
- White potatoes
- Winter squash (butternut, delicata, etc.)
- Root veggies (beets, parsnips, rutabaga, etc.)
- Soaked or sprouted grains and legumes (rice, oats, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, etc.), if tolerated
Eat enough and don’t diet
When you’re healing from adrenal fatigue it is not the time to be fasting or cutting calories. Practices like Intermittent Fasting can provide beneficial hormetic stress when the body is in a resilient state, but when your adrenals are overtaxed it’s important to focus on sending signals of safety and abundance to your body.
2. Emphasize Adrenal-Supporting Micronutrients
Deficiencies in any nutrient will be stressful to the body, but there are specific vitamins and minerals that are especially important for adrenal health.
The adrenals contain high concentrations of the antioxidant vitamin C, which they use to produce stress hormones. When stress levels rise, so does the need for vitamin C. Supplementing with vitamin C has been shown to decrease people’s perception of stress. Foods high in vitamin C include acerola cherries, papaya, bell peppers, lemons, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, kale, and parsley. Because it is sensitive to heat and light, levels are highest in raw fruits and veggies eaten shortly after picking. To boost Vitamin C intake, choose a supplement that also contains bioflavonoids, which are naturally occurring compounds found in vitamin C-rich foods that improve absorption and utilization.
Magnesium plays a critical role in regulating the HPA axis, and deficiencies lead to anxiety and a poor stress response. Leafy greens (i.e. Swiss chard), nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts), seaweed, buckwheat, rice and oat bran, and dark chocolate are the best food sources. Due to modern farming practices that have depleted the soils of magnesium, it is difficult to get enough from food alone, so supplementation may be warranted.
You’ve probably heard that salt is bad for you and will cause high blood pressure. While it’s certainly true that you don’t want to be consuming the kind of salt found in processed foods and refined table salt (which is bleached, stripped of minerals other than sodium/chloride, and often has undesirable anticaking agents added), getting enough sodium from unrefined, pure sea salt is incredibly important for everything from stomach acid production to nerve conduction. The adrenals in particular love sodium, which is why a common symptom of “adrenal fatigue” is salt cravings. Don’t be afraid to salt your food liberally with unrefined sea salt or add electrolytes like LMNT to your water.
3. Audit Your Caffeine Intake
Are you using coffee for energy to push through when your body is asking for rest? If you can have it here and there without it disrupting your sleep or relying on it for energy, coffee can be a good source of antioxidants and vitamins like niacin. However, if you find you get “addicted” to caffeine and need it to function, that’s a sign that it is masking a deeper problem. Try taking a two week break to see how your body actually functions without the artificial stimulant of caffeine.
Good replacements for the flavor and ritual of coffee are herbal teas like roasted dandelion root, chicory, and carob. Adaptogens like tulsi (holy basil), reishi mushroom or licorice teas can also support energy and focus in a gentle, non-overstimulating way. When it comes to reducing your reliance on caffeine, lifestyle practices are important, too: getting out in the sunshine first thing in the morning, reducing blue light exposure before bed, and making 7-9 hours of shut-eye a non-negotiable.
4. Don’t Stress About Perfection
In a world full of conflicting advice on what you should and shouldn’t eat, don’t let healthy eating become an additional source of stress. Instead, cultivate a relaxed and nurturing relationship with food.
Consistently balancing blood sugar and eating a nutrient-dense diet are the true needle-movers when it comes to healing adrenal fatigue with diet, and the occasional less-than-perfect meal is not going to derail your progress. It is better to eat something, even if it’s not perfect, than to let your blood sugar crash and become shaky, weak, and “hangry.” See mealtimes as an opportunity to take care of yourself and experience pleasure and enjoyment.
About the Author: Lili Hanft is a certified Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. She is passionate about the power of real food to support the body’s innate ability to heal, and she believes that nourishing ourselves with nutrient-dense foods can be a profound source of joy and empowerment.
When working with patients at GrassRoots, Lili emphasizes education on the “whys” behind nutritional recommendations, as well as support with the practical steps of dietary change.