Handling Fatigue; Helping your Adrenal Glands
Fatigue is one of the most common health complaints.
Does this sound familiar? You find that they wake up tired, unable to think straight or get going without caffeine, you crave and eat high-carb foods and high carb snacks. Maybe you reach for energy drinks. You want to take a nap during the afternoon and then wind up staying up late because you’re too “awake” to sleep. The result, of course, is exhaustion.
When you have daily stress from job or family and you add this type of stress, poor food, not sleeping, on a chronic basis, the tiny adrenal glands that moderate your stress response and balance the many other hormones in the body will suffer. Adrenal fatigue is what develops and your search for energy begins.
As the adrenal glands become exhausted, you can end up with excess abdominal weight, decreased immunity, lack of coordination, irritability, poor sleep. Understanding this, you can prevent and reverse this exhaustion.
What causes the exhaustion?
The adrenals are the key. As the balancer of more than 50 hormones in the body, the adrenal glands have a big impact on your health. The adrenals are responsible for activating your “fight or flight” response. This response will shift energy away from digestion and towards action mode – your heart and skeletal muscles – by pumping adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream.
It is the cortisol that monitors your body’s other systems: protecting the body from stress by regulating blood pressure, normalizing blood sugar levels, helping to regulate the immune and inflammatory responses, and influencing mood, memory, and clarity of thought.
Maybe this helps explain why, when your adrenal reserves are depleted, you might feel a little crazy, and your sleeping and eating habits suffer. The constant demand for stress hormones means the adrenals become depleted and ultimately exhausted.
The adrenals also make numerous other hormones, including androgens and their precursors – testosterone and DHEA, and also estrogen and progesterone – which is why you adrenal glands come into play as women approach menopause. The body relies heavily upon the regulation of hormones at this time. When the ovaries stop producing estrogen, the adrenals are supposed to pick up the slack. But what if they are already exhausted.
How do I help my adrenals?
One of the best ways to start it to pay attention to the choices you make about food. Pay attention to what you eat, but when and how you eat. Small changes can really support better adrenal gland function and give you day long energy and a good night’s sleep.
What food choices can make or break your adrenals?
Stop reaching for food that provides quick energy – carbs (and sugar is a carb) Carbohydrates are actually long chains of sugar hooked together. Carbs break down to sugar in the body). At the end of the day as the body is entering a period of recovery, overeating and poor food choices can be easy to do. Good nutrition, well-timed meals and snacks, and sometimes a gluten-free diet can significantly relieve the strain on your adrenal glands.
Timing your meals and snacks:
Never allow yourself to get too hungry. Low blood sugar by itself puts stress on your body and can tax your adrenals. Your body is in constant need of energy — even as you sleep. And the primary adrenal hormone cortisol serves as a moderator in making sure your blood sugar between meals, especially during the night, stays adequate. It does this by signaling to the liver to release its stored sugar, glycogen, when there isn’t food in the body. Long periods without food make the adrenals work harder as they must release more cortisol to keep your body functioning normally.
So eating three nutritious meals and two to three snacks that are well timed throughout the day is one way to balance your blood sugar and lessen the adrenal burden.
When you eat can also make a difference in supporting and restoring your adrenals. Cortisol has a natural cycle. Normally, it begins to rise around 6:00 AM and reaches its highest peak around 8:00 AM. Throughout the day cortisol gradually declines — with small upward bumps at meal times — in preparation for nighttime rest.
It’s ideal to work with this natural cycle to keep the tapering-off of levels as smooth as possible as the day progresses and to avoid dramatic ups and downs.
To do this, it helps to get the majority of your food in earlier in the day, and to eat an early dinner (by 5:00 or 6:00 PM). If it is difficult to eat early, at least try to make your evening meal the lightest one of the day. This will prevent a surge of cortisol from ramping up your night-time metabolic rate and disrupting your ability to fall or stay asleep. The “night-eating” habit is due to the appetite-stimulating effects of residual cortisol, and unfortunately, it only further disturbs our hormones.
Keep in mind that cortisol will also rise a bit with exercise. Lighter activities, such as a walk after dinner or a bit of gentle stretching before, will not alter this natural tapering-off process. But to work in concert with your body’s natural cortisol cycle, more intense exercise is best planned for the morning.
Not hungry in the morning?
You’ve been told that breakfast is important, but you don’t feel hungry in the morning. Morning hunger can be dampened by the appetite-dulling effects of coricotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which begins to enter the blood stream first thing in the morning. Decreased liver function due to adrenal fatigue or a heavy toxic burden can also dampen morning hunger.
So even if you don’t feel hungry, having a nutritious breakfast within an hour of rising – with protein – will provide not only energetic benefits to your metabolism but the cortisol levels will last throughout the day.
Here are some other simple ways to gently support your body’s natural cortisol cycle:
- Eat breakfast by 8:00 AM or within an hour of getting up (earlier is better), to restore blood sugar levels after using glycogen stores at night.
- Try to eat lunch between 11:00 AM and 12:00 noon. Your morning meal can be used up quickly.
- Eat a nutritious snack between 2:00 and 3:00 PM to get you through the natural dip in cortisol around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon.
- Make an effort to eat dinner around 5:00 or 6:00 PM, and make this your lightest meal of the day.
By timing your meals you can prevent dramatic dips in blood sugar, which will minimize cortisol output and will free up you adrenals to perform their function and give you sustained energy throughout the day. Life becomes more enjoyable when we have the energy we need.
What to eat?
We also need to think about what you eat. Most people with adrenal problems, will reach for foods that give them an instant burst of energy — foods like cookies, cakes, doughnuts, white bread or pasta. These foods contain refined sugar and flour, they are high in carbs (which is really just long chains of sugar molecules) that break down and allow a great surge of energy, but generally the surge is followed by an even greater dip in energy, causing you to feel worse.
Another problem with high-carb foods like these is that they often contain gluten, a protein that is found in many grains (including wheat, rye and barley, and oats) and frequently used as a food additive, too. Many people with adrenal fatigue are sensitive to gluten. For this reason, a gluten-free diet should be tried. Often people will report feeling much better when they get the gluten out of their diets.
You might drink more coffee or soda throughout the day to stay awake. You may think it’s not affecting your sleep patterns, but research has linked higher caffeine intake to classic “night owl” behavior. (See our article on the caffeine). Caffeine can pick you up in the short term, but it can also over-stimulate the adrenals, which only compounds fatigue as it wears off.
Eating meals and snacks that are made of fresh whole foods, preferably organic or locally grown, without colors, dyes, chemicals, preservatives or added hormones are best to strive for. Including some protein in all your meals and snacks (especially in the morning) will have a stabilizing effect on your blood sugar, which in turn can help you overcome caffeine and sugar cravings.)
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