What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

In a healthy individual, cortisol is higher in the morning to help with waking, and slowly lowers throughout the day. Melatonin, your “sleepy time” hormone, is inversely proportional to cortisol, so when cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa. Adrenal fatigue happens when there is an imbalance in this cortisol rhythm. Cortisol is either low when it should be high, high when it should be low, or always low or always high.

What causes adrenal fatigue?

  • autoimmune conditions
  • viruses
  • bacterial infections
  • accidents/injuries
  • emotional stress
  • excessive exercise
  • food intolerances
  • microbiome dysfunctions
  • toxins

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Tips For Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue

Because adrenal fatigue symptoms are so non-specific and could be indicative of other diseases such as depression, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, and certain autoimmune diseases, it can be hard to make a medical diagnosis. Seeing a medical professional or endocrinologist to establish a baseline of what’s going on in the body is the first step to overcoming adrenal fatigue. In addition to conventional blood labs, I recommend:

How would seeing a functional nutrition expert be any different from that?

How Is This Approach To Nutrition Unique?

Oysters

Oysters are packed with zinc, and having a balanced trace mineral ratio between copper and zinc can help with healthy neurotransmitter function and adaptogen to stress.

Organic turkey

There is some truth to the notion that a post-Thanksgiving meal heavy on the turkey will put you into a “food coma.” The reason is the calming amino acid tryptophan in the turkey.

Leafy greens

Plant foods like Swiss chard and spinach are rich in magnesium, the original nutritional “chill pill,” which helps to regulate and optimize communication in the brain-adrenal axis.

Asparagus

This sulfur-rich vegetable also contains the beneficial B vitamin folate. Low levels of folate are linked to neurotransmitter impairment, which can lead to brain-hormonal problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

Because adrenal fatigue symptoms are so non-specific and could be indicative of other diseases such as depression, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, and certain autoimmune diseases, it can be hard to make a medical diagnosis. Seeing a medical professional or endocrinologist to establish a baseline of what’s going on in the body is the first step to overcoming adrenal fatigue. In addition to conventional blood labs, I recommend:

Adrenal fatigue labs: This is saliva test involves spitting into several vials throughout the day. It’s a lot of spit, but it gives you and your doctor a lot of information about your brain-adrenal function. When I did these labs, I learned I did indeed have adrenal (HPA) dysfunction, as I suspected.
Microbiome labs: The microbiome refers to the community of trillions of bacteria and fungi in your gut. Because gut health is the foundation of total health, especially brain and hormonal health, it is important to discover what is going on and deal with any underlying gut problems such as leaky gut syndrome, candida overgrowth, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth in order to recover from adrenal fatigue.
Methylation labs: Methylation is a collection of biochemical actions in the body that happen 1 billion times every second. Healthy methylation helps to maintain a healthy brain, gut, hormones, and detox pathways, and also protects your DNA. However, some of us have genetic mutations that impair the methylation process. I have multiple methylation gene mutations, one of which is the MTHFR gene mutation, making me less able to absorb certain essential vitamins. This was useful information because I was then better able to supplement to make up for my nutritional deficiencies.

Another key element of adrenal fatigue treatment is managing chronic stress. Pinpoint your key areas of stress and work to modify them, whether that means testing for food intolerances, detoxifying your environment, or just letting yourself heal by clearing your schedule for a while. You can never eliminate all stress in life but if you can be sure to work in periods of rest and relaxation so stress levels can subside for a while, you will break the chronic stress cycle to regain your health and feel like yourself again.
Curcumin, a compound in the turmeric root, has potent antioxidant properties, as well as a neuroprotective quality. Bonus: It’s a mood-enhancer, too. In a randomized controlled trial, turmeric appeared to act as an effective option for depression, (1) which can occur concurrently with adrenal fatigue.

Oysters

Oysters are packed with zinc, and having a balanced trace mineral ratio between copper and zinc can help with healthy neurotransmitter function and adaptogen to stress. Increased copper and decreased zinc have been shown to contribute to brain stress and anxiety. (2) Oysters—the superfood of the sea—are a great way to achieve this balance to help ease your stress levels and adrenal fatigue.

Organic turkey

There is some truth to the notion that a post-Thanksgiving meal heavy on the turkey will put you into a “food coma.” The reason is the calming amino acid tryptophan in the turkey. Tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps you feel calm and better able to deal with anxiety. (3)

Grass-fed organ meats

Organ meats like liver are some of the best sources of nutrients needed to beat adrenal fatigue, like zinc and vitamin D. They also contain copious amounts of choline and other B vitamins needed for methylation. (5)

Leafy greens

Plant foods like Swiss chard and spinach are rich in magnesium, the original nutritional “chill pill,” which helps to regulate and optimize communication in the brain-adrenal axis. (4)

Asparagus

This sulfur-rich vegetable also contains the beneficial B vitamin folate. Low levels of folate are linked to neurotransmitter impairment, which can lead to brain-hormonal problems. (5)

Avocados

Avocados contain beneficial B vitamins and monounsaturated fats that boost neurotransmitter production and brain health. This fatty superfruit also contains potassium, which naturally helps to lower blood pressure.

Full-fat kefir

Bacterial imbalances in your gut can contribute to brain problems (6) because the gut and brain “talk” to each other through the vagus nerve. Kefir is rich in beneficial bacteria for your microbiome and also has fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2, which are important for brain health, so it helps out from both ends of this critical connection.

Coconut oil 

Coconut oil is super versatile – you can cook with it, put it in smoothies, or just eat it off a spoon as I do. It offers good fats like medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that can help with brain function. (7)

Wild-caught fish

Omega-rich foods like Alaskan salmon can help decrease inflammation, which is crucial for brain and hormonal health.

You breathe all day long, but doing it consciously and with focused awareness is a powerful practice for reducing the stress response. Take time throughout the day to become aware of your breath and you’ll diffuse stress and reboot the brain-adrenal axis. I also recommend mindfulness meditation or present-moment awareness to my patients struggling with adrenal fatigue.

Chamomile tea

This soothing, mild herbal tea isn’t actually from the tea plant. It’s made from an herb, Matricaria recutita, that has been shown to help decrease anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms in just a few weeks. (8)

Rooibos tea

Another non-tea “tea,” this one comes from the African red bush, typically known as Rooibos, and can have a balancing effect on cortisol. (9)

Reducing emotional stress using mindfulness tools like focused breathing can help you stay calm and soothe your brain-adrenal axis.

Rehabbing the brain-adrenal connection takes time and what works for one person my not work for you, so it’s important to discuss natural medicine therapy with a qualified practitioner who can make personalized recommendations based on your needs. However, here are some general natural medicines that can help mitigate stress:

  • Adaptogenic herbs: Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, Holy Basil, and Eleuthero Ginseng can have a regulating effect on cortisol rhythm.
  • Magnesium: Works to help support the adrenal glands, relaxes stressed muscles and nerves, and promotes quality sleep. It can also help keep you regular.
  • Methylation support: Taking activated forms of B12 and folate are effective ways to support healthy methylation pathways, which help balance the melatonin-cortisol rhythm.
  • GABA support: GABA is your calming, inhibitory neurotransmitter and herbs like passion flower and amino acids such as theanine, glycine, and taurine can help calm you down by acting on the gabaminergic pathways in your brain.

In order to allow your brain and adrenals to recuperate overnight, you need to get enough sleep. Promote quality sleep by turning off the TV and smartphone a few hours before bed and reading a book instead. Most professionals recommend at least 7 hours per night for adults.

Because I have a job that’s indoors, I need to make it a point to get outside more often. I believe there is something coded in our DNA that gives each of us an affinity with the sun and fresh air so that we seek out these health-boosting influences. I also like to practice earthing, or walking barefoot outside, as much as I can to help de-stress. Something about that skin-on-earth connection feels literally grounding and refreshing.

Spending more time outside in the sun also helps boost levels of vitamin D, because your body manufactures this important vitamin/hormone when it senses the sun on your skin. Vitamin D is responsible for regulating over 200 genetic pathways, so make sure your levels are high enough. I recommend an optimal range of around 60 to 80 ng/ml. Ask your doctor about a simple blood test to help you keep track.
This one is still hard for me. I don’t want to disappoint anybody and there is always more work to be done. But managing stress means creating space in your life to refuel, spend time with the people you love, and doing what you need to do for you and you alone. Don’t just pencil it in. It’s as important as anything else you do for your health, and maybe more so, especially for proper adrenal fatigue healing.
Depending on your individual brain-adrenal dysfunction, you may need to work with a qualified practitioner to assess your condition and carefully replace a small portion of the levels of the missing adrenal hormones for a period of time. That’s where functional medicine comes in. Specific amounts of DHEA and the precursor to cortisol, called pregnenolone, can stimulate your body to begin producing it naturally, but you need professional guidance to determine how much and how often.

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