Always sluggish? How to eat for lasting energy
I knew something was really wrong when my son started preschool and I was the only mom who didn’t have another child on the way. I was too exhausted and sick all the time to even think about getting pregnant. Just climbing out of bed took a heroic effort, and thanks to my severe allergies, constant fatigue, chronic colds, and recurrent, months-long sinus infections, my husband and I put off Baby No. 2. Then one day, I nearly collapsed and ended up in the ER. A doctor thought I possibly had an environmental illness, like low-level carbon-monoxide poisoning, so we moved out of our house for two weeks while industrial hygienists tested it for toxins. Their findings? Only cat dander. It took three more years before I finally got a diagnosis—adrenal fatigue syndrome—and a plan to climb my way out by overhauling my diet.
The adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney, convert cholesterol into cortisol and other hormones that regulate many vital body functions, including inflammation, blood sugar production, immunity, tissue repair, and reproduction. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the glands release high quantities of cortisol, which eventually depletes the adrenals so they can’t produce enough hormones. Too much cumulative stress is typically the cause—whether it’s a back injury, a steady diet of espressos and doughnuts, or an unhappy marriage. Symptoms range from the fatigue and chronic illness I experienced to decreased sex drive, panic attacks, mild depression, PMS, stubborn belly fat, absentmindedness, irritability, unclear thinking, asthma, hair loss, and more.
Adrenal fatigue is a growing trend, says James L. Wilson, ND, DC, PhD, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome (Smart Publications, 2001). Since the recession hit in late 2007, he has seen a significant increase in cases of adrenal fatigue. “The most stress-inducing emotion is a sense of helplessness, which many people are experiencing if they have lost income and have no savings in reserve,” he says. Phoenix-based holistic nutritionist Paula Owens adds: “For every minute you experience stress, it takes 60 minutes to remove the flood of adrenal stress hormones from your bloodstream.” It’s easy to see how a few months of chronic stress—and not enough rest—can overwork the adrenals to near exhaustion.
Like me, many people go for years without being diagnosed because doctors rarely recognize adrenal fatigue; most are taught to look only for complete adrenal failure (Addison’s disease) or extreme cortisol overproduction (Cushing’s syndrome). Finally, my acupuncturist ordered a salivary cortisol test that revealed my adrenals were barely making enough cortisol to get me through the day, let alone keep me well. And so I embarked on Wilson’s plan and started eating to support my adrenals. The result? I began to feel better almost immediately.
“In many cases of adrenal fatigue, poor diet is one of its main causes, but in all cases of recovery, a nutritious diet is a major factor,” says Wilson. Eating the right combination of foods is essential. Experts recommend high-quality animal protein, heart-healthy fats, five to six servings of vegetables a day, sea salt (yes, you read that right), and complex carbohydrates. To give your adrenals a rest from keeping glucose levels up, combine the following at every meal and snack:
Eat lightly cooked or raw protein whenever possible to preserve amino acids and naturally occurring enzymes needed to digest food. This reduces the burden on your body to manufacture these enzymes, leaving more energy to spend healing your adrenals, says Rob Streisfeld, NMD. I used this prescription as license to eat more sashimi.
Vegetarians suffering from adrenal fatigue should eat eggs and dairy products to get sufficient B vitamins and essential amino acids. Veronica Hayduk, ND, of Rockville, Maryland, says most of her vegetarian patients don’t eat enough protein, which affects the glucose-insulin balance, making the adrenals work harder. Best proteins: Sushi, ceviche, steak tartare, eggs, goat’s milk/cheese, whey protein, legumes combined with whole grains, seeds, or nuts.
This is a basic building block for the body; it’s also important because some fats (like butter) contain cholesterol, which your adrenal glands need to produce hormones. Fat shouldn’t exceed 20 to 25 percent of total daily calories, unless you’re in the first phase of healing, when you should get 30 to 35 percent. Best fats: Coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, butter, almond oil, olive oil.
Your body metabolizes unrefined, complex carbs in whole foods more slowly than the refined carbs in white bread, pasta, or pastries, sustaining your energy longer and preventing sugar crashes. The result? Your adrenals don’t have to work as hard to maintain proper blood sugar. I keep a container of fresh crudités in the fridge so I can grab and go. I also add a vegetable to my eggs at breakfast: sautéed spinach, mushrooms, or sliced tomatoes. Whole grains are another complex carb option, but only if your body can tolerate them. Robert Bruley Jr., MD, DC, founder of the Bruley Center, an integrative medical practice in Minneapolis, advises patients to avoid the gluten-containing grains wheat, rye, and barley because they are harder to digest and many people are gluten intolerant. Sprouted grains are more easily digested and are higher in nutrients. Best complex carbohydrates: Spinach, chard, red pepper, yellow and butternut squash, beets, carrots, millet, brown rice, quinoa, low-acid fruits like papaya, mango, plums, pears, kiwi, apples, and cherries.
While you likely will need to take supplements several times a day depending on the severity of your adrenal fatigue, try to get plenty of these critical nutrients in most of your meals and snacks as well:
Probably the most important vitamin for adrenal function, vitamin C plays a vital role in converting cholesterol into hormones, a process known as the adrenal cascade. Vitamin C acts as a restorative antioxidant inside the adrenal glands—key since the cascade constantly creates free radicals that impair the production of energy in our cells and cause debilitating fatigue, says Bruley. And the adrenals are the only organs that can store vitamin C. Best sources of vitamin C: Sprouts, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, red peppers, brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries.
This mineral acts as a spark plug for the production of enzymes and energy needed for the adrenal cascade, says Wilson. It also moderates blood pressure, which tends to increase with elevated cortisol output. Best sources of magnesium: Sea vegetables, nuts, brown sesame seeds, whole wheat (if tolerated), brown rice, peas, beans.
While all the B vitamins are involved in the adrenal cascade, the most critical ones are vitamins B5 (pantothenic acid) and B6 (pyridoxine), says Bruley. Both help convert blood sugar into energy. Best sources of Bs: Whole grains, brewer’s yeast, egg yolks, miso, avocado, peanuts, liver, soybeans, lentils.
This mineral calms the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. Best sources of calcium: Sesame seeds, beans, nuts, collards, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, parsley, sea vegetables, goat’s milk.
Aldosterone, the hormone that controls sodium and potassium levels in the body, is secreted on the outside of the adrenal glands. When the adrenals are fatigued and not making enough aldosterone, the body can’t retain sodium or water effectively, so you become mildly dehydrated—and consequently have low blood pressure and crave salt. Best sources of sodium: Sea salt, kelp, gomasio, dulse, green and black olives, hot red peppers, New Zealand spinach (an heirloom variety with higher sodium content), Swiss chard, beet greens, celery, zucchini.
Now, after just a few months of eating this way, I rarely get sick anymore, my insomnia is gone, and I have energy to keep up with my son again. Inspired by this transformation, I recently got another salivary cortisol test. The result? I’m well! It can take anywhere from three to 24 months to recover fully from adrenal fatigue, but luckily, you start to feel the rewards of healthy eating right away. And as my symptoms began to fade, I knew I’d regain optimal health. The time for Baby No. 2 may have already passed, but full of energy, my life has never been sweeter.
About the Author
Amy Logan is a freelance writer in San Francisco.