I’m pretty sure adrenal fatigue, otherwise known as “burnout”, is one of the most popular issues of the decade. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like everyone is burnt out? That’s because many people are, even if they don’t know it. And chances are, a lot of their lifestyle choices are making it worse – including the food they eat.
First off, let’s cover the basics. What is adrenal fatigue?
Although it’s not a proven medical condition, “adrenal fatigue” is becoming increasingly common. Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and produce a number of hormones, including your stress hormones (like cortisol, adrenaline, etc.), which help you manage day-to-day stresses and really big, scary stresses that initiate your fight-or-flight response. However, if you’re under chronic stress, these adrenal glands are constantly being told to produce cortisol, cortisol and more cortisol. They can become fatigued, weak, and can start malfunctioning. They may not produce enough stress hormones, or may they may produce too much, depending on which stage of fatigue you’ve fallen into.
Symptoms can vary widely depending on the person, but adrenal fatigue is usually characterized by exhaustion, difficulty waking up, inability to handle stresses, using stimulants to keep yourself running (i.e. caffeine, sugar), and insomnia. This is a really great guide to learn more about adrenal fatigue if you’re interested in the specifics of the condition.
Why are we all adrenally fatigued?
We are all living such busy lives with so many demands and expectations put on us, we rarely have the opportunity to chill out and recharge. I look around at my friends, colleagues and family, and I’m not alone in the sentiment that there’s never enough time in the day. Right?
Well, lately I’ve been thinking maybe that’s because of MY choices. I don’t have enough time in the day to get everything done, because I have too many things to do. Let’s break it down, because I’m sure your list looks a little like mine… Here are the roles I play every single day:
- Full-time employee
- Part-time student
- Part-time social media/blog management
- New homeowner
In which role do I take care of myself? None of them. That’s why self-care is SUCH an important practice – it gets you out of your “roles” and allows you to focus on yourself.
But if you’re like me, and can’t give yourself enough space – white noise, self-care, or whatever you want to call it – you get run down. Exhausted. Adrenally fatigued. Burnt out.
And that’s where I am.
I’m burnt out for the second time in my life.
For me, burnout looks like this:
- Inability to handle stress
- Low blood pressure (frequent head-rushes)
- Foggy mind
- Inability to tolerate exercise
There are many factors that have contributed to my burnout and I’m not going to get into them in detail. But if you also feel like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel every day, there are some things you can do to address these symptoms and hopefully help your body heal from your state of burnout.
5 Ways food can help you manage burnout
I’ve already written about how important self-care is, I even shared my nighttime routine that I try to follow on a regular basis to relax and calm my anxiety. To recover from adrenal fatigue, the number one thing you need is rest. I can’t stress that enough – nothing will help you unless you help yourself.
However, there are ways that your diet can help your body recover faster, as long as you’re giving it the rest that it needs. If you’re burnt out or adrenally fatigued, consider eating by the following principles.
1 | Say goodbye to coffee – for a while anyways
Okay, let’s get the worst one out of the way quickly. If you’re an avid coffee drinker and can’t wake up in the morning without your cup of Joe, you’re not alone. So many of us depend on stimulants to get us through the day, but truthfully our bodies should be able to do that without daily (or sometimes even hourly) help. While some nights we may have a poor sleep and a cup of coffee does a great job getting us through an afternoon meeting, on a regular basis coffee can mask many symptoms of burnout – and even make it worse.
Here’s the thing – caffeine is very similar to a natural chemical we have in our bodies called adenosine. Adenosine stimulates our nervous system in the brain and promotes sleep. When we drink coffee, the caffeine fits into adenosine receptors in our brains and blocks the adenosine. As a result, we don’t feel tired – not because the adenosine isn’t there, but because it’s blocked by caffeine and we don’t feel it!
When this happens, neurotransmitters (messengers) in the brain become excited and trigger a cascade of reactions that ultimately tell our adrenal glands to produce epinephrine (or adrenaline), one of our stress hormones. This is why some of us experience other reactions to caffeine like jitters and shakes, nervousness, or even an uneven heartbeat. It’s the epinephrine/adrenaline!
When we’re adrenally fatigued, our adrenal glands are already functioning much less effectively than they should be. The last thing we want to do is put added stress on them by consuming caffeine, which ultimately stimulates them further and triggers them to release more stress hormones. You can see how this can contribute to worsening adrenal fatigue.
Instead of coffee, try drinking herbal teas, turmeric lattes or coffee substitutes that don’t contain caffeine. I’ve heard great things about Dandyblend, which is a blend of dandelion root and chicory root (though I haven’t personally tried it). And no – don’t reach for decaf coffee. Many of them use chemical processes to extract the caffeine, and even though it’s “decaf” some caffeine still remains.
For a more comprehensive post on coffee and burnout, check out this one.
2 | Back away from sugar and refined carbohydrates
Alright, maybe this one is really tough as well. We all have a sweet tooth – or at least most of us – so this one is always a challenge. But refined carbohydrates and sugary foods are filled with simple sugars. These simple sugars break down quickly and are released into our bloodstream very quickly. It explains why that mid-day muffin or donut perks you up – you just got a rush of sugar (glucose and fructose), and glucose is our brain’s main source of energy!
But the problem with simple sugars, is that they spike our blood sugar with too much sugar too quickly, and then we crash fast. The sugar that our body doesn’t need is stored in fat cells as fat, which is why sugary foods contribute to weight gain. But once there is no more sugar in your blood, your energy dips and you start craving those sweets again because they’re the fastest way to get energy to your brain. While they may be the fastest, they’re the worst option for energy because they cause blood sugar fluctuations that can ultimately lead to metabolic syndromes and diseases, like diabetes.
Balancing your blood sugar is important for your adrenals, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is actually quite common for those with adrenal fatigue. As we discussed, your adrenals produce epinephrine, cortisol and norepinephrine – your stress hormones. These hormones also play a crucial part in blood sugar management. Too many spikes in blood sugar causes stress on your adrenals, because these hormones are constantly being used to balance blood sugar. When your adrenals are fatigued, keeping up with this hormone production can be a challenge. You want to help support your adrenals by consuming a diet filled fibres, healthy fats, and fewer simple sugars to keep your blood sugar stable.
Instead of reaching for white starches like white rice, white pasta and white bread, choose whole grains and sprouted grains, which are filled with fibre. Fibre helps to stabilize blood sugar by slowing the release of glucose into the blood stream. Make sure your diet is filled with lots of vegetables for fibre, and include lots of healthy fats and lean protein to also slow the release of glucose in the blood. For snacks, choose raw nuts, low-glycemic fruits (apples, berries) and veggies instead of muffins, cookies and crackers.
3 | Eat plenty of protein
If you’re adrenally fatigued, chances are your body needs lots of energy to keep you moving throughout the day. Everything feels exhausting, but the proper diet can help keep your energy levels up. We already discovered sugar is not the answer to this. The answer is protein. Protein helps keep your energy levels up without spiking your blood sugar.
The best protein sources are those which are easily digestible. If you eat meat, choose organic eggs, chicken and turkey. Choose fatty fish like salmon, for their high omega-3 fat content (try and buy wild caught salmon if you can for optimal nutritional value and best quality). For vegetarians, beans can be harder to digest because of their high quantity of oligosaccharides and phytic acid. To make beans easier to digest, try the following steps:
- Sprout them: lentils are fantastic when sprouted as they are easier to digest have have more nutrients!
- Soak raw legumes for 24 hours, not just overnight, and change the water often.
- Cook them long and slow to break down their complex fibres.
4 | Don’t fear healthy fats
This isn’t an excuse to go out and eat all of the butter and fried foods in the world – the kinds of fats that you eat are extremely important for optimal health. But we’ll get into specific fats shortly.
Why are fats crucial for our adrenals?
Many of our hormones (for example cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine) are built upon cholesterol. Our bodies actually create cholesterol in our liver, but we can also consume cholesterol in our diet via animal foods like butter, ghee, eggs, salmon, etc. Eating too much cholesterol can be an unhealthy burden, but if you’re eating these foods in combination with a healthy diet full of fresh vegetables and fibre, your body should be able to manage the cholesterol appropriately. However, if you have high cholesterol or there’s a reason you shouldn’t consume it, speak with your healthcare professional before making dietary changes.
Fats are also another way for us to feel satiated. They fill us up quicker, and keep us fuller for longer. They help to balance our blood sugar and maintain energy levels. It’s important to have a variety of good fats in the diet to help support our adrenal glands as much as possible.
You want to stay away from trans fats, partially hydrogenated fats, and those that are extremely high in inflammatory omega-6’s. This includes fats found in many store-baked goods (i.e. muffins, donuts, cookies, cakes), deep fried foods or fatty foods cooked at high heat, margarine, and vegetables oils including sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, etc.
Healthy fats include saturated fats (butter, ghee, coconut oil), monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocados) and polyunsaturated fats filled with lots of anti-inflammatory omega-3 and omega-6s (chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts).
5 | Get in those electrolytes
This whole time we’ve largely been talking about the stress hormones, but did you know our adrenal glands are responsible for a number of other hormones as well? One of the most important hormones is aldosterone, which regulates our blood pressure and water levels. It signals our kidneys to keep sodium in the body, excrete excess potassium through our urine, and thereby balances our blood pressure by managing these minerals.
Adrenal fatigue can cause less aldosterone production, which can cause low blood pressure. Low blood pressure can bring on headrushes, dizziness and some other symptoms that come along with adrenal fatigue.
At the end of the day, electrolytes are simply minerals that become ionic in solution and can conduct electricity. Those minerals include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and a few others. When I talk about electrolyte drinks, most people think “Gatorade”, but no, you don’t need Gatorade to get those electrolytes into you. Most of them are commonly found in our day-to-day diet and can easily be consumed in the foods we eat. But if you want a natural electrolyte boost that tastes great, try this recipe!
- 1 cup coconut water, unsweetened
- 1/4 tsp pink Himalayan sea salt
- Juice of half a lemon
- Mix together and serve.
Just to quickly summarize, our diet is so important for proper adrenal function if you’re burnt out. Here is a summary of the five ways that your diet can help you manage burnout and recover from adrenal fatigue:
- Say goodbye to coffee
- Remove sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet
- Eat plenty of protein
- Don’t fear healthy fats
- Get in those electrolytes