Nutrition and diet are a crucial aspect to consider for those suffering from adrenal insufficiency.
The recommendations in this post will be sure to help you on your path to recovery. Understanding our relationship with food, calories, and the way that they are taken into our body will help you to manage your symptoms.
I’ve been there. I can say that I have experienced how difficult life can be when we can’t seem to climb out of our fatigue. Once I was so tired that I needed to pull off of the highway to sleep in the breakdown lane. It was the middle of the afternoon.
I’m way better now. Focusing on my nutrition and diet was one of the most important steps I took to heal.
Nutrition and Diet
One of the critical clarifications in the process is to review the interplay between our diet and our nutrition. Ideally our diet delivers all of the nutrients that we would require for our body to work well. It is fair to say that most people are in some state of nutritional deficiency. Directed supplementation can be of benefit here.
Let’s start with nutrition. Too often this word seems to be attached to some product of program. It’s easiest to recall that nutrients are critical “cogs” in a complex machine. I’ll break it down here.
We’ll cover macronutrients first. These are the foods that we consume in large amounts as opposed to the micronutrients. The three macros are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Each is important to drive a state of whole-body health.
Food and Nutrition: Proteins for Structure, Enzymes, and Immunity
Proteins are perhaps the most versatile of the three macronutrients. They are made up of strings of amino acids, linked together like beads on a necklace, or boxcars on a train. Amino acids come in different shapes and carry different electrical charges. Shape, electric charges, and order define a protein- a three-dimensional molecule that drives our biology.
Some proteins make up our muscles, tendons, and bone. Others are a part of the machinery that drives our metabolic processes. Still others, like antibodies, contribute to the function of our immune system. Needless to say, having a stable and balanced protein intake is crucial to our health.
Our DNA instructs the sequence of the 21 different amino acids that we use to build our proteins. Most amino acids we can build from ‘spare parts’ if our dietary intake is low. But there’s a catch: 9 of the amino acids are “essential”. This means that we can only get them from our diet.
Proteins can also be broken down for energy but doing so comes at a cost. Ideally, we are in a dynamic state of building, and when needed, consuming our proteins. We strive for balance here.
Vegans, vegetarians, and individuals on restricted diets are at greater risk for amino acid deficiencies. This can be balanced by close attention to the grains and legumes consumed.
Diet and Nutrition: Fats, the Versatile Molecules
Fats are similarly important. And like proteins, some are essential and must be obtained in the diet. Fats are used extensively hats in our body. They are a vital part of each cell’s membrane. They contribute to nerve structure and function. And they are an integral part of our immune system. 70% of our brain is made of fat, so having the right fats is important.
Above all, fats are a really, really good source of energy. My professional experience shows me that many who suffer with fatigue are not optimizing this important energy source. Let’s take a look at the math.
When a gram of proteins or carbohydrates is broken down, the body gets 4 calories of energy. But a gram of fats yields 9 calories when burned. A gram of fat simply stores more energy. And this makes sense in terms of human survival.
For example, prior to supermarkets and 24-hour drive-through restaurants, a human’s greatest stressor was starvation. As hunter-gatherers (less so in the modern agricultural era) we likely experienced prolonged periods of feast and famine.
It makes sense that when we ran out of food—our only possibility for survival clinging to our bones as fat and muscle—we would want to store more fat. Gram-for-gram, having fat on the body actually doubled the time that we could survive without eating.
Carbohydrates: Angel or Devil?
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are most likely to drive both good health– and bad disease. We need carbs; they are the preferred “food” for our brain. We also digest and absorb carbohydrates quickly. Carbs are like small logs continually fed into our metabolism wood stove. Fats and proteins are more like the lump of coal that burns slowly and through the night.
On the other hand, excessive carbs, along with a sedentary lifestyle, promote havoc in the body. Yes, it is great to store carbs as fat in preparation for the next period of migration of starvation. But when that period of starvation doesn’t come, chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and Alzheimer’s are waiting in the wings. This includes fatigue.
As with all things, balance is essential. Carbohydrates, with their easy access and quick release of energy, may be a crucial part of managing a fatigue state. Too often, fatigue is worsened by too many carbs being taken in, and at the wrong time. Understanding how carbohydrates work can help to make them our savior angel, not the devil of chronic disease.
Micronutrients are a part of our diet that we typically don’t burn for energy. But they are a vital part of our biology and biochemistry. Vitamins and minerals are small molecules. And as seen in the name micro, our required intake is nowhere near to the 2000 pounds of food (macronutrients) we eat yearly.
The most important minerals are probably sodium, calcium, and potassium. These maintain nerve function and maintain electrical gradients in the body. Magnesium is pretty important as well. It is known to be required for some 400 different enzymatic processes in the body.
Zinc is perhaps the “forgotten nutrient”. Like magnesium, it is used in hundreds on chemical reactions in the body. It is a critical part of our immune system. Additionally, the World Health Organization estimates that 25-30% of the planet is zinc deficient.
The great thing about these minerals is that they can all be measured, managed, and optimized. Some require special testing to really know levels. I’ll cover that in a different post.
Vitamins are another important part of our biochemistry. And like the minerals, all can be measured with conventional testing. Vitamins are most commonly used in enzymatic reactions. Like a key in the lock, their presence drives the intended outcome. When we are deficient in vitamins, our metabolic machinery doesn’t work as well. Plain and simple.
Micronutrients: Plant Based
Plant-based nutrients make up the last category of nutritious foods. And of course, we must get these in our diets. We are obviously not plants; we cannot make these molecules. There are over 5000 identified plant-based molecules that can interact with our biochemistry.
For example, resveratrol, found in high concentration in foods like grapes, communicates directly with our DNA. DNA you will recall codes for amino acid sequences and subsequently proteins.
Most importantly, the majority of these plant-based molecules direct our biology and immunity in a positive fashion. Of course, if you eat a poisonous mushroom its plant-based toxins will hurt you. But overall, the consumption of plants is good for our body.
Take home point: Eat more plants. Eat a rainbow of plants. Reap their benefits.
Diet for Adrenal Fatigue
The first part of this post reviewed why we need to think about our nutritional intake. In a best-case world we are able to measure nutritional markers with directed lab testing. But what diet is best for fatigue? The answer is, “It depends.”
Having worked with thousands of patients, my first impulse is to recall that all people are different. We all have a unique “sweet spot” based on our biology and activities.
However, my experience has shown me that dysfunctions in cortisol drive the majority of fatigue. Cortisol’s primary job in the body is to manage glucose levels in the blood. When our blood sugar gets low, either we eat, or cortisol is summoned to start breaking down our tissues into glucose for the heart and brain.
Use Your Diet for Energy, Today
My recommendation to my patients is relatively simple, and follows three considerations:
First, eat whole foods. Our body’s biochemistry does not require anything, but the molecules mentioned in the paragraphs above. Consequently, we do not need yellow dye #2, preservatives or MSG. Additionally, our immune system is geared to react to molecules that we don’t need, or that put us in harm’s way.
Eat whole foods. Eat a rainbow of plants.
Second, use carbs sparingly. Excessive carbohydrate intake by definition tasks the insulin and cortisol systems. I find that most people do better with a foundation of fats and proteins, peppering in healthy carbohydrates throughout the day. Proteins and fats are digested more slowly than carbs, and the delivery of energy to the body is more gradual.
Too many people consume high levels of carbohydrates, often unknowingly. A peak in carbs promotes a similar rise in insulin. This burst of insulin then rapidly causes our blood glucose to plummet, and we start cycling between high and low states of blood sugar. This imbalance promotes the feeling of fatigue, often with significant anxiety, as our blood sugar bounces around.
Finally, create a ceremony around food. Dedicated mealtimes, cells phones off and away, candles, napkins, soft music—these activities will directly help with your digestive process. Ceremony increases stomach acid and digestive enzymes. More blood is delivered to the gut. We get more nutrients absorbed. In other words, simply developing a ceremony of eating will help your fatigue.
Nutrition and Diet: Conclusions
In conclusion, diet and nutrition are essential factors in combatting fatigue. It is valuable to take a step back from the multiple fads, diets, and memes to remind ourselves of what, why and how we should be eating.
Take a minute to reflect on your nutritional status; make changes as necessary. Minerals, vitamins, and nutrients can be measured. Do so with precision and intent. Recall the words of your mother, “Eat your veggies!” And finally, enjoy your food, Develop a ceremony around eating.
Remember, we are what we eat.
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