Diet for Adrenal Fatigue Diet & Exhaustion
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– How do you get adrenal fatigue?
– Where do mitochondria come into play?
Most of us can relate to feeling overworked, exhausted or just plain tired. But for those with adrenal fatigue or mitochondrial dysfunction it is much more. It’s a type of fatigue that just won’t go away with a good night’s sleep and while coffee may help, it’s simply not enough to function optimally. For many people this has become their ‘normal’ way of life as they push through from one day to the next. But there comes a time when this level of exhaustion is overwhelming and help is really needed.
Fortunately, there is now more understanding of these conditions and help is not far away.
Supporting fatigue is a gradual process with a focus on regaining vitality, rather than remain in misery.
Coffee, caffeinated beverages and sugar generate massive sales. There’s a proliferation of coffee outlets, with many opening early to provide the ‘fix’ needed to start the day and to keep going throughout it. It’s more than a social drink; coffee consumption is an indicator of the sheer exhaustion in society and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.
When we drink these beverages, we stimulate our adrenal glands to give us an energy lift, but there is a limit to how much our body can cope with this treatment. In clinic I see the end results. Don’t blame the coffee – it’s about understanding why we ‘need’ coffee or sugar and how adrenal fatigue sets in when we keep ‘soldiering on’.
Adrenal fatigue means your adrenal glands are really overworked (often from long term stress and/or doing too much) and they can no longer support you with abundant energy to do the things you would normally like to do.
Let’s face it, if you don’t have energy, you can’t have vitality. Adrenal exhaustion is the result of adrenal fatigue, and mitochondria, the tiny energy powerhouses in your cells, also form part of this picture.
How do you get adrenal fatigue?
Our adrenal glands sit on top of our kidneys and are thought of as our energy cells or batteries. So if the batteries are running a bit flat we feel flat, which is why we say we need a break to ‘recharge the batteries’.
Our adrenal glands produce various hormones, one of which is cortisol. Cortisol is our ‘fight or flight’ hormone. If we suddenly need a burst of energy to run away from or fight against danger, then cortisol is there for us. In this state we can do amazing ‘super human’ things, such as lifting a car off a person or dealing with a super stressful situation.
While great for genuine danger and emergencies, unfortunately we often abuse this ‘power’ for day-to-day activities, such as taking on too much, dealing with stress at work and home or working extra hours to make more money (maybe for that holiday break).
If we do this occasionally and give ourselves time to ‘re-charge’ the batteries, that’s fine. But life for most people is not this way. To keep going in overdrive like an Eveready battery, we reach for stimulants such as coffee, tea, sugary foods and soft-drinks/sodas (especially caffeinated) to get the ‘lift’ we think we need to keep going. Sound familiar?
I used to drink six cups of coffee a day to get through my work load and then ‘needed’ a glass or more of wine at the end of the day to calm down from the raciness so I could sleep. The result -exhaustion.
And then, in an exhausted state, we’re often in a bad mood which creates stress for our partner or kids – and look out at premenstrual time!
All of this creates more drain and the vicious cycle continues until the stimulants just can’t keep us going and eventually our adrenals shout ‘NO MORE’. Then we might realise how exhausted we really are. Our adrenal glands will still hold something back for moments of dire need, but in the mean-time leave us feeling totally depleted.
Infections and inflammatory conditions also contribute to adrenal exhaustion which we must address with the help of a health practitioner and good nutrition. Cortisol (released by the adrenal glands) is an anti-inflammatory hormone to settle an inflamed and infected body. This further depletes the adrenals, resulting in more exhaustion.
Where do mitochondria come into play?
Mitochondria are the little powerhouses inside our cells. When they don’t work properly (called dysfunction) then our energy drops.
Mitochondria are found in every cell of the human body except red blood cells. They convert the energy of food into adenosine tri phosphate also known as ATP, which power most cell functions (getting scientific now).
The organs in the body that require the most energy from mitochondria are the brain, muscles, liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, heart and lungs.
Mitochondrial disease or mitochondrial dysfunction occurs when the mitochondria are not able to do their job due to genetic or environmental factors including infections, inflammations and all manner of toxins.
Conditions such as cancer, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and mental health disorders are considered to have mitochondrial dysfunction, but these go well beyond fatigue.
What is the relationship between mitochondrial dysfunction, adrenal fatigue and exhaustion? On a scientific level, they are quite different, but each fatigues and depletes the body. In fact, the dietary and lifestyle factors to support each of these conditions are very similar.
A diet to support these conditions would look like this:
– High in important nutrients, especially magnesium, CoQ10, Vitamin D and Omega 3 essential fatty acids
– Anti-inflammatory and low in additives and chemicals
– Designed to support good gut health and healing
– Gluten free and Dairy free
– Rich in auto-immune supportive foods
– Avoid foods and drinks that drain adrenal reserves, such as allergy and food intolerances, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, starchy carbohydrates
– Quality proteins, especially grass fed and preferably organic
– Maintain optimal blood sugar levels to balance cortisol as cortisol is intimately involved with blood sugar stability. Adrenal fatigue sufferers often have either very low or even high cortisol levels, so eating lots of small meals throughout the day will help reduce food cravings, blood sugar crashes and stress on the adrenals.
– Super foods for adrenal health such as bone broth, including the marrow. Bone marrow has been proved to reduce inflammation, boost the immune system and encourage healthy cholesterol. Bone broth can also provide essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids that are easily absorbable in our intestines. And then there are various seaweeds rich in minerals and phytonutrients which are also a great support for the adrenals.
A note on bone broth: if bone broth makes you feel worse then you may have histamine intolerance, because bone broth is naturally high in histamines. A small percentage of people with chronic fatigue/adrenal fatigue and mito issues also have a histamine intolerance. If this is the case it may help to also incorporate a low histamine diet.
Research has shown that coffee drinkers’ improvement in cognition and mental alertness, for a short time after drinking a cup of coffee, is equal to that of non-coffee drinkers. But the difference is that the energy levels of a non-coffee drinker are more stable, without the fluctuations experienced by those addicted to caffeine.
When caffeine levels drop, coffee drinkers’ energy levels also drop giving them a post caffeine withdrawal. A cup of coffee brings them back to ‘normal’ energy levels, but does not provide ‘extra’ energy.
Initially when cutting back or giving up caffeine drinks and foods such as chocolate (sigh) you will feel tired, irritable and perhaps have headaches. But then you will begin to revert to your normal level of energy, which might be low initially, until the drain of your adrenals is resolved. It’s well worth the short-term discomfort.
When changing diet, I recommend first seeing an experienced, qualified health practitioner.Do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional, who may even prescribe extra supplementation.
– Look at other aspects that drain your energy, particularly emotions, which can rob your body of energy. Talking things over with a good friend or counsellor may help. With drainers, such as illness, injury, infection or disease, a health practitioner’s advice could be invaluable.
– Listen to your body. This is HUGE. You need to tune in to what your body needs, not what your brain says you ‘should’ be doing. Feel when your body needs to rest and honour this.
By doing so, you may not get as much done as you would like, but by resting and taking care of yourself, you can certainly regenerate your adrenals, regain your energy and recover much faster than if you ignored your body and continued the downward spiral.
Some of my clients have needed an extended holiday or cut back to part-time work. In more severe cases, their body forced them to give up work entirely so they had time to heal. This is unfortunate, sometimes resulting in feelings of worthlessness which may lead to depression, particularly if there is limited support from others.
While it can certainly be difficult to deal with, the take home message is to listen to what your body is telling you – and do what feels right before your body forces you to stop. For more, have a look at my Vitality & Self-Care Articles
Apart from a good clean diet, lots of sleep and stress management are very important. Consider addressing one energy drainer at a time, for example, cutting back on coffee.
When 60-year-old Joan first came to see me in clinic she was so exhausted that she walked in sluggishly, hunched over and spoke slowly, as if each word exhausted her. Interestingly, the more she spoke the more the speed increased.
She explained how she was very athletic and full of energy for most of her life and could fit much into her day. She disliked lazy people and now felt very frustrated with herself because she thought she was being lazy and would often push herself to do things, but would then be left totally exhausted and unable to do much for the next three days.
You could say she has a type ‘A’ personality. It was even difficult for her to reach out for help to make an appointment with me.
It was difficult to determine what triggered her condition as there seemed to be many things that could have started the process, and then her driven personality would have pushed her over the threshold to exhaustion.
She remembered getting sick with fevers and vomiting after eating something that didn’t agree with her on an overseas trip, but she ‘recovered’ and went back to work after two days off (post-holiday). Although her energy was not the same, she pushed on.
Then she was shocked when demoted at work, which she thought was because of her failing performance, which drove her to work even harder. Later she was retrenched, which created financial stress, and was depressed for a few months.
Joan managed to get a new job and was happy with that, but her fatigue was increasing. She ‘needed’ three to four cups of coffee a day to keep going and a nap in her lunch break, but didn’t do that often as she had errands to run.
On weekends, she looked after three grandchildren so her daughter could work. Basically, Joan was not getting the recovery time needed, but she loved what she was doing and didn’t understand why her body couldn’t keep up.
I knew Joan wasn’t going to take notice of me telling her that she needed to do less and give herself time to relax, unless there was scientific proof to show her why she was feeling so exhausted.
A hair mineral analysis showed very low levels of four major minerals – calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. This is a pattern of adrenal fatigue. Adrenal exhaustion is commonly defined medically as potassium depletion.
Joan’s four adrenal saliva test results taken throughout one day showed very low cortisol for each sample. The cortisol levels indicated that the stress on her body had been going on for a long time – her holiday was nearly two years prior to seeing me.
We also tested for her good and bad bacteria levels which showed that her good bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, were low and she had an overgrowth of Candida organisms.
It is possible that her overseas infection, which was treated by antibiotics, killed off the bad bacterial infection but the antibiotics may have also killed off her good bacteria. This can allow the Candida species to thrive as they are not destroyed by antibiotics, and in fact thrive in that environment.
This alone would have made her feel tired, but to ‘keep her energy up’ Joan consumed more coffee and sweet foods, which fed the Candida even more. She was using up more nutrients in her body, which further depleted her energy. The extra stress, without allowing recovery time, compounded the problem, further depleting her body of vital minerals.
I asked Joan to follow an anti-candida diet along with some anti-candida herbal teas and gave her a strong probiotic to start with. After a few weeks, we changed her over to a diet very rich in minerals to restore her mineral depletion while keeping her sugars low.
Even more importantly we discussed how she could have more relaxation time in her life.
I shared the importance of listening to her body and knowing when it needed rest rather than ‘pushing through’. The push may have worked when she was an elite athlete but now she needed to channel her energy into self-healing. Joan diligently followed the plan and three months later was back to her vital self.
I found the main issue was to help Joan overcome her need to keep doing so much, which invariably resulted in a relapse into exhaustion. Asking Joan to come in every three months to re-enforce her commitment to her body helped tremendously.
The above case study highlights two special points to consider:
1. There can be several factors in fatigue, so it is important to check with your health practitioner to see if you have any underlying contributing issues and imbalances.
2. The importance of listening to your body for signs that it needs help, rest or a better diet.
3. See your health practitioner to support any underlying health imbalances you may have. There are various tests to determine if you have adrenal fatigue and your health care practitioner can also help with extra herbal or nutritional supplements and address some of the drivers of adrenal fatigue so you can regain your vitality as soon as possible.