Despite the medical controversy surrounding its validity and even its very name, Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is all too real for those who have been affected by it. Dr. James L. Wilson, ND, PhD., who coined the term “adrenal fatigue” to describe a specific kind of chronic tiredness that results when the adrenal glands no longer function normally, has estimated that 80% of the population will experience it at least once during their lifetime.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue syndrome include low blood pressure, low blood sugar, greater intolerance to cold, moodiness, anxiety, unexplained aches and pains, recurrent infections and, of course, fatigue. Another symptom of adrenal fatigue, an unusual one that may be overlooked, is high “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
Most allopathic physicians (MDs) deny that adrenal fatigue is a real syndrome, much the same way they denied the existence of Fibromyalgia until about twenty years ago (some still do). Others, like Dr. Lena D. Edwards, MD. and Dr. Thomas G. Guilliams, Ph.D., believe that it is real, but take issue with the name Dr. Wilson gave the syndrome. In their paper, Beyond Adrenal Fatigue: From Anecdotal to Evidence Based Medicine, they stated,
“While this term has helped to dispel the notion that only extremes of cortisol production, namely Cushing’s disease or Addison’s disease, are clinically relevant, it does not adequately describe the complexity of the cascade of events involved in the stress response and should be replaced by more appropriate evidence based terminology.”1
The adrenal glands, which are pyramid shaped organs that sit on top of both kidneys, are responsible for secreting more than 50 hormones, many of which are essential to the body. Among these essential hormones are hydrocortisone (also known as cortisol), the stress hormone which also helps the body convert food into energy, normalize blood sugar levels and maintain your immune system’s inflammatory response. The adrenals also produce adrenaline, the hormone that increases heart rate and controls blood flow throughout the body, aiding the conversion of glycogen to glucose in your liver. This is why the adrenals are also known as the “stress glands”.
Causes of Adrenal Fatigue
There are several factors that can lead to adrenal fatigue syndrome, but the most common causes are lifestyle and nutritional issues.
- Prolonged stress – When one is in a difficult situation for a long period of time, with no relief, the very hormones that the adrenals produce – adrenaline and cortisol – can wear down the adrenal glands. Multiple short-term stressors are just as bad because they can be cumulative, in that they build up in the body and mind over time.
- Lack of sleep – Sleep allows our bodies to regenerate tissues and heal itself. Lack of sleep affects the manufacturing of cortisol, and cortisol is necessary for healing.
- Environmental toxins – The adrenals react to ALL toxins, which include not just PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and pesticides, but also cigarette smoke, alcohol, narcotics and chemical ladened processed foods.
- Nutritional Depletion – It’s a well-known fact that smoking and drinking alcohol deplete the body of nutrients, but there are also many pharmaceutical drugs that do the same. This seems to be especially true of drugs that lower cholesterol.
- Excessive carbohydrate consumption – The high glycemic carbohydrates found in processed foods create excessive amounts of insulin and put a strain on the adrenals and other organs.
- Not enough “bad” cholesterol / saturated fat – Strangely enough “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is needed for the production of hormones. This is why, as I mentioned earlier, high HDL cholesterol is a symptom of adrenal fatigue. HDL cholesterol lowers LDL cholesterol.
- Caffeine – Consuming too many caffeine-containing foods and drinks can over stimulate the system to the point where the adrenals are called upon to deal with the stress of the caffeine buzz.
- Zinc Deficiency – Zinc supports adrenal function and helps it deal with the consequences of stress. In addition, a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology showed that zinc deficiency in rats evoked the stress response and increased the volume of the adrenals.
- Sodium deficiency – Sufficient sodium levels are crucial to the functioning of the adrenal glands. Whole foods like spinach, sweet potatoes, and Chinese cabbage contain healthy amounts of sodium.
The Best Adrenal Nutrition
Unlike cooked foods, raw whole foods are easily assimilated by the body, far less energy is required to digest raw foods and all the nutrients and enzymes remain intact. So, raw foods – despite having fewer calories – provide the body with more energy. Even anti-vegan nutritionists will admit that the most healing and energizing foods are staples of a balanced vegan diet: dark leafy greens, bananas, coconuts, bean sprouts, citrus fruits, nuts, and seeds. These foods contain high amounts of the following nutrients…
- Folate (folic acid) – Among other things, this vitamin is required for optimal general health, red blood cell production, cell division, and energy production.
- Magnesium – This mineral is needed for cellular metabolism and energy production. Magnesium converts sugars into energy fuel. The central nervous system is dependent upon magnesium and a deficiency can cause many unpleasant symptoms, including fatigue and insomnia – signs of adrenal fatigue.
- Vitamin C – This vitamin is so crucial to adrenal function the excess is even stored there. In addition to protecting against pollutants and infections, vitamin C improves the bioavailability of iron, is needed for healthy cell development, normal tissue growth and repair, healing burns and wounds, preventing blood clots and bruises, and strengthening the walls of the capillaries. It’s even needed for the conversion of cholesterol into bile acids.
- Potassium – This mineral is needed for growth, nerve impulses, keeping sodium in proper balance (sodium-potassium pump) and, unless your kidneys are failing, it is impossible to overdose on it. Potassium is easily lost in the urine, and the kidneys excrete excess potassium. And stress increases potassium excretion.
- Zinc – This mineral balances blood sugar, stabilizes metabolic rate, bolsters immune system function, helps prevent infections and, as I mentioned earlier, the adrenal glands are dependent on zinc.
These are only some of the nutrients recommended by Dr. Wilson in his book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, and which he’s included in his adrenal fatigue formulas, but the great thing about eating a whole food diet, that contains plenty of raw produce, nuts and seeds, is that we can get most, if not all, of the nutrients the adrenals need to functional properly from food alone.
The nuts and seeds contain both HDL and LDL cholesterol. Cashews, in particular, contain the “ideal fat ratio” recommended by scientists, which is 1:2:1 – 1 saturated fat to 2 monounsaturated fats to 1 polyunsaturated fat. And coconuts are an excellent source of triglycerides, which the adrenals also require for proper functioning. Triglycerides are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Medium-chain triglycerides are believed to have a broad array of health benefits. Some naturopathic physicians, like Dr. Bruce Fife, ND., recommend MCTs to treat malabsorption disorders, seizures, Celiac Disease, and even Alzheimer’s. And renowned nutritionist Joy Bauer has called dark leafy greens, “Nature’s multivitamin”.
Unfortunately, Nutrition Is Not Enough
Great nutrition is essential to reversing adrenal fatigue syndrome, but nutrition alone is simply not enough. Without sufficient rest and relaxation, learning to either avoid stressors or how to deal effectively with conflict, eliminating toxins from one’s life – such as second-hand smoke, alcohol, processed foods and negative people, even a nutrient dense whole food diet cannot completely reverse the effects of adrenal fatigue. However, eating for better adrenal health can provide your adrenal glands with the nutrition they need, so that your lifestyle changes are far more effective.
1 Edwards, Lena D., MD., and Guilliams, Thomas G., Ph.D. “Beyond Adrenal Fatigue: From Anecdotal to Evidence Based Medicine”, PDF.
Wilson, James L., ND, DC, Ph.D. “Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome”. Smart Publications, 2001. Print
Metcalf, Eric, MPH. “Adrenal Fatigue: Is It Real?” WebMD, n.d. Web. April 2017
“What Are the Causes of Adrenal Fatigue?” FatigueSolution.com, n.d. Web. April 2017
Axe, Josh, MD. “3 Steps to Heal Adrenal Fatigue.” Dr. Axe, 2014. Web. April 2017
Mercola, Joseph, MD. “Why Cholesterol is Essential for Optimal Health, and the Six Most Important Risk Factors of Heart Disease.” Mercola, December 30, 2012. Web. April 2017
Y. Someya, J. Tanihata, S. Sato, et al. “Zinc-Deficiency Induced Changes in the Distribution of Rat White Blood Cells”. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, vol.55 (2009) No.2 p162-169. Web. April 2017
Norton, J. Renae, PsyD. “Coconut Oil and Malnutrition”. Eating Disorder Pro, October 10, 2011. Web. April 2017
Bauer, Joy. “8 Spring Superfoods”. Joy Bauer, n.d. Web. April 2017