When you think about stress, you typically don’t think about diet. But the foods you eat can both act as stressors on the body or help to manage stress and support the adrenal glands.
The stressors we face are often mental and emotional, such as relationship struggles, financial worries, work pressure, and being stuck in traffic. These sources of stress are real and impactful, but they’re one of a myriad of stressors that have the same physiological result.
Another primary source of stress is a diet rich in processed and nutrient-void foods, especially those high in sugar. On the flip side, a diet filled with real foods from nature –with a particular focus on adrenal-supporting nutrients and an emphasis on meal timing– provides an environment for optimal adrenal function.
Adrenal Glands 101
A quick recap: the nervous system has two modes of operation: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Your nervous system goes into sympathetic mode when it’s experiencing stress. Chronic stress is a burden on the adrenals, and it can lead to adrenal fatigue, also known as HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary axis) dysfunction. Adrenal fatigue falls within a spectrum, and people experience varying symptoms depending on where on the spectrum they lie.
Essential foundations for optimal adrenal function include a healthy diet, self-care practices, and stress management techniques that work for you. As far as nutritional habits go, the main points to consider are a well-balanced diet of high-quality foods with an emphasis on certain key nutrients and regularly scheduled meals.
Balance and Quality in Your Diet
Perhaps the most important aspect of adrenal support is a well-balanced diet of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. The exact macronutrient ratios can differ from person to person. Still, you should aim to fill up at least half of your plate with plants (more vegetables than fruits), a serving of protein, a serving of healthy fat, and an optional serving of a complex carbohydrate.
Choose foods like sweet potatoes and (ideally low-sugar) fruits over potato chips; grass-fed pastured and organic poultry and meat over fast-food chicken nuggets; and extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed butter, and coconut oil over margarine, for example. Nobody is perfect, and cost is often a factor, but keeping these principles in mind goes a long way in optimizing adrenal function.
Whole foods that are great for adrenal support include legumes, nuts, fish, dark leafy greens and brightly colored vegetables, whole grains, whole dairy, and low-sugar fruits. In general, it’s essential to opt for foods that come from nature and are minimally processed.
Specific Nutrients for Adrenal Support
Vitamin C is an enzyme cofactor that helps in the transfer of hormonal information.* It is also an antioxidant, meaning that it helps to protect your cells from free radical damage and oxidation.* Vitamin C is crucial for healthy adrenal gland function, as the adrenal glands are among the organs with the highest concentration of vitamin C in the body.* This vital nutrient is needed for the adrenals to produce hormones that play a critical role in several body systems.*
Magnesium supports hundreds of biochemical processes in the body, including the production of cellular energy, or ATP.* Magnesium supplementation and magnesium-rich foods like dark leafy greens can be highly beneficial for those with weak adrenal glands. Studies show that low levels of magnesium in the body can lead to increased production of the stress hormone cortisol.1 Magnesium also helps the body produce the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which helps to relieve stress and anxiousness, both of which are common in people with adrenal fatigue.*
B Vitamins (Particularly B5 and B6)
B vitamins are necessary for creating and excreting adrenal hormones.* The body is less capable of dealing with the impact of stress when B vitamin levels are low.2 Excellent sources of B vitamins include organ meats, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, leafy greens, and eggs.
Meal Timing and Regularity
When you sleep, you naturally enter a fasting phase where the body goes into a mode of recovery and rejuvenation. When you wake up and begin eating, you initiate the path of insulin production, and the adrenals kick into gear.
Similar to how infants are on a regular, natural breastfeeding schedule every 3-4 hours, all humans thrive on regularity and consistency when it comes to meals, along with periods of fasting where insulin production rests. Whether this means leaving a 12-hour fast overnight alongside regular meal times during the day or adopting an intermittent fasting schedule that feels right for you, the gut, adrenals, and other bodily systems need this time to recover.
Meal planning can help in supporting the adrenal glands by making it easier to create healthy, nutrient-rich meals. Here is an example of a day’s worth of adrenal-supporting meals:
Two eggs scrambled with 1-2 cups of kale, Swiss chard, spinach, or any other leafy green, 1/2 cup bell pepper or any other colorful vegetable, with a 1/2 cup baked or steamed sweet potato on the side and 1/4-1/2 cup avocado.
A large salad with a combination of greens and at least three different types of vegetables, 1/2 cup garbanzo beans, one ounce goat (or other) cheese, one tablespoon pumpkin seeds, and a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt.
Three to five ounces of wild salmon, baked or sautéed asparagus, broccoli, or other vegetables cooked in coconut oil or butter, 1/2 cup brown rice, quinoa, or other whole grain.
Adrenal fatigue is a reaction to inconsistent, chronic overexposure to stress. Although you can’t control everything in your life, you can strive to manage factors that you can change. These factors might be the foods you eat, how much sleep you get, how often you say “no” to people and obligations, or implementing self-care practices into your daily routine. Any combination of these strategies will help create habits for optimal adrenal function and keep you feeling your best.
By Dr. John Thomas
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
1. Cuciureanu, M., & Vink, R. (2011). Magnesium and stress. In R. Vink & M. Nechifor (Eds.), Magnesium in the Central Nervous System (pp. 251-268). The University of Adelaide Press. doi:10.1017/UPO9780987073051.020.
2. Kennedy, D.O. (2016). B Vitamins and the brain: Mechanisms, dose and efficacy – A review. Nutrients,8(2):68. doi:10.3390/nu8020068.
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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.