Eating For Adrenal Health
Updated: Oct 19
WHEN THE ADRENALS HAVE BEEN ON OVERDRIVE, THE SIGNAL CIRCULATING IN THE BODY IS ONE OF PANIC, FEAR AND SELF-PRESERVATION. HOW CAN WE RECALIBRATE THE BODY TO CALMNESS, SAFETY AND BALANCE? HERE ARE SOME TIPS TO SUPPORT PHYSIOLOGY HOLISTICALLY TO RESET THE BODY AND REFRAME THE MIND.
THE GUT Lets begin from the gut. The gut is considered a second brain and has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system. It has over 100 million nerve endings and in many ways, it can control digestion independently without our conscious awareness and houses neurotransmitters that enable it to register and respond to stress.
As we now know, one of the physiological systems that 'shuts down' when survival mode is triggered is the digestive system. As we shift into fight-flight-freeze response, there is little time to eat, it's all about survival! This is why so many of us experience inflammation of the digestive tract if we remain in 'stress mode' for long periods of time.
A diet that is dehydrated (caffeine, wheat (gluten) products, meat), difficult to digest (fried, processed) or irritating to the gut (fast food) will add to stress signals in the body rather than help to switch them off. In addition, this will make nutrients harder to absorb and add to any depletion that is already there.
HYDRATION is not just key for soothing the gut, but is also needed for digestive enzymes and juices to be produced, nutrients and hormones to be carried around the body, excess and waste materials to be carried out of the body and much more.
For proper hydration, most adults need to gradually build up to an intake of around 1.5-2 litres of plain water daily, perhaps a glass on waking, mid-morning, mid-afternoon and then again before bed. Too much water too quickly may flood the kidneys, and too much at mealtimes may dilute the stomach acid. Room temperature or warm water is recommended (avoid icy drinks as this depletes energy) It is possible to drink good levels of water and still be functionally dehydrated. Electrolytes such as magnesium and potassium are essential for helping to keep water flowing in and out of cells.
Stress has a direct effect on the balance of electrolytes, and so any dietary and/or lifestyle changes that reduce stress would seem important to hydration, alongside a diet that provided fluids as well as electrolytes.
A general rule of thumb would be to include soups, casseroles and fresh vegetables, and to soak thoroughly any dried foods such as nuts, seeds, pulses and grains.
GLUTEN-RICH GRAINS (wheat, rye and barley) are problematic to many.
Traditionally all grains are fermented to help pre-digest them, as we are still adapting to this relatively new food. Try keeping them to a minimum, or avoiding them altogether for a short time to gauge the difference. Try gluten-free products, or sprouted bread as a healthier option.
CASEIN in dairy may be difficult to digest in a similar way to gluten: they are both partially broken down by the stomach to opioids that can interfere with neurotransmitters in the gut, thus potentially affecting energy, mood and sleep patterns, and may also contribute to inflammation. Traditionally dairy is also fermented to help deal with this, as well as to provide beneficial bacteria for the gut.
A general rule of thumb is to avoid dairy during the cold months, opt for yogurt and kefir as gentler choices than milk. Depending on the level of stress, some will need to avoid all dairy.
NUTS, SEEDS AND PULSES should also ideally be soaked overnight in water to rehydrate them and access the nutrients more efficiently. Adding a splash of lemon juice here and also when soaking grains will help to reduce levels of phytates, and so make many of the nutrients more available for absorption in the digestive tract. Soaking with lemon juice may also kick start fermentation, which helps to make such foods easier to digest.
ANIMAL PRODUCTS, such as meat, fish and eggs, should be of the highest quality, and eating fewer of these will reduce the strain on both the kidneys and the wallet. Dairy produce may be mucous-forming and problematic for digestion – not just due to the casein described above, but also where there is intolerance to the milk sugar lactose - so is best avoided or kept to a minimum. Some people will find goats’ or sheep’s yogurt tolerable, while others may struggle with all dairy.
A VEGETABLE RICH DIET provides a broad range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients important for adrenal and general health, and also helps to keep the body’s PH balanced. The balance of acid-alkaline in the body is crucial for all of its biochemistry, including making hormones, making enzymes – including digestive enzymes – and keeping bowel flora and other bacteria in a healthy state.
A Naturopathic approach would advise against consuming raw food, especially during fatigue, and stress. Raw food energetically has a cooling effect and creates dampness in the body. This may look like brain fog, chesty conditions, skin issues, loose stools, lethargy, achy joints.
In cases of chronic illness and adrenal depletion, the body is already too cold and too damp. To support recovery it is advised to gently steam, slow-cook vegetables in soups and casseroles, introduce slow-baking or gently stir-fry in water or coconut oil. Salads could perhaps be “warmed” by adding grated ginger to the dressing.
STIMULANTS such as sugar and coffee deplete the adrenals. Heavy drinking has been shown to cause chronic disturbance to the hPA axis.
Foods that specifically nourish the adrenals include: • Aduki beans • Black beans • Walnuts • Dandelion tea • Seaweed • Asparagus • Celery • Beetroot • Ginger • Cranberries
Adrenal support through Supplementation
The primary raw materials for making adrenal hormones are cholesterol (steroid hormones) and amino acids (non-steroid hormones).
Cholesterol is found in eggs and meat, but we can actually make cholesterol from any food. Cholesterol has been given a bad reputation, but it is essential to create good health and we are now starting to understand that it may not be the “bad guy” we have for so long misrepresented it as.
Amino acids are the smallest units of protein, and can also be found in most foods, but especially meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and pulses. All of these foods are acid forming, however, so need to be balanced with plenty of alkalising vegetables, which will also help to provide many of the co-factors and supporting nutrients needed to make adrenal hormones.
VITAMIN B5 Supplementation with vitamin b5, also known as pantothenic acid or pantothenate, has been shown in laboratory studies to stimulate the production of adrenal hormones, while its deficiency has been shown to decrease adrenal hormone production. Pantothenate supplementation often seems to have a calming effect in times of stress. Vitamin B5 is also important for the biochemical processes of energy production.
Natural food sources include liver, sunflower seeds and avocado.
VITAMIN B6 One of the highest concentrations of vitamin B6 (pyridoxal-5- phosphate) in the body is found in the adrenal cortex, suggesting an important role for this vitamin there. It may be no coincidence that this is also where the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol is produced. Vitamin B6 deficiency has also been linked with chronic inflammation and disease, and higher levels of B6 supplementation with reduction in inflammation markers.
Vitamin B6 is also needed for absorption and metabolism of magnesium, zinc and amino acids, all crucial for adrenal hormone production and health. Lipid metabolism also requires vitamin B6, as do the processes of gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis, which provide more glucose to the blood when blood sugar is struggling. B6 would therefore be used up more quickly when cortisol is elevated long term. Natural Food sources include Spinach, summer squash, garlic and shitake mushrooms.
VITAMIN C Vitamin C is also found in some of its highest concentrations in the adrenals, both in the cortex and in the medulla. It is a co-factor for both steroid and non-steroid adrenal hormones, and so it is important to make sure there is enough vitamin C available for their production. Natural sources of Vitamin C can be found in fresh fruit, raw onions and other vegetables, parsley and other herbs.
MAGNESIUM Magnesium is a great relaxer throughout the body in terms of muscles and nerves, and it is Magnesium deficiency has been shown to dysregulate essential for energy production and also linked to anxiety, panic attacks and palpitations. Magnesium is also depleted by stress. One study compared magnesium levels of 57 people working for 7 hours either in quiet or exposed to traffic noise. under noise stress, blood cell magnesium went down by 1.5% while blood serum magnesium increased by 2.4% and magnesium loss in urine increased by 1.5%.37 This suggests that stress has the effect of driving magnesium out of the cells, where they are needed for energy production, enzyme production and more, and into the blood and eventually excreted. The worse the magnesium loss, the poorer the work performance.
Magnesium is found naturally in green leafy vegetables, wheatgrass, blue-green algae such as chlorella, nuts and seeds and more. Like many minerals, however, levels are depleted in the soil, and where magnesium levels are additionally being depleted by stress, it may be prudent to add in a well absorbed magnesium supplement, such as magnesium citrate (as opposed to more poorly absorbed forms such as magnesium oxide and magnesium carbonate).39
CHOLINE AND INOSITOL The B vitamins are often recommended for stress in general, and I have already highlighted vitamins B5 and B6. Choline and inositol also deserve a special mention here. Choline and inositol are both crucial elements of cell membranes, and particularly of messaging between cells (via neurotransmitters) and passing on messages that arrive at cell membranes. Choline is a precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, while inositol is involved in the activity of the mood-related neurotransmitter serotonin. I
n fact a 1995 study found that supplementation with inositol reduced the severity and frequency of panic attacks in patients with panic disorder. The body prioritises their use in the brain, but they are needed throughout the body. Choline has many additional uses in the body including regulating metabolism gene expression, increasing physical stamina and recovery after exercise. Eggs and meat are the best food sources of choline, and meat, citrus fruit and wholegrains are good sources of inositol. Both are also found in good quantities in soya lecithin granules and powders, and you can find choline and inositol together in supplement form.
ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS The omega 3 essential fatty acids in fish and krill oil may benefit adrenal stress hormones.
A 2003 study noted how high doses of fish oils inhibited the adrenal response to stress brought on by performing mental arithmetic and other cognitive tests.
A Japanese study of students taking their finals showed a significant reduction in norepinephrine levels in those who took a dhA-rich supplement.
EPA and DHA, both in krill and fish oil, are also involved in anti-inflammatory processes, even more powerfully so than aspirin, which assist or perhaps even influence cortisol’s role in calming inflammation. They are both also important for the fluidity and vitality of the cell membrane, both in brain cells and throughout the body. Arachidonic acid is an omega 6 essential fatty acid found in eggs, meat and butter. Although frequently associated with inflammation, arachidonic acid is important for brain function, and has been shown to regulate secretion of catecholamines such as adrenalin/epinephrine from the adrenal medulla. ZINC Zinc deficiency and excess zinc can have an effect on cortisol production in the adrenals. According to the International Zinc nutrition Consultative group, approximately 6-16% of Western Europeans are likely to be at risk of zinc deficiency.42 Natural sources of zinc includes: venison, lamb, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds. If supplementing, as with magnesium, the form is important, so look for zinc citrate, picolinate or methionine.
IODINE Chronic iodine deficiency has been shown to negatively affect the day/night corticosteroid hormone cycle, and this affects the ability of the thyroid to make thyroid hormones. Iodine would therefore seem to be important for both the adrenals and the thyroid.
The best natural source of iodine is kelp or seaweed.
According to body clock wisdom, everything in nature is organised according to cycles, rhythms, such as the day and night cycle or seasons. These rhythms affect our biological patterns. For example, every organ in the body has an optimum time and season to perform and replenish. Tune into your body clock and notice when your energy patterns rise and fall, when are you reaching out for caffeine or sugar lift?
Tune into 'adrenal health' by noticing your energy levels between 3-7 pm. Are you feeling tired? Is it difficult to stay alert and awake? This is adrenal time. To support and recalibrate adrenal health, ensure you are resting between this time (avoid excessive overload), introduce warm drinks, ginger tea or soup, stay hydrated, and sleep early, ideally by 10.30 pm. The season that best supports adrenal health is Winter.
Your adrenals are the foundation on which you stand. Your health and vitality depends on them, and the quality of your life depends on the quality of care you give them. Take time to nourish them as much as you can, so that you have the strength, confidence, energy, focus and good health to fully enjoy your life.
Recipes for adrenal health
Red kidney bean or black bean curry
May you experience fulfillment by eating seasonally aligned food.
Working with Gee Gahir, a Pioneer of holistic wellbeing services within the NHS, and Co-founder of Wellbeing Wizards, a wellbeing podcast inspired through lockdown. Gee is an accredited EMCC intuitive lifestyle coach providing preventative naturopathic mind-body-space solutions to facilitate vibrant health and balanced lifestyles.
Connect with Gee to arrange a holistic, naturopathic and personalised coaching experience.