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by Khyati Kapur
The adrenal glands serve important and complex functions in the human body. Any disorder of the glands can have repercussions all over the system leading to poor health. One disorder, termed adrenal fatigue, is getting a lot of attention in health circles. Medical boards and endocrinologists (doctors who treat adrenal gland disorders) do not recognize adrenal fatigue as a real disorder. However, many health advocates do. They even say that diet can play a large role in preventing or even treating this disorder (1). To understand the truth, it is important to understand more about the adrenals themselves and how they function.
The adrenal glands are organs of the endocrine system that produce a variety of hormones essential for proper health. The human body has two adrenal glands, each on top of the kidneys. Some important hormones they produce include aldosterone, cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (2). These hormones affect key biological functions such as blood pressure regulation, fat and protein metabolism, maintenance of sugar levels, and the stress response (3).
Diseases of the adrenal gland cause an imbalance of hormone production that can lead to a variety of effects on the body. For example, an imbalance of the steroid hormone cortisol can affect the body’s ability to deal with stress. In terms of biology, stress is anything that disrupts the normal balance of the body, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. Some examples are fasting, infection, sleep deprivation, exercising, fear, guilt, excitement, and anxiety. In a normal body, stressors such as these will activate the adrenals to release cortisol, which has many effects for dealing with stress and keeping the body functioning well.
In adrenal fatigue, proponents claim that experiencing one or more of these stresses for a long time (chronic) will overstimulate the adrenal glands. The amount of cortisol produced by the glands and released into the body will become erratic and inconsistent. It may either be too much or too little. In either case, inconsistent blood cortisol levels will lead to adrenal fatigue symptoms (3).
These symptoms include:
Conversely, those against the adrenal fatigue theory claim that because the stress response is so complicated and layered, inconsistent cortisol levels are not just an effect of adrenal dysfunction but have many causes (4). Also, they say that the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are common among a variety of disorders such as anemia, sleep apnea, kidney disease, diabetes, or even other medically recognized adrenal disorders. However, advocates of the adrenal fatigue theory claim it is a very hard disease to diagnose because current diagnostic tests are not sensitive enough to notice the slight decrease in adrenal gland function responsible for the disease.
Also, adrenal fatigue proponents state that diet is an important component for treating or preventing the disease. Cortisol, released from the adrenal glands during stress, taps into the body’s energy stores, such as protein, fat, and muscle, supplying the body with energy to respond and react to the stress. This process increases cellular metabolism using up much of the stored nutrients in the body. In adrenal fatigue syndrome, there is a “nutrient void,” as most of the stored nutrients get used. Therefore, the adrenal fatigue diet naturally increases the body’s energy levels while replenishing the body of its essential nutrients (1).
The adrenal fatigue diet includes increased servings of protein, healthy fats, and high-quality, nutrient-rich carbohydrates. These include fish, lean meat, eggs, nuts, healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil), leafy greens, and dairy. Nutrient-rich carbohydrates include foods like quinoa, sweet potatoes, legumes, whole grains (buckwheat), winter squash, and root vegetables (beets, carrots, turnips).
Conversely, foods to avoid include sugary snacks, processed foods, coffee, dried fruits, white flour, alcohol, fried food, and artificial sweeteners. These foods, according to adrenal fatigue advocates, will promote inflammation, affect the sleep/wake cycle, and prevent absorption of good nutrients, all of which will make adrenal fatigue worse (5).
Also, it is important to determine food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances and avoid those foods.
There are certain “superfoods” that can speed up the recovery of adrenal fatigue syndrome, according to some health practitioners. These include bone marrow, which helps to boost the immune system and seaweed, which is rich in various nutrients.
Adrenal disease has many causes known to medical science and possibly many more unknown. To fully understand adrenal gland disease and the many complex mechanisms that make up the body’s stress response requires further research. Adrenal fatigue may or may not be a real syndrome; However, the symptoms are real. More understanding will lead to better diagnostic techniques and more effective treatment.
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by Khyati Kapur