This is the second article in an ongoing series. Make sure to check out the next articles when you’re finished with this one:
- What Causes Adrenal Fatigue? (Part I): An Introduction
- What Causes Adrenal Fatigue? (Part II): Blood Sugar
- What Causes Adrenal Fatigue? (Part III): Sleep
- What Causes Adrenal Fatigue? (Part IV): Inflammation
- What Causes Adrenal Fatigue? (Part V): Stress
- What Causes Adrenal Fatigue? (Part IV): Treatment
The type of food you eat, the time you eat, and the quantity of food you eat all have a drastic effect on adrenal fatigue.
Often, these effects on blood sugar (glycemic regulation) occur silently, operating below the surface. This is what makes glycemic dysregulation so dangerous: you could be heading towards adrenal fatigue without having any symptoms.
When we eat carbohydrates, our body breaks them down into their original components – sugars. The sugar enters our bloodstream, causing our blood sugar to rise. Excess sugar in your blood is dangerous, so our body releases the hormone insulin which moves the sugar from our blood to the inside of our cells. (1)
In the world of blood sugar regulation, there are two illnesses that you’re likely familiar with:
- Diabetes – known as high blood sugar or insulin resistance.
- Hypoglycemia – known as low blood sugar.
Both high and low blood sugar cause a tremendous stress to our body. (2) In fact, this stress may be so significant that it can cause adrenal fatigue. Most alarmingly, you may not even recognize the symptoms until adrenal fatigue has already developed.
How does glycemic dysregulation cause adrenal fatigue?
One of cortisol’s main functions is regulating blood sugar levels in day-to-day needs or in times of high-stress situations that require excess fuel for your muscles (think running away from a bear). (2)
Our brain’s fuel of choice is sugar (glucose) which are constantly measured with a variety of gauges. In particular, the hypothalamus (a part of your brain at the base of your skull) is conditioned to be extremely sensitive to fluctuations in glucose levels. (2)
If sugar levels are too low, you’ll likely feel hungry. If the levels are too high, the hypothalamus will instruct you to stop eating. This proper function happens when your body’s blood sugars are balanced.
High blood sugar and/or diabetes can stop your hypothalamus from properly sensing glucose levels, and a malfunctioning fuel gauge can become a key driver in developing adrenal fatigue. (2)
The HPA axis also plays a pivotal role in managing energy balance, food selection, and feeling full after eating (satiety). New research suggests that HPA axis dysfunction could be a potential cause of obesity. (3), (4)
How does blood sugar become imbalanced?
In today’s world, we have infinite access to comfort foods – foods high in fat, sugar, and/or salt. Think how comforting a bag of your favourite potato chips or a container of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream can be!
In periods of high stress, we are drawn to comfort foods. This is because eating comfort food lowers stress hormone levels within the brain (4) which leads to a feeling of lowered stress.
Here’s the scenario:
You are going through a period of high stress. Every night all you want to do is curl up in front of the tv with your favourite high calorie comfort foods.
Little do you know that this is because your body has elevated stress hormones – you just know it makes the stress seem more manageable. That’s because the easiest way to re-balance these hormones is through comfort foods.
Now, if you continue to regularly eat highly processed comfort foods it is very likely that you will become overweight. Should it continue even longer, you may become obese.
In a sense, we create a perpetuating loop of stress. Initially, we trade a lowering of stress hormones for the extra calories found in comfort foods and in the short term, this works. But eating so many more calories over the long term results in weight gain. This extra weight often leads to blood sugar imbalances which is a stress on our system. Eventually, adrenal fatigue develops.
So far, I’ve only talked about how blood sugar imbalances can cause adrenal fatigue. However, this isn’t a one-way street as adrenal fatigue can also cause blood sugar imbalances.
With adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels are often too low to regulate blood sugar levels. This results in higher chances of obesity and other metabolic illnesses like diabetes. (2)
How do you know if you have glycemic dysregulation?
It can be challenging to diagnose yourself with high or low blood sugar without proper testing. Some of the more general symptoms associated with low blood sugar are (5):
- Extreme hunger
Some of the general symptoms associated with high blood sugar are (6):
- Increased thirst
- Trouble concentrating
- Frequent urination
- Blurred vision
These symptoms can be challenging to recognize in ourselves, however there are laboratory tests your doctor can run. These include (7):
- Hemoglobin A1C
- Oral glucose tolerance test
Additionally, you can purchase a glucometer from your local pharmacy and track your own blood sugar. I’d recommend the following testing schedule:
- Fasting – take this reading first thing in the morning; before any food is ingested
- Right before eating lunch
- One hour after eating lunch
- One hour after the above reading (two hours after eating lunch)
Follow this schedule for three days. The data you collect should give you an idea of what your blood sugar levels look like.
- Fasting: less than 5.6 mmol/L
- One hour after a meal: less than 7.8 mmol/L
- Two hours after a meal: less than 6.6 mmol/L
How do you treat glycemic dysregulation?
Treatment is not always as intuitive as you may think. For example, if you are overweight or obese, logic would say that losing weight would be the best plan. While this is a good idea, the way it’s done is equally important.
Aggressive weight-loss plans are a massive stress to our system. In a body that is already suffering from adrenal fatigue, rapid weight-loss strategies will only add to the level of stress and further deplete the body’s metabolic reserve. This is why weight loss needs to occur gently, at a moderate pace, without extreme calorie deprivation. (2)
Strategies to treat glycemic dysregulation
Here are some useful lifestyle strategies you can implement to better regulate blood sugar.
- The glycemic index of foods (GI index)
- This “diet” was popular during the Atkins and South Beach fads.
- The GI index indicates how easily a food is broken down into a simple sugar – more specifically, how much of an effect the food will have on your blood sugar. The higher the number, the more of an effect it will have.
- For those with both high and low blood sugar readings, limiting the number of high GI foods will better regulate blood sugar.
- Eat soluble fiber
- Researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that eating soluble or fermentable fibers for breakfast (think oatmeal) decreases the glycemic impact of all other meals that day. (10)
- Try to include one serving of soluble fiber in every breakfast. Examples include:
- Fruits – citrus fruits, apples, strawberries
- Vegetables – sweet potatoes, avocado, brussels sprouts, broccoli
- Legumes – peas, black beans, lima beans
- Follow a Mediterranean or low-carbohydrate diet
- A two-year long study done by the New England Journal of Medicine found that the Mediterranean-style and low-carbohydrate diet improved glycemic control. (11)
- Remove refined carbohydrates from your diet
- Especially soft drinks and sweetened beverages (including fruit juices).
- Eat breakfast
- This initial meal helps to regulate your blood sugar for the entire day.
Following these tips is a great start to regulating blood sugar levels. In turn, this will reduce the stress on your HPA axis.
Now, I want to hear from you.
What practices have you found to regulate your blood sugar?