Adrenal Dysfunction: Part 3

Adrenal Dysfunction

By now I hope you understand what the adrenal glands are, what their purpose is and what Adrenal Dysfunction is.  If not you can read about that in part 1.  In part 2 I discussed the symptoms a person will feel when struggling with Adrenal Dysfunction as well as the three different phases.  Part 3 is a long post as I’m going to discuss testing for Adrenal Dysfunction and the most important part, what you can do to overcome it.


You can generally determine if you have Adrenal Dysfunction by looking back at your history and any symptoms you’re struggling with now.  Usually you will have felt good in the past at some point then gone through a stressful time that’s left you feeling unwell.  Sometimes though, the stressor could be something less obvious like digestive issues, candida overgrowth or a parasite. A simple, free test you can do is to determine if you have orthostatic hypotension.  This means when you sit up or stand up your blood pressure drops quickly making you dizzy.  It’s a pretty good indicator you’re dealing with adrenal dysfunction.

To figure out what phase you’re in and if you’re dealing with the pregnenolone steal it’s important to get a saliva test that tests your cortisol at 4 different times throughout the day as well as your sex hormones.  You can get these tests through an integrative doctor, naturopathic doctor or functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner.  You will have 4 tubes that you will need to fill with saliva between 6am and 8am, at noon, between 4pm and 5pm and one in the evening between 10pm and midnight.  You will get results back with a graph showing you where your cortisol levels are at compared to where they should be.  A good practitioner will look for correlations to the results and how you’re feeling.  Some people don’t realize how bad they feel until they understand and see what’s going on in their body.

So how do you overcome Adrenal Dysfunction?  There are three main areas you’ll need to focus on when dealing with adrenal dysfunction: nutrition, lifestyle changes and supplements.


1) A Paleo template that removes grains, legumes, industrial seed oils, dairy, sugar and processed foods can be a very healing way to eat when you have Adrenal Dysfunction.  It removes inflammatory foods that stress the body and provides you with the most nutrient dense foods like vegetables, fruit, meats, fish, poultry, bone broths, organ meat, nuts and seeds.  A Paleo diet naturally lowers carbohydrate intake and raises healthy fats, which help in balancing blood sugar.  This isn’t to say you need to remove grains and legumes but for some people this may be helpful initially.  You can include properly prepared grains and legumes in your diet if you handle them, as they can be great sources of fiber and nutrients.  To prepare them properly learn how to soak, sprout or ferment them.  This will be easier on your digestion that will inevitably be weak.  Everyone has their own unique biochemistry, so you have to figure out what works for you by trying different things and then listening to how your body responds.  If trying a paleo template be careful not to go too low carb as this increases cortisol and further stresses the adrenals.  Carbohydrates are also responsible for helping T4 convert into our active thyroid hormone, T3.  Therefore be sure to include starchy carbs like sweet potatoes, yams, white potatoes, winter squash (butternut, acorn, spaghetti, kabocha), parsnips, beets, plantains and other fruit.

2) Balance Blood Sugar!  Having Adrenal Dysfunction can lead to imbalances in blood sugar as I’ve discussed in part 1 of this series.  On the flip side mismanaged blood sugar can be a chronic stress that leads to Adrenal Dysregulation.  Every time you feel low blood sugar symptoms you’re adrenals secrete cortisol in response.  Depending on what phase you’re in, you should generally eat every few hours to maintain level blood sugar as your adrenals are unable to.  As the health of your adrenal glands improve you should be able to eat bigger meals less often.  Intermittent fasting is not a good idea when struggling with adrenal dysfunction.  During this time you need to nourish your body and reduce stressors.

3) Salt!  The adrenals also produce the hormone aldosterone, which helps maintain fluid balance in the body.  When the adrenals are weak they produce less aldosterone which means our bodies lose water easily and therefore salt.  This is one of the reasons why people struggling with adrenal dysfunction need to urinate frequently and urgently.  They can also have strong salt cravings.  When I talk about salt I’m talking about the good quality sea salt or Himalayan rock salt that contains over 60 minerals.  I’m not talking about processed, bleached table salt.  Table salt is linked to health issues like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.  Try adding good quality salt to all your meals.  Adding 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of salt to a glass of room temperature water in the morning can also be helpful when dealing with adrenal dysfunction.

4) Do Breakfast Right!  Eating breakfast within an hour of waking is important for stabilizing blood sugar and cortisol levels first thing in the morning.  Breakfast should include 25-30g of protein to help balance the blood sugar throughout the day.  What does that look like?  A deck of cards is about the same size as 3 oz of meat.  6 oz (two decks of cards) of salmon has about 34 grams of protein, a 4 oz (1 1/2 decks of cards) steak contains about 26 grams of protein, a 6 oz chicken breast has about 38 grams and 4 large eggs have about 25 grams of protein.  Add some green veggies and fat, maybe some complex carbs and you’re off to a good start.

5) Fat!  Fat is not only wonderful for balancing blood sugar and keeping you feeling satiated but it’s also important for hormone production.  Specifically, cholesterol, which is the precursor for all our hormones including DHEA, progesterone, our estrogens (estradiol, estriol and estrone), testosterone and cortisol as well as vitamin D production.  Eat good quality fats like grass-fed butter or ghee, lard, duck fat and tallow from pastured animals, coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil (cold-pressed, unrefined and organic), red palm oil, avocados, nuts and seeds (raw and organic) and egg yolks (pastured).

6) Ditch the caffeine and alcohol.  Both caffeine and alcohol are major stressors on the adrenal glands.  They also promote more water loss and disturb blood sugar balance.  Its best to avoid both when trying to recover from adrenal dysfunction.

Lifestyle Changes: 

1) Sleep.  It’s critical to the health of your adrenal glands to get enough sleep.  When recovering from adrenal dysfunction its best to be in bed by 10 pm every night and to sleep as late as you can, and at least until 6am.  Depending on what phase you’re in, you may find it helpful to sleep in until 8-9am if possible.  Try to maintain this same sleep schedule throughout the week and on the weekends as this supports your natural circadian rhythm.  Unwind before bed and get off technology (television, computers and phones) at least an hour before bed.  Keep your bedroom dark and cool.  Try reading, journaling, stretching or having an epsom salt bath.  The magnesium in epsom salts helps promote sleep.  If you wake early it could be linked to low blood sugar so try having a small fat and protein snack to maintain blood sugar balance while you sleep.

2) Mindfulness practice (mediation, yoga, journaling).  Stress is often caused by how we perceive things.  When we take the time to be still and quiet and really listen to how we’re feeling we can often decrease a lot of unnecessary stress.  Mindfulness takes practise and time to get good at but finding something you enjoy that takes all the other chatter out of mind can do wonders.

3) Do the right type of exercise.  This isn’t the time to be training for a marathon or doing Crossfit WOD’s 5 times a week.  Again it depends on what stage you’re in but gentle exercise that doesn’t stimulate your sympathetic nervous system is a better choice.  Walking outside, yoga, anything you find fun that doesn’t stress you out.  Strength training can be great but don’t focus too much on building muscle until you’ve got your adrenals in better health.  Short intense workouts are better as they can help make use of high cortisol.  Listen to your body here and focus on getting healthy, not fit and ripped.  You will be able to change you’re goals once you’ve recovered, otherwise you’ll just dig yourself further into adrenal dysfunction and make your journey of healing longer and harder.

4) Get outside daily.  This goes hand in hand with walking as it lowers cortisol and kicks in your parasympathetic nervous system.  Not to mention it’s the best way to get vitamin D!

5) Practice relaxation (bath, massage, yin/restorative yoga, reading).  Take time off of your hectic schedule to do things for yourself.  Try to incorporate relaxation into every day.  This of course helps with lowering stress and getting you out of that chronic fight or flight state.


Vitamin C.  The adrenal glands store the highest concentration of vitamin C in the body.  This vitamin C is used in the production of cortisol, so it makes sense when suffering from adrenal dysfunction that the body will be depleted of this important antioxidant.  A buffered vitamin C that includes bioflavanoids is easier to absorb.  If taken in too high of quantities it can lead to diarrhea.

B complex.  The B vitamins are our energy vitamins and important for many functions in our body including helping metabolize protein, fat, and carbohydrates.  They become depleted from chronic stress as well.  They also work together synergistically so taking a good B-complex is better than taking individual B’s in this case.  I like AOR and MegaFoods B-complex supplements.

Magnesium.  This mineral is known as the “anti-stress” mineral and is also depleted from chronic stress.  Magnesium is great taken in the evening to help promote sleep but just like vitamin C, it can cause diarrhea if taken in too large a quantity.  I like Magnesium Calm, which can be mixed into a glass of water in the evening.  I also like CanPrev’s Magnesium Bys-glycinate (most absorbable form) and AOR’s Magnesium Taurate (promotes calmness of the nervous system).

Fish oil.  Helps lower high cortisol and counteracts the inflammatory affects cause by chronic high cortisol.  When choosing a fish oil opt for one that uses smaller fish like sardines and mackerel.  This means less mercury to worry about.  Also ensure that it’s cold processed and no heat is used in the process.  Fish oil (omega 3) is a polyunsaturated fat and prone to oxidation when exposed to heat, light and air.  I like Seroyal and Progressive fish oils.

Adaptogens.  Herbs like rhodiola, ashwaghanda and astragalus can help the body adapt to stress.  This means if you have high cortisol they help lower it and if you have low cortisol they help raise it.  Some work better for certain issues, so I recommend working with a practitioner that can help guide you in the right choice for your unique situation.

Licorice.  Helpful in extending the half life of cortisol so only to be used with low cortisol.  Don’t try it unless you’ve been tested and can confirm you have low cortisol.  It’s also contraindicated if you have high blood pressure.

I hope that this series has given you an idea of how to get started with overcoming this all too common issue.  Life is too short to live with constant fatigue and all the other symptoms associated with adrenal dysfunction.  As you can see, it affects all areas of you’re health and if not dealt with will continue to get worse.  My hopes are that you realize you’re not crazy and it’s not a part of getting older that many associate all these symptoms with.  It is possible to overcome and easier then staying in a state of adrenal dysfunction in the long term.  If you want to feel vibrant and sexy you need to work on overcoming adrenal dysfunction.

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