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We all have stress from time to time, but when it goes on for weeks or months, chronic stress can impact all the body’s systems – especially the adrenals. The adrenal glands are small organs that rest on top of the kidneys and are responsible for releasing important hormones. One of these is cortisol, a stress hormone that regulates energy, inflammation, blood pressure and blood sugar. It also controls the sleep/wake cycle: Cortisol levels fluctuate during the day, increasing in the morning when you need to wake up and decreasing at night.
If you’re in a state of constant tension and anxiety, it’s thought that the adrenal glands can’t keep pace and are unable to produce the necessary hormones. The result: adrenal fatigue, a condition that some believe causes fatigue, nervousness, sleep problems, body aches, depression and more. While adrenal fatigue is not recognized by the medical community, many naturopaths and other alternative or integrative practitioners treat it as a true syndrome. Adrenal insufficiency, on the other hand, is a diagnosable disorder caused by an autoimmune problem in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones. So no matter what, keeping this system in tip-top shape is of the utmost importance. In general, a diet that avoids sugar, caffeine, refined grains and alcohol is recommended by these professionals for adrenal fatigue. And certain nutrients that relieve stress, promote calm, reduce inflammation and balance blood sugar can help too. Here are six top choices.
Studies suggest bacterial imbalances in the gut contribute to stress and anxiety. Naturally fermented kefir is rich in beneficial bacteria, which improve gut health, reduce anxiety, lessen stress and may protect against inflammation. Probiotic bacteria also improve serotonin levels and can produce GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and eases tension; low levels of GABA have also been linked with increased anxiety.
- Combine kefir with rolled oats, chia seeds, dried cherries and vanilla extract and refrigerate overnight for an instant breakfast bowl.
- Make a zesty dressing with kefir, minced garlic, jalapeño peppers and cilantro.
Related: Lemon & Herb Kefir Spread recipe
It’s a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes calm and relieves stress, and melatonin, a hormone that enhances sleep. Studies show tryptophan lessens anxiety and also improves sleep, even at doses as low as 250 milligrams, the amount in just one serving of turkey. Turkey is also rich in high-quality protein, which helps to minimize blood sugar spikes and enhance energy. Plant-based sources of protein and tryptophan include edamame, kidney beans, white beans, peanuts and tofu.
- Spread turkey slices with mashed avocado, layer with arugula, red onions and shredded carrots and roll up.
- Sauté cooked turkey with mushrooms, onions, garlic and spinach and toss with spiralized sweet potatoes.
Like other leafy greens, they’re a good source of magnesium, a mineral that helps relieve stress and anxiety; low blood levels of magnesium are linked in some studies with an increase in perceived stress. Collards are also a source of folate, a B vitamin that’s essential for the production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that mitigate anxiety and tension. Spinach, Swiss chard, Romaine lettuce, turnip greens and kale are also good sources of magnesium and folate.
- Simmer chopped collard leaves, red peppers, ginger and curry powder in coconut milk.
- Sauté shredded collard leaves in olive oil with chopped black olives, garlic and cumin.
They’re rich in protein and B vitamins, which keep the adrenal glands healthy and improve the body’s response to stress. Studies show that thiamin (vitamin B1) protects the adrenal glands from exhaustion and reduces the body’s reaction to cortisol. Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) may buffer cortisol and enhance adrenal function, while deficiencies in vitamin B5 have been linked with compromised adrenal function. Niacin, or vitamin B3, helps the body convert tryptophan to serotonin and also improves sleep. And pyridoxine (vitamin B6) is necessary for the synthesis of GABA, serotonin and other neurotransmitters that protect against stress. Sunflower seeds are also a good source of zinc, which has mood-regulating and anti-anxiety effects.
- Combine sunflower seeds, kale, parsley, olive oil, lime juice, garlic and red pepper flakes in a food processor and blend into a zesty chimichurri sauce.
- Mix sunflower seeds with mashed kidney beans, minced red peppers and shredded carrots then form into burgers.
They’re an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps support adrenal function and balance cortisol. In some studies, vitamin C improved the ability of the adrenals to adapt to the stress from a surgical procedure and normalized cortisol levels. Other studies show vitamin C reduces anxiety, minimizes stress and improves mood. Red peppers are also high in a variety of antioxidants and protect against inflammation.
- Sauté chopped red peppers with zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and oregano until tender.
- Simmer puréed roasted red peppers with tomato sauce, Kalamata olives, capers, basil and red pepper flakes for a spicy puttanesca sauce.
While coffee is a no-no on an adrenal- health diet, some varieties of tea can relieve stress and anxiety and protect the adrenals. Green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that enhances the production of neurotransmitters that promote calm. And although green tea contains caffeine, research suggests the L-theanine content offsets the caffeine’s stimulatory effects. Studies also show L-theanine induces alpha brain wave activity, which correlates with a perceived state of relaxation.
- Blend matcha green tea powder with kefir and bananas for a morning coffee alternative.
GINSENG is an adaptogen, meaning it supports the body’s own systems. It’s rich in antioxidant compounds, called ginsenosides, which protect the nervous system and prevent inflammation. Under stressful conditions, the body secretes cortisol, a stress hormone. Ginseng regulates the system that controls cortisol, and studies show it has excellent anti-stress effects and is superior to other adaptogens in regulating stress. Other research shows it relieves anxiety and may protect against stress-related diseases.
Related: The Benefits of Adaptogens
RHODIOLA ROSEA is the root of a flowering plant found in cold, mountainous regions. Like ginseng, rhodiola is thought to protect against stress by interacting with the body’s system that controls cortisol. Studies show rhodiola can regulate cortisol and relieve stress, and it may prevent chronic stress.