What is adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is a collection of symptoms that occur when the adrenal glands don’t work properly, often due to chronic stress or illness.

Why is it important?

It's a factor in many illnesses from heart disease to immune deficiency and digestive problems.

It’s estimated that 75 – 90% of visits to primary care physicians are related to acute or chronic stress (1).

This page explains this condition and describes which healthy foods , supplements and healthy eating habits can help treat adrenal fatigue, the invisible epidemic.

Common Causes of Adrenal Fatigue and Anxiety

The most common adrenal fatigue causes are intense or prolonged stress, or acute or chronic infection or illness. Chronic anxiety is an early symptom.

The adrenal system regulates our “fight or flight” reaction to sudden, unexpected stress or stimuli. This is a normal process - a basic, biological survival instinct - stimulated by a steroidal hormone called cortisol (‘the stress hormone’).

Ageing and chronic stress both increase cortisol levels and in turn, cause this fatigue.

Elevated cortisol levels reduce your body’s ability to break down body fat. This leads to insulin resistance and overweight.

Adrenal fatigue and elevated cortisol works against weight loss for another important reason – they drive unhealthy habits.

People with this condition often use sugar, caffeine or other stimulants to ‘get going’ in the morning and ‘pep up’ during the day.

They’re more likely to overeat, miss meals, make unhealthy food choices, drink alcohol, smoke, feel angry/irritable and lie awake at night. All of these are factors in poor health and overweight.

Elevated cortisol also increases blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, and takes blood away from the digestive system (1).

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

The condition causes a huge demand for energy, and has unfavourable effects on hormone levels.

The body starts breaking down healthy issues (especially muscle), and reduces any ‘non-essential functions’ as follows (5):

• Tiredness/fatigue (this may be the only noticeable sign)

• Poor/broken sleep

• Altered appetite

• Decreased thyroid function – lower T4 and T3 hormones

• Decreased immune system function

• Insulin resistance

• Lowered sex drive

• Accelerated loss of vitamins and minerals

• Loss of muscle, bone, organ dysfunction, eventually leading to chronic illness.

Risk Factors

Lifestyle factors that may contribute to adrenal fatigue and anxiety (1, 5):

• Lack of sleep

• Poor food choices (e.g processed food, low fiber, high sugar foods, limited raw food)

• Using sweet, salty or caffeinated foods/drinks as stimulants when tired

• Staying up late even though tired/sleep deprivation

• Feeling/acting powerless

• Constantly driving yourself

• Trying to be perfect

• Staying in double binds (no win situations)

• Too few of enjoyable and rejuvenating activities

• Excessive exercise

• Very low calorie diets

• Surgery

• Intense emotional states – anger, anxiety, worry

Adrenal fatigue treatment

There are three recognised factors in the adrenal fatigue recovery process;

1. Proper nutrition

2. Supplements (to support the adrenal system)

3. Mindset (coping with stress, building positivity, promoting relaxation)

A combination of these treatments is the best approach.

It’s important to understand that the recovery process can take up to two years, depending on the severity of your condition.

Let’s look at these three factors in more detail.

1. Dietary Approach

For any stress-related conditions, diet is an important starting point. After all, the foods you eat are the fuels your body uses to make your cells, hormones and enzymes.

It’s the nutritional value of food and timing of meals that are most important.

In terms of nutritional value, some foods can actually increase anxiety and adrenal imbalances, while other foods can reduce adrenal stress.

In terms of meal timing, the following can have a negative effect on blood sugar, cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue:

• too few calories through dietary restrictions

• missed meals

• irregular meal patterns.

These are all unhealthy eating habits, but luckily, ones you have the power to change.

Quality of food

Adrenal fatigue and anxiety are often accompanied by excess excretion of vitamins and minerals, particularly the B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, some amino acids, vitamin C and coenzyme Q10.

These ‘adrenal fatigue vitamins’ are important for kick-starting recovery, and you can get them from both food and supplements.

Anxiety in particular can benefit from two specific forms of vitamin B3; niacinamide and inositol. Deficiencies in these minerals and other can affect the production of serotonin (which assists sleep).

The best adrenal fatigue diet includes the following foods, which are rich in vitamins and minerals to support the adrenals (1, 5):

• green leafy vegetables (all types)

• nuts (esp. hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, almonds)

• seeds (esp. sunflower, sesame and pumpkin)

• beans

• bran (rice, wheat)

• salmon, sardines, or tuna

• sea salt (celtic salt) – a little each day, it’s rich in minerals

• brown rice

• passionfruit

• cantaloupe melon

• oranges

• valerian or passionflower tea

• green tea (limit to one per day, as this contains caffeine)

Also, all meals should be balanced in good quality carbohydrates, protein and fat to help regulate blood sugar, reduce cravings and boost healthy hormone production.

• best carbohydrates are high fiber, minimally processed sources (e.g. vegetables, whole quinoa or oats)

• best proteins are low in fat, lightly cooked and unprocessed. Choose fish, lean meats and chicken, seafood, nuts and eggs

• best fats make up the smallest part of the meal, and come from good quality sources like fish oils, nuts and seeds.

Certain foods can make adrenal conditions worse and should be avoided:

• stimulants of any kind: tea, coffee, chocolate, cola, caffeine, energy drinks, sugar or sweeteners

• alcohol;

• fruits (rich in sugars and potassium), especially high glycemic index fruits. Best choices for fruit include papaya, mango, plums, pears, kiwi, apples and cherries. Avoid bananas, citrus and dried fruits

• processed foods: white foods (sugar and processed grains), hydrogenated oils, fried foods, fast foods, junk foods

• foods to which you are intolerant or allergic (which would add another stress to an already-stressed body).

Timing of meals

Regular, balanced meals are an essential part of the adrenal fatigue recovery process, to help boost and maintain energy levels.

Your first meal should be consumed within an hour of waking (preferably before 10am) and meals should be eaten every 3 – 4 hours thereafter.

Have a small mouthful of protein-rich food or protein supplement within half an hour of going to bed to avoid low blood sugar on waking.

2. Adrenal fatigue supplements

Supplements for adrenal fatigue include multivitamins which are heavily depleted by adrenal conditions, specific adrenal supplements and herbal preparations which support resilience and recovery.

When choosing a multivitamin/mineral supplement, look for a complete, broad-spectrum, bio-available (not synthetic) and balanced formula. Click here to read my nutritional supplements review.

Good supplement manufacturers will list all ingredients and quantities on their products and will readily supply information about their manufacturing and safety standards and processes.

A broad-spectrum formula is important because all vitamins and minerals work synergistically – that is, they need each other to work effectively.

Taking one nutrient alone or poor-quality supplements is inadequate for treating a complex health issue like adrenal fatigue.

The book A Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements is a good, independent review of the top 100 best-selling multivitamin preparations in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada.

Other supplements that may help include:

• fish oil

• probiotics

• plant sterols

• alpha-lipoic acid

• co-enzyme Q10

There are several herbs which are proven to be effective in managing adrenal conditions, including:

Bacopa monniera (Brahmi)

Centella asiatica (gotu kola)

Galphimia glauca (thryallis)

Humulus lupulus (hops)

• L-theanine (from Camellia sinensis – tea)

Matricaria chamomilla (German chamomile)

Melissa officinalis (lemon balm)

Passiflora incarnata (passionflower)

Piper methysticum (kava kava)

Scutellaria lateriflora (blue skullcap)

Valeriana officinalis (valerian)

Ziziphus jujube (jujabe)

Ginseng, licorice and Rhodiola are also known to be beneficial.

Some of these herbs have positive effects on bodily processes like nerve transmission and hormone action. Other herbs affect brain activity.

3. Mindset

The physical act of relaxation and physical therapy can play a significant role in managing adrenal fatigue and anxiety. Actively building positivity has also been shown to increase resilience to stress (2)

An important brain neurotransmitter, GABA, can ‘put the brakes’ on irritability, insomnia, restlessness and other symptoms of an overexcited nervous system.

GABA regulates brain waves patterns, heart rate and adrenal stress markers.

In a controlled pilot study, levels of GABA were significantly increased in participants after 60 minutes of yoga, compared with 60 minutes of reading (3).

There has also been much research into the benefits of subliminal music, including Binaural Beats technology, on human health.

The works of Dr Masura Emoto, Georgi Lozanov and others show that certain types of music can stimulate the brain to produce effects similar to yoga meditation (3) and can accelerate learning.

This technology is successfully used to help overcome addictions, fears, insecurities, anxiety, stress and insomnia (4).

To get help with adrenal fatigue, consult your local, registered natural health practitioner.

For more adrenal fatigue information, I recommend visiting Dr James Wilson’s website, www.adrenalfatigue.org, and reading his book entitled Adrenal Fatigue.


1 Head, K.A. and Kelly, G.S. 2009. Nutrients and botanicals for treatment of stress: adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalance, and restless sleep. Alternative Medicine Review 14 (2), 114-140.

2 Fredrickson, B. L. 2009. Positivity. Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. Crown Publishers, New York. ISBN 978-0-307-39373-9.

3 Streeter, C.C., Jensen, J.E., Perlmutter, R.M., Cabral, H.J., Tian, H., Terhune, D.B. and Renshaw, P.F. 2007. Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study. Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine 13 (4), 419-26.

4 Mike Brescia’s Think Right Now Professional Behaviour Modification. www.thinkrightnow.com

5 Dr James Wilson www.adrenalfatigue.org


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