With the rise in popularity of diets such as keto and Whole30, we’ve seen many women in our clinic eating very few carbohydrates. While a low carbohydrate diet can be beneficial for certain cases, there are many conditions where a low carbohydrate diet is not recommended. Adrenal fatigue (aka HPA Axis Dysregulation) is one of them.
Why? Let’s dive a bit deeper to explore how our body regulates carbohydrates.
A Miniature Chemistry Lesson: How Your Body Regulates Carbs
Any time we eat, our food is broken down into macronutrients, micronutrients, and water. This complex process allows us to derive energy from our food, obtain essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, and collect the building blocks needed to make our immune cells, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
Carbohydrates are found in many different foods, and in different forms. After we eat, blood sugar rises as carbohydrates are digested and absorbed. This triggers the release of insulin, which helps shuttle glucose out of the bloodstream and into our cells. Insulin is considered an “anabolic hormone,” meaning it promotes the storage of glucose and the conversion of any excess into its long-term storage form: fat. We also have hormones that help us tap into stored glucose or generate more. This occurs when our blood sugar is low or when we have increased energy demands.
So, what does this mini biochemistry lesson have to do with adrenal fatigue?
As the name implies, adrenal fatigue involves a dysregulation in our body’s stress response. Initially this leads to elevated cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. As adrenal fatigue progresses, the dysregulation often leads to low cortisol. Now here’s the catch: Low carbohydrate diets have also been shown to be a stressor on our adrenals.
Why Low Carb Diets Can Increase Cortisol Levels and Stress Your Adrenals
Why? If your body requires more energy, it will either burn carbohydrates (glucose) or fat (ketones), depending on what’s available. If you don’t have enough carbohydrates, and you are not in ketosis, your body will break down protein to yield the required glucose needed for energy production. What hormone is called upon to convert protein into energy-generating glucose? You guessed it—cortisol.
By increasing the need for cortisol (to generate new glucose), a low carbohydrate diet can put more stress on adrenals that are already fatigued. That means ensuring you have enough carbohydrates in your diet is essential for regulating cortisol production and supporting your adrenal glands.
How Low Carb Diets Impact the Adrenal-Stress Response
Another potential concern about not eating enough carbs comes in the form of mood regulation. Low carbohydrate diets also impact adrenal function by reducing the amount of GABA produced by our intestinal microbes. GABA is a neurotransmitter involved in calming the nervous system, which helps to regulate our fight-or-flight response. Carbohydrates are an excellent source of the prebiotic fibers that feed the intestinal microbes, producing neurotransmitters, such as GABA and serotonin.
Low carbohydrate diets often lack the adequate fiber needed to keep the microbiome healthy and balanced. Therefore including these prebiotic (carbohydrate) foods can help to calm the nervous system and improve your mood.
What’s the Best Way to Eat Carbs to Support Your Adrenals?
An adrenal-supportive diet isn’t just about the quantity of carbohydrates. It’s also important to consider the quality of carbohydrates and the timing of when you’re eating them throughout the day. Choosing high fiber carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables provide the essential nutrients needed to support proper adrenal function. Additionally, the fiber also helps slow the release of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, thus keeping blood sugar more stable.
Another way to balance blood sugar is to make sure carbohydrates are paired with protein and/or fat at every meal and snack. Spacing carbohydrates out throughout the day is also important for adrenal function. This prevents blood sugar from dipping too low, which will also increase demand on the adrenals to release cortisol.
The takeaway? Carbs are NOT the enemy. Eating quality carbs in balance with protein and fats can be supportive of both your adrenals and your mood, helping to regulate your body’s ability to stay balanced, happy, and healthy.
Wondering if your diet is contributing to adrenal fatigue? Schedule a complimentary 15-minute discovery call with our team to learn more about how nutrition can support your adrenals and beyond.
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.