Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

The relationship between stress, obesity and metabolic disease is an important one to understand. Stress is something everyone experiences. Stress helps motivate us. We stress about our job, our finances, our family, our environment – the list is endless. But can all of that stress be detrimental to our health? Could stress be linked to obesity and weight loss resistance? Understand the important link between stress and adrenal fatigue and how cortisol could be affecting your weight!


Understanding Stress Response:

The body reacts to all forms of stress (whether you are physically running from immediate danger or you are mentally stressed at work) in the same manner using a pathway called the HPA Axis (an axis between the Hypothalamus (in the brain), the Pituitary gland and the Adrenal glands). No need to memorize all the big words, just think of it as a biochemical game of telephone. Your brain perceives stress from the environment, and a chain reaction begins inside the body ultimately signaling your adrenal glands. Your adrenal gland are tiny little glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They are responsible for producing a hormone called cortisol – our stress hormone.

Under periods of stress, cortisol sends the body into a “fight or flight” response to help the body manage the environmental stress. Imagine how your body would respond to escape a burning building. Your blood pressure goes up (you want more blood to your muscles to get you moving!), your blood sugar increases (your body begins mobilizing sugar to feed your muscles), your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate to see better, and processes that are less important during a state of emergency (like digestion and elimination) slow down. Soon you are out of danger, away from the burning building, and your body begins to relax again.

This is how our body survives. Without this emergency stress response, acute stress would be the end of us. Remember, your body elicits the same stress response regardless if the stress is physical or mental. So what happens when the stress is more constant? What if you are stressed about getting up for work every single day? This consistent, more chronic, form of stress is where things can become problematic. If you are stressed day in and day out from work, family, money, you name it, your adrenal glands start to wear out – they become fatigued. They weren’t designed for this kind of chronic stress, all the time, every single day, 24/7.

Stress and Adrenal Fatigue


What is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue occurs when your adrenal glands become overworked by constant chronic stress resulting in an inability to produce enough cortisol to cope with it all. Basically too much stress for way too long. Our bodies are adapted to respond to short bouts of stress followed by periods of rest and relaxation (remember the burning building?). However, when period of acute stress becomes chronic, the body begins to have difficultly continuously responding to this stress. The negative feedback that tells the brain to turn off the adrenal glands cortisol production (when stress is gone and we can rest) is broken because the stress never fully goes away. Enter adrenal fatigue.


What are the Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?

The different stages of adrenal fatigue ranging from sub-optimal function to complete exhaustion can manifest as varying signs and symptoms. While your cortisol levels will initially be high under lots of stress, as your adrenal glands become more and more fatigued, cortisol levels begin to dwindle because you run out of steam. Symptoms may include feeling tired, run down, and overwhelmed. You may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up in the morning (this is because cortisol hormone is also involved in your sleep cycles). You might experience sugar cravings (as the body continues to try and mobilize sugar in response to stress) or salt (the adrenal glands require sodium to function optimally). You might find yourself having headaches, anxiety, or mood swings. Chronic stress can also suppress the immune system so newly developed food intolerances, allergies, or infections might begin to pop up.

Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

How can Adrenal Fatigue Lead to Weight Gain?

Cortisol increases caloric intake of high energy dense foods (such as high fat, high sugar foods) that will immediately support the body’s need for energy and increased blood sugar to survive environmental stress. Eating is a biochemical response to stress. However, with increased caloric intake of sugary fatty junk food, our body begins laying down fat stores, primarily in our midsection. What’s the reason behind this centralized adiposity? According to author of Fat Chance, Dr. Robert Lustig, “belly fat breaks down into fatty acids faster, and has a direct line to the liver for burning”. Basically our body can get to the fat faster when we need it in times of physical emergency. Any dietitians out there recall that excessive abdominal fat is part of metabolic syndrome? Increase central obesity is a direct risk factor for heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, and kidney disease. Not to mention that chronically elevated cortisol can also affect your thyroid gland function as well…but that’s a story for another day.


Are there Tests that Prove Adrenal Fatigue?

Yes. Adrenal fatigue/cortisol tests come in the form of a salivary test. You spit into tubes throughout the course of the day (typically 8AM, Noon, 4PM and midnight) and the lab measures the cortisol levels in each tube. Saliva tests can be ordered and administered by medical professionals.


Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

How can Nutrition Help?

Different nutrition protocols are recommended based on the stage of adrenal dysfunction you are experiencing and results from a saliva lab test. It’s important to always consult a medical professional before making any changes to your diet, lifestyle, or supplement regimen. That being said, a diet low in inflammatory foods (those that cause stress to the gut) is a good place to start. This is where a diet low in sugar and refined carbohydrate and high in quality anti-inflammatory fats and proteins (i.e. a Paleo diet for example) makes biochemical sense. Additionally, a diet that allows for your body to maintain balanced blood sugar throughout the day (a healthy balanced plate of smart carbohydrates, quality protein, and healthy fats at every meal and snacks every 2-3 hours) is key.




Additional supplementation depends on the individual. High quality mineral salt may be beneficial for individuals experiencing adrenal exhaustion. In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes makes a unique reference, “…rats whose adrenal glands are removed cannot retain salt, and will die within two weeks on their usual diet, from the consequences of salt depletion. If given a supply of salt in their cages, however or given the choice of drinking salt water or pure water, they will choose either to eat or to drink the salt and, by doing so, keep themselves alive indefinitely. These rats will develop a “taste” for salt that did not exist prior to the removal of their adrenal glands. The question most relevant to weight regulation concerns the quantity of food consumed. Is it determined by some minimal caloric requirement, by how the food tastes, or by some other physical factor – like stomach capacity, as is still commonly believed?”

Other vitamins that might suffer from depletion in the presence of adrenal fatigue include vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium. The adrenal glands contain high concentrations of vitamin C, and B vitamins (primarily pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)) are important in the production of cortisol and the structural integrity of adrenal glands. Magnesium can help the body relax and reduce anxiety and stress.


The bottom line is that it is important to support your adrenal glands with a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle that incorporates stress management. Otherwise it become a vicious cycle as stress breeds more cortisol, and cortisol breeds more stress with abdominal adiposity (weight gain), insulin resistance and increased risk of cardiovascular disease developing along the way. Dr. Robert Lustig said it best, “stressed is desserts spelled backward…the behaviors of gluttony and sloth are very real, but they are results of changes in the brain biochemistry.”



Gedgaudas, N. T. 2011. Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.

Taubes, G. 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. New York: Random House, Inc.

Lustig, R. H. 2013. Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. New York: Penguin Group.

Hartwig, D. 2012. It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change your Life in Unexpected Ways. Auberry, California:Victory Belt Publishing Inc. 

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