Intermittent fasting is very common in the Paleo community, due to its proposed health benefits when used appropriately. These benefits include weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, increased cellular repair, improved neurogenesis, reduced inflammation, and even a reduced risk of cancer and increased lifespan.
Not to mention the fact that intermittent fasting is very much in line with our hunter gatherer ancestors’ eating pattern. It’s no wonder intermittent fasting has become so popular!
However, those with adrenal fatigue should not skip breakfast in the morning if they want to heal more quickly from adrenal fatigue. Why is this?
The ideal diet for adrenal fatigue is one that helps you control your blood sugar. This is because the adrenal glands produce a class of hormones called glucocorticoids, which are steroid hormones that have metabolic effects and can significantly influence blood glucose control.
Cortisol is one of the most well known glucocorticoids, and is the hormone that is typically dysregulated in adrenal fatigue. Cortisol is used by the body to bring up blood sugar when it’s gotten too low. This is because cortisol is one of the primary hormones that stimulates gluconeogenesis, or the creation of new glucose by the liver.
Cortisol will also stimulate the breakdown of stored proteins or fats to mobilize amino acids or fatty acids, both of which can be used as substrates for creating glucose in the gluconeogenic process. This means cortisol is used to turn your body’s protein and fat stores into glucose when your blood sugar is low and your liver’s glycogen stores are just about empty.
Finally, cortisol also acts as an antagonist to insulin by inhibiting glucose uptake in muscle and fat tissue, which helps to conserve glucose in the blood. While this is a normal biological function of the adrenal glands, it can become harmful if blood sugar levels are chronically low, or if they are constantly fluctuating wildly due to poor diet choices.
This means the amount of cortisol you produce can be impacted by your dietary choices and ability to keep blood sugar steady by eating the right foods at the right time.
Low blood sugar is a stressor to your body, as the brain requires a steady amount of glucose to function. While we’re all familiar with the dangers of high blood sugar, you may not realize that low blood sugar is actually more dangerous – in fact, if your blood sugar dropped low enough, it could kill you! So it’s easy to see why your body would treat a drop in blood sugar as a serious issue that needs to be addressed immediately.
How does this issue affect whether you should eat breakfast or not?
If you have adrenal fatigue syndrome with either high or low cortisol, you want to minimize the amount of cortisol your body relies on on a daily basis. This means reducing stress, sleeping more, and minimizing spikes and drops in blood sugar.
When you wake up in the morning, you are already in a fasted state. As you continue to fast, your body starts to need more glucose to feed your brain and your physical activity. It will either pull this glucose from your liver’s stores, or create new glucose from protein and fat. Both of these situations can lead to a rise in cortisol. Add to that a morning fasted workout or a big cup of caffeinated coffee, or skip your post workout refueling, and your cortisol will be even higher.
While some people can healthfully sustain this type of fasting, many people, especially women, start to show signs of adrenal fatigue syndrome when they’ve been pushing their bodies to pump out excessive amounts of cortisol. This can eventually lead to HPA axis dysregulation and impaired cortisol output.
This is why breakfast can be a lifesaver for our patients with adrenal fatigue. But you can’t just eat any old breakfast. A bowl of Cheerios and skim milk or a bagel will cause your blood sugar to rapidly spike and then just as rapidly fall, leading to hypoglycemic symptoms and causing the same cortisol output as if you were skipping breakfast entirely.
And Bulletproof coffee, a Paleo favorite that is a mix of caffeinated coffee with pure fat like butter or coconut oil, will also wreak havoc on your blood sugar if you are sensitive to caffeine or already dealing with HPA axis dysregulation.
For our adrenal fatigue patients, we strongly recommend eating a high protein, moderate to low carbohydrate breakfast in the morning within 30 minutes of waking up. This means getting at least 4 ounces of eggs, meat, fish, or other easily digestible protein source along with some fruit or starchy vegetables and healthy fats in the morning.
The amount of carbs you eat will depend on your carbohydrate tolerance, but usually eating a smaller amount of carbs in the morning will help keep your energy high and your blood sugar more stable.
By keeping your blood sugar stable in the morning, your adrenal glands won’t have to produce as much cortisol to keep your energy level, and you’ll take some of the pressure off the overworked adrenals. This can help your adrenal function improve more quickly, and get you feeling back to your normal self.
An example of a great breakfast is 2 or 3 eggs, a 2 ounce portion of chicken or pork sausage, and a banana or cup of berries. The protein from the eggs and sausage will keep your blood sugar steady and keep you full longer, and the fat from the eggs and sausage will cause you to digest and absorb the carbs from the fruit more slowly so that you have a nice slow release of blood glucose across the morning until lunch time.
If you work out after breakfast, you should have some carbs and protein post workout to refuel your glycogen stores, and make it easier for your liver to keep blood sugar normalized across the day. Depending on the intensity, duration, and type of exercise you do, you might have emptied out your liver’s glycogen stores to the point where your body needs to kick back into gluconeogenesis to create the glucose you need.
For our adrenal fatigue patients, we want to minimize how much new glucose that needs to be created due to its dependence on higher cortisol levels.
Ultimately, sitting down to a high protein, whole foods breakfast is a far better option than skipping it entirely or only drinking fat-filled coffee if you have adrenal fatigue syndrome.
Whether or not intermittent fasting can actually cause adrenal fatigue is up for debate, but for now, we urge anyone dealing with adrenal fatigue or HPA axis dysregulation to commit to a regular high protein breakfast habit to take as much pressure off the adrenal glands as possible.
If you need more guidance on how to eat to keep your blood sugar steady, check out our free eBook “Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue” to learn more about how to eat to keep your adrenals healthy.
If you need more help, join our Paleo Rehab: Adrenal Fatigue program, where we share two full weeks of meal plans, a snack guide, and a superfoods guide to help you eat the most adrenal-supportive diet possible.