Treatment Guide

Fatigue: The Gluten-Adrenal Connection

glutenadrenalfatigueDo you feel tired all the time? Maybe tired isn’t even strong enough of a word to describe the extreme fatigue you feel all day, every day. The problem seems to be pretty common place for those who eat a gluten-free diet.

Or maybe you have trouble falling asleep at night and wake up completely drained as if you were running a marathon in your sleep. Sure, you could chalk it up to a busy, stress-filled life, but the answer is more complex and hits closer to home that you even realize.

Allow me share with you a personal story…

Back in 2009, I was feeling pretty good after being gluten-free for over a year. Many positive things happened as a result of going gluten-free underscored by a reduction in systemic inflammation that had formerly left me struggling with chronic digestive trouble, nearly 20 extra pounds, acne, exhaustion, headaches and low immunity to colds and viruses.

Great, right? Sure, on the surface things seemed fine, but I knew that something wasn’t right. I spent several months struggling to fall asleep at night, only to wake up feeling horrible. It was like my energy during the night and day had been flipped upside down!

Before bedtime, I craved extremely sugar-laden desserts such as my personal favorite gluten-free vegan brownies (which I happily allowed myself to devour). My sex drive was almost non-existent while my menstrual cycle was completely messed up and I’d go for long stretches of time without getting my period.

The final straw came one morning when I went out for a bike ride with my husband. At the time, I was an avid road cyclist, but was having trouble putting in the type of mileage to which I was accustomed.

Though I was physically strong and conditioned enough to go for a 45-mile bike ride, on this particular day I was completely kaput before having reached the first mile. My body felt strong enough to ride, but I felt like I was completely “out of gas”. I knew that I was in major trouble.

I promptly reached out to my nutritionist Samantha F. Grant, CN who had helped me the year before figure out all of my food sensitivities. Samantha’s international nutrition practice is located in Los Angeles and she has been featured several times on the TV show “The Doctors” (most recently for helping Chaz Bono lose a ton of weight). I explained my situation and she concurred that we definitely needed to check my adrenal glands. Fortunately, we had tested them the year prior so we had a great comparison already in place.

The results? Well, they were pretty shocking — Adrenal Fatigue.

I was 29 years old and had adrenal fatigue. Though it made complete sense, it was such a depressing moment. To have come full circle and made so much progress with my health after going gluten-, dairy- and egg-free, this diagnosis seemed like a cruel joke. Again, things were going to have to change in order for my adrenals to heal so that I could get back to my life!

What are adrenals?

Everyone has adrenals, but most people have no idea what they are or where they reside in their body. Adrenal glands are very important glands which sit on top of your kidneys and look like little walnuts. They are an integral part of your endocrine or hormonal system and are in charge of your energy output as well as stress management. Cortisol is one of the key hormones produced by the adrenals that helps to regulate your daily energy and deal with the onslaught of daily stress.

Often you meet your adrenals when there is a problem. This happens because the Western medical community doesn’t really acknowledge nuanced issues with adrenal health. Unless you’re on the extreme polar opposite ends of the malfunction scale dealing with Addison’s Syndrome (super low adrenal functioning) or Cushing’s Disease (hyper adrenal functioning), tired adrenals probably won’t be picked up.

Samantha shares that “most doctors will test your cortisol by taking a blood sample, usually in the morning. But by the time you have gotten out of bed, showered, driven to the doctors office (which in itself can be a stress inducing event), your cortisol is not going to test accurately. You have already endured several stressors before the test. So if you have low levels of cortisol on waking, we have no way of knowing that from the blood test. And, you need to know how your body is responding to stress throughout the day and evening-not just in the morning.”

The solution? An ASI panel (otherwise known as an Adrenal Stress Index) which is tested through saliva in the comfort of your own home. “It’s the most accurate method for testing adrenal hormones and your circadian rhythm (Sleep-wake cycle), says Samantha. Both of my ASI panels have been analyzed through DiagnosTechs Labs.

[Check out this interview where Samantha and I talk about hormone health and being gluten-free!]

The Gluten-Adrenal Connection

If you’re dealing with celiac, a sensitivity to gluten and/or an intolerance to any other food proteins, listen up!

So long as you continue to consume gluten and other problematic food proteins (even unknowingly or before an official diagnosis of celiac or an intolerance), your body’s immune system is being triggered. With time, this scenario slowly wears down it’s ability to deal with any kind of stress. On top of the normal stressors you face (ie. traffic, your kids, money problems, relationship issues, news, eating a poor gluten-free diet), those tiny food proteins are another added burden running your adrenals ragged.

The problem is that your adrenals aren’t meant to run at maximum capacity 24 hours, 7 days a week. They’re most important during those “Fight or Flight” experiences (ie. you get mugged, you are being chased by a tiger), but instead many have boxed themselves into surviving in “Fight or Flight” mode all day long thanks to problematic food proteins and other life factors.

Symptoms of Tired Adrenals

Perhaps my story above sounds familiar?

Unexplained fatigue is one of the main symptoms. My clients describe being “tired but wired”. Some other signs are insomnia, anxiety, allergies and unexplained weight gain,” says Samantha.

sugar3You can also experience a slew of other issues that are signs that the adrenals should be checked. A low libido, abnormal menstrual cycle, craving salt and/or sugar and/or starchy foods, depending on caffeine and other stimulant foods to get you through your day, intolerance to cold, hair loss, mild depression and the list goes on.

And if you tend to get sick often, look out! “High cortisol levels cause IgA cells to be destroyed. IgA cells are your first line of defense to “invaders”- bacteria, virus, and toxins. Often the damage effects the mucosal lining and creates gut permeability issues causing food sensitives and allergies which, in turn, cause a stress response each time you eat the offending food,” warns Samantha.

The symptom that might surprise you the most is struggling through a rough menopause. “Once a woman begins menopause, her adrenal glands take on some of the responsibility from the ovaries in making hormones,” shares Samantha. Too much stress throws off the balance of necessary hormones to “ease through menopause without experiencing intense symptoms like hot flashes, mood swings and fatigue.”

In my own case, I believe four key factors led to my adrenal fatigue:

1) Years of living undiagnosed with multiple food sensitivities

2) Being a Type-A, always on the go, chronically over-scheduling and over-committing person

3) Years of over-exercising at the gym and on my road bike

3) Mistakenly transitioning to the “Standard Gluten-Free Diet” heavy on starchy, refined, carb-dense food products and plenty of sugar

I have so much more information to share with you about this topic and I promise to discuss it further in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Four Tips to Start Addressing Tired Adrenals

1) Cut back on sugar and refined gluten-free starchy products & desserts

2) Avoid watching TV, surfing the internet or working on your phone at least 1 hour before bedtime to allow the body to start shutting down. Bright light makes your body think it’s still daytime.

3) Watch your caffeine intake and especially avoid it after 3pm

4) Consider getting an Adrenal Stress Index (ASI panel) done so you actually know where your levels are. Samantha Grant offers different options for at-home testing no matter where you live!

Leave a comment below if you’ve got energy issues and how you’ve gone about dealing with them so far!

About Jennifer Fugo

Jennifer Fugo is the founder of Gluten Free School, a website dedicated to teaching gluten-sensitive individuals commonsense, simple and powerful steps to get healthy. She’s a certified Health Coach named a “Gluten Free Guru” by Philadelphia Magazine who co-hosts the popular “Gluten-Free Sugar Cleanse” to teach gluten-free folks how to experience positive physical changes through commonsense sugar reduction. Jennifer is sought after expert for news contributions about healthy, gluten-free living as well as a speaker and avid blogger who has been featured on Yahoo! News, eHow, CNN, and Philadelphia Magazine.


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  2. This is only partially helpful. I am taking supplements right now for this very issue. Nothing is helpful. Now what? Complete adrenal fatigue via saliva test but that is where my dr. Seems to be lost. Tried 2 other drs and they think it’s phooey. I am at a big loss here. I was hoping for answers from this article. Great!you have celiac and this…now go figure this out on your own.

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