The Paleo diet is becoming more and more popular especially among those seeking solutions to their health problems. With many researchers and studies supporting its benefits for treating chronic diseases and helping with weight management, I think its popularity will continue to grow. In fact, the Swedish government is now officially endorsing a lower carbohydrate/ higher fat diet based on the latest research. It may take a while but Australia will eventually have to follow.
While following a nutrient dense Paleo based diet can certainly help people overcome chronic health problems, not everyone experiences the weight loss, improved energy or good health that they expect when they follow a Paleo diet. A check up at the doctor reveals that “everything is fine” with their blood test results and people often leave with a pill to treat the symptoms or without answers to their health issues.
The two main areas that create health problems or stop people feeling their best is your hormones and digestive function; today we are going to focus on the hormones and how they influence how we feel.
You have many different hormones which are vital for your body to function efficiently. Some of these include adrenal hormones, thyroid hormones, sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone as well as hormones that regulate appetite like leptin and grhelin.
The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and are important for controlling stress and inflammation. Not all stress is bad and small amounts of stress can be good for us. But when chronic stress – caused by long work hours, emotional stress, over training, dietary stresses such as gluten, poor sleep habits, pain and inflammation – gets out of control this leads to problems with the adrenals.
There are three different stages to adrenal stress. These stages can be identified with a saliva adrenal profile that measures your DHEA and cortisol at four different stages throughout the day. The type of treatment and the amount of time it will take to recover from adrenal fatigue will vary depending what stage you are at.
Common symptoms caused by adrenal fatigue
Cortisol is a glucocorticosteroid and one of its major functions is to work with insulin to keep your blood sugar stable. If cortisol is out of balance you will store body fat rather than burn fat for fuel easily. This is how someone can reduce their calories and do lots of exercise, but still not lose weight due to problems with their adrenals.
One of the most common causes of fatigue is adrenal exhaustion. It is one of the most common symptoms I see with clients – this means that due to long periods of stress your cortisol levels have become depleted. The three main causes of stress are emotional, dietary and pain/ inflammation. Modern life brings lots of low grade chronic stress rather than occasional acute stress and this eventually leads to fatigue.
Depression and anxiety
When the adrenal hormones cortisol and DHEA are depleted we become depressed from the physical exhaustion that takes place. Up and down cortisol levels throughout the day can lead to irritability and anxiety. This leads to that “tired but wired” feeling making it difficult to fall asleep or waking throughout the night, which can make the depression and fatigue worse.
Female hormonal balance
Cortisol, which is the main adrenal hormone, is made from progesterone. As your body tries to produce more cortisol in response to stress, this leads to a depletion in your progesterone levels. The more your body is under stress from emotional, dietary and inflammatory sources the more PMS symptoms will occur as your progesterone levels drop. Treating the adrenals will help PMS symptoms like cramping, sweet cravings, heavy periods and mood swings.
Menopausal symptoms like hot flushes, night sweats, memory problems and mood swings are all caused by a drop in estrogen. Estrogen is made from DHEA, one of the major adrenal hormones, so the more exhausted the adrenal glands become the more menopause symptoms can develop.
The immune cells that line our digestive tract are regulated by cortisol. If your cortisol is out of balance you’re more likely to develop digestive symptoms like bloating, heartburn, constipation and diarrhea. This is how we can also start reacting to foods that we never previously reacted to as our digestive tract creates an imbalance in our good and bad bacteria, which can lead to bacterial, parasitic and candida infections.
Low thyroid function can exhibit many of the same symptoms of adrenal fatigue, and while there are a number of causes of low thyroid function, adrenal fatigue is one of the big contributing factors. This is especially true when someone’s blood test for TSH comes back from the doctor and it’s in the range yet they are still experiencing many low thyroid symptoms like weight gain, fatigue and digestion problems. High cortisol levels will negatively impact the conversion of T4 to the active T3 and instead lead to higher levels of an inactive form of thyroid hormone called reverse T3. When you go to the doctor they only measure TSH, and even if you are on thyroid medication they often don’t measure T3 and reverse T3. This is important to do if you would like to get the full picture of what is happening with your thyroid function.
The best way to test your adrenal function is with a saliva cortisol and DHEA test. Unless you’re seeing a functional medicine practitioner, your average GP is not going to test this, yet problems with adrenal function can be the cause of so many common health problems.
When your results come back there are a variety of ways to treat the adrenals including a quality Paleo diet (but not low carb), exercise, stress management and specific nutrients and herbs.
Find out more
To learn more about how hormone dysfunction may be preventing you from achieving better health, or to arrange a hormone function test and personalised online consultation, contact Michael Smith from Planet Naturopath.
Michael Smith is a naturopath and Functional Medicine practitioner at Planet Naturopath. Specialising in hormonal disorders, adrenal, thyroid and digestive function, Michael works with clients from the chronically ill to athletes wanting to improve performance. Consultations are available via Skype or phone.
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