Everything in life depends on balance, but there are times we get dooped into thinking that if something is good then more must be better. If an athlete trains more intensely for a longer period of time day in and day out then they will reach the top since hard work pays off, right?
Well, not quite. In fact the exact opposite may occur. Intense training places stress on the body and takes a toll on the body’s delicate hormonal balance. If an athlete pushes the body’s limits too far for too long then hormonal disruptions such as adrenal insuffiency may occur.
Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency mirror symptoms associated with overtraining syndrome. An athlete may experience feelings of fatigue, depression, lack of interest in training or competition, food cravings, prolonged recovery time, and lack of results despite following a strict training and nutrition program.
The Stress Response
Whenever we come in contact with a stressor whether it’s physical training, worrying about an upcoming competition, or downing energy drinks and processed foods to try to make it through the day, the body recognizes the stimulus as a threat. Messages are carried from the cerebral cortex and the limbic system to the hypothalamus, which stimulates the adrenals, two small triangular shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys. The inner part of the adrenals called the mediulla releases the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) while the outer adrenal cortex releases the stress hormone cortisol along with DHEA, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and aldosterone which regulates electrolyte balance.
During exercise, cortisol, “the stress hormone” increases the breakdown of muscle glycogen and fat for energy, helps divert blood flow to working muscles, and increases heart rate and body temperature. In an ideal scenario, the stressor (intense exercise) ends, cortisol levels return to normal, an athlete refuels appropriately, recovers well, and within time they are ready for the next training session.
Unfortunately the ideal scenario does not always occur. When an athlete is exposed to chronic stress from overtraining or life in general the adrenals attempt to keep up by pumping out more cortisol. When the adrenals can no longer meet the demand they quit working. The body must resort to less optimal methods of stress management, which compromises athletic performance and health.
Nutritional Strategies to Support Adrenal Health
Follow these nutritional strategies to limit exercise induced stress and put your body back in balance.
1. Eat every 2-4 hours to maintain blood sugar levels: If you go too long between meals the adrenals must work harder to pump out more cortisol and adrenaline to maintain homeostasis. Eating small meals throughout the day helps maintain energy levels.
2. Eat whole, natural foods: Processed foods are a major stressor to the digestive system. They are full of ingredients that the body isn’t designed to digest and utilize. Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and healthy fats such as raw nuts and avocadoes to ensure you’re receiving the nutrients you need to train hard.
3. Skip energy drinks and limit caffeine: These products drain the adrenals and cause adrenal function to downgrade making an athlete reliant on the supplement for energy.
4. Fuel your training sessions and optimize recovery: Consuming carbohydrates prior to your workout helps spare muscle glycogen and combat rising cortisol levels. One study showed that when athletes were given a 6 percent carbohydrate solution during exercise, cortisol levels dropped by almost 80 percent compared with subjects receiving water. (Ivy, 54) Adding a moderate amount of protein to your pre-workout meal can boost endurance and promote a faster recovery. When the workout is complete consume a meal or beverage consisting of protein and carbohydrates within 45 mintues to help bring catabolic stress hormones to a halt and put your body on the fast track towards a speedy recovery.
5. Supplements to support adrenal health: Vitamins C, B complex, and E play key roles in the production and actions of the adrenals and stress hormones One study demonstrated that vitamin C supplementation may blunt the release of cortisol. Consuming vitamin C rich foods such as citrus fruits or green leafy vegetables or supplementing with 500 mg of vitamin C post workout can be beneficial. Eating a diet rich in lean protein, and legumes can help ensure adequate amounts of vitamin B intake for energy support, while vitamin E can help reduce inflammation.
In addition to diet it’s important to tune into your body and know when to take a break. Schedule rest days into your training program and make time for other hobbies and interests. Train with enthusiasm and keep up the hard work, but remember that more is not always better.