Along with smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and stress, poor diet quality is one of the key lifestyle factors that negatively impact health in the developed world. In the US and Europe, we are suffering less from infectious diseases and more from chronic non-communicable diseases that are sometimes labeled as “diseases of affluence” – meaning diseases that are caused by the availability of foods that were not meant to be dietary staples, by the sedentariness of modern jobs, and by overmedication.
The Standard American Diet, for example, is high-fat, low-fiber that contains a lot of highly processed foods, refined sugar, and animal products derived from factory farms. These kinds of foods, eaten day in and day out, have cumulative negative effects on health. They are contributing to the rise in chronic disease epidemics such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, obesity, hypertension, gout, colorectal cancer, and many gastrointestinal issues.
Our bodies thrive on high-fiber, nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. We also need high quality sources of animal proteins, such as wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, organic eggs, free-range chicken, and raw dairy products. Whole grains give us a slow release of energy that can help keep our blood sugar levels stable.
As you can see, this type of diet is a far cry from what most Americans eat. Our lives have become fast-paced and stressful, and so many of us have taken shortcuts with our eating habits and reach for quick fixes like junk food, microwave meals, and the empty-calories of snacks like candy bars, salty crackers, chips, and sodas. And as this becomes the way we eat rather than the occasional treat, our bodies are adapting in ways that are very detrimental to our well-being.
The combination of fat, sugar, and salt is addictive, and that is what most fast food and snack food companies try to sell. The “sweet spot” is an industry standard that these companies aim to reach, and it’s basically the maximum amount of sugar you can add to a food before it becomes too sweet for people to enjoy. This is not just for desserts and candy bars, but also for savory snacks and even some processed foods that are labeled as natural or healthy.
Our survival instincts that tell us that foods that are highest in calories will keep us alive longer, plus the industry that is trying to sell to these instincts, have one thing in common: they are making us sick. Poor diet quality is a huge stressor on the body, and can be one of the main causes of adrenal fatigue and the dysregulation of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response.
The NEM is composed of six circuits of organs and systems that work together to combat stress: the hormonal, metabolic, cardionomic, neuroaffective, inflammation, and detoxification responses. In this article, we are going to focus on the effects of diet quality on the metabolic circuit.
How The NEM and Diet Interact
Your body is equipped to handle acute stress from time to time, with the adrenal glands secreting stress hormones, like cortisol, to help your body adapt and deal with whatever stressor you’re being exposed to. In some situations, your body may go into “fight or flight” mode and your heart rate will increase, pumping oxygen from your lungs to your muscles and readying you to deal with danger.
But with a stressor like poor diet quality, the stress is no longer acute or occasional. It is a daily occurrence that your body has to deal with. The stress has become chronic, and this is not something your adrenal glands and your NEM were built for.
As the adrenal glands overwork, and their cortisol output dysregulates, you begin to show signs of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) as well as symptoms of metabolic derangement. Symptoms of AFS include fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, food and drug sensitivities, sugar and salt cravings, mild depression, anxiety, heart palpitations, low libido, frequent colds and flus, PMS, hair loss, and infertility. Many of these symptoms are also signs of metabolic derangement.
Sugar cravings and central obesity are two of the earliest signs of metabolic derangement that most people overlook. And metabolic derangement is a problem that can affect every aspect of your health and life.
A well-functioning metabolic response helps your body get the right amount of energy at the time it needs it, and so you can see how this response is intimately linked to the adrenal secretion of stress hormones that get your body prepared for the “fight or flight” mode. When you’re in danger, your body needs that rush of energy in order to deal with it.
The regulatory organs of metabolism are the thyroid, pancreas, and liver. The thyroid regulates the metabolic rate, and it is also affected by chronic stress and AFS. As it slows down, all your other metabolic pathways slow down with it.
The pancreas is responsible for secreting insulin, the hormone that helps your cells get the glucose they need to produce energy. And finally, the liver is the body’s main detoxifier of metabolic byproducts, helping to keep the clearing pathways and metabolism running smoothly.
Diet quality affects all of these organs directly, and also indirectly by way of its effect on the adrenal glands. What you eat determines how stable or unstable your blood sugar levels are. If you eat sugar or refined carbohydrates, your blood sugar level spikes and your pancreas has to release a lot of insulin to bring it down. But then, this burst of insulin is likely to bring your blood sugar level down too much, causing a hypoglycemic episode that leaves you craving for sugar and refined carbohydrates, starting the cycle all over again.
This is a huge stressor on your body and hypoglycemia and sugar cravings are warning signs of metabolic derangement. Eventually, this cycle can lead to adrenal crashes, weight gain, and even type 2 diabetes, which are the more advanced symptoms of metabolic disruption.
These symptoms are also often present when the adrenal glands have entered the stages of exhaustion. In very extreme cases, you might lose muscle mass as your body begins to shut down in order to conserve energy.
Diet Quality for Healthy Metabolism
Improving your diet quality is the single best decision you can make to balance your metabolism and heal your NEM’s metabolic response, as well as strengthen your adrenals. Small changes can bring big rewards, and you don’t need to do it all in one go.
The first, and most important, change you can make is to cut down or cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates. Swap white rice for brown rice, white bread for whole grain, and refined pasta for whole wheat or non-wheat pastas. There are endless varieties of non-wheat pastas like those made with quinoa, peas, black beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Getting rid of blood sugar spikes and crashes will give your adrenals and pancreas a break, allowing your metabolic response to recover.
Next, you want to make sure you are not consuming foods that you are sensitive to. This will help decrease inflammation and leaks in the gut, which are also a big stress on the system, and allow your digestion and your ability to absorb more nutrients from food to improve. You can try an elimination diet to see what foods are causing your body to react. Some of the most common allergenic foods are gluten, dairy, peanuts, soy, shellfish, and tree nuts. Alcohol and refined sugars also irritate the microbiome and gastrointestinal tract.
Eating whole foods from organic sources will also give your liver a break, as you won’t be exposed to toxins from pesticides, additives, preservatives, or hormones. When your detoxification response is functioning properly, inflammation will decrease and that will allow for a properly functioning metabolism.
And finally, eating regularly and not skipping meals, except if you are doing a fast under supervision, allows your body to have a constant supply of the energy and nutrients you need, and also keeps your blood sugar levels stable.
The adrenal fatigue diet is based on these healthy diet quality principles, and is one of the cornerstones of AFS recovery. It is perfect for maintaining a strong metabolism that will defend your body against stress, oxidative damage, toxic load, and blood sugar instability. It also prevents your microbiome from dysbiosis and your extracellular matrix from congestion.
A strong metabolism helps keep your detoxification response running smoothly, and supports faster recovery from physical and emotional trauma. It also removes the need for your thyroid to downregulate in order to conserve energy.
So, as you can see, improving your diet quality has many benefits. If you are suffering from AFS, especially the more advanced stages, it may take a while to see improvements, but if you stay consistent, not only will you recover fully, you will have adopted a lifestyle that will keep you healthy for life and reduce the risk of chronic diseases down the line.
You may need to supplement for a few nutrients here and there, but if your diet is well planned, you will get most of your nutritional needs from your food, and you will maintain good energy levels throughout the day.
And remember, if you feel it’s too overwhelming to do this alone, get the guidance of an experienced professional who will tailor your health plan to your individual needs, for maximum benefits in the fastest time possible.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
How does diet quality affect metabolism?
You keep hearing about the rise of chronic conditions all the time – from type 2 diabetes, to cardiovascular disease, to metabolic derangement. But what do they all have in common? It seems that diet quality is the defining factor in their risk and prevention.