Adrenal Fatigue from The Downsides of Following a Low-Carb Diet

The Downsides of Following a Low-Carb Diet

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Adrenal Fatigue

This condition is also known as "HPA axis dysregulation," according to Kresser. “The main hormone that gets dysregulated in adrenal fatigue is cortisol, and cortisol has been shown to increase on a low-carb diet,” he said. “This means that a low-carb diet is a potential adrenal stressor in susceptible individuals. Combine that with a stressful job, inadequate sleep, and over-exercise, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for adrenal burnout.” For this reason, Kresser suggests making sure to consume an adequate amount of carbs if your lifestyle is particularly stressful or if you have already been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. 

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The Basics of Carbohydrates

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. This range allows for wiggle room since, as we mentioned earlier, adequate carbohydrate intake is unique among individuals and dependent on several different factors, including your activity levels. Some consider consuming below the recommended amount (less than 45 percent) to be a “low-carb” diet, but other protocols have called for less. Essentially, there’s no definitive answer for the amount of carb intake that correlates with a low-carb diet.

“I often hear people make recommendations for the number of grams of carbohydrate someone should eat,” explains Chris Kresser M.S., L.Ac, a globally recognized health and nutrition expert.  “But this is meaningless when you don’t take weight and activity level into account. 75 grams a day may be a moderate-carb diet for a sedentary woman eating 1,600 calories a day, but it would be a very low-carb diet for a highly active male eating 3,000 calories a day.”

This can’t be stressed enough: what’s considered low-carb for one person could be a perfectly acceptable, moderate amount for another. But, at what point can potentially dangerous side effects or, as St. Pierre put it, “disastrous consequences” come into play?

Well, again, it depends on several different factors including your body composition and activity levels, but according to Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint and creator of MarksDailyApple.com, a process called ketosis is triggered when carb intake falls in the realm of 50 to 80 grams per day.

What is ketosis?

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Ketosis is Not Harmful, But There Are Risks Involved

According to WebMD, ketosis is a “normal metabolic process.” When the body doesn’t have enough carbs from food to burn as energy, it burns fat instead, and as a result, makes ketones. If you cut back on your carb intake enough, your body will switch to ketosis for energy. WebMD says ketosis is typically induced after three or four days of eating less than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day and notes that it can become dangerous when there’s a build-up of too many ketones, which could lead to dehydration and even “change the chemical balance of your blood.” Again, ketosis is a normal, mostly safe process, however there are risks involved (especially when the body is depleted of carbs over an extended period of time), which is why it’s recommended that you work with a doctor if you want to follow a “ketogenic diet.” 

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Long-Term Health Issues When Followed Over Extended Periods

Fitness and nutrition expert Ben Greenfield says a long-term depletion of carbs can potentially lead to serious health issues down the road. “Your liver is exposed to extra stress as it is forced to assist with manufacturing glucose from fats and proteins,” he explained. “Potentially toxic amounts of ammonia are produced as proteins are converted into glucose, your body has a more difficult time producing mucus and the immune system becomes impaired as risk of pathogenic infection increases, and your body loses the ability to produce compounds called glycoproteins, which are vital to cellular functions.”

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Potential Risk for Increased Cholesterol Levels

For some, cutting carbs leads to an inevitable increase in protein sources that have the potential to spike cholesterol levels. According to WebMD, if your diet focuses mainly on fatty cuts of meat, whole dairy products and other low-carb but high-fat foods, you might see a spike in your cholesterol levels, which also increases your risk for heart disease. That’s not to say that low-carb diets directly cause an increase in cholesterol, though. Rather, it's simply an important factor to keep in mind. As WebMD points out, some studies have shown that those following a low-carb Atkins diet for two years actually decreased their levels of “bad” cholesterol.

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Your Kidneys Could Be at Risk

Again, most people who follow low-carb diets inadvertently end up increasing their protein intake. According to WebMD this can be especially problematic if you have existing kidney problems, because consuming too much protein “puts added strain on your kidneys.”

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Packaged Low-Carb Foods Are Often Nutrient Deficient

With all of the different low-carb products lining the shelves of grocery stores these days, it might seem like following a low-carb diet is easier than ever. But, as Greenfield points out, just because a package of cookies or ice cream is labeled “low-carb,” doesn’t mean it’s better for you than its “regular carb” counterpart. “Typical ‘low-carbohydrate’ meal replacement bars and shakes, ice creams or ice cream sandwiches, and other low carb or sugar-free snacks often contain potentially unhealthy ingredients like maltitol, and are chock full of preservatives and highly processed ingredients,” Greenfield said. “If your low-carbohydrate diet involves boxed, wrapped and packaged food, it probably falls into this category.”

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Carbs Are Essential During Pregnancy

“The most important reason why women need adequate carbohydrates during pregnancy is to ensure adequate fetal brain development and growth,” says Kresser. According to Kresser, the Institute of Medicine recommends a minimum of 175 grams of carbohydrates per day during pregnancy (or 29 percent of calories for a 2,400-calorie diet). Additionally, he mentioned that high-protein diets can be dangerous during pregnancy. This is another important factor to keep in mind since, as we mentioned earlier, many people following low-carb diets almost always increase their percentage of calories coming from protein.

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Decrease in Athletic Performance

“If you’re a professional or recreational athlete who trains hard four, five or even six days per week and are trying to maintain this level of activity on a low-carb diet, you may be doing more harm than good to your health and fitness,” says Kresser. For those who are highly active, Kresser says he recommends at least 20 percent of your daily calories come from carbs. Of course, as we mentioned earlier, determining an amount that’s most optimal for you will depend on several different factors like, Kresser says, your health goals, training schedule and any health issues. Depending on the situation, he may suggest that up to 40 to 50 percent of calories come from carbs. Additionally, he did note that some athletes do perform well on low-carb diets (according to St. Pierre it’s only about 2.5 percent of athletes, though), but to find out whether or not you fall into this category you’ll have to test it out.

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Hypothyroidism

“The main reason carbs affect thyroid function so directly is because insulin is needed for the conversion of the inactive T4 hormone into the active T3 hormone, and insulin is generally quite low on very low carbohydrate diets,” Kresser explains. “So if you’ve suddenly started developing hypothyroid symptoms on your low-carb diet, it’s a pretty good sign that you’d be better off upping the carbs.” This may also be cause to get your thyroid tested , he added. 

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Adrenal Fatigue

This condition is also known as "HPA axis dysregulation," according to Kresser. “The main hormone that gets dysregulated in adrenal fatigue is cortisol, and cortisol has been shown to increase on a low-carb diet,” he said. “This means that a low-carb diet is a potential adrenal stressor in susceptible individuals. Combine that with a stressful job, inadequate sleep, and over-exercise, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for adrenal burnout.” For this reason, Kresser suggests making sure to consume an adequate amount of carbs if your lifestyle is particularly stressful or if you have already been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. 

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Your Gut Health Could be at Risk

“Carbohydrates include whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These are a major source of soluble and insoluble fiber in the diet,” explains Dr. Michael S. Fenster, M.D., a board certified interventional cardiologist and author of The Fallacy of the Calorie: Why the Modern Western Diet is Killing Us and How to Stop. “Adequate consumption of fiber is critical in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. The gut microbiome consists of all the different types of microorganisms, estimated to be about 100 trillion bacteria alone — outnumbering the 10 trillion human cells that make up your body by about 10 to 1 — that coexists within our gastrointestinal tract. Increasingly, the gut microbiome is being recognized as a symbiotic organism that is in constant communication with all our other various organ systems, including the immune system. Disruption of the gut microbiome can induce an ongoing inflammatory process; one that seems to be at the root of so many of the disabilities and diseases that confront us today.” 

Additionally, Fenster mentioned that these types of foods are also important for obtaining essential vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients needed for maintaining good overall health. “Severe restriction of this food group from the diet without another source of adequate replacement can open the door to any number of disabilities and diseases,” he said.

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Muscle Breakdown

This particular aspect mainly refers to people who are highly active. “Research consistently shows that people who exercise regularly need to eat enough carbs or their testosterone will fall while their cortisol levels rise,” St. Pierre said. “This is a sure-fire recipe for losing muscle and gaining fat.” Essentially, as St. Pierre explained it, when you meet your carbohydrate needs, you’ll adequately replenish your muscle glycogen stores and create an “anabolic (building-up) hormonal environment.” In other words, you set yourself up to increase your strength and muscle mass. “Conversely, when you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, muscle glycogen is depleted and a catabolic (breaking-down) hormonal environment is created, which means more protein breakdown and less protein synthesis,” he explained. “This means slower muscle growth — or even muscle loss.”

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A General Decrease in Energy Levels

"Llow-carbohydrate weight loss dieting has been associated with weakness, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, constipation, diarrhea and nausea," Fenster said. "Many people engaging such programs also report a significant decrease in their overall energy levels. Some, as a result of the ketotic process mentioned earlier may also experience mental fatigue (the so-called “ketotic fog”) and develop halitosis. In one recent study, a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet was associated with an increased mortality risk in those with known cardiovascular disease."

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'No Salvation in Deprivation'

“As I describe in my book, there is no salvation in deprivation,” Fenster said. “A delicious and healthful approach involves a variety of quality ingredients including sources of carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and ancient grains and seeds. Eliminating the over-processed and adulterated refined carbohydrates that permeate the modern Western diet, like baked goods, sweets, high-fructose corn syrup sweetened beverages, condiments and the like should be a cornerstone of any sane dietary approach; weight loss or not. These are the types of carbohydrates we could not only do without, [but that] we should do without. It is about the quality of our comestibles that determines health and wellness or disease and disability; not the quantity or category.”

The Downsides of Following a Low-Carb Diet