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How A Low Carb Diet And Lots Of Exercise Can Trigger Adrenal Fatigue And Stall Weight Loss

It’s no secret that reducing your consumption of carbohydrates, especially starch carbohydrates, is an effective dietary strategy to help stabilize blood sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and thus promote weight loss.

But is going “low-carb” the best strategy for all individuals? Certainly not, and even if it works well for you, not necessarily all the time. I’ve been on record before stating that “carb considerations” truly are a matter of a person’s bioindividuality or unique needs.

Some individuals tend to lose body fat better when starch carbs are included in the diet, others do much better when they’re minimized. A lot of this revolves around genetic factors and metabolic rate. You also need to factor in activity levels and energy demands.

In today’s post I want to spotlight a specific time when a low carb strategy can begin back-firing on you and actually stall your weight loss attempts.

More after the jump…

What makes the whole carb consideration thing somewhat tricky is that many individuals will find the combination of a low-carb diet and exercise to be extremely effective with promoting fat loss, at least for a while.

There are several factors here which will dictate how long they can stay low-carb and continue to see positive results. If exercise is generally moderate, they’re not overly stressed, get plenty of sleep, and have healthy lifestyle habits, they may be able to roll with their low-carb diet routine indefinitely.

There are plenty of people who can attest to that fact. They feel better, have plenty of energy, and maintain a desired body weight range while staying low-carb and eating healthy. As soon as they start considerably increasing starch carbohydrate consumption, weight starts creeping up, energy levels fluctuate, and they don’t feel the same.

This isn’t to say that people are always going to do better on a particular level of carb consumption, as individual needs can certainly change. A perfect example of this would be the changes in energy expenditure and physiological stress that accompany high intensity exercise.

I’ve seen more than a handful of individuals who set out to do CrossFit and follow a Paleo type diet, do well for a while, but then get stuck in a rut. The problem more often than not is failing to adjust the diet and recovery phases to meet the increased energy demands and stress.

To put it simply, if you’re doing CrossFit or other high-intensity exercise 4-5 times a week, at some point you’re going to want to start adding some sweet potatoes, rice, or other starches to your diet.


Because if you don’t you may find out the hard way that a low-carb diet in combination with excessive high intensity exercise can tax the adrenal glands big time.

Here are some common indicators that you may be fatiguing the adrenals with your low-carb diet.

- Difficulty with losing weight, hitting a plateau
- Experiencing weight gain, even with plenty of exercise and a low calorie diet
- Noticing a decrease in body temperature, feeling cold frequently
- Experiencing a lack of energy
- Difficulty with going to sleep, or falling asleep easily but waking up several times during the night
- Noticeable increase in anxiety, nervousness, or generally feeling uneasy
- Wired and tired feeling

So what’s behind the adrenal fatigue and related symptoms I just mentioned?

This is actually a complex issue involving more than just the adrenal glands, it typically involves your thyroid and several other hormonal balances.

At the root you may likely have a down-regulated metabolism and decreased thyroid production, what we commonly refer to as “metabolic slowdown.”

I’ve written about this in the past, but let me explain in a little more detail.

When carb intake is kept very low (under 50-60 grams per day) for extended periods of time in combination with excessive exercise, blood sugar levels will drop dramatically. The adrenal glands kick in to help compensate by secreting more catecholamines (adrenaline and nor-adrenaline).

You may feel great for a short period of time as the increased catecholamines provide a heightened sense of alertness and more energy. As is generally the case, you can’t ride that wave indefinitely before it crashes.

The increase in circulating adrenaline that accompanies a ketosis state is largely responsible for the initial body fat loss. Things can work quite well in short windows of time, but invariably you’ll need to switch things up.

There’s a complex relationship here with the following hormones to name a few:

- cortisol
- thyroid
- adrenaline
- insulin

Cortisol for example not only helps to regulate blood sugar levels, but it’s also the main stress response hormone. Any stress (be it psychological or physiological, as in the case with excessive high-intensity exercise), will trigger more cortisol. If there’s not enough cortisol to cover, adrenaline will serve to compensate.

As the adrenals become fatigued and cortisol levels drop (the adrenals simply can’t keep up), the body doesn’t convert thyroid hormone very well. Hence the decrease in body temperature and stalled metabolism.

Without getting overly technical here as this is a complex issue involving the pituitary, hypothalamus, and other regulating glands, the big picture I want to draw your attention to is the fact that really low blood sugar isn’t always in your favor.

In other words, that low-carb diet can back-fire on you, especially when you’re restricting calories or experiencing caloric deprivation from lots of exercise making energy expenditure significantly higher than energy intake.

Sure you could look to eat more calories from proteins and fats, but that doesn’t always work so hot. Remember there’s a blood sugar correlation here so carbohydrates will be the key macro nutrient.

If you feel you’re stuck in a low-carb plateau or experiencing symptoms of adrenal weakness, you’ll want to do some combination of the following:

- increase consumption of healthy carbohydrates (low glycemic fruits, sweet potatoes and other tubers, rice, quinoa, etc).

- consume small meals and snacks frequently (rotate back to a supportive nutrition approach with 4-6 small meals/snacks per day).

- cut back on the high intensity exercise

- minimize or eliminate caffeine consumption

There are other helpful nutritional strategies using herbs and adaptogens to heal and and balance out the adrenals, but I don’t want to get too much into that for the scope of this post.

I recommend consulting with a holistic physician who’s knowledgeable on organic medicine if you feel adrenal fatigue may be present. The first step however will be to make the changes I listed out above and see how your body responds.

I know this will be hard for many people to do because the recommendations seem to be counter-intuitive to everything that helped you lose weight in the first place. I’m telling you to EAT more and exercise less. You’ll have to trust me on this one.

At the end of the day what’s most important is learning to listen to your body. When you feel yourself getting cold all the time, experience energy or sleep fluctuations, get stuck in plateau, etc, it’s a sign that something is off.

Further restriction in calories or carbs or more exercise will make things worse, not better. That much I can assure you.

While every situation is going to be somewhat unique, if you’re crashing on a low-carb diet look to bump up your carb intake to at least 80-100 grams per day from healthy choices and make some adjustments with your exercise routine.

If you need some assistance in this area consult with a fitness professional who can help you balance things out accordingly. If you’re in the Charleston, SC area I’d be happy to meet with you and discuss your situation.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Hormones & Health.