A low-carb diet is a popular concept these days – have you jumped onto that idea yet? If not, I’m surprised. Even I have dabbled in a low-carb diet recently. Over the past few months, my stress level has risen and my activity level has dropped. I’ve also been eating way too much food, especially nuts and sugar. At the same time, my pants started to fit a bit too tightly, my sleep quality was poor, and I struggle with mid-afternoon energy slumps almost every day. Oh, and my brain! I have zero motivation to do ANYTHING! I can’t concentrate nor can I remember words I just read a few minutes ago. I am easily distracted and I find myself staring at the wall more often than I’d like to admit.
My Low-Carb Diet Trial
Mainly because of the weight gain, but also because I’ve read that a low-carb diet helps improve mental clarity, I did start on a nutrient-dense keto diet a few weeks ago. For those of you who don’t know keto, keto is a very low-carb diet that replaces those carbs with very high amounts of fat. The keto diet I tried was Leanne Vogel’s Keto Diet (she’s a fellow holistic nutrition consultant and super awesome). Her approach to keto includes whole, healthy foods as much as possible, which is WAY better for you than traditional ketogenic diet plans. If you’re considering going keto and you’re female, I highly recommend following her plan first. She understands why women’s bodies need different nutrient requirements than men and includes meals plans that accommodate this. Plus, she focuses on whole foods and avoid processed and allergenic foods too! Anyway, I felt okay for the first week but the following week I had even less motivation and more brain fog. My weight hadn’t changed but it seemed like my pants were tighter. I felt fatter. I felt sick. And I felt useless. So, I quit. Well, not entirely, but I started adding back in some low-carb fruit and the occasional protein smoothie with berries and spinach. I ditched the coffee (there is a lot of coffee in the Keto Diet) for something called Kick Start, a caffeine-free coffee substitute. My cravings changed from sugary stuff to lettuce, salads and apples. This told me that my body wanted more healthy carbs so I decided to listen. And, of course, figure out why this is what my body was asking for (because, hey, I love research).
Low-Carb Diet and Adrenal Fatigue
There is a lot going on in my life, as I’m sure there is in yours too. Do you feel like you’re being pulled in a dozen different directions at any given moment? Anxiety over work deadlines, family problems or even just finding time to read that book you want can make us all a bit frazzled. Stressful times call for a nourishing diet and that must include a healthy amount of healthy carbohydrates. I’m suffering from chronic stress. Dropping my carbs didn’t work well for me, so it got me thinking – what is the best macronutrient balance for people with adrenal fatigue? Maybe low-carb isn’t right? A few weeks ago, I explained what adrenal fatigue was and included a bit of background on the HPA-axis. For a little recap, the HPA-axis is the relationship between your hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. The HPA-axis regulates your stress levels, mood, emotions and metabolism; it is very sensitive to how much food you eat, what types of food you eat, stress and exercise. Chronic stress impacts this delicate HPA-axis, causing a dysfunction in this system called ‘adrenal fatigue’. And, many sources believe that a low-carb diet is recognized as a stressor by the body, stimulating the cortisol response. Similarly, a diet too low in calories prompts the same response.
The Effects of a Low-Carb Diet on Women
Many problems have been associated with a low-carb diet, and women’s sensitive, unique hormonal make-up are especially sensitive to this type of diet. Women on low-carb diets may experience missed periods, infertility and miscarriage. The body may also be less able to convert T4 to T3, the active thyroid hormone that maintains metabolism and energy. Women who are active can really have problems if they follow a low-carb diet for a long period. Problems associated with active women who eat a low-carb diet include:
- Decreased thyroid output
- Increased cortisol production
- Less testosterone and progesterone
- Impaired concentration and unstable mood
- Lowered immunity
And, a low-carb diet can even lead to muscle catabolism because your body pulls energy from your muscle cells (rather than from glucose) to fuel itself.
What About Your Mood?
Since one of the proponents of a ketogenic diet is clearer mind and better focus, plus a more stable mood, it’s important to look at how our bodies respond on a low-carb diet. Studies have shown that a low-carb diet lowers serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter responsible for mood stability. Many people on low-carb diets experience more anger, depression and sadness. If your body is already low on serotonin from chronic stress, a low-carb diet can make mood and cognitive health worse. It’s possible that, for people who switch to ketogenic diets, they’re cutting out grains and starchy foods. Ever heard of ‘grain brain’? Well, there is a lot of evidence that grains directly lead to brain fog, poor memory and low attention spans. And, on the ketogenic diet, if you include healthy fats, your brain will LOVE this because your nervous system thrives on essential fatty acids. So, yes, for many people, a low-carb diet will improve cognition and focus.
How Many Carbs Should I Eat?
Women experiencing any form of chronic stress should consider including at least 150 grams of healthy carbohydrates each day. If you’re already experiencing any of the following symptoms, a low-carb diet may not be right for you.
- Struggle to lose weight or you gain weight easily
- Feel tired and wired and bedtime
- Can fall asleep but can’t stay asleep through the night
- Have an underactive thyroid, even with medication
- Experience any type of PMS or fertility issues
What Foods Should I Eat?
I am not telling you to go wild on the sugar and ice cream. Refined carbs are a huge stressor on your body and will make your symptoms worse. Your body needs healthy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, squash, carrots and beets. Avoid grains as much as possible because many of our North American grains are either pro-inflammatory or allergenic. If you do want grains, opt for gluten-free, whole foods instead (like raw, gluten-free oats or quinoa). You should also eat moderate levels of protein, about 0.8 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight (i.e. if you weight 65 kg, you should eat about 65 grams of protein every day). Protein has a higher thermic effect so your body burns more calories digesting it than either fat or carbs. And, healthy fats are still very important. Foods like unrefined coconut oil, ground flaxseeds, olive oil, avocado oil and raw nuts and seeds are extremely beneficial to your diet too. I feel best when I eat 50-60 grams of fat each day, but you’ll probably have to experiment with this.
Is a Low-Carb Diet Wrong For Everyone?
Many women can benefit from a low-carb diet. Women who are overweight or obese, who aren’t very active, who have IBS or PCOS, or who have chronic yeast infections may benefit from a low-carb diet. Cancer cells feast on sugar so a low-carb diet has been proven to slow down the proliferation of tumors. However, keep in mind that, if you are struggling with adrenal fatigue and chronic stress, your body will heal itself faster if you stick to a moderate-carb diet plan.
I am a strong believer in a higher fat diet to help improve many of our healthy complaints. I also believe that we can’t restrict our diets too much by cutting out most of an entire macronutrient group. Women who are struggling with chronic fatigue likely won’t get better following a low-carb diet. Your body is in distress and requires certain nutrients from healthy carbohydrates so don’t skimp on these important foods. Many of the vital B vitamins in whole grains are crucial for adrenal support. A healthy, adrenal-friendly diet includes plenty of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources free from antibiotics and hormones, raw nuts and seeds, and some legumes, beans and sprouted grains. Keep your portion sizes reasonable and stick to whole foods to help reverse your symptoms. If you’re still interested in a low-carb diet, we can take a look at your nutritional requirements, symptoms and lifestyle AFTER you’ve relieved your chronic stress! You don’t want to make your adrenal fatigue worse, right?
https://authoritynutrition.com/low-carb-and-womens-hormones/ http://www.precisionnutrition.com/low-carb-diets https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200403/low-carb-state-mind https://robbwolf.com/2012/04/26/diet-stress-biochemistry/