How I Use Carb Cycling to Reset My Adrenals, Stress Levels and Sleep
Updated: Jun 22
"Carbs" have suffered a bad reputation for many years now. They are associated with everything from weight gain to blood sugar issues to metabolic diseases. But what exactly are carbohydrates, why do they cause trouble and what benefits do they have, if any? Let's take a closer look at this misunderstood macronutrient to see if it belongs on your plate!
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Before we dive into the carb talk, we need to cover the topic of adrenal stress. This is where health troubles can begin for so many of us. If you have ever experienced long term stress, read on to see how this might be affecting your health and what you can do about it.
Also, this book on adrenal health by Dr. Alan Christianson helped me understand how to use carbohydrate cycling to help restore my adrenal function.
Is Adrenal Burn Out Really a Thing?
A few years ago as I was healing from the trauma of losing two loved ones under two years (one being my first husband), I started to feel the after-effects of many years of intense stress.
Sleep issues became the new normal... hello, 2 am wake-up call! My hair started falling out. I felt deeply fatigued, continuously hungry (and hangry and shaky between meals), my digestion went south and I was unable to handle any stress whatsoever.
It was weird. I was used to having consistent energy and being able to rise to any occasion year after year under massive amounts of daily stress. In fact, I remember several times during those years of caregiving when practitioners would ask how I would rate my stress levels on a scale from 1-10. I always said 11.
Back then, I really didn't see being stressed as an option or a physical problem. After all "stress" was how I maintained my energy and got stuff done. I didn't feel I had a choice about it. People were counting on me and God was providing much grace and help to keep our family going.
But I wasn't prepared for hitting a wall so suddenly after both of my loved ones went to heaven.
My body decided to hit the breaks on high-stress living and was letting me know by downshifting my energy, messing up my sleep cycles and hormones, throwing off my digestion and making me feel continuously hungry and anxious.
Whatever you want to call it: adrenal burn-out, adrenal fatigue or the more current term-- Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Dysfunction (HPA Dysfunction)-- it is a condition in which stress hormone function can go haywire and create all kinds of systemic imbalances.
In my case my sleep, energy levels, digestion and ability to deal with stress all became a battleground. For others it may hit their immune system, cardiovascular system, hormones or gut function. Or all of the above.
Unfortunately, HPA axis dysfunction is pretty darn common in our high stress world. But that doesn't mean it's normal.
Let's take a quick look at how your HPA stress response works and how it can go wrong.
Carbs, Stress and Your HPA Axis
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) is a trio of organs that work together to respond to stress. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are two structures located at the base of brain while the adrenal glands sit atop our kidneys.
When you encounter stress, be it
environmental pollution, trauma, illness (you or your loved ones), work probs, financial stress, discrimination, poor food quality, addictions or other problems-- whatever YOUR personal stressors happen to be (physical or emotional), your HPA axis has to deal with them.
Let's take a look at how this works with food.
For example, when we eat a meal that is heavy in refined carbs and sugar (white flour and white sugar products), like a stack of pancakes with maple syrup and a glass of orange juice, it causes our blood sugar to quickly spike followed by a sharp drop (thanks to insulin trying to manage things). This sudden rise and drop in blood sugar is perceived as a stressor in our body.
This extreme fluctuation in blood sugar then triggers the hypothalamus in our brain to release a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) into the pituitary gland right above our brain stem. In turn, our pituitary gland releases a powerful hormone called adrenocorticotropic-hormone (ACTH).
ACTH makes it's way down from the brain to our adrenal glands to unleash our body's secret stress weapon: CORTISOL.
Cortisol is the stress hormone that keeps us alert during times of ongoing stress. One of its primary jobs is to help release stored up blood sugar from our liver, fat cells and skeletal muscles (a survival response that can put extra stress on the body). This constant flood of glucose helps us maintain the energy we need to cope with non-stop stressors. However, when all this stored up glucose hits our blood stream, our pancreas secretes more insulin to shuttle extra glucose into the cells so we don't suffer from high blood sugar.
With that shift there goes another drop in our blood glucose levels triggering yet another smoke signal to our brain's stress control tower: the HPA axis. The cycle keeps going.
So, more stress = more HPA axis stimulation = more cortisol production = more blood sugar spikes and drops = more stress = rinse, repeat.
Until your body crashes in some way, shape or form.
Here are some conditions often related to HPA axis dysfunction-- do any sound familiar?
Immune dysfunction/low immunity/autoimmunity
Weight gain (especially around abdomen)
Weight loss (unexplained)
Sleep issues/waking up unrefreshed
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Impaired ability to handle stress
Caffeine, alcohol or substance dependence
Brain fog/mental fatigue
Blood sugar issues
Blood pressure/circulation issues
Loss of muscle tone
Loss of libido
As you can see, our once efficient stress response can be breeding ground for a host of health issues.
Don't get me wrong, this is a handy reflex in a true emergency situation like running from bears or hitting the brakes on the road. However, when it happens around the clock, year after year, it can create systemic problems like what happened to me with haywire digestion, sleep cycle madness, hair loss, constant hunger and so on.
So how and why did I use carbs to manage my out-of-whack stress response? Read on.
Carbs 101: Evil Villain, Loyal Ally... or Both?
Carbs remain a controversial topic in the nutrition world.
After being told for years by the U.S. government and medical field to avoid fat and embrace all manner of carbohydrates in order to avoid heart disease, we are now told the exact opposite. The low-carb, high fat movement is in full swing, and the benefits are impressive. From ketogenic to paleo diets, people are taking back their health with nutrition and much of it has to do with cutting back on inflammatory carbohydrates and increasing protein and healthy fats.
But the truth remains that we only have three macronutrients to choose from-- carbs, protein and fats. Is it good advice to severely cut down or eliminate any one of these groups-- all of which have nourished humans for ages?
Let's explore this confusing territory.
First off, let's clarify that most of the carbs that have gained a bad rap are technically known as refined or processed carbohydrates. These include the white stuff-- refined sugar and flour products such as:
Studies demonstrate that consuming a large amount of these highly processed Western diet staples has been linked to dramatically increased disease risk, particularly for:
Obesity (even in children)
Type 2 Diabetes
Most health experts these days agree that consuming large amounts of processed carbs, especially out of balance with clean protein and healthy fat, can lead to serious health problems.
But why not call them refined carbs or processed carbs to distinguish them from the greater circle of healthy carbohydrates? There are plenty of wonderful carbs to sink your teeth into-- many of which can be a loyal ally to your health!
These awesome superfood carbs include:
All fresh vegetables (from crucifers like broccoli and kale to fresh leafy greens like spinach and romaine lettuce to mushrooms)
All fresh fruits (from apples and tomatoes to citrus to berries to tropical fruits)
Root vegetables (like potatoes, yams, beets, ginger, carrots, parsnips)
Alliums (like onions, garlic, leeks)
Legumes (like beans, chickpeas, green peas, and peanuts)
These are carbs, too! So before you give into carb-o-phobia, remember there are plenty of healthy carbs to be embraced.
BUT... here's where it can get sticky.
Many of the healthy carbs listed above, like fruit, root veggies and whole grains, can also trigger a significant release of glucose into the blood stream. And for certain individuals, like my husband, some of these foods like oats, rice or certain nightshade veggies, can trigger an immune response.
That's why it's critical to remember that we are all bio-individual and there is no one-size-fits-all diet for everyone.
The biggest key for optimizing your carbohydrate intake is to always pair your starchier or higher glycemic carbs (like root veggies, fruits and grains) with healthy protein and healthy fat to prevent blood sugar imbalance. We'll get to some more details on how to do this in a minute!
And if you have food sensitivities or suspected food intolerances, only introduce potential trigger foods (like grains or nightshades-- some common ones) after removing them for at least two weeks (or more) under the guidance of an experienced practitioner or nutritionist.
With these factors in mind, I want to share my personal experience using carbohydrates to manage my stress levels and balance my hormones because it just may be the missing link for someone else out there. It may not be for everyone, but for some it's a game-changer.
Read on to see if this approach might be what your body needs.
Carb Cycling and the Adrenal Reset
One of the most exhausting and annoying things about my personal HPA axis dysfunction had to be a constant need to eat. I'd finish breakfast and one hour later I'd feel shaky and need to find something to munch on as quickly as I could. This held me for about another hour before I needed to eat lunch. I knew my blood sugar was a wreck, but I had no idea how to manage it other than to keep eating every hour or two. I felt so strung out and unstable which only made my stress levels worse.
One day I stumbled upon a book called: The Adrenal Reset Diet: Strategically Cycle Carbs and Proteins to Lose Weight, Balance Hormones, and Move from Stressed to Thriving written by a naturopathic endocrinologist named Dr. Alan Christianson. I took one look at the title and ordered it right away!
As I dove into this easy-read, I was pleasantly surprised by the simple approach Dr. Christianson had to carb cycling.
Please note this is NOT the kind of carb cycling used by body builders which is a whole different tactic using alternating days, weeks, and months to restrict and load up on carbs based on training and weight goals.
This one if for stressed and fried people and is completely different!
The basic principal of this type of carb cycling is to line up carb consumption with our body's natural cortisol rhythm. Our cortisol production is highest in the morning when we wake up and need energy. It's lowest in the evening when it's time to wind down and prepare for rest.
The idea is to add a small portion of slow-burning starchy carbs (like grains, beans, roots or fruits) to your plate in the morning, a medium sized portion at lunch and the largest portion at dinnertime.
One of the classic symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction is waking up between 2-4 am (or any hour of night) and not being able to get back to sleep. There can be other causes for this, like hormonal shifts from perimenopause and menopause. However, it can also indicate that your dinner or bedtime snack isn't sustaining you long enough to stay asleep. This lack of slow-burning, overnight nutrition can trigger a blood sugar drop. Remember, any blood sugar spikes and drops are perceived as a threat to your body and will cause your HPA axis to come to the rescue. The goal is to get the stress hormone cortisol to pump out more glucose so your body can keep functioning. Unfortunately, this is the LAST hour of the 24-hour day that you need high cortisol and high blood sugar!
Both of these elements will fuel your racing mind. Then your bed becomes a wrestling mat until you might finally fall back to sleep exhausted right before your alarm goes off. It sucks! And it can mess with your other hormones, lower your immune system and contribute to mood and anxiety issues.
So... enter carb cycling!
When I started using slow-burning carbohydrates (like oats, beans, rice, quinoa, potatoes, yams and even sourdough bread) with my meals the first thing I noticed was that my crazy need to eat every 1-2 hours lifted. I felt less anxious and shaky and could make it for hours between meals.
Next, I noticed that eating a larger portion of slow-burning carbs with dinner or even as a bedtime snack (with some protein and fat), helped me sleep deeper. My HPA axis suddenly didn't perceive any blood sugar drop emergencies and I could stay asleep. Good bye 2-4 am brainstorming sessions!
Keep in mind that the starchy carbs he recommends, and that I eat, are ALWAYS consumed in balance with healthy proteins (like chicken, fish, pastured beef, or eggs) and healthy fats (like grass-fed butter, full-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil or coconut oil). If you eat carbs without these other macronutrients, you may risk spiking your blood sugar.
Fats slow down absorption of carbs and help with vitamin absorption, while proteins give your body and brain amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production. It's all about balance if you desire to regulate your tired adrenal glands with food.
Carb Cycling Formula
To get more specific, Dr. C's approach to carb and protein cycling calls for:
Breakfast: palm-sized protein portion + 1 golf ball-sized portion of healthy fat + 1 golf ball-sized portion of starchy carbs (+ all you can eat veggies)
Lunch: palm-sized protein portion + 1 golf ball-sized portion of healthy fat + 2 golf ball-sized portions of starchy carbs (+ all you can eat veggies)
Dinner: palm-sized protein portion + 1 golf ball-sized portion of healthy fat + 3 golf ball-sized portion of starchy carbs (+ all you can eat veggies)
Snacks: aim for snacks with a balance of macronutrients (protein, healthy carbs, healthy fat) in a proportion that works for you (we are all bio-indivual so some of us may be able to handle more carbs, but ALWAYS enjoy with protein and fat-- my favorite snack is usually yogurt with fresh fruit and/or nuts/seeds)
He explains that our bodies need carbs in the form of slow-burning complex carbohydrates to support blood sugar regulation (and therefore adrenal health). These high fiber, slow-burning and often starchy carbs will not spike your blood sugar like processed carbohydrates found in cereals, breads (non-whole grain), white rice, sweets etc.
These satisfying, slow burning, starchy carbs include:
Root vegetables and squashes (potatoes, yams, squash)
Properly prepared legumes (beans, chickpeas, peas): see my Happy Tummy Beans recipe to learn about proper preparation of beans
Frozen or fresh fruit
Sourdough bread (a terrific resistant starch if tolerated)
The above are specific carb food items you can cycle in various golf-ball (or 1/4 cup) portions at each meal. This is a rough framework and I used it to kick-start my journey. Eventually I figured out when I need more or less carbs at each meal. Your mood, sleep, cycles and energy will tell you when you are on target.
For me, I find I ALWAYS need some carbs at every meal!
As far as other carbohydrate vegetables go, like broccoli, greens, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, carrots etc.-- Dr. C puts them on an all you can eat list! Hello, healthy snacks!
For his detailed food lists, you can grab the book as it includes those and so much more about adrenal health along with specific recommendations for YOU based on how you score on his scale of adrenal health: stressed, tired and wired, crashed or thriving.
As one example of his many good recommendations, he suggests getting out in direct sunlight within an hour of waking up to further support your body's proper cortisol production. The morning light will shine into your brain like a flashlight and help reset your circadian clock!
The book and way of eating were a game-changers for me. My crazy blood sugar, hangry roller coaster (a.k.a. adrenal crisis) quickly calmed down which led to better sleep, better moods, better energy and happier hormones.
In time, I tried out various portions and different types of carbs to find out what my body likes best on different days. When I'm very run down or have exercised heavily I eat even larger portions of slow-burning carbs than what Dr. C recommends, like a bowl of my high protein oatmeal, to sustain my blood sugar and calm down the cortisol response.
When I'm feeling good and balanced I feel just fine eating a fresh salad with plenty of carbs in the form of raw veggies with some healthy fats like olive oil and avocado and clean protein. But I usually find I sleep MUCH better with some starchy carbs in my system whether they come from dinner or a bedtime snack 1-2 hours before sleep.
My Typical Carb Cycling Day
Here is a sample of my own typical carb cycling day:
Wake up: drink a good amount of water and/or a Good Morning Gut-Brain Tonic
Get outside: take a long or short walk with hubby and dog and/or water the yard (another option is having your coffee or tea outside) to get morning sunlight to trigger optimal cortisol production. I'm struggling with this now that I have a child so it's something I need to get back to.
Breakfast: 2 eggs any style (palm-sized protein portion), cooked in ghee or olive oil (golf-ball portion of fat), 1/4 cup of black beans (golf-ball portion of carbs), sauteed greens (all you can eat veggies)
Lunch: colorful salad with 4-5 oz. salmon (all you can eat veggies with a palm-size protein portion), avocado (golf-ball portion of fat), 1/2 cup of sprouted quinoa or an apple (2 golf-ball portions of carbs)
Dinner: 3-4 oz. of grass-fed steak or hamburger (palm-sized protein portion), stir fry cooked in olive oil (all you can eat veggies with healthy fat), a large yam with pastured butter, baked potato with butter and sour cream or cup of fried potatoes cooked in olive oil (3 golf-ball portions of carbs plus more fat)
Bedtime snack/dessert (if needed): a 1/2 cup of plain sheep's yogurt (perfect balance of protein, carbs and fats) with cinnamon (helps balance blood sugar) and walnuts (healthy fat and contain melatonin-- sleep hormone) and some chopped apple or banana (starchy carbs)
Again, we are all unique so use what you will in this post. I recommend playing around with carb cycling to see if it fits your needs and order the book if you want more details on how to reset your adrenals!
Feel free to reach out to me if you have more questions on carb cycling or functional nutrition.
Have you tried carb cycling or something like it? How do you feel about eating more healthy carbs?
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Christianson, A. (2014). The Adrenal Reset Diet: Strategically Cycle Carbs and Proteins to Lose Weight, Balance Hormones, and Move from Stressed to Thriving. Harmony Books. New York, NY.
“Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis.”Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 May 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal_axis.
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About the Author
Roxie Daggett is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) with a virtual holistic nutrition practice in Sedona, Arizona. Her passions include studying nutritional research pertaining to brain health, gut health, genetics and longevity. When she is not geeking out on nutrition she enjoys cooking, hiking, organic gardening and hanging out with her wonderful husband, and her adorable, energetic son who happens to have Down syndrome. Learn more on her About page and stay in touch by grabbing your FREE BRAIN HEALTH BREAKFAST GUIDE above or below!