Integrative Nutrition Blog

Insights on Autoimmune Health and Inflammatory Conditions

Nutrition Tips to Reverse HPA Axis Dysfunction

Jul 21, 2021 | Inflammation & Autoimmune Disease, Intuitive Eating

Fatigue can be caused by many things. Poor sleep, inflammation and stress are the three most common underlying reasons I encounter when trying to help my clients get their energy back. These three triggers also play a major role in the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis. An imbalance in this axis can lead to fatigue and slow down the healing process from autoimmune and inflammatory disorders.

If the HPA axis is new to you, check out my blog post about the HPA axis and it’s connection to fatigue.

How can nutrition reverse HPA Axis Dysregulation?

What you eat can significantly impact the balance of the HPA axis. Remember, inflammation is very stressful for the body. Our bodies are not able to identify different stressors – stress is stress. We classify the stress of running from a tiger and the stress from eating high inflammatory foods as the same. Here are the top five ways to rebalance your HPA axis with food:

Step One: Cut out sugar and processed foods

Let’s start with the lowest hanging fruit. Bottom line, processed foods and sugar are inflammatory. Inflammation can activate the HPA axis and create a stress response (1). In addition, nutrient-empty foods like refined grains, processed foods and foods with added sugars can actually affect cortisol and hormone levels. 

One small randomized controlled study compared the effect of high and low glycemic index (GI) foods on cortisol and testosterone levels in female participants. To clarify, low GI foods are more nutrient-rich and contain more complex carbohydrates than the high GI foods (which tend to be more processed). In this study, cortisol and testosterone levels were collected after 3 days of eating both low and high GI foods. Researchers found that cortisol was significantly higher and testosterone was significantly lower while following the high GI diet (2). This implies that eating processed foods can trigger an elevated cortisol response and activate the HPA axis by way of a chronic stress response.

Cutting out processed foods and sugar is not as daunting as it seems. Start one meal at a time. Replace your sugary breakfast cereal or white toast or bagel with oatmeal or eggs. Start adding more vegetables into your meals. Replace snack foods with seed crackers and hummus, carrot sticks and/or smoothies. 

Step Two: Remove stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol

As much as we all love our coffee and wine, caffeine and alcohol can really work against you. Not only are they both triggers of intestinal permeability (i.e. leaky gut), but they can overstimulate the HPA axis. While only high levels of caffeine have been shown to affect the balance of the HPA axis (3), alcohol can be particularly damaging. Several studies have linked alcohol consumption to higher cortisol production (4). Both caffeine and alcohol can also disrupt the circadian rhythm and interfere with sleep. Sleep disruptions are responsible for increased inflammation and stress in the body. 

If you are a caffeine addict and suspect you have HPA axis dysregulation, my advice is this: start weaning off caffeine slowly. Mix in decaffeinated coffee with regular coffee until you no longer need the caffeine. If wine or alcohol is your thing, try to find a non-alcoholic alternative, or cut way down on your consumption. Please seek help if you believe you have an alcohol dependence that you cannot tackle on your own. 

Step Three: Stop the cycle of restrictive eating to lose weight

Dieting is one of the worst things you can do to yourself. It creates unhealthy relationships with your body and food, it is the gateway to eating disorders, and it can totally destroy your metabolism. Another awful side effect of dieting is its role in dismantling the HPA axis. Restricting calories can raise cortisol levels and put additional stress on the body (5). On top of that, when cortisol levels rise, the body tends to store more fat. I would even go so far to say that intermittent fasting or prolonged fasting may be too stressful on the body as well.

If you are a diet junkie or believe that cutting calories is the only way to lose weight, please reach out to a registered dietitian like myself to help you conquer this habit. Additionally, check out this book about intuitive eating to learn how to fix your relationship with food and your body.

Step Four: Eat a balance of complex carbohydrates, proteins and fat

Balance is key, because we want to make sure that blood sugar levels are well controlled. Why? Chronic stress and over-stimulation of the HPA axis raises cortisol, which triggers insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar. In fact, individuals with diabetes tend to have higher cortisol levels and blunted stress responses (6,7). 

Also, the ketogenic diet is not appropriate for anyone dealing with HPA axis dysregulation. I know it can be tempting for its weight loss and anti-inflammatory benefits. But…studies in rats have shown that high fat diets activate the HPA axis, increase cortisol levels and increase sensitivity to mildly stressful events (8,9).

Focus on eating complex carbohydrates from whole grains and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and root vegetables. Protein can be very helpful in regulating blood sugar. Try to eat a protein-rich breakfast in the morning to set you up for a successful day. 

Step Five: Focus on micronutrients and phytochemicals for support

While there are several nutrients to help with stress, my top three favorites are:

  • Magnesium
    • Magnesium deficiencies are incredibly common and can trigger a number of issues, including anxiety and stress. This mineral can also help bring the HPA axis back into balance. The best magnesium-rich foods include leafy greens, almonds, dark chocolate and avocado.
  • Vitamin C
    • Vitamin C is an antioxidant that reduces inflammation and can help support the adrenal glands. You can find vitamin C in citrus fruits, brussels sprouts and broccoli.
  • Omega 3s
    • Omega 3 fatty acids are my most favorite nutrient for reducing inflammation. They also play a major role in regulating the HPA axis. You can read more about omega 3s here. The best sources of omega 3s include wild caught salmon, mackerel, leafy greens and flaxseed.

What about lifestyle?

Besides nutrition, lifestyle plays a very important role in rebalancing the HPA axis. Sleep, stress and exercise can affect this delicate balance. Make these simple lifestyle adjustments to help restore your HPA axis:

  • Prioritize sleep. Make sure you are getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night. If you feel that your circadian rhythm may be out of balance, check out this blog post on how to get your rhythm back in sync.
  • Don’t over-exercise. Too much exercise can put more stress on your body and keep that HPA axis activated. If you are an endurance junkie like me, it’s time to take your foot off the gas. Focus on lower aerobic activity like yoga, walking or pilates. Keep your heart rate low when working out (i.e jog instead of run).
  • Find a stress reducing technique that works for you. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing or even talk therapy can all help to reduce stress. You must find the one that connects with you.

Rebalancing the HPA axis may seem overwhelming. With a few nutrition and lifestyle changes, you can stop the vicious cycle of chronic stress and get back to feeling more energized and engaged in life. As always, if you need additional guidance making these changes, please schedule a discovery call with me to learn more about my approach and how I can help you achieve your goals.

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