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Many theories have tried to explain why our waistlines have expanded dramatically in the past few decades, including the addition of high fructose corn syrup to many foods, giant sodas, processed food, toxins, and an increasingly stressful and sedentary way of life. No single theory fully explains the weight-gain phenomenon and all are somewhat contested, so willpower becomes another target.
“We’re led to think that, what, somewhere around the 1990s, space aliens zapped our willpower?” asks Alan Christianson, NMD, author of The Adrenal Reset Diet and founder of Integrative Health, a naturopathic medical practice in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We gain weight not because we’re lazy or indulgent,” he says, “but because our cortisol rhythms are disrupted.” After years of working with patients, Christianson has identified such rhythm disruption as the common thread among all the possible causes of weight gain—and a simple way to correct it.
The Adrenal Key
A major hormone produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol rises when we’re under stress, which can be triggered by exposure to pollutants, processed food, and pressure from life situations. In a healthy state, it adjusts your metabolism to maintain an optimum weight.
When functioning as it should, cortisol regulates certain rhythms: more energy in the morning and the earlier part of the day, gradually winding down in the evening for restful sleep; it also adjusts the way we process food during each 24-hour cycle. But when there is too much stress over a period of many years, the daily rhythm gets disrupted, generating a vicious cycle of turning food into the most dangerous type of body fat—visceral fat that surrounds organs—instead of burning it for energy.
Christianson found that disruption can manifest in three ways: Stressed, when cortisol levels are too high all day; wired and tired, when levels are erratic and too high at night, interfering with restful sleep; and crashed, when levels are chronically too low.
Sometimes, our bodies seem to tolerate a poor diet for many years until a major life change adds sufficient stress to kick in cortisol disruption. Common examples include weight gain when starting college, getting a first job, getting married, shifting to a more stressful job, becoming a parent, or undergoing hormonal changes later in life.
“Once your rhythm’s been disrupted, the body hangs onto it; it doesn’t take a lot to keep it there,” says Christianson. Consequently, your weight won’t budge by simply cutting out sodas or switching to healthier versions of our usual foods. But if you reset your rhythms, it doesn’t take a superhuman effort to keep them on track.
Eat as much of these as you like, with or between meals:
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Artichokes and artichoke hearts
- Baby corn
- Bamboo shoots
- Bean sprouts
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Green beans
- Green onions
- Lemon juice
- Lime juice
- Peppers, red and green
- Salad greens, any type
- Snow peas
- Summer squash (crookneck or zucchini)
- Sunflower sprouts
- Swiss chard
- Turnip greens
- Water chestnuts
- Winter squash (spaghetti or pumpkin)
How the Reset Diet Works
As you might expect with a weight-loss diet, Christianson’s reset consists of unprocessed, whole foods that are dense in nutrients, rather than calories. But it also has a unique characteristic: carb timing. “You can use carbohydrates almost as a trellis or a guide to move cortisol back to its healthy rhythms,” he says.
Christianson’s research uncovered this seemingly simple but powerful fact: Carbs eaten early in the day are preferentially stored as visceral belly fat that surrounds organs, much more so than carbs eaten later in the day. And visceral fat actively perpetuates disrupted cortisol rhythms and weight gain.
Breaking the cycle requires a completely new perspective on breakfast. Instead of cereal, breakfast pastries, or other traditional, carb-rich fare, the first meal of the day needs to be the lowest in carbs. “Quit thinking of breakfast as breakfast,” he says, “and just have good food, even leftovers from your evening meal.”
To make the diet convenient, he recommends morning smoothies with 24 to 35 grams of protein, or even a soup (see Breakfast Soup recipe below). The amount of carbs increases somewhat for lunch, with dinner having the most, from beans, brown rice, quinoa, or a combination of these. Plus, copious amounts of many vegetables (not potatoes) can be eaten any time, with or between meals (see Unlimited Foods above).
Here’s a sample day’s menu:
Breakfast Protein Shake
If you need a sweetener, use stevia or monk fruit. If you aren’t used to eating much fiber, start with a smaller amount of chia or flax seeds. Blend with ice and water:
1 serving protein powder (unsweetened, with 23 to 35 grams protein)
½ cup raspberries
2 Tbs. chia or ground flax seeds
¼ cup canned navy beans
Lunch Mixed Salad
For salad dressing, use 1 Tbs. of olive oil plus vinegar of your choice.
Unlimited greens and other low-starch veggies from the Unlimited Foods list
1 palm-sized piece of salmon or chicken
½ cup canned kidney or garbanzo beans
Dinner Stir Fry
Choose any type of lean meat, preferably organic and free-range. For a vegan meal, replace meat with a fermented soy food.
3-4 ounces of meat or chicken
Unlimited veggies from the Unlimited Foods list
Tamari soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil for stir-frying
1 cup cooked brown rice or quinoa
If you want to lose weight as quickly as possible, Christianson recommends eating fruit (aside from berries in smoothies) no more than two or three times per week. Some good choices would be a medium apple or pear, or a cup of cantaloupe or honeydew melon cubes.
3 Types of Fixes
Disrupted cortisol rhythms manifest in three different ways. For all of these, Christianson recommends the reset diet plus vitamin D (2,000 IU daily, or better yet, get tested) and magnesium (250–600 mg daily with food). He also advises a leisurely weekend hike or bike ride, preferably with friends, for at least 2.5 hours a week.
In addition, Christianson has identified specific adrenal tonics and types of exercise for each situation:
Cortisol levels are chronically too high, and you can feel edgy and mentally scattered, and have difficulty falling asleep.
Lemon balm: In the morning, take 25–50 mg, or drink a lemon balm tea.
Passionflower: In the evening, take 33–66 mg of an extract standardized to contain 3.5 percent flavonoids, or drink passionflower tea. If you take prescription drugs for insomnia or depression, consult a health practitioner, as passionflower may also affect sleep and mood.
Best exercise: Strength training.
Wired and Tired
Cortisol and energy levels are too low in the morning, erratic during the day, and too high at night, making it difficult to stay asleep throughout the night.
Rhodiola: In the morning, take 100–300 mg of an extract with 0.8 to 1.0 percent salidroside and 2 to 4 percent rosavin.
Ashwagandha: In the evening, take 500–1,000 mg of the powdered root in capsules. The same amount can also be taken in the morning. Anyone taking thyroid replacement should consult a health practitioner, as the dosage may need to be adjusted.
Best exercise: Cardio, alternating between low and high intensity.
Cortisol and energy levels are chronically too low, bringing about constant exhaustion, sleep that is not refreshing, and sometimes, cravings for sugar or salt.
American ginseng: In the morning, take 30–100 mg.
Chamomile: In the evening, drink it as a tea.
Best exercise: A leisurely walk in the morning and evening, or a slow-paced style of yoga.
Online help: If you aren’t sure which category you may fall into, take the quiz at adrenalquiz.com.
Making time for adequate sleep and managing stress are essential to resetting healthy cortisol rhythms, but following the reset diet will improve your sleep and make your body more resilient to stress. And it can reduce the impact of hormonal changes as women approach menopause and men experience andropause.