How to Eliminate Sugar Cravings for Good

wind river hiking

“How do you make desserts all day and not want to eat it all?” Working as a baker and pastry chef over the past handful of years, this is one of the most common questions I’m asked. And to be honest, it used to be a lot more tempting to snack on the sugary treats that were around me all day. However, now that I’ve learned to tame my sugar cravings and rely on fat for fuel, it’s easy to steer clear of sweets. It’s not that I have iron-clad willpower–I just rarely crave sugar anymore.

sugar

Eschewing candy and quick-burning carbs in favor of whole foods provides more consistent energy and endurance. It’s one thing to know this, but when it comes to putting it into practice, it can be a struggle to break the sugar habit and combat cravings.

If you identify yourself in any of these statements, you might be experiencing blood sugar imbalances, and you’ll likely benefit from keeping your sugar cravings in check.

  • You get hungry an hour after eating
  • You’re jittery and light-headed if you miss a meal or snack
  • You crave sweets after a meal
  • You need sugar and/or caffeine for quick energy
  • You get ‘hangry’ and hunger comes on immediately
  • Life without sugar sounds unbearable

Blood sugar swings result in that post-lunch slump and the inability to maintain energy for a long day in the mountains (or at the office). Blood sugar dysregulation can also have a host of other negative physiological consequences, including increased inflammation and oxidative stress, and decreased liver detoxification.

What this means in real life for the endurance athlete is increased fatigue, decreased endurance, slower recovery, and being more prone to injury and illness.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up here to be the first to know when new posts come out! Plus get access to my Eat for Endurance ebook for free!

colorado trail

The key to balanced blood sugar is stepping off the sugar roller-coaster. Here are the primary approaches I’ve used to transition from relying on sugar for quick energy to the ability to go from meal to meal with steady energy.

  • Stay Hydrated

Whether on trail or off, start your day with at least a liter of water. Add sea salt and lemon, if it’s available, for a boost in minerals and energy. Drinking water before eating breakfast or a sugary snack ensures that you’re not confusing hunger for thirst. Staying hydrated also helps you avoid unnecessary blood sugar swings, keeping you from craving more sugar.

  • Get Enough Sleep

The amount and quality of sleep you get directly impacts your hormones. Your hormones impact every system in your body. In terms of blood sugar, a decrease in sleep causes higher cortisol, which results in higher blood sugar, which drives up insulin, which causes cravings for simple carbohydrates. Eating the simple carbs further drives up blood sugar and insulin, which further drives up cortisol, creating a vicious cycle.

journal stress reduction

  • Reduce Stress

Stress can come in many forms and it impacts your body negatively whether it’s real or perceived, physical or emotional. It could be stress from a fight with your partner or stress from walking 20+ miles per day. The result is higher levels of cortisol. As described in the previous tip, higher cortisol leads to higher blood sugar, which leads to higher insulin, which leads to even more cortisol, and round and round it goes. Find stress reduction techniques which work for you, such as meditation or journaling.

  • Eat a High Protein Breakfast

As this study indicates, eating a higher protein breakfast can decrease levels of ghrelin, a hunger-stimulating hormone. It also slows stomach emptying, which means you stay satiated longer and have more consistent energy. This keeps you from reaching for those simple carbs an hour after breakfast. A commonly recommended regimen is 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking.

salad

  • Eat Balanced Meals

A balanced meal is one which contains protein, healthy fat, and fiber. This will keep your blood sugar levels and hormones stable. You’ll have consistent energy and stay satiated between meals. Examples of balanced meals on trail include 1) a smoothie with greens powder (fiber), whey powder (protein), and hemp seeds (fat, fiber) or 2) rehydrated black beans (fiber, protein), chicken (protein), and olive oil (fat).

  • Consume Minerals and Electrolytes

Cravings for sugar can be masking mineral deficiencies. Chromium and Vanadium have been shown to affect glucose metabolism and the action of insulin. Magnesium affects the production of insulin, cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon–hormones which impact blood sugar. Consider a product to add trace minerals to your water. Use an electrolyte replacement powder or make your own. Add pink sea salt, which contains over 80 minerals, to your food and water.

  • Boost Gut Health

This study on how gut microbes influence eating behaviors indicates that supporting a healthy level of microbial diversity can have a plethora of positive results, from decreased cravings to increased immunity and neurotransmitter production. Support your gut by eating more soluble fiber from sources such as legumes, veggies, and nuts. Also eat more probiotic-containing foods, such as yogurt and sauerkraut, or take a high-quality supplement.

Sustainable behavior change and new habits are formed gradually. Incorporate the above suggestions one by one and you’ll notice that your cravings for sugar and other simple carbs are drastically reduced. If you do still find yourself wanting to reach for something sweet, choose natural sources of sugar, such as fruit. The fiber slows digestion and the rise in blood sugar. Pair sweets with protein and fat to buffer the insulin and blood sugar response.

When you’re no longer relying on sugar for quick hits of energy, you’ll find yourself with more consistent energy throughout the day and fewer cravings. You’ll likely consume less food overall, thereby allowing you to carry less food on your adventures. You can miss a meal without becoming jittery, shaky, or angry. Perhaps best of all, you’ll have better metabolic resiliency and improved overall health in the long run.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up here to be the first to know when new posts come out! Plus get access to my Eat for Endurance ebook for free!

How to Eat Healthy on a Thru-Hike

hiker eating

Of the many tasks hikers must think about before a long distance hike, food is at the top of the list.

Where will you resupply? How much food will you need? What will you eat? How do you choose which food to carry?

Either because they see no other option or because they don’t see the benefits of choosing healthier foods, many hikers settle on the standard diet of highly-processed packaged foods by default.

In this video, I give you a glimpse into what a sample day of eating might look like on trail for hikers who prefer simple to prepare, whole food options for increased energy, faster recovery, and better endurance.

Like this? Sign up for my bi-weekly newsletter and be the first to know when new posts come out!

Trail Food Makeover: How to Eat for Optimal Energy & Endurance

Besides gear, there are few other topics hikers like to discuss as much as food. The ins and outs of resupplying are often one of a hiker’s primary concerns before embarking on any long distance trail. In this 2 part series, we break down the before and after diet changes to optimize performance, as well as compare cost, calorie density, and overall nutrition.

This ‘trail food makeover’ is a collaboration between Chris and Katie. In 2017, Chris hiked the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) eating wh

at most would consider a typical ‘thru-hiker’ diet (i.e. cheap, highly-processed foods). How did he feel? He had days where he felt great, and days where he felt completely fatigued, especially towards the end of the hike. Chris recalls one particularly rough day:

It was barely noon, and he felt lethargic, like he was in “zombie-mode”. He kept pushing through, but finally had to stop for an early dinner around 4 pm. He gorged himself because he was so hungry.

That day was an eye-opener, and he thought, “Man, I’m not doing something right here.” He wasn’t sure whether his resupplies contained enough calories, he lost a lot of weight, and by the end of the trail he was feeling worn down. Read more about his hike here.

Enter Katie. As a nutritionist, health coach, and fellow long distance hiker, Katie understands the specific concerns of thru hikers and the physical demands of a long distance hike on the body. After working through adrenal fatigue and autoimmune issues herself, Katie now helps other hikers fuel for optimal energy, endurance and performance with meal planning, personalized coaching, and through her website.

continental divide trail

Heading into the 2018 hiking season, Chris knew he needed to revamp his trail diet to have the energy necessary for hiking big miles and climbing peaks. His goal was to eat for sustained, consistent energy throughout the day, and to make sure he was getting enough calories, and the right kind of calories, for long term health.

In this post, Chris breaks down what his diet looked like on the CDT, and Katie adds insight into what he could change to eat for improved energy, endurance, and optimal performance.

Chris:

In April of 2017 I was brand new to thru-hiking. I planned to thru-hike the CDT and my preparations were constantly on my mind. One of my biggest concerns was resupply. Would I have to send myself resupply boxes? How much food would I need? What would I eat? What foods would last on trail?

The logistics of food resupply quickly sorted themselves out once I was actually on trail. I spoke to fellow thru hikers who had way more experience than I did. I pieced together bits of their resupply strategies to create my own. (Nobody I met ate what might be considered a “healthy” trail diet). Before long I was carrying a food bag of what might be considered a thru hiker’s traditional resupply: Snickers, cheese, summer sausage, rice sides, chips of varying kinds, and candy.

After 2,000+ miles of hiking, I had dialed in my food plan.  Below is what I ate in a typical day on trail.

Katie:

Remember, you don’t have to completely overhaul your diet all at once. Nor do you have to give up all your favorite foods. Even small improvements, substitutions, and tweaks can make a big impact on your health and how you feel. Below are my suggestions for how Chris can meet his energy goals by adjusting his diet.

continental divide trail desert

Breakfast

Chris:

I typically start my day around 5:30-6:00 am. The night before I usually filled a powerade bottle ¾ of the way full with water, add an instant coffee pouch and a Swiss Miss hot chocolate pouch, then give it a good shake. I’d wake up to a nice, cool, caffeinated drink in the morning.  

I’d also eat a 20-gram protein bar from either Power Bar or Gatorade. This temporarily eased my immediate hunger upon waking. I’d also eat a caffeine-containing Clif Bar (Mint Chocolate or Toffee Buzz). Another part of my morning food intake became cookies, most often Nutter Butters!

Here was the breakfast breakdown:

  • Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate Packet
  • Starbucks Via Instant Coffee Packet
  • Either a Power Bar or Gatorade Bar containing 20g of protein
  • Clif Bar containing caffeine
  • 5-6 Nutter Butter cookies

Katie:

When eating to sustain energy levels throughout the day, I find that many hikers feel best starting the day with fat and protein. By eating a lot of sugar first thing in the morning, you may feel an initial surge of energy as glucose enters the bloodstream, but you’ll soon experience a “crash” as insulin shuttles glucose into cells and blood glucose levels rapidly decline. This is experienced as bonking, fatigue, and hitting the wall. For more sustained energy, consider fat and protein, which do not spike glucose and insulin levels as much, thereby giving you longer-lasting energy without the crash.

For Chris, I suggest cutting back on the sugar at breakfast and increasing healthy fats. By healthy fat, I’m referring to saturated fat and unsaturated fat from whole foods, as opposed to the harmful trans fats found in many commercial products.

Chris can keep his instant coffee drink, but consider having it black, with powdered full fat coconut milk, or even with just half the Swiss Miss packet. He’s doing great by eating a bar with at least 20g of protein first thing. This will help satiate him. Ideally, if he can find one with fewer processed ingredients, he can further reduce inflammation. Finally, rather than reaching for artificial energy with the caffeine Clif Bars and sugary cookies, Chris could save himself stress on his adrenals, and fuel with healthy fats instead.

Makeover:

hiker eating

Snacks/Lunch

Chris:

I’ll start by saying I never had a specific lunch-type meal. Instead, I carried several snacks to munch on throughout the day during several short breaks, rather than taking a longer lunch break. So, from the time I broke down camp until the time I stopped to cook dinner, it was all about a variety of snack foods!

Here is what I snacked on:

  • Chips
    • Ranch Doritos
    • Pringles
    • Cheetos
    • Fritos
    • Frito Twists
  • Bars
    • Nature Valley
    • Power Bars
    • Pro Bars
    • Beef Jerky
    • Slim Jims

Katie:

Most of Chris’s snacks are highly-processed foods, consisting of simple carbs. Many of these foods have preservatives, artificial colorings, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup, which can all create inflammation. This leads to greater fatigue, as the body tries to keep up with the physical demands of hiking all day coupled with the demands of combating chronic inflammation. Also, relying solely on simple carbs without adequate protein and healthy fats will keep Chris on the blood sugar roller coaster of energy swings.

Snacking throughout the day can be a great way to maintain energy, and carbohydrates are essential for fueling a long distance hike; however, I’d suggest choosing more whole food sources, and pairing them with protein, fat, and fiber for stable blood sugar. For chips, look for varieties with less than 5 ingredients, ideally without vegetable oils, such as canola (though that can be hard to find). For jerky, look for grass-fed sources, raised without antibiotics, with no added nitrates, MSG, or gluten.

Makeover:

  • Other
    • Granola, ideally homemade (higher in nuts/seeds, low in added sugars)
    • Nut/seed butters, such as peanut, almond, sunflower, without added sugars or oils
    • Dried Fruit
    • Nuts & Seeds
    • Homemade trail mix, with dried fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut, chocolate chips, etc. (Go down the bulk bin aisle and choose your favorites for endless variety)

trail

Dinner

Chris:

I would tend to stop and cook my one hot meal of the day around 5:30pm. I often ate a Knorr rice side or Idahoan dehydrated potatoes with chunks of cheese and summer sausage. After dinner I’d continue to hike on and treat myself to some candy when I set up my camp for the night.

My Usual Dinner Options:

  • Various Flavors of Rice Sides
  • Various Flavors of Pasta Sides
  • Various Flavors of Idahoans
  • Cheese
  • Summer Sausage
  • Skittles

Katie:
Chris could upgrade his dinners by looking for less processed versions of these staples, which would help keep inflammation lower. Consuming carbs at the end of the day helps restore muscle glycogen, so he’ll be ready to hike again the following day. Having protein with those carbs can further aid in restoring muscle glycogen. Aiming for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein works well for many athletes. Additionally, I would suggest adding in a healthy fat, such as olive oil or coconut oil, to help replenish calories and aid in satiation. Chris’s diet also contains virtually no fruits or veggies, so I would suggest adding dehydrated veggies to his dinner and/or a greens powder sometime during his day. Dinner is also a great place to add in spices, which can boost the overall nutrition and antioxidant content of his meal. Finally, I would swap out the highly processed skittles, for a dessert such as dried fruit or dark chocolate, which are loaded with the antioxidants your body desperately needs to repair.

Makeover:

  • Rice noodles (just the noodles, without the preservatives)
  • Couscous
  • Instant Potato Flakes (just the potatoes, without preservatives, like this one)
  • Dehydrated Veggies
  • Cheese
  • Summer Sausage (grass fed sources)
  • Coconut Oil
  • Olive Oil
  • Spices such as garlic powder, curry powder, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne
  • Dark Chocolate  (85% cacao or higher)
  • Dried fruit

In part 2, we’ll discuss how these resupplies compare in terms of calories, macronutrients, and nutrition. We’ll discuss the importance of considering both calorie dense and nutrient dense foods and compare common options. We’ll look at the weight of each of these resupplies, and finally, we’ll address the all-important concern of price and budget when it comes to the standard thru-hiker diet versus the healthier thru-hiker diet.

To follow Chris’s progress this year as he takes on the JMT and LT, subscribe to his blog here and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Download a free copy of Katie’s “Eat for Endurance” ebook here for more ideas on how to eat for sustained energy. Learn more about her private coaching, meal planning services, and read more of her articles here. Follow her adventures in the kitchen and in the outdoors on Facebook and Instagram.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up here to be the first to know when a new post comes out!

Rim to Rim to Rim in a Day: Nutrition

Fueling for a long day on trail can make or break the outcome of your hike. As you can imagine, I’m pretty intentional about giving my body what it needs to succeed, especially when I’m undertaking a physically stressful endeavor, such as hiking 40+ miles with 11k’ of elevation gain in a day. This post covers my Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) nutrition strategy.

If you’re interested in reading a full account of my hike, please see this post, where I discuss the gear I wore/carried as well as details from my day of hiking in the Grand Canyon.

What follows is a list of what I ate during my day of hiking R2R2R. Of course, how I eat, move, sleep, etc. on a daily basis has a greater overall impact on performance than what I do in one 24 hour period, but for those interested, here’s how I approach fueling a long day of hiking.

I’ll also explain a bit about why I chose what to eat and why I chose to eat it when I did. The intention is to provide insight into how I eat for endurance and lasting energy, and hopefully you can take some tips away to use on your own adventures.

rim to rim to rim food

This photo provides a general idea of the food I brought with me to the Grand Canyon, from which I would choose what to carry on my R2R2R hike. I didn’t take all of this and I only carried a serving or two of the items pictured in bulk (e.g. the greens powder, the protein powder, the almond butter). Some of it I didn’t take at all (e.g. the bagels and the coconut chocolate).

To determine how much to carry, I used calories as the primary metric. Because I wanted to be sure I had plenty for an over-nighter should I need to stay in the canyon, I carried a bit extra, and aimed for ~4,000 calories.

Here’s approximately what I ate and when, followed by an explanation of why.

5am: 3 scoops Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides + 1 scoop Trader Joes Organic Maca Powder + Four Sigmatic 10 Mushroom Blend + 1 scoop Amazing Grass Superfood + 1 spoonful almond butter (my favorite is Natural Grocer’s fresh ground… so fluffy and creamy) + 12 oz. strongly brewed Puehr Tea.

Supplements taken with breakfast: 1000 mg Vitamin CSelenium, Zinc, Omega Complex and Cellular Vitality Complex (found here, search lifelong vitality pack).

8am: Primal Kitchen Bar

10am: 1 banana, a couple servings Jackson’s Honest Sweet Potato Chips

12pm: 2 homemade date bites (similar to this recipe)

1pm: More sweet potato chips + 1 spoonful almond butter

3 pm: Primal Kitchen Bar

4pm: 1 date bite

5:30 pm: Good Day Caffeine Chocolate, 2 spoonful almond butter, a couple servings Jackson’s Honest Sprouted Red Corn Tortilla Chips

6 Nuun electrolyte tablets in water throughout day

Explanation

Whatever time you choose to break your fast (breakfast), it’s arguably the most important part of the day, nutritionally speaking. I started the morning with 30 grams of protein and a healthy fat, as I often do, whether on trail or off. This breakfast is satiating, so I don’t have to think about fueling again as quickly, and it also boosts leptin, a hormone which decreases appetite and leaves me feeling more satiated for the rest of the day.

I find that having a high carb/high sugar breakfast puts me on an insulin roller coaster of sugar spikes and crashes. High carb breakfasts cause me to be hungry an hour later, after the sugar has worn off, and I find myself craving more carbs. There’s nothing wrong with carbs, and of course, they’re necessary for glucose-dependent activities such as hiking, but glucose (carbs) is a quick-burning fuel. Adding fat and protein to meals slows down digestion and creates slower-burning, longer lasting, more stable energy. Adding fat and protein to pretty much everything I eat balances blood sugar and helps me have stable energy all day.

In an effort to postpone getting into too much of a calorie deficit, I had a protein bar after I reached the river, while walking through the canyon. Food would be easier to digest during easy walking. Our bodies only process about 200-300 calories per hour, so I try to eat throughout the day, so I can keep moving, as opposed to eating a lot at once.

Right before beginning the climb to the North Rim, I wanted to take in a decent amount of carbs to fuel me, so I had a banana and chips. I also knew I’d be in the sun and beginning to sweat a lot, which is why I chose a salty snack. The potassium from the banana was also helpful for mineral balance while sweating.

About 2 miles from the North Rim, it was getting hot and I was hitting a wall, so I had a couple of date bites, which are high carb, but with a little fat and protein.

At the rim, I took a short break for some chips and almond butter to replenish some salt, and because it’s my favorite trail snack. I also wanted the carbs and fat to fuel me on the way down.

Back at the bottom, walking along the river, I was beginning to get tired, so I had another bar and a date bite to keep me moving.

My last snack was before crossing the river, heading back up to South Rim. I chose caffeine chocolate to give me an extra boost on the 5,000′ climb, chips for the salt and carbs, and almond butter for the fat to fuel the last 7 miles. I probably should’ve snacked again on some carbs a couple miles before the end because I was definitely hitting a wall, but I pushed on instead.

I made sure to drink a lot of water throughout the day, especially at sources, where I would ‘camel up’. I added Nuun tabs to replenish electrolytes lost through sweat.

Whatever your adventure, whether long or short, hopefully this provided some insight into how I think about maintaining energy for a long day outdoors.

If you want more ideas on fueling for endurance, check out my free ebook here.

grand canyon

How to Use Herbs to Enhance Athletic Performance

trail

The days are growing longer and if you haven’t already started getting back outside and getting after it again, it’s time.

It’s easy to understand how what you eat and drink can impact your body’s performance, but did you know that you can optimize your active lifestyle with certain herbs as well?

Herbs can aid in reducing inflammation, improving stamina, and increasing speed of recovery, among other benefits. Include the following herbs in your daily routine to help your body perform better, whether your preferred style of movement is running, biking, backpacking, yoga, or a stroll in the park.

runner

Adaptogens are a class of herbs which promote homeostasis and increase a person’s resistance to stress. Some key adaptogens to consider for an active lifestyle include Rhodiola, Eleuthero, and Ashwagandha.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)

In regards to athletic performance, Rhodiola has been shown to reduce both lactate levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage after an exhaustive exercise session.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Eleuthero, also called Siberian Ginseng, has long been used by athletes to improve endurance. This study showed that 8 weeks of supplementation (800 mg daily) “enhances endurance capacity, elevates cardiovascular functions and alters the metabolism for sparing glycogen”.

Ashwagandha (Ashwagandha Somnifera)

Ashwagandha is another herb that has been shown to improve aerobic capacity. Eight weeks of supplementation (500 mg twice daily) significantly improved VO2 max and time to exhaustion.

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)

Turmeric is well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects. Studies indicate that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, the active component in turmeric, may offset some of the performance deficits associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) & Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

This 2014 study indicated that athletes supplementing with Cordyceps and Reishi mushrooms showed an increased capacity to quench free radicals, thereby protecting them from oxidative stress and over-training symptoms.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

In addition to its hormone-balancing effects, research suggests that Maca root, taken daily for as little as 14 days, has the ability to improve endurance in athletes.

stretching

In addition to considering these herbs to facilitate an active lifestyle, support a healthy, balanced body by including a mix of strength training, aerobic training, and stretching into your physical routine.

With a little planning, supplementing with high-quality herbs can enhance and optimize your active, healthy lifestyle!

Could Adrenal Fatigue Be Hindering Your Physical Performance?

pacific crest trail

This article originally appeared on The Trek, which you can read here.

Is your stamina and endurance suffering? Have you been getting more colds? Do you often hit a mid-afternoon slump? Do you feel anxious, down, and lack the motivation you used to have?

If you had asked me these questions a couple of years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “yes to all of the above.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but through long-distance running and hiking, plus ignoring my body’s feedback, I was gradually developing Adrenal Fatigue.

While there’s a lot of debate within the medical community about the existence and etiology of Adrenal Fatigue, the term is still widely used in popular media and within the general public. Increasingly, “Adrenal Fatigue” is replaced with more accurate descriptors like “HPA (hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary) axis dysregulation” and “General Adaptation Syndrome.” But regardless of what you call it, the condition describes a set of symptoms resulting from the many effects of chronic stress on the body.

More on that in a moment.

What are the adrenals and how do they become “fatigued?”

The adrenals are two pea-sized glands that sit atop the kidneys and are part of the HPA axis, which controls our stress response (aka the fight or flight response). When we encounter stress, whether real or perceived, a series of hormones trigger the adrenals to release cortisol into the bloodstream to make us focused and alert. Heart rate increases and glucose is released to fuel muscles. Once danger has passed, cortisol levels return to normal, insulin takes care of the extra blood sugar that was released, and all is well.

Historically, dangers were short-lived. Imagine the lion chasing the gazelle. The gazelle goes into the flight response, outruns the lion, and then goes back to grazing. The problem occurs when the danger or perceived danger never stops. This is common in our world where stress comes in many forms from physical stress, such as over-training, to emotional and psychological stress, such as concerns over finances and relationships.

lion gazelle
Photo source

Constant stress is not common in nature. The gazelle doesn’t keep stressing about the lion after the danger has passed. When we’re constantly stressed, in addition to having extra cortisol in our bodies, we also pump out extra insulin. This leads to insulin resistance, weight gain and cravings for sugar, salt, and fat.

This results in the HPA axis becoming dysregulated. The HPA axis affects systems throughout the body including thyroid and metabolism, immune function, and hormone production.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Because the HPA axis governs several functions in the body, the symptoms are wide ranging. As anyone who has hiked a long trail will attest to, it is a demanding endeavor, and physical, emotional, and psychological stress is a constant companion. If you find yourself nodding yes to most of these, read on to discover steps you can take to mitigate adrenal stress.

Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Waking up not fully rested and having difficulty falling asleep.
  • Craving sugar, fat, and salt.
  • Hitting an afternoon slump and craving sugar, caffeine, or both.
  • Gaining weight without changes in diet or exercise.
  • Feeling anxious, down, or lacking motivation.
  • Getting sick more often.
  • Experiencing low libido and hormonal issues, such as infertility,
  • Experiencing brain fog, such as issues with memory and focus.

Why are hikers particularly at risk?

Mt Whitney

Adrenal Fatigue exists on a spectrum ranging from adrenal overdrive to burnout and exhaustion.

As mentioned, stress is the driver of HPA dysfunction and that stress can come in many forms. It can be long-term emotional stress, like worrying that you’re not going to successfully finish the trail, that you’ll run out of money, or that you won’t find a job when you get home. It can also be physical stress, like walking 20+ miles daily and maintaining  a poor diet. A disrupted circadian rhythm caused by poor sleep, disrupted blood sugar from eating processed foods and refined carbs, and inflammation from substance abuse, gut issues, chronic illness, bacterial infections, and wounds, among many other factors, can all contribute to the overall stress load of the body.

When you are chronically under-eating and over-exercising, the body goes into survival mode. Your body reduces thyroid production (which plays a large role in metabolism), reduces sex hormones, and increases cortisol while you try to meet the demands of these stressors. Eventually this leads to HPA dysfunction.

The physical stress of a long hike, coupled with the nutrient-poor diet and often low-quality sleep of hikers, sets them up as prime candidates for developing HPA axis dysfunction. Those who set out on thru-hikes also tend to be driven, Type-A personalities who ignore their bodies’ red flags and push through the discomfort.

I know that was the case for me on the PCT in 2014. I actually felt great for the majority of the trail. I didn’t experience any injuries or illnesses on trail. I ate a fairly healthy whole foods diet. It wasn’t until I returned home and tried to start training for my next ultra marathon that I discovered my stamina and endurance were completely gone. Many other symptoms, such as lethargy, muscle fatigue, and hair loss were surfacing as well. After a long process of searching for answers, I discovered I had adrenal dysfunction and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Some of the symptoms were there all along and I’d been ignoring them. My salt cravings, for instance, which gave me my trail name (Salty), are one that come to mind. Frequently experiencing cold hands is another symptom I’d been ignoring. Most of it didn’t hit me until I’d returned home though.

Before you end up with complete adrenal exhaustion, look for these early indicators:

  • You experience a loss in appetite. If you’re normally hungry, then suddenly you’re not, this may indicate that you’re over-stressed.
  • You have an inability to fall asleep and stay asleep, even when you’re exhausted.
  • Your mood is off and you’re unmotivated, even though you’re living your dream and hiking through some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
  • You’re really cold all the time (disrupted thyroid function).
  • You’re sore more frequently, long after you have your “trail legs.”

How do I know if I have Adrenal Fatigue?

hammock

There are a couple tests which can be done by an integrative or functional medicine doctor to assess adrenal health. The most common is to check salivary or serum cortisol levels over a 24-hour period to see where there are dips and spikes in cortisol. Additionally, doctors can test other hormones such as DHEA, progesterone, and insulin, as well as immune markers to evaluate the effects of stress on your body.

If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms, you don’t need to wait for a test to begin treating yourself. Hikers may be able to improve symptoms with the following approaches:

  • Reduce your stress as much as possible. Uncertainty is a big driver of stress. Set yourself up for less stress by having good health and solid finances before your hike as well as a plan for when you finish. Also, find support on your hike through fellow hikers and staying in touch with loved ones at home. Enjoy your adventure and don’t pressure yourself to hike at a pace that doesn’t suit you.
  • Improve your sleep habits. Sleep is your prime recovery time, and how you sleep is how you hike. Make sure your sleeping pad is comfortable, your bag is warm enough, and avoid stimulants before bed.
  • Regulate your blood sugar levels. Adjust your resupply strategy to include less sugar and more nutrient-dense foods. Include a healthy fat and protein with each meal. Fuel consistently to avoid bonking.
  • Cut back on caffeine consumption. Caffeine can be a major adrenal stressor and it’s easy to overdo it on trail. Many drink mixes contain a lot of caffeine. For more consistent energy, opt for low-sugar electrolyte blends instead to flavor your water.
  • Exercise, but not too much. This is next to impossible for thru-hikers, of course, but you can still listen to your body. If you’re constantly fatigued, give yourself an extra zero day in town. It’s your hike. Take care of your body, so you can finish the trail healthy.
  • Add in adaptogenic herbs, such as Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, or Rhodiola. These can be sent in resupply boxes as teas, capsules, or tinctures. These herbs have a long history of traditional use in various cultures as well as scientific research showing their stress-protective properties. If you’re prone to stress, consider them an insurance policy.
  • Take a daily multivitamin with B-complex and Magnesium. Even when you’re eating healthy on trail, you can run low on key micronutrients and stress depletes them even faster. Again, consider it a nutrition insurance policy. Throw a Ziploc with a few multi-vitamins in each resupply box. They’re not that heavy.

It’s important to note that I’m not a medical doctor and this is not medical advice. I don’t diagnose, treat, or prescribe. HPA axis dysfunction is a complex topic and it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss it in full detail. This article is intended to raise awareness of an issue that hikers may be prone to experiencing, and which frequently goes undiagnosed since symptoms are wide-ranging and often confused with the ‘normal’ discomfort of thru-hiking.

If you want to know more, speak to a licensed medical professional.

If you’re seeking support with other health-related goals, such as increasing energy and stamina, eating well on trail, and preparing for or recovering from your hike, check out my other blog posts or schedule a free discovery session