This could have easily been called: My Adrenal Fatigue story: how I ran myself into the ground and totally hit rock bottom by doing everything I thought was “healthy.” But that wouldn’t have made for a very google-friendly title.
This was not an easy post to write, and it’s definitely not an easy story to share for me.
But I hope you’ll learn from my experiences, as I have, and hopefully will prevent some people from going down the same path. Sit tight, my friends, here goes a long one.
My whole life, I had been a type-A, competitive perfectionist.
And I had been totally obsessed with being “fit and healthy” (at least, according to conventional standards) for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I had gone through a few years of being a little chubby, and I was constantly exposed to people in my family talking about dieting or trying to lose weight (even though my whole family is very active and in good shape). So it was engrained in my mind from a young age that this was the norm.
I cringe looking back now, knowing I was the perfect case of exactly what NOT to do to avoid adrenal exhaustion, leaky gut, hypothyroidism, hormonal issues, and a bunch of other health problems. I basically brought these issues on myself through poor diet and lifestyle choices I made, based on what I thought would make me “healthy and fit” – at least according to conventional, mainstream knowledge and female physiques portrayed by women’s magazines, social media, and the general public. You know, the “thigh gap,” 6-pack abs and 1200-calorie diets to get there? It goes a little something like this:
Eat less, exercise more.
Eat low carb and/or low-fat to lose weight.
Do hours upon hours of cardio and abs exercises to lose weight.
Don’t eat after 7pm.
Don’t lift weights – they’ll make you bulk up.
Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
Never stop pushing yourself – you can always do more.
Keep going even if you’re totally exhausted – you’ll feel better after a workout.
Don’t ever stop short of perfect – you can always be better.
So, following this mainstream media health “wisdom”…
I was chronically overtraining in the gym and my sport (swimming) and not sleeping nearly enough. I made poor food choices for my body (including an extremely low-fat and low carbohydrate diet for many years), and drank too much caffeine and alcohol. I had a type-A/perfectionist personality, extremely high levels of stress in all aspects of my life, and a total lack of balance between my intense lifestyle and the rest I so desperately needed.
Sound familiar? How about most people I know that work in the corporate world, are in college, or a little too obsessed with trying to “get in shape”?
It was only a matter of time before all that buildup in my system pushed me over the edge into adrenal exhaustion and a host of other health problems. And after years and years of beating my body up physically and emotionally, it totally broke down.
The warning signs were there, but I wouldn’t let myself see them. And honestly, even when I did see some indication that my health was going downhill, like losing my cycle and messing up my hormones, GI issues, being completely exhausted all the time, and suffering in my athletic performance, I chose to ignore it.
WHY, you ask?
Because I was totally self-conscious and obsessed with aesthetics. I wanted to be lean. And strong. And confident.
I thought ignoring those signs, which were practically screaming in my face that I was unwell and something was seriously wrong, would get me towards my aesthetic goal. And it did…but I would have to pay a heavy price for years to come, a debt to my body I’m still working off now.
Let’s back up a bit to 2008.
As a college freshman I gained a little weight in the fall but lost it during my first varsity swim season. It really wasn’t a big deal, but the self-conscious perfectionist in me was terrified of gaining it back. So, like many college students, I started restricting my food, even skipping meals at times, counting calories obsessively, and exercising like a fiend – running about 6-7 miles a day (after never being a “runner” before in my life) in addition another hour or more at the gym every single day.
The weight I now realize I didn’t need to lose basically fell off, and I ended up injuring myself from overtraining. But I didn’t learn from my injury, and I continued that restrictive eating and exercise “bingeing” cycle throughout college, even during swim season when we were training between 3-6 hours a day. I was eating within my “healthy” eating guidelines: lots of salads, not a lot of fruit, pretty low-fat, and extremely low carbohydrate, and in general just not enough food. I was also totally overworking myself physically and mentally in school…and probably one too many nights of killing my liver. You can already see where this is going.
After college in 2012, I went to work on the presidential political campaign in Pennsylvania – a fantastic job that highlighted my obsessive, perfectionist strengths. Anyone who has worked on campaigns knows that there’s absolutely no chance in hell that you can stay healthy while you’re working on one. Let’s just say the environment of 80-90+ extremely stressful work hours a week, a never-ending flow of caffeine, chronic sleep deprivation, zero time to exercise or have “me” time, and a diet based on granola bars and office snacks did a number on my whole system.
I didn’t realize it then, but I had just pushed myself over a critical threshold of what my adrenals could handle, and basically triggered a stress-based trauma in my body from working in the campaign environment, in addition to the gradual, cumulative effect of the multiple other stressors I had been piling on my body for years.
In 2013, things started to change for the better.
In February, I did my first Whole30 and started following the paleo diet, and started seeing the naturopathic doctor who opened my eyes to looking at food as medicine. Out went the processed frankenfoods, refined sugars and grains, in came the whole foods. But, to be honest, even though it was a change in the positive direction that my body welcomed, I had “gone paleo” for completely vanity reasons – I was still stressing over my body and hadn’t let go of my self-conscious, perfectionist ways.
I was determined once again to get “back in shape.” I signed up for a half marathon with one of my best friends, and trained throughout the summer. I was still eating paleo for the most part, but I had fallen back into some of my sugar-laden, processed diet food eating ways, whose demons roared their ugly heads especially whenever I would go out with my friends and have a drink at night.
On top of all that, I was stuck in a job that I was no longer passionate about and stressed me out to no end. I was obsessing about my food, eating a “clean” low FODMAP/autoimmune protocol paleo diet for two months straight during my training to help with some digestive issues I was having, and wasn’t seeing much improvement on that front. I was still exhausted all the time. Even though it seemed like a good idea at the time, training for the half marathon and continuing to crossfit a few times a week on top of all my running was physically stressing my body out to no end.
I became so afraid of eating anything that was off my foods list for fear I would have some sort of violent symptomatic reaction, so I could barely ever see my friends. Not only had I hit rock bottom with my symptoms, but my emotional and mental well-being was heading to the gutter too.
Little did I know I was once again, literally running myself into the ground, emotionally and physically.
But I couldn’t see through the race that was right in front of me. My type-A competitive side wasn’t giving up.
I was determined to go through with my training and finish the race. And I did.
After the half marathon I backed down on my training in both crossfit and running – I needed a break. Some days I was so exhausted I could barely get out of bed for work. My digestive symptoms hadn’t really improved, even when following such a strict elimination diet. I was discouraged, but I had finally realized that food would be my medicine, and my medicine would be my food. But something was telling me I might have to take it a step further.
Could it be adrenal fatigue?
A few months later, my ND asked me to take an cortisol panel to analyze my adrenal hormone levels – cortisol and DHEA – to test for adrenal fatigue – something I’d only recently come across in my own research.
I learned that adrenal fatigue and adrenal exhaustion (in the latter, more severe stages of adrenal fatigue) occurs when the adrenal glands, which produce the hormone cortisol in response to all kinds of stressors, are so overworked that they can no longer produce the hormone in normal amounts in order to deal with regular amounts stress, whether it be good (exercise, traveling) or bad (a job that you hate and are forced to endure every day). In addition to helping the body cope with and recover from differing levels of stress, cortisol also helps regulate blood sugar levels, is a helpful anti-inflammatory agent, but in high doses, can suppress your immune response. (Source)
My results showed that I was “tired and wired”. Normal cortisol levels are high in the morning to get you out of bed and low at night to help you go to sleep, whereas mine were completely the opposite.
My overall cortisol and DHEA outputs were so low that I was heading into the more advanced and dangerous stages of adrenal fatigue – where if I kept up these same exercise and diet habits as I had been doing for so many years, and didn’t work on the stress in my life, I might’ve been completely bedridden until I recovered – which can take up months and even years. This also tied in with a host of other adrenals-related problems, like my thyroid issues, the loss of my cycle, leaky gut, sudden onsets of anxiety, low blood pressure, weight gain, and massive blood sugar imbalances, just to name a few.
I was shocked to know that following the conventional health “wisdom” (aka total bull$h*t) had driven me into the ground and made me extremely sick.
I was only doing as so many others I knew had: living a high-stress life, exercising more and eating less, not sleeping enough, on top of other suboptimal lifestyle factors like a job I didn’t love.
I slowly started to realize that all my symptoms were connected by that one very sneaky, silent killer – stress. And instead of focusing solely on keeping to a strict eating and exercise regimen as the cure-all to my problems, I started working on my health in a more holistic way: by listening to my body and giving it what it really needed – real nourishment, and a break.
Check out part 2: Recovery. (My adrenal fatigue story, part II)
Are you or do you know anyone who is struggling with the symptoms of adrenal fatigue? Share in the comments or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to help.
Want to know more about adrenal fatiuge? Here are some of the resources I used:
- Dr. Michael Lam, Adrenal Fatigue & Adrenal SupportChris Kresser: Ask the RD: Adrenal Fatigue
- The Modern Lifestyle: A Recipe for Adrenal Fatigue?
- Empowered Sustenance: Adrenal Fatigue Recovery
- T-Nation: the Truth About Adrenal Fatigue (this one gets pretty in-depth science-y!)
- The Balanced Bites Podcast: Adrenal Fatigue, Part 1
- Diane Sanfilippo: The Real Deal on Adrenal Fatigue