Could trying to be perfectly “healthy” have made me sick?
By Locke Hughes, freelance writer and health coach of lockehughes.com.
Note: This post covers how I learned about adrenal fatigue—and discuss some of the controversy surrounding it. In Part Two, I’ll talk about the steps I took to recover.
Although I’m an Emory-certified health coach, I’m not a medical professional. This post is based on personal experience and is not meant to be a substitute for professional care. As always, do your research and speak to a certified healthcare provider before making any major changes to your diet or lifestyle.
I’ve always been an on-the-go, type-A, semi-perfectionist kind of person. Growing up, I was always active, playing sports and working hard in school. After college, I moved to Manhattan, where I lived for over six years. My days were packed with workouts, work, events, and socializing (which included a lot of alcohol). I tried to stick to a healthy-ish diet, but inevitably, plenty of pizza and late-night chicken tenders were involved as well.
At 24, I also started training for half-marathons, running long distances nearly every day, in addition to everything else on my plate.
Sure, I was probably burning the candle on both ends, but isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in your twenties?
Me on the far right after the Nike Women’s Half Marathon, back before running 13.1 miles seemed laughable!
A couple years ago, my busy life started to catch up to me. I’d also experienced some major stressors, such as a breakup and a move to a new city.
Although I’ve never been a “morning person” (e.g. making a 7 a.m. workout will always be a struggle for me) I felt far more exhausted than I’d ever felt in the past. Every morning, I’d lie in bed, hitting snooze three, four, or five times after my alarm went off.
I went from running half-marathons to not wanting to exercise at all. If I managed to fit in a workout, it was maybe a 20-minute run, or a half-hearted workout class at the gym.
At work, I often felt mentally foggy, even after two or three cups of coffee. I’d gain a little energy to make it through the morning, but every day, at around 3 or 4 p.m., the exhaustion would come on strong — so strong that I’d start to feel dizzy at work. All I could think about was curling up on the floor and closing my eyes. That, or eating something sweet for a quick burst of energy.
Every day, I tried to push through the “slump,” my eyes glazing over and brain zoning out as I tried to focus on the words on the screen. When I got home after work, I’d sometimes sit down on the couch and fall asleep for a couple hours, waking up only to eat dinner before going to sleep again.
Other health issues cropped up as well. My digestion slowed down to a halt, and I often felt bloated. I had gained a few pounds around my waist that wouldn’t disappear, despite how healthfully I ate or how much I exercised.
This exhaustion, unsurprisingly, also started to affect my personal life. I found myself losing patience with people. I lacked interest in things I used to enjoy. Everything felt overwhelming — from the thought of doing laundry to the idea of going to buy groceries.
Most of all, I was tired of being tired.
I knew the way I was feeling wasn’t normal, but neither doctors nor Google could give me an answer why I felt this way. Most of the advice I got in the doctor’s office or read about was the same old stuff: Get more sleep. Eat more vegetables. Cut out sugar. Exercise!
So I kept pushing myself to work out more, dragging myself to 6 p.m. Flywheel classes even though I’d fallen asleep at my desk earlier that day. I tried to eat even less and turned to low-fat products to avoid gaining more weight. I continued to keep up with the demands of my social life and my job, even though I felt like a shell of a person most of the time.
Then, a year ago last March, I came across a blog post by Lee from America, a wellness blogger. In it, she talked about her experience with adrenal fatigue, and it resonated with me. I almost immediately felt relief that I wasn’t crazy, it wasn’t all in my head—others had felt this way as well. Our experiences also lined up almost perfectly.
For Lee, her adrenal fatigue began after she moved from NYC to start a new life in California. (I had recently moved from NYC to Atlanta to slow down, too, but my move, and my new job, proved extremely stressful.)
In the post, Lee talked about the “Fatigue Blanket,” which hit her at 3 p.m. most days, causing her to get back in bed or lay on the couch. (Check.)
She said she’d often stay up late with her mind racing, then found it extremely difficult to get out of bed in the morning. (Same.)
She talked about the time her mom came to visit her in LA, when she grew so anxious and felt so horrible that she had to cut short their time together. (The same scenario had happened to me when my mom had come to visit me.)
Is Adrenal Fatigue a Real Thing?
Despite my work as a health and wellness writer, I’d never even heard of adrenal fatigue before.
Maybe that’s because in traditional medicine, it’s not an “accepted medical diagnosis,” according to Mayo Clinic. The Endocrinology Society says that “there is no substantiation that ‘adrenal fatigue’ is an actual medical condition,” while a recent review of 58 studies concluded that “there is no scientific basis to associate adrenal impairment as a cause of fatigue.”
Still, despite skepticism among most health providers, there is some science behind it. When we get stressed, our adrenals, two small glands that sit on top of the kidneys, release short bursts of cortisol into the blood stream, writes Marcelo Campos, MD, in the Harvard Health Blog.
Over time, when we experience chronic, long-term stress, our adrenals become depleted of cortisol. This “low cortisol state” can lead to vague symptoms such as brain fog, low energy, depressive mood, salt and sweet cravings, lightheadedness, and others — all of which I experienced.
Fortunately, certain complementary and alternative medical providers will diagnose and treat adrenal fatigue. In Atlanta, I sought out a functional medicine provider who gave me extensive blood tests and cortisol tests. The results?
Well, if adrenal fatigue was a thing, I certainly had it. My cortisol levels were all over the place. My hormones were imbalanced. I had low thyroid hormones, digestive issues, as well as nutrient deficiencies that were also tied to this state of constant exhaustion.
At least, I finally had confirmation that my symptoms were real. Just as I had felt when I was reading Lee’s blog post, I immediately felt comforted that it wasn’t all in my head. Getting a diagnosis, or at least an acknowledgment from a health professional that something was off in my body, felt like a huge relief. But still, the “why” loomed large.
The Root Cause
Toward the end of my time in NYC. I remember feeling so tired that day.
Call it burnout, call it chronic stress, or call it exhaustion, but I think the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are far more common than we realize in our constantly on-the-go lifestyles. No matter if you live in NYC or Idaho, we’re all way more stressed out than our technology-free ancestors. And that can easily translate to those unwanted, uncomfortable symptoms that aren’t so easy to shake.
Unfortunately, when you’re “diagnosed” with adrenal fatigue (or simply feel completely burned out), there’s no quick and easy cure. But the first step in addressing your symptoms is figuring out why you’re experiencing them in the first place. As Campos writes,
While I can’t pinpoint the specific cause of my adrenal fatigue (or burnout, or whatnot), I’m positive it resulted from a combination of lifestyle factors and improper nutrition. Throughout my twenties, I thought I was doing everything “right” to live a healthy lifestyle. (I even write for health websites like Shape, Greatist, and WebMD!)
But doing things “right,” according to much of the conventional health advice (and yes, the sites and magazines I wrote for), too often meant pushing myself to extremes. I thought I needed to go to that 7 a.m. spin class, to run six miles on Saturday morning. I figured I should go out for drinks with friends on a Tuesday, like everyone else, and drink endless cups of coffee to give me much-needed energy the next day.
And even though I was eating “healthy” compared to most of the country, I’ll be honest: my diet also included lots of low-fat, fat-free packaged products, and usually a daily dose of inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, sugar, and alcohol.
Finally, I realize that leading a type-A, always-on lifestyle isn’t confined to the boundaries within New York City, but there’s no doubt that years of living in such a busy place can wear you down, as both Lee’s and my cases demonstrate.
Add in our growing reliance on technology — constantly checking our phones, eyes always on screens, wondering how we compare to others’ shiny highlight reels— and you get the (not-so-pretty) picture.
In the end, I guess this had to happen in one way or another. And in some ways, I’m grateful for it. I think that experiencing adrenal fatigue taught me so many important lessons about my health, both mental and physical. (I’ll talk more about this in Part Two.)
The Bottom Line
Whether or not you consider adrenal fatigue a “real” condition, burnout is real, and it isn’t going away. In fact, I think it’s only going to get worse.
My hope is that we begin talking more about these symptoms (and the fact that you can learn how to cope with them) in the wellness world. I’m sure there are so many young women (and men) out there who, like me, believe the way they feel is the only way to feel. And in response, like me, they continue to push their bodies to the limits without realizing they’re just making things worse.
How’d I begin to heal? I’ll talk about that in part two.
This article was originally published on Thrive Global on May 30, 2018.