Six and a half years ago, before I became a functional medicine doc, I fell off of my horse and fractured four transverse processes in my lumbar spine (lower back). Essentially, I broke my back. Two years later, I was still struggling and had all kids of undiagnosed symptoms that were really affecting me, my lifestyle, and my family. I was misdiagnosed with depression and put on two different kinds of antidepressants.
I kept telling my doctor that they weren’t helping, I wasn’t feeling any better yet I had all the side effects from these prescription medications! My traditional doctor couldn’t figure out where all of these symptoms were coming from, she could only point to depression. It’s really not her fault, adrenal fatigue is often undiagnosed by conventional medical doctors. They either don’t believe it exists or they have not been educated on the diagnosis.
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a functional medicine doctor who brought up the idea that this could really be an adrenal issue. She promptly did some tests and found that my adrenal glands weren’t putting out an appropriate amount of cortisol and got me started on ways to remedy it. Boom. That’s when my symptoms finally started to get better- with the proper diagnosis and treatment.
This experience made me so passionate to share my story, because I went through so much to find the answers, and it was really so simple to correct.
WHAT IS ADRENAL FATIGUE?
Adrenal fatigue is a condition of the adrenal glands which are these very important, little pyramid shaped glands on top of your kidneys that release important hormones, including aldosterone, cortisol and sex hormones such as dihydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and testosterone.
For this particular topic, I would like to just focus on cortisol. It’s a stress hormone which was helpful back in the caveman days, for dangerous situations to increase reaction in times of stress to essentially protect the body from death. It was a very different situation back then with generally less frequent periods of high stress. Today we have very different kinds of stressors that persist throughout the day. All day stressors pops up in different forms, (e.g. relationships, kids, finances, jobs.) and just keeps coming at us in waves. So, basically, we are stressed 24/7!
One of the worst stressors we can go through is feeling trapped. To put this into perspective, there was a terrifying experiment done on mice where they did all these terrible testings to them include cutting off their legs, starvation, and entrapment. The highest indicators of stress in the mice were actually in being trapped, not the other situations that you would’ve thought.
If you translate these findings to humans, how many people feel trapped in their jobs? I used to see this all the time with the patients in my medical practice. They were overworked, underpaid, in toxic workplaces, working too many hours, all while being under-appreciated which lead to this entrapment level of stress. It was especially so when finances and obligations to care for family remove the option to get out of this extremely unhealthy environment. Not to mention relationship issues, drug dependency, and so much more, translating in our bodies as entrapment and therefore long-term unrelenting stress.
This is when my clients would complain of feeling tired, unmotivated, unable (or unwilling) to exercise, food cravings (salt and sugar,) weight gain, sleep disturbances, and mild depression.
COULD YOU HAVE ADRENAL FATIGUE?
There are all different degrees of adrenal glands not functioning efficiently. For example, Addison’s Disease is complete adrenal insufficiency, meaning the adrenals are not producing enough cortisol and aldosterone. This an extreme situation and relatively rare. Cushing’s Syndrome is the opposite, an overproduction of cortisol. These are generally the only two cases that conventional doctors will know there is a problem. The thing is even small discrepancies in cortisol amount and timing of release can wreak havoc on our bodies and produce symptoms, so why wait until it’s an emergency?
Timing is important for cortisol. Typically, in the morning our cortisol should be higher. It’s what triggers us to get up, get out of bed, and get going. It should gradually go down as the day goes on. But for some people with low cortisol in the morning hours, they feel more tired in the morning, and throughout the day, exhaustion compounds until nighttime when it can actually increase- causing sleep issues. This is completely opposite to how cortisol should be released and is caused by adrenal dysfunction, most likely from chronic stress.
If you have symptoms of feeling fatigued, low energy, lack of motivation, food cravings, unable to get enough (or efficient) sleep, it could be that your adrenals are suffering. So be sure to keep that in mind when your doc wants to put you on anti-depressants right away! You need to think outside the box and consider other diagnoses!
My adrenal fatigue was due to years of acute stressors such as being a very busy OB/GYN doctor running purely on adrenaline, not sleeping well due to work obligations, birthing twins (and the lack of sleep that is associated with having infants), relocation, changed jobs and eventually came to a peak with the injury from falling off my horse. My body just shut down and I was very symptomatic. It wasn’t until my functional medicine doctor thought outside the box that I finally found treatment.
A NON-MEDICINE, DOCTOR APPROVED APPROACH TO REDUCING ADRENAL FATIGUE
Adrenal fatigue is caused by stress. Because of this, it’s important to really focus in on relieving what stressors you can, and finding ways to reduce the effects of stress on your body when possible. Maybe you can’t yet get out of the job that is causing you significant amounts of stress, but there are tools to help you manage them, for your health, and to stop the cycle of stress from keeping you in this highly uncomfortable and unhealthy state.
When was the last time you felt yourself free from stress? What were you doing? What do you enjoy? For some it’s gardening or crafting. For others it’s reading a book or listening to an audio book. For others, it’s exercise! It’s time to really focus in on the things that bring you joy.
Here are some things that I’ve found reduce stress for me and my clients:
1 GET ENOUGH SLEEP
I have a trick for people suffering with adrenal fatigue. The most restorative sleep for people with adrenal issues is actually between 7-9am. These people should go to bed earlier and wake up later, even if it’s only on select days. I suggest a 10 pm bedtime (or earlier) and 9am wakeup. I realize this is not possible for many people on most days. But on days it is, doctor’s orders! 😉 For those of us who are overachievers, I know it’s hard to sleep in but it might be necessary early on in order to heal your body!
2 FOOD THAT HELPS AND FOOD THAT HURTS
Fueling your body efficiently is so vital to reducing stress on your body systems overall. In my Mindful Nutrition Mentorship, we talk a lot about finding joy in feeding ourselves, limiting the guilt that can come with having an occasional treat, and learning how our specific bodies respond to every single thing we feed ourselves. This process helps us find the foods that make our bodies start to feel better and which aren’t helping at all. This is especially important for those with adrenal fatigue because sugars and caffeine, (which both sound energizing to someone who is struggling with getting moving and motivation,) are actually creating a vicious cycle. Both are sources of artificial, short lived energy but becoming even more addicting to those who have adrenal issues! Those with adrenal fatigue learn to enjoy the surge of energy after consuming sugar or caffeine, begin depending on it for their energy and never get to the root of the underlying cause of their problems.
3 SALT IN YOUR BATH… AND CUP?
Salt has such a bad rap lately, and if we’re solely talking about your iodized table salt, I could understand. It’s been stripped of it’s nutrients. But sea salt (I love Himalayan sea salt) has so many restorative nutrients in it that I even suggest adding a little bit of sea salt to your water to boost energy and balance electrolytes! You’d be amazed how energizing this practice is! I even recommend adding sea salt to your evening bath in addition to epsom salt, whenever possible, because together they increase essential nutrients that you may be lacking and can increase your magnesium, and potassium levels too. The skin is the largest organ of your body so why not use it to absorb these important minerals and electrolytes! I recommend also adding some baking soda to promote alkalinity in your body!!
4 GLUG, GLUG
Proper hydration plays a key role in reducing stress in our bodies. The human body, when balanced, is 50-65% water. When out of balance all of the body systems are on alert to protect and potentially save your life. Staying well hydrated will improve your energy so maybe you can cut down on caffeine to help you stay awake and focused! Try focusing on proper hydration, which is half your body weight in ounces of water, (150 pound person needs 75 ounces of water per day.)
5 GET MOVING
Exercise is a natural way to boost cortisol levels. And exercise can be especially calming when you get out in nature for things like walking, running, and hiking. People who are severely adrenal fatigued should probably stay away from high intensity cardio-based training and heavy weight training until they get to the point in recovery where they feel more healed and energetic. Hard, intense workouts in those who have severe adrenal fatigue can actually be counter-productive and delay healing. In those will severe conditions, I usually suggest more restorative workouts like yoga, until adequately healed.
6 STRENGTHENING YOUR MIND
Even 10 minutes per day of mindfulness, meditation, or prayer can be so mentally restorative. I am not naturally someone who can meditate, my mind is busy and wanders so I’ve found that using apps (such as Headspace and Calm,) help me drop the idea of a “perfect” meditation and simply helps me relax. I also love to suggest journaling, especially for those who may struggle with a victim mentality mindset, (feeling that things are happening TO you instead of FOR you.)
I suggest taking time to work on the stressors in your life that you CAN control. Working on vital relationships (significant others, parenting, etc.) in whatever capacity feels right will help you see the light at the end of the tunnel, give you a sense of purpose and accomplishment, while helping reduce the stress on others too.
For those of you in a high-stress work environment, take time to wind down/destress after the work day instead of bringing it home. Maybe that means a few extra minutes in the car before you walk in the door, or a favorite playlist that helps you drop the funky energy you’ve been exposed to.
I know this is a lot to absorb, and I’ve given you so many suggestions to get your body out of a state of stress. But I am proof of someone who had adrenal fatigue and overcame it. With the appropriate diagnosis and treatment, I got my life back. My symptoms were so bad that there were times I didn’t see the point of it all. I didn’t see how I could continue on in life, living how I was living.
How many other people are stuck in that dark lonely place I was? Who don’t see significant improvement with antidepressants? I literally would not be here today, talking to you, if I didn’t stumble upon a functional medicine doctor who could actually find the problem and help me.
Stay tuned for my next blog post on how to diagnos and treat adrenal fatigue! In this blog post, I’ll share more about the supplementation side and additional treatments for adrenal fatigue. Until then, comment below and let’s brainstorm favorite ways to reduce stress! What’s your go-to?
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