This is probably the most personal post I have written so far. I am not sharing this because I want sympathy, but I hope that my story can educate others on this condition and possibly help ones that are also suffering.
After dealing with issues for about a year, I have finally determined what I have been struggling against: Adrenal Fatigue. Most people have never even heard of the adrenals, let alone what they do. I am not going to write a medical journal article here, but I will give some of the basics to what the Adrenals are and why they are so important.
The adrenals are two walnut-sized glands that sit atop our kidneys. They are responsible for producing a variety of different hormones. Hormones control SO MUCH of your body’s functions and responses. The adrenals produce adrenaline (the “fight or flight” hormone), cortisol (the “Stress hormone”), DHEA (affects metabolism and controls production of sex hormones) aldosterone (related to kidney function). They also help to produce and maintain body energy levels in conjunction with the thyroid. The adrenals do A LOT of stuff!
The adrenals release adrenaline during times of immediate or short term “stress”. Do you know that feeling when your skin get warm, your heart is racing, and you have a “burst of energy”? That is the adrenaline “rush” your body responds with in times of stress. Examples would be if you had to sprint out of the way of a car, to avoid an accident, or even fun times like riding thrill rollercoasters or sports/exercise.
Every time we face stress, however, it means that our adrenal glands fire constantly and over-stimulated. Over time, this means adrenaline is on over-drive, which also increases are levels of cortisol.
Cortisol balance in our bodies is crucial for optimal health. We DO need stress and cortisol to function, or else, we wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning! (Which cortisol/adrenal insufficiency is a whole other topic and article in itself).
But, chronically elevated levels of cortisol is TOXIC for us. Chronic stress whether it be from environmental, physical, or emotional causes, are disastrous for our bodies. My chronic stress was a combination of ALL of these stressors. Being stressed constantly depletes the adrenal glands and compromises their ability to perform their tasks. Basically, you are stressed and tired, and the adrenals get tired of trying to keep up. Very tired.
This can lead to what is known as Adrenal Fatigue; a condition that is characterized by a multitude of symptoms when the adrenals and/or the pituitary/hypothalamus is not working at optimal levels. Causes are different for each person, but it is triggered by prolonged periods of high stress. For me, it was not one specific event and didn’t happen immediately…it is the overall accumulation of physical, environmental, mental and emotional stress over the past year AND in combination with my go-getter stubborn personality that “caused” this state of fatigue.
Looking back at the past year, I knew that I had a lot of stressors, but now I realize how much it was taking a toll on my entire life. Each person can handle different amounts of stress…And I was able to handle a lot for awhile. But as much as I said I was okay, it was obviously taking a toll on me and I was NOT okay.
Causes of (my) adrenal fatigue were:
- Sudden life change (February 2014 when I moved from CA to Ohio)
- Negative/”Toxic” workplace starting August 2014 (environmental stress)
- Go-go-go “busy-bee” perfectionist mentality
- Emotional stress being away from home, family, etc. and starting a new life in Ohio
- Contest Prep in August-Nov. 2014: strict dieting + intense exercise (increased physical stress)
- Sleep deprivation + lack of rest & recovery/no “down time”
- Planning our wedding (April 2014-May 2015-increased mental stress)
- Financial stress from wedding, travel, etc.
As I look back on this past year…no WONDER I had so many issues! I can’t believe I didn’t realize how many stressors I had! Adrenal fatigue is a slow buildup of chronic stress and “overload” on your body…it is not something that you just wake up with tomorrow, feeling like crap and a list of symptoms. I didn’t know that I was in the early stages of adrenal fatigue for months, or that I had any “real issues” at all. I just thought I had a lot on my plate…I was always busy, but it’s good to be busy and productive, right?
I do acknowledge that my personality has a big role in all this. I wouldn’t say I am a full blown Type-A, but I definitely have enough “characteristics” to make me fall in the category. I am very driven, that person with a constant “to-do” list, I thrive on accomplishments, multi-tasking and seeking out progress. In my mind, there is always “something to do” and I push myself to be better, in any way I can. This is one my best traits but also a terrible vice. I am very guilty of being TOO hard on myself, pushing myself too much, even when it is for the positive. Too much in my situation, was exactly what I didn’t need to do. It was “too much” effort. It is really hard mentally to grasp, but I realize now that slowing down and “not doing anything” is OKAY and HEALTHY!
Most of the symptoms seemed random and not connected, and when I did start to put all the pieces together, adrenal fatigue had already been affecting me for awhile 🙁
Now that I have done my research, it is easy to see how they that are all most definitely connected and got worse over time. They included: (I was struggling with ALL of these at one point):
- Fatigue/Low energy
- Muscle/Joint Aches
- Digestive issues/IBS
- Bloating/Water retention
- Weight gain (esp. in midsection)
- Loss of muscle mass/strength
- Low body temperature/always cold
- Very dry skin & brittle hair
- Low/decreased Blood pressure (90/55)
- Dizziness upon standing (from floor/seated positions)
- Yellow/orange colored palms of hands & soles of feet
- Frequent + urgent urination
- Constant thirst + dry mouth
My first symptoms (during the summer of 2014) were bouts of insomnia and also very short menstrual cycles (every 20 days) even with taking birth control. The other symptoms followed in the fall and looking back, January-April were the most difficult months when I was fighting these on a daily basis. I was dealing with constant digestive issues, food sensitivities, chronic body aches, etc.
I would make “excuses” and didn’t realize how big of an issue all of these were. I would tell myself things like:
“It’s winter and freezing outside, it’s normal to be cold and have dry skin…”
“I have low energy because I am busy all the time and because I don’t sleep well”
“I am not a morning person…and I just can’t fall asleep at night because I am a night owl”…(but I had to wake up at 5am for work every day)
“My body is sore and achy because I have intense workouts. It’s normal to be sore”
My mental symptoms and changes were just as prevalent and concerning….
- Depressed moods and states of apathy
- Erratic moods, irritable, short-tempered
- Inability to handle stress, small or large situations
- Decreased “zest for life”
- Lack of desire for normal activities + social events
- Low libido
- Feelings of anxiety + negative thoughts…going on “mental tangents”
- Highly sensitive to noises; feelings of “over-stimulation”
- Lack of concentration, mental fog, jumbling words
These bothered me almost more than the physical changes. I would wake up and start the day with a good attitude….I would tell myself, ” I will have a good day!” Yet, by 10am I was still dragging, some days wanting to cry, and some days I actually did. I cried because I felt so tired, weak, and yet I couldn’t seem to “snap out of it”. As much as I tried…I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t feel like I had control over my body or my mind.
I remember talking to my mom in the spring and telling her “I tell myself that I am happy. And to have a positive day. But yet I am stressed out of my mind. I am trying to ignore the negative thoughts but they are all-consuming at times. I am exhausting myself. I KNOW that I am not truly feeling my best being negative, which upsets and saddens me even more. I feel so out of control”. 🙁
I am pretty patient, yet I would get super frustrated and upset with the littlest things, and/or even burst into tears. Loud noises would literally hurt my ears…I couldn’t handle being in busy or crowded places. I couldn’t write an email in the same room that the TV was on. I had a hard time communicating effectively…I would have the thoughts in my head yet I would jumble over my words when speaking, I would ramble…I would think ” I sound like an idiot…” but I couldn’t help it.
I would describe myself as a patient, positive, and overall happy person. I’ve always had a good handle on things and could “deal with” the rollercoaster of life. I have been through some difficult times in the last few years, but I have also had some incredible positive memories. Even though there were challenges, I have always remained optimistic and grateful of my blessings… I love being around people and spending time with family and friends. Life is good!
But I felt like a different person. I was Allison on the outside, but I was falling apart on the inside. I felt hopeless, alone, sad, physically and mentally exhausted. I had never felt this way before. It is the worst feeling ever. The physical symptoms I knew could be somewhat caused by environmental factors, but what about my mood and thoughts? Isn’t that up to ME??
In January 2015, I went to see an OB-GYN about my lack of a menstrual cycle (I stopped birth control in Oct. and hadn’t had a cycle yet). We did some preliminary lab testing and his recommendation was to “gain some healthy weight” and to wait a few months to see if it would regulate naturally. Great. No answer…
In April, my insurance through my work FINALLY went through and I was able to see a Primary Doctor. I explained all my issues and she ran complete blood panels and tested my sex hormones as well. I was shocked to get the results…my estrogen was non-existent…as low as pre-menopausal women! It confirmed that SOMETHING was going on, but I still didn’t know what. She referred me to an endocrinologist…which I had to wait 2 months for an appt…
Between April and June, I played the “waiting game” with the doctors while trying to still manage my stress as much as I could. I traveled back twice in 1 month to CA to be in a wedding and for my bridal shower/bachelorette party. All awesome, wonderful events, but STRESSED me out like no other.
In May on the week of my wedding, I quit my training job and I felt 10x better almost immediately. I ended up dreading going there and hating my job…how terrible right?? I knew that it was not the right place for me and I was so happy to close that chapter.
Then a few days later I married my husband and it was the most FABULOUS wedding day ever. Seriously, nothing went wrong! Out of the whole process, it was the LEAST stressful day 🙂
In the beginning of July I was finally able to see the specialist. I told him my story all over again…he ran more lab testing…again, my sex hormones were all low, DHEA was low-“normal”, and I had slight inflammation in my kidneys and liver. Even though I had poor levels, the endocrinologist determined it was “hypothalamic amenorrhea”…no further testing was needed, and I was given a prescription for Zoloft (an anti-depressant). To say I was upset would be an understatement. I was PISSED. I was being blown off ONCE AGAIN and told that my issues were “in my head” and that taking an anti-depressant would solve it.
So you bet I went right back in and told them I am NOT taking the Rx and requested more testing. He then ordered an MRI of my pitituary gland (which controls the adrenals). I wanted to rule out anything and everything, and this would test for any inefficiencies or benign tumors. MRI test gets done…results come back…no issues. Which is good (I don’t want a tumor!) but STILL leaves me with no answer. He brought up the Zoloft once again and said “I’m sorry, sometimes we just don’t know what causes some issues”.
3 different doctors, multiple visits and tests done, months of frustration and waiting, and not ONE mention ever about the adrenal glands and/or adrenal fatigue.
I stumbled across Adrenal Fatigue when researching symptoms and how it related/can cause hypothyroidism. (My tests ruled out hypothyroidism out, but that doesn’t mean my thyroid was working at an OPTIMAL level. My levels were low, but fell into a “normal” range.) After looking more into it, I realized that I most definitely have some degree of Adrenal Fatigue.
The only real way to test for it is my taking a 24-hour Saliva test, which measures your ranges of cortisol throughout the day. If you suspect adrenal fatigue, your levels will be imbalanced (low in the morning, high at night). I have not been able to get this tested, but most definitely would like to.
The most unfortunate part about it, is that it is not a medically recognized condition. Yep, so most doctors see the adrenal glands as either functioning or not, without degrees of variation. Either you have adrenal insufficiency (very very low functioning) or your adrenals are “A-okay”.
I can tell you honestly that Adrenal Fatigue is most definitely REAL. It is not something that will “go away” after a couple days of good sleep or by taking an anti-depressant. I had very real physical and mental changes, some I am still battling currently.
How do you overcome Adrenal Fatigue? With time, patience, and the willingness to make the most necessary changes to get your life back. The biggest part is to recognize your individual stressors and eliminate them as much as possible. Other changes include an improved diet, supplementation, and lifestyle changes (which depends on your individual case).
In the last few months since quitting my job and getting married, I eliminated two major stresses that had been in my life for months. I am happy to be married, but wow, wedding planning is a lot! I have been doing part time work at home and not having to work at 6am is amazing. Getting adequate sleep does WONDERS!!! I love exercise (it is my profession and my hobby) and also my stress relief. However, it is an area that I tend to push & over-exert myself (literally) and excessive intense exercise only puts more stress on the adrenals. Cutting back on exercise is what I have been struggling the most, but I know it is a stressor that needs to be reduced.
So I have been feeling A LOT better since May. But I am still very early on my recovery process and still have a long way to go before I am back to 100%.
It really helped me to just acknowledge that I am not perfect and to stop trying to be so productive!! I have to very mindful to not “over-do” it with my exercise, my work, my activities, even my thoughts. When I catch myself thinking way too much about everything (!) I stop and either write it down or acknowledge that I need to “take a break” and calm my mind. I have been spending more time in prayer, easy reading, taking walks, and just laying on the couch watching TV sometimes. Cause it is OKAY to not always be “doing something!” Yoga + meditation are also options for the future.
I plan on writing more posts going more in depth about causes, triggers, and my full plan on healing my adrenals. Health is SO important and being my best from the inside out is my top priority. Thank you if you read this entire post and I hope it helps in any way!
Here are some links that have been especially helpful to me. They provide a TON more information on Adrenal Fatigue; causes, symptoms, and how to recover!! <3