I had intended for this to be just a two part series on adrenal fatigue, but as I started writing this post, I decided to be totally open and honest about my experience, so now it will be three parts. I want you to know that if you’re going through this, you’re not alone, and who knows, maybe there’s something in my journey that could help you if you’re dealing with your own health issues.
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed what exactly the Adrenal Glands are, what they do and how stress affects their function. If you haven’t read that post yet, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to review that information. In short though, when chronic stress is an issue, the HPA Axis is constantly sending the adrenals the signal to produce its corticosteroids and catecholemines. Approximately 80-90% of the stress response occurs from the actions of epinephrine and cortisol. When the adrenal hormones are out of balance, they disturb the balance of all other hormones including insulin, thyroid, reproductive, and the neurotransmitters. Elevated levels of cortisol in the body can cause impaired cognitive function (poor memory and fuzzy thoughts), interference with healing, sleep disruption, increased abdominal fat, elevated blood pressure and lowered immune function among other symptoms.
Basically, our bodies remain in Flight or Fight mode due to chronically elevated stress hormones. Remember that stress can be positive (weddings, new babies, new jobs, etc.) or negative (financial issues, work, marital problems, etc.), but both affect our bodies the same. Stress is stress when it comes to how our bodies perceive things. Eventually, our adrenals are left overworked and our hormone levels are all out of whack.
My Adrenal Fatigue Story. AKA It’s Complicated.
This – overworked adrenals and whacked out hormones – is where I found myself about 6 months ago. I had been trucking right along at a pretty good pace, and then compounded my issues further by some other changes I made in my lifestyle. As a side note, a lot of this may be news to my friends and family, as I kept a good bit of this to myself. Almost two years ago, I started my school program, which I was so excited and passionate about. My Type A personality kicked in, and I decided that if I couldn’t graduate with honors, there really wasn’t any point of doing this at all (insert eye roll here). I spent the next year really pushing myself on all my assignments, doing extra research, making sure I was at the top of my game. This was in addition to my actual job. Then we ended up moving on fairly short notice – and had to find a place to live, pack and get moved within about 4 weeks – on top of school and my day job.
Right after the move, I noticed I didn’t really feel like I was bouncing back. I just felt really run down, but I kept pushing forward. Around this time, I also decided that I wanted to get myself off of birth control pills – which I had been on for 10+ years. I’m not looking to get pregnant, but I was learning more about some of the negative aspects of being on the pill, and had also come to understand that the heart palpitations I had for nearly all of that time may be caused by the pill. (Side note: I had tons of tests run over the years in order to make sure the heart palpitations weren’t something serious, and everything had always come back normal, even though I knew this wasn’t normal for me.) In April of this year, I stopped taking the pill. Within just a few weeks, I noticed that I wasn’t having nearly as many heart palpitations, and now it’s rare that I have them at all, my energy seemed a bit better and my libido was better. I really thought this had been the best decision, and things were only going to improve from here on out.
Don’t get me wrong, going off of the pill was absolutely the best choice I could have made for my health.
Unfortunately Fortunately , I believe that getting off those hormones uncovered some other issues that had been hiding, including adrenal fatigue. In late June, I hit a wall. I was exhausted All.The.Time. I mean, it didn’t matter if I slept 7 hours or 12 hours, I was exhausted. At night, I was tired and wired – I wanted to sleep, but my body and brain were awake. I would either fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, only to wake up at 2am and be awake for hours in the middle of the night, or I couldn’t fall asleep and would lay there awake until around 2 or 3am and finally fall asleep. I was starting to feel overwhelmed by everything. The slightest hint of stress, and even just minor schedule changes, would send me into a tailspin. To be fair, I love a good schedule or plan, and am not always the best at deviating from a plan, but this was beyond even that. I couldn’t handle all of the things that I normally do every day.
? Sums up how I felt all day, every day.
I also started to feel anxious all the time. I couldn’t pinpoint any one thing that I was anxious about – the feeling was just there. There were a few days the anxiety was so bad, I ended up in tears and asking my mom to pray over me because I couldn’t even think straight. In fact, one day it was so bad that I told my husband I didn’t want to be in my own skin – it felt too restricting, and I couldn’t breathe for it. If you’ve never experienced high levels of anxiety, you might think I sound crazy right now, and that’s okay. I hope you never have to know what that feels like. If you have experienced anxiety like this, or even worse than this, then I want you to know that you are not alone, and my heart goes out to you. It is a terrible, helpless feeling, and leaves you not trusting your own body and mind.
To top it all off, my hair started falling out, too. I would lose clumps of hair every time I washed it, and it was visibly thinning on the top, and at the very front of my head. There are a lot of emotions tied up in our hair, and to see your hair falling out is really hard. It just added to the anxiety and overwhelm that I was already feeling. I was also really sensitive to cold, and even in the Texas summer heat, I was having a hard time if the air conditioning blew directly on me. It literally hurt to have cold air on my skin. The fatigue was so bad that I could hardly function during the day, and didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything – I didn’t have the energy for it, and everything I did do, took everything I had in me. It was at this point that I knew that all of this wasn’t just symptomatic of coming off of the pill or generally feeling stressed. Something was going on with my body, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I started wondering if my thyroid was the issue. Look, I’ll be honest, I was looking for any explanation for why I felt the way I felt.
My general practitioner was running some routine annual labs, and I asked him to run a full thyroid panel. My thyroid levels came back within the normal range, but they were at the very low end of normal. My doctor is wonderful, but he really felt like everything was normal, and there wasn’t anything to worry about. This is pretty common in traditional medicine. I’m not disparaging traditional medicine – we need doctors. Unfortunately, they aren’t always looking at everything from a holistic perspective, or even from a functional medicine perspective. I know from my own holistic nutrition education, that these numbers were not normal, and they were indicative of an imbalance somewhere.
I decided that it was time for me to be proactive and take control of this situation. Sitting on the sidelines and hoping I felt better soon wasn’t going to cut it. I started doing my own research. I read Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms When My Lab Tests Are Normal? by Datis Kharraziac, DHSc, DC, MS, which gave me some serious insight into my thyroid numbers and what they meant. This book connects all the dots between thyroid function, blood sugar dysregulation, adrenal fatigue or dysfunction, diet and other factors. The Thyroid Connection by Amy Myers, MD is also a wealth of valuable information and insight.
I knew that as a Nutrition Consultant, I could get my meals balanced the way they needed to be in order to improve my health, but I knew I needed some extra support. I chose to work with an amazing acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist to get to the root causes of what was going on, and get things back in balance. I will write a separate post just on the subject of acupuncture, but it can help with so many health issues, pain management, hormonal imbalances, emotional imbalances and more. If you are in the Austin area, I highly recommend Turtle Dragon. All of the practitioners at this practice are fantastic!
In working with my acupuncturist, and sharing what I suspected was going on, we were able to settle on a likely scenario for my health issues. First, I had been under chronic stress for over a year, and the stressful move we had to make was probably the final straw for my adrenals. They had been pushed to their limit, and I was starting to see those signs. When I quit taking the pill, it was enough of a hormonal shift that it probably masked some of the symptoms for a couple of months, but ultimately, my liver wasn’t working properly to detoxify and remove the excess hormones from my body. Not to mention the fact that my digestion was all screwed up too, so that was an issue with excess toxins and hormones. Because of the chronic stress I was under, and the fact that my adrenals were overworked, my pituitary gland was also asleep on the job. It was no longer responding to the stress hormones, so it wasn’t releasing adequate TSH to stimulate my thyroid. My thyroid wasn’t the issue, so much as it was my pituitary gland not doing it’s job, so I was having all these hypothyroid symptoms. My case is a bit more convoluted than what others might experience – because basically, I like to really go all out with everything I do – but I’m a good example of how one thing, and in my case that was my adrenals, not functioning properly, led to dysfunction and imbalances everywhere else.
Basically, if you haven’t already gathered, chronic stress was (and still is) at the root of all these issues I was experiencing. My adrenals and the rest of my body hit a wall, and it took some trial and error and proper nutrition to get things back on track. I’m not 100% yet, but I’m getting there!
In Part 3 of this series, I will wrap up with some of the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue, some changes you can make on your own if you think you might be experiencing adrenal fatigue and I’ll let you know some of things I’m personally doing to help boost my adrenals and my overall health.
What are some ways you think stress might be affecting you?