By Julia Gumm
Full disclosure: This article just might suck. Please keep reading, but my usual flair for wit, sensical sentences and my (at least) rudimentary grasp of grammar might be lacking. And there’s a reason for that.
The reason is, I am operating under a certain haze of exhaustion. I’ve spent the past few days lying in bed, nursing cravings for gallons of orange juice, dark leafy greens, clams, and ice cream with maple syrup. I have had no caffeine. I have now officially watched every Golden Girls episode ever aired at least four times. Probably more. My skin is a pasty hue, my memory sucks and my thighs are protesting the prospect of a mere flight of stairs. So what the hell happened?
Well, looking back it was a perfect storm. Now as some of you may know, I am a past sufferer of “adrenal fatigue” whatever the heck that is exactly. It’s a broad term and I’d say that anyone who has felt “burnt out” from chronic stress knows what it feels like. It hits us in varying degrees and for different reasons. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, eating disorders, drug addictions, chronic dieting, not enough sleep, too much caffeine, too much exercise…any of these things can cause (or be symptomatic of) “adrenal fatigue.” Basically what it means is you’ve been running the systems on red alert for too long and that behaviour is rewiring things to function sub-optimally. You get lots of cravings for cortisol-dampening foods, you gain abdominal weight, you mess with the parts of the brain that govern memory and emotions causing “brain fog” and you generally feel like garbage.
It’s hard to catch a break with adrenal fatigue since few people acknowledge it as a real condition in the first place. Nope, as long as you don’t have a cold or cancer, you’re in the clear, right? Now pick yourself up off that couch and get some exercise, you lazy sack of sod! (I don’t think “sod” really works there, but hey, I told you this was probably going to suck.)
Well I’m here to tell you that adrenal fatigue is a real thing. And you’ve got a pretty good shot at overcoming it if you follow some basic techniques laid out here. And once you start feeling better, you’re going to want to be more active. You’re going to want to push your boundaries. “I feel great” you’ll say. “I feel like I can take on the world!” You’ll start thinking of the stuff you used to do in your previous life, before you were bogged down with all this adrenal fatigue nonsense.
“You know what” you’ll muse to yourself. “ I think it’s time I start exercising like I used to. And man, I love coffee. Maybe I’ll start drinking it again. Not too much, just some. And maybe now is the time to take on a few radical life changes like moving or becoming a vegetarian or taking care of a needy, elderly person or waking up at dawn or jogging every morning!”
Slow down there, Killer. You’re not “fixed.” You can’t just go and do all the crap you did that got you into this mess in the first place. You have got to slow down. Do you hear me? The lesson in adrenal fatigue is that You. Have. Got. To. Slow. Down.
And I’m a fine one to talk.
Here’s what my past month has looked like:
So I’ve never been a morning person. My natural rhythms have always leaned towards the “night owl” end of the spectrum, but recently I decided that I was going to start sleeping on the floor in front of a huge array of eastern-facing windows which would force me to awake at dawn. At first, it was exhilarating. Felt great. So I decided to jump start my mornings with a brisk uphill walk. Then my chicken got sick. I’m sorta in love with my pet chicken, so that meant that I had to be up at the veritable ass crack to get her fresh hot breakfast cooking (that’s right). I also started hiking again. I call them walks, but anyone I have ever dragged on these walks calls them hikes. I live in the foothills of a mountain region (made popular by crappy honeymoon resorts), and the inclines and declines make for rough travel. I was taking longer, more difficult walks then I had since way back before my adrenals went south. I felt great. And hell, I was feeling so good, why not start ripping up the lawn in preparation for a garden come spring? I don’t have a rototiller or anything, but no matter! What did the good Lord give us hands for???
I found myself looking for things of a kinetic nature to do, anything. I was in the mood to lift things, throw things, turn over deep, heavy soil by hand. But something had slipped back into my routine without my having noticed. Well, I didn’t notice because I wasn’t feeling the negative side effects of it so I felt I could get away with it. I was back to guzzling coffee. Oh coffee, such sweet ambrosia! I got a new french press and began brewing my own since no matter how many shots of espresso I added to it, the java at my favorite coffee stop just wasn’t cutting the mustard. I was drinking coffee to put hair on my chest, and I loved it. I went to bed with the solace of knowing that my coffee awaited me come morning. In addition to that, I had drastically reduced my meat intake as I was trying to prove to myself that I could live within my personal ethics, i.e, I think animals are really cute and I feel bad about eating them. Hey. When you have a sick chicken and you look up herbal remedies for them and the first things that come up are recipes (garlic chicken, to be exact), you start contemplating your habits. After you get done laughing.
I should have known trouble was coming when my bowels lapsed into a three week long state of constipation.
I should have known trouble was coming when I felt constantly hungry but never satisfied, like there was something my body needed that I wasn’t registering.
I should have known trouble was coming when I stopped being able to sleep through the night, despite being really really really tired.
I should have known trouble was coming when I hit a wall of total and utter exhaustion while out on a walk.
I should have known trouble was coming when I became totally unbearable (even to myself) until imbibing heady amounts of that dark, rich, heavenly brew…it’s been a few days since I’ve had a cup of coffee, can you tell?
Then one morning I could barely peel myself out of bed (floor), but I had to anyway. And the damn chicken required special attention, the kind that delayed my breakfast for hours. But I had a goal, to keep increasing the length of my walks and I had to meet it. So four shots of espresso and not enough lunch later, I was out on a walk. Not a long one. But long enough to be too much.
And the next day I woke up and I felt light headed, achy, blurry eyed, unbelievably tired, extremely depressed, generally miserable…and that’s how it’s been ever since! Wee!
But let this serve as a warning: Adrenal fatigue did not just happen to you on a fluke. You probably have some tendencies that led you to this unseemly fate, and once you feel better, you best keep checking yourself or you just might be wrecking yourself. Oh god, that was bad. Check yourself before you wreck yourself? Oh man. My brain is fried.
Anyway, here are some helpful hints to avoid “rebound fatigue” as I’m going to coin it. Is that brilliant? Or stupid? Or do people already say that? I don’t know, I’ll have to wait till I’m all better to find out.
1.) Beware the catecholamine honeymoon. Once you get your adrenals back on line, you can easily again fall prey to the manipulations of cortisol. And you’re probably the kind of person who relishes the kind of high it initially gives you, so you’re apt to forget about the inevitable crash. Constantly evaluate your stress and activity load. Eat at regular intervals, don’t diet, and don’t do something dumb like pull an entire food group out of your system while simultaneously beginning a trying exercise program. Sheesh. Who the hell does something that dumb, anyway?
2.) If you feel like you need caffeine to wake up or get through something, don’t do it. Just don’t do it, man. All that caffeine is going to do is turn on your cortisol response. If you don’t feel like you have the energy, that’s because you don’t. Drugging yourself is not going to help you in the long run. And especially if you feel you have to keep increasing your dose to the point that a casual flirtation with said beverage has turned into such a commitment that you’re purchasing new apparati to assist in brewing the perfect cup, that is really a signal that you’ve gone overboard. Dial it back, friend.
3.) If you begin noticing telltale signs of metabolic changes like reduced body temperature, lowered resistance to infection, fatigue or constipation, take note. Eat a little more. Sleep a little more, like say, past dawn if you can muster it. Reduce endurance exercise.
4.) A word about endurance exercise: it’s probably a bad idea. Studies have shown that (duh) moderate to heavy exercise increases cortisol levels (which can increase belly fat stores.) Conversely, light exercise has been shown to actually reduce cortisol levels. So tune out the love songs about pain and punishment you learned from athletic shoe commercials and take a stroll. Do a little yoga. Swim. But don’t get all crazy about it, ya nut.
5.) Meditate. Stay calm. Be mindful. Take a chill pill. Some good ones to try are various adaptogens like ashwagandha, holy basil and rhodiola.
Well I’ll tell you what, after that last plate of clams with swiss chard and salted butter, topped off with orange juice and ice cream with molasses and maple syrup for dessert, I am feeling a little bit better! I really am! But I’m still gonna take it easy for the next few days. I’m gonna follow my weird cravings, probably eat a whole side of cow, sleep till noon and be the laziest sonofabitch this side of the Mississippi. And if you find yourself in a pickle like I did, I advise that you do the same.