The onset of Adrenal Fatigue
How I recognised the Signs and symptoms
As with many turbulent experiences in life, adrenal fatigue can turn out to be one of the best and worst things to ever happen to you. My experience left me feeling simultaneously scarred and blessed. Scarred because it came with a tremendous amount of pain that can never be forgotten, and blessed because it forced me to get honest with myself about the way I was living my life. To get through, I had to summon up strength and courage I previously only imagined I possessed. Throughout the darkest time of my life, I never lost faith that there would again be light and because of this curious glimmer of hope that refused to die, I made it through to the other side of this chronic illness with a deeper sense of balance and a stronger desire for inner peace.
If you’ve not suffered from Adrenal Fatigue (AF), that may sound a bit dramatic, so before I share my story, it’s important you understand that AF is dramatic. It’s much more than the name suggests. Yes, it is fatigue and exhaustion – which results from the gradual depletion of the adrenal glands – but the real problem is, the sources of the stress that lead to the exhaustion. The adrenals are designed to release hormones, (particularly cortisol), in very precise amounts and in response to stress that arises in our bodies. Ideally we would experience stress in a ‘fight or flight’ kind of manner – where a situation arises and causes the elevation of stress, the adrenals release extra hormones to help us cope, and then our body returns to its ‘normal’ state of being. That’s an important feature of our internal survival kit- it gets us out of dangerous situations and saves our lives! However, in modern lifestyles we’re experiencing stress over prolonged periods of time. As we all struggle to have more, do more and be more – the physical, psychological, emotional and environmental stressors compound – one on top of the other – and keep us in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’. If we don’t identify (and remove) causes of stress in our lives, we never return to this ‘normal’ state of being and the failure of our adrenals begins to disrupt other systems of our bodies, causing them to function inefficiently or to shut down. ‘Dis-eases’ begin to manifest (or worsen), such as; depression, anxiety, addiction, chronic fatigue syndrome, adult on-set diabetes, fibromyalgia, auto-immune diseases, digestive disorders, respiratory infections and Adison’s disease (where AF is at its most extreme and becomes life threatening). The list goes on and on, and while you won’t tick every box, chances are by the time you realise you’re suffering from AF, your list of stressors and ailments will already feel somewhat insurmountable.
My list was longer than I realised and my consequent experience of AF turned me inside out. It was confusing, it was scary and it forced me to look at myself in a way that I’d been avoiding for as long as I could remember. I’d had some health problems for a number of years, but no matter how hard I tried to heal them, no matter how many doctors’ I visited and no matter how many tests I endured – they persisted. Sometimes the illnesses were more troubling than others, but I’d become so used to feeling unwell, that it was hard to tell how bad they actually were and how much damage they were causing. The exhaustion I experienced seemed to come on suddenly, and I thought it was unrelated to my other issues, but I was soon to learn they were all part of the same dark picture.
I remember walking through the streets of London on a cold winter evening. I was headed in the direction of my favourite power-yoga studio after seeing my last client of the day. I had a 50 minute walk ahead of me, but was dragging my feet after a long day’s work. By that stage, I’d been up since 5am (with zero-little sleep due to the pounding music from the night club next door). I’d worked a 10 hour shift, ran 9km’s (instead of eating lunch) and was now going to take a 90 minute yoga class (instead of eating dinner). This, or some variation of it, had become my usual kind of day. I’d become so rigid in my regimes, that I no longer allowed myself to make choices based on how I felt or what I needed. Instead, I forced myself to do what I thought I should do. What I thought I had to do, in order to be (and to be seen as) the person I wanted to be.
As I walked, a wave of extreme exhaustion suddenly crashed down on me. I felt as though I could barely tread one heavy foot in front of the other, and the thought of getting through a single Chaturanga (let alone a full class of them) made me feel like collapsing on the spot. By that stage, I wasn’t far from my flat, so, with firm resolve of stick to my regime, I headed home for a power-nap, promising myself I’d take the later class. I got home, kicked off my shoes and crumbled on to the couch for a quick nap. In that moment exhaustion took over me and sixteen undisturbed hours later, I woke up. That was the first of many ‘sleep marathons’ I was to have over the coming months, and although they were laden with toxicity and marked the beginning of my physical collapse, I loved them. They were exactly what I needed.
That’s not to say I didn’t try to ignore their very obvious signals that something was up. Of course I did. That was the only way I knew how to survive, and that’s what had bought me to this exact point in my life – stubborn determination to keep on pushing myself at all costs. So, I kept forcing myself to run every day, to maintain a physically intense yoga practice and to just keep on going. Long days at work, followed by late nights soaked in red wine continued to feature in my lifestyle. As did scanty eating habits and my addiction to toxic relationships. My body began to change in ways that I didn’t understand and couldn’t control; I gained weight that I couldn’t lose, I was tired but I couldn’t sleep and was hungry but couldn’t digest the food I ate. I started to feel like I had something wriggling underneath my skin and I felt that sensation from my fingertips to my toes. Doctors usually reacted to this with a slightly raised brow, but you could actually see tiny lumps when you pressed against my skin. I’ve since found out that this is a symptom of hormonal imbalance – which I was suffering from at the time. I hadn’t had my period for three years, (mind you, I still had the pleasure of severe PMS every single month)! As my body showed more and more signs of suffering, my compulsive tendencies with work, food, exercise and alcohol grew ever stronger. The more my approach didn’t work, the harder I tried to force it to.
Not long after my first ‘sleep marathon’, it became much more difficult to power though yoga classes. I’d more likely end up frozen in downward facing dog, or curled up in child’s pose, trying to hide tears I couldn’t stop from falling. I didn’t want to be there like that, for all to see, but I didn’t know where else to go. The trigger for the tears was an ever present, overwhelming feeling of misery, hopelessness and despair. Before that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried. I would never have cried in front of other people (I was far too strong for that) and I couldn’t even cry when I wanted to. Now, all those imprisoned tears had managed to find an escape and nothing could stop them. No dramatic changes had occurred in my life, except that I just couldn’t cope with it anymore and I could no longer pretend. This was the beginning of my emotional collapse.
After all those years of thinking I knew best, I was now being shown, that that I knew nothing. Although I didn’t know the name for it yet, my AF had become chronic and debilitating – I later learned that chronic AF is the type that builds up over a long period of time, with no clear beginning and no clear ending, and then suddenly, takes… you… OUT! This was the point where I stopped forcing and finally started listening. I could no longer drag myself through my days, so I took a couple of weeks off work. It wasn’t enough time, but was all I could afford. I stopped exercising all together. I stopped worrying about whether the food I ate was making me fat and started thinking about filling the hungry hole inside of me. This part was a difficult and ongoing battle as my emotional issues, had my digestive system, all tied up in knots. I usually felt better when I didn’t eat than when I did, therefore, I’d inevitably stop eating properly again. I removed myself from everyone and everything I knew, because I didn’t want people to see me like that. I was tired of worrying about whether they liked me or not, or whether I was doing the right thing or not. I wanted the chance to just be. Consequently, I was given the space to tune into myself, and be who I was at the time, instead of being whoever I was supposed to be. I let myself sleep and cry. Not because I knew it was good for me, but because I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to and I had the privacy to let go. As hard as it was, I rode out waves of anxiety that had me convinced I was doomed, by lying on my bedroom floor and forcing long inhalations and exhalations to override short, shallow, choking breaths. When I battled insomnia, I stared at my reflection in the mirror, as though I was looking at a stranger, and tried to figure out how I’d become this person that I didn’t even recognise. This person I didn’t like or understand. My thoughts toward myself were so dark and hateful, it scared me. Yet behind the thoughts, there was always a curious presence that assured me none of it was real and that everything would be OK. All I had to do was watch and listen and learn.
Despite feeling clueless and defeated, I made it my mission to find out what was going on once and for all. I’d already been seeing Dr’s regularly, because of my hormonal issues, but I’d not found the answers or solutions I was desperate to find. The tests they ran came back with clear results, which made no sense given my obvious physical symptoms of exhaustion, amenorrhea, digestive issues, food intolerances and addictions. They concluded my suffering was ‘all in my head’ and handed over some prescriptions for Prozac and Xanax, to ‘deal with’ the associated depression and anxiety I was experiencing. That was the wrong answer for me. I wasn’t after drugs to mask my problems, I was after healthy solutions. I felt like I was on my own, right up until Dr Google taught me about AF and I began to see some light.
I instantly related to the information I found and was relieved to learn that others were experiencing the same things I was – lethargy, exhaustion, tiredness not relieved by sleep, reduced tolerance, inability to handle stress, unhealthy eating patterns, depression, anxiety, cravings for salty and high fat foods, increased PMS and poor memory. I wasn’t going crazy, even if I felt like I was! I found out that others were encountering the same problems with tests (not effective in detecting AF) giving them the all-clear, then being offered medications that would never cure them and ending up feeling alone and confused about what was happening them.
Through my research with Dr G, I learned that healing from AF is very much about taking control of your own health by making lifestyle changes (sometimes dramatic) and taking care of yourself (instead of continually pushing). As a long-time advocate of healing through nature and alternative therapies, I took a sharper turn in this direction. I continued to see a combination of western, eastern and alternative practitioners, and used what I learned from each to map out a plan for my adrenal recovery.
Part 2 of my story, details the healing phase of my journey…
Originally written for and published on http://www.vraihealth.com – 18/05/2017