I have a confession. I have been a bit of a fraud. Well, maybe not a fraud, but at least not 100% honest with all of you, or myself for that matter. You see, from roughly Thanksgiving until the start of our Whole30 challenge I was a Fit Mom Off the Wagon. I had pretty much stopped most of my training—crossfit and running. I just didn’t feel like getting up and out of bed, or off the couch after work when the kids were in bed. I also was eating a bit too many treats—my arch nemesis ice cream came back into my life as did a few additional glasses of wine with dinner during the week; a small handful of M&Ms at work here, a bite of dessert there…and I was feeling like total crud. Total lack of motivation to move and lack of willpower to maintain my healthy lifestyle because I just felt like I needed that treat even though I knew it was bad for me. Yes, even for people who seem to have it together, or have it “easy because you’re skinny”, it’s ALWAYS easy to get off track when you lose your motivation, or your hold on your controls in life, or you are simply overtired, overworked, overstressed, and over trained. At the end of the day no one is perfect, and that I definitely do not claim to be.
What happened? In hindsight, I was over trained after Marine Corps at the end of October. I had pretty much come out of the gates postpartum with Mr. Man at 6-weeks when given the all clear by my OB to return to normal exercise activities and began to train. Train hard—especially hard for a mom of two Littles who left the house at 5 a.m. every day to get to work for 7; add into that mix nursing and pumping throughout the day for her infant and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
My first problem was sleep—or lack thereof to be exact. It wasn’t until just this past week that Mr. Man has decided to sleep through the night. Yes, you read that correctly. My 14-month old son JUST started to sleep through the night. Until then he was getting up at least once a night and more often than not 2 or 3 times a night. Since I was nursing that often meant I’d be up with him every couple of hours—especially if he didn’t want the bottle, which often he didn’t because it wasn’t a matter of hunger so much as a matter of comfort. Since he and Lil One share a bedroom I was always nervous to let him cry it out in fear it would wake Lil One. A night where I’d get more than 3-hours of sleep strung together at a single time was a rare occasion for me. Add to the fact that I’d get up at 4 a.m. every morning to pump for and get ready to be out of the house at 5 for work and it was pretty much a you-know-what show.
In terms of running and training, my initial goal coming out of having had a baby was to set a new ½ marathon PR—which I did in Worcester. While I was doing that I also added in a new routine of Crossfit where, because of my Type-A uber competitive personality, I felt like I had something to prove. Even though I was a beginner, I still needed to be pretty awesome so that I could prove I belonged there. After all, this is the girl who didn’t compete in sports as a kid because I was fairly inept at them. Me in any sort of a weight room setting was pretty much out of my comfort zone and I put the added pressure on myself to try and be perfect (well, as perfect as a beginner Crossfitter who has never done any form of weight lifting can be).
Just 4-weeks after setting my new ½ marathon PR I set off on a back-to-back marathon training cycle where I ran two marathons within 6-weeks of each other. The races were both PR’s and the latter, I stupidly had delusions of grandeur that maybe, JUST MAYBE I could have had a BQ time (Boston Qualifying). All total I ran 2 full marathons and 5 half marathons with a combined total of just shy of 900-miles run in a little over 10-months. Add to that my decision to adopt a modified Paleo lifestyle and that is a lot of change for a body to undertake after giving birth. In looking back however, I think it was thanks to my decision to adopt a Paleoesque lifestyle that kept me going as long as I did before finally succumbing to the stress I was putting on my body–mental as well as physical stress. After doing a bit of reading and listening to podcasts I began to see the writing on the wall–though not yet willing to fully admit it. The reality of what I was doing was sending me down a dangerous road towards adrenal fatigue.
What is adrenal fatigue exactly? I preface this by saying that I was architecture major in college so heavy biology and chemistry are not my forte so when I do research on these kinds of topics it always takes me a few reads to grasp it and comprehend it fully, so I will do my best to explain it in my high school biology terms. To start with your adrenal glands are part of your endocrine system. The endocrine system (which has Latin roots that mean secretes inside) is a series of glands, that secrete hormones, as the name implies, to help maintain the delicate balance of our lives so that we can continue living. Hormones are chemicals that help to regulate many of the functions that occur in our body on a daily basis such as stress, metabolism/digestion, fertility, sleep, mood, etc. (The Nemours Foundation 1995-2013) Some of these glands work in what is called an “axis” or essentially in a chain reaction if you will, where the body signals the release of a hormone that then travels to the next gland which is then told to secrete its hormone which travels to the next and so on. One such example of this is the HPA-axis or the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. (Jameson 2003-2012) This is where adrenal fatigue comes into the picture.
The adrenal glands sit on top of our kidneys and their main function is to produce and secrete the hormone commonly known as cortisol (some people know it as the stress hormone). Cortisol is produced by the body and coincides with our wake-sleep cycle (circadian rhythm). Cortisol levels are supposed to be highest when we wake and shortly thereafter and decrease as the day goes on so that they are at their lowest at bedtime and throughout the first half of the night. It’s kind of our body’s way of preparing to great the day and be ready for anything that may be thrown at us. If your wake-sleep cycle is thrown off by periods of unrest (i.e. newborn/infant waking 2-3 times a night), likely your cortisol rhythm So how is cortisol released? The HPA-Axis begins a conversation with the rest of the system. An outside stressor affects our body–the hypothalamus senses this and releases a hormone called, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) that triggers the pituitary gland to release andrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) which then tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. When this happens, cortisol is released into our bloodstream for 15-minutes at a constant rate. (Jameson 2003-2012) Have you ever gone to go get your wallet from your purse only to see it isn’t there? You know the feeling where your heart stops and then drops and the tingling that almost immediately happens while you scream, “where’s my wallet?! Where’s my wallet!? Where the eff is my wallet?!?” That is quite literally the physical manifestation and feeling of your body acting to an outside stressor and the release of cortisol into your system.
Diane Sanfilippo, of the blog and podcast Balanced Bites, and author of the e-book (which is coming out in hardback format later this year) The 21-Day Sugar Detox, and multi-time NY Times bestseller Practical Paleo, talks a lot about adrenal fatigue due to her personal experience with it. In episode 15, she talks about how our bodies essentially learn what stresses us, stores that information, and then supplies the same reaction no matter if we are actually stressed or not. The example she gives is sitting in traffic—during the week we may be stressed because we are trying to get to work on time. But over time, our bodies associate traffic with stress—on the weekend when we have nowhere to go we find ourselves stuck in traffic and while we do not think it to be a big deal, our body is already working on sending that 911-stress signal because it knows traffic=stress! (source: Sanfilippo, December 6, 2011) I thought this was really interesting and found it factual for me. I am a needle-phobic! I will pass out 9 times out of 10 if I need blood work or a shot; I can actually feel my body reacting as soon as I hear the word “blood work.” My heart starts to race, my breathing becomes shallow, my palms start to sweat and I get clammy, I get a feeling of ants crawling over my body, and sometimes I feel like I “gotta go,” and then after I get the needle I can feel it all just drop and I get light headed and then the stars come and next thing I know I’m waking up on the floor. This happens to me if I see a needle or if I see someone getting a needle—suffice it to say infertility treatments and the resulting barrage of blood work (for two kids!!) was interesting.
The question remains though—what are outsider stressors? They can be anything really—financial, job related, marriage related or child-rearing related. They can be caused by illness; it can be emotional; it can be psychological or even environmental. They can be caused by overtraining or physical wear and tear on the body. Stress is never the same and is almost always different from person to person; what puts a stress on one person may not put a stress on another. It is truly dependent on how our body adapts and processes each situation that determines what reaction our body will have. In my instance, I can stop and look back and see that I had not just one stress, but many stressors working against me leading up to the end of last year—just refer back to the list of things I was dealing with at the start of this post! New baby, going back to work, breastfeeding, minimal sleep, endurance training and crossfitting…every single one of those events while I thought I was dealing without issue my body was just continuing to pump out and build up cortisol levels!So why am I so convinced that I was suffering from adrenal fatigue and what is the real problem with all of these stressors? So if we are being bombarded by stress, your body is continually indicating that it needs cortisol (that whole HPA-axis conversation happening in the body). At some point however, your levels of cortisol are so high that the hypothalamus and pituitary decide that enough CRH and ACTH have been secreted that they stop secreting them which means cortisol slows significantly, or in dire situations outright stops. Now what? While there are those of the medical community that do not believe that there is such a thing as diagnosable adrenal fatigue, (unless you are suffering from the very serious illness of Addison’s Disease) there is also credible research to the contrary. Thanks to the research of individuals such as Dr. James Wilson as well as the writings and discussions on the topic from people like Robb Wolf and Diane Sanfilippo there is information available for people like myself who sought out to figure out why they felt the way they did. Sanfilippo reported on Datis Kharrazian’s work a list of symptoms for adrenal fatigue. (source: Sanfilippo, April 9, 2012) Some of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue that I experienced were:
–inability to recover appropriately from exercise (my IT band issues started to make perfect sense)
–slow to start in the morning
–craving sweets, caffeine
–becoming shaky or light-headed if meals are missed or delayed
–cannot stay asleep
–dizziness when moving from sitting to standing
–transient spells of dizziness
–no longer enjoying what you previously took joy in doing (hello stopping crossfit and running cold turkey after MCM through the holidays!)
I had asked my body to do so much in such a short amount of time, that it pumped cortisol like mad just to keep up and let me survive that by the end of last year I began to tap the bottom of the well so to speak.
So now what? How do I proceed, especially when I have my eyes set on bigger things this year? Sanfilippo outlines some next steps in recovery for those experiencing adrenal fatigue based on Dr. Wilson’s research. Some of the key factors for me and my own recovery are:
–do not over train
–do restorative exercises
–when you are no longer enjoying something, assess what can be done to change that
–eat a well-balanced Paleo diet – focus on quality proteins and fats, add starch pre and/or post workout as-needed for energy and recovery
–consume omega-3 fatty acids to manage inflammation
–ensure I’m getting the proper balance of micronutrients (vitamins C, B5, B-complex)
–utilize licorice root extract before 3 p.m. (hello Yogi tea!)
(source: Sanfilippo, April 9, 2012)
How feasible is this for me? I think I will be better off this time around since I know what to look for now in terms of symptoms. I am no longer nursing so I have one less tax on my body. I will not be training for two back to back marathons. Likewise, I’ve scaled back my race plans this year, choosing to focus on one main goal at the end of the year and use races more as training runs instead of racing for PRs. I am hoping to add yoga into my routine so that I can bring a balance and center to my exercise routine. I will be employing my chiropractor from the start of my training to keep my body as healthy as possible. I am hoping to get a bit of extra sleep now that we are finally starting to sleep-train Mr. Man; likewise, I am also not going to force myself to get out of bed to make sure I make a workout. If I feel I need extra sleep I will take it because I realize now how important sleep is to solid quality workouts. I will not beat myself up over missed or poor workouts and not push through pain. I am also already eating a much more clean Paleo diet thanks to the Whole30 as opposed to the dabbling I was doing last year. And most importantly, I think I need to focus on why I’m doing what I’m doing—because I love to run. Sure I have a lofty goal in mind, but at the end of the day, I enjoyed Air Force Marathon so much more than Marine Corps Marathon because I just went out and ran it for the pure love of running—not with a goal in mind. Goals aside—I love to run and I’m pretty darn good at it and I need to celebrate that with each step I take. I consider myself lucky in that I realized what was happening and was big enough to admit it as opposed to being my usual stubborn self, and ignore the problem hoping that it just goes away. I still need to be careful for certain—most cases of adrenal fatigue take 6-9 months minimum to recover, and not knowing how severe my case was/is, I need to walk a fine line and listen to my body and respect it and the stress I put on it on a daily basis.
I hope that this was informative for you and that it brought to light a few things for you to think about in your own life—be cognoscente of the stressors in your life no matter what they are and try and find a way to negate them. Adrenal Fatigue is serious and should be addressed as such—and please consult your healthcare provider if you suspect something may be wrong. It will be something that I will be addressing with my physician at my annual physical this year myself.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a certified medical professional and the above information is not intended to be used as a substitute for seeking professional medical care or advice. You should always seek medical advice for any and all concerns when it comes to your own health and wellbeing.
Jameson, D. (2003-2012). Mind-Body-Health.net [website]. Retrieved from: http://www.mind-body-health.net/index.html?intro.html&1
The Nemours Foundation (1995-2013) Kids Health [website]. Retrieved from: http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/body_basics/endocrine.html#cat20090
Sanfilippo, D. (December 6, 2011) Balanced Bites Podcast: Episode #15 – Adrenal Fatigue, Part 1 [blog post/podcast]. Retrieved from http://balancedbites.com/2011/12/balanced-bites-podcast-episode-15-adrenal-fatigue-part-1.html
Sanfilippo, D. (April 9, 2012) The Real Deal Adrenal Fatigue [blog post]. Retrieved from http://robbwolf.com/2012/04/09/real-deal-adrenal-fatigue/