Disclaimer: I'm (obviously?) not a trained medical professional, so don't take my advice at face value, do your own research, etc. and see a real doctor if you think you are sick before self-treating! Also, for what it's worth, I bought this book with my own money and was not paid in any way to write this post.
I found this book - "Are You Tired and Wired?" by Nurse Practitioner Marcelle Pick in a bookstore last winter, and little did I know how much it was going to mean to me. I'd been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, so when I saw it I thought it might help me understand further what it is and how it works, and what else I could do to help recover from it. It ended up reading like my life story in parts, and blowing my mind as far as how long this has probably been building up. It validated so much of what I'm going through, and helped me understand how important what I've been doing is.
You may think this is irrelevant to you, but ask yourself if you or someone in your life is constantly exhausted and on edge. Can't get to sleep (or wakes up in the middle of the night or too early) despite being exhausted. Feels like total crap after exercising, even though exercise is "supposed to" make you feel more energized. Is completely reliant on caffeine or sugar to get through the day. Having extreme cravings for sugar, carbs, and/or salt. Runs like an energizer bunny until a certain point, then crashes and turns into a puddle. Feels anxious or depressed and like life is no longer manageable.
Sure, these feelings are pretty common to have here and there, life has its ups and downs. But if there's this pervasive, crushing feeling that doesn't seem to lift when you get a day off, that just seems to be your new normal, don't just brush it off.
For some reason, especially the past week, so many people... actually specifically women in their mid to late 20's and 30's that I know, have been posting on Facebook about how crazy tired they are but how much trouble they have sleeping. They're wondering what to take, what to do to be able to get the sleep they want so badly. And honestly I don't think most of them want to hear it, but they are probably burnt out, and not just in a mental way. When you keep pushing and pushing, your body gets really legitimately worn down and stops functioning properly!
You might think it's just a little tiredness, no big deal. But if you really aren't feeling like yourself anymore, please consider learning about adrenal fatigue and finding a healthcare practitioner who A) believes in adrenal fatigue (some only consider it an issue when you are completely non-functional and dependent on medication to stay alive, but it's far better to not get to that point if it can be avoided!), and B) knows how to treat it. Likely this person will be an integrative or functional medicine doctor, or some other very progressive doctor or very experienced naturopath.
How adrenal fatigue progresses
There are three stages that are usually talked about with adrenal fatigue:
- Wired: where you kinda feel like you're running on fumes, but as long as you keep going you're great. You don't really want (or have the time for) downtime. You're pushing and pushing and pushing and maybe you feel like it can't go on forever, but that's not your concern right now. In this stage, you're running on adrenaline and cortisol way more than is normal but you can keep it up for a while. You might feel anxious cause of all the "go" hormones. Here you're more likely to crave and depend on caffeine and sugar.
- Wired and Tired: you get yourself going on the adrenaline, but it doesn't last anymore. When you get to stop, you crash like crazy. Here your adrenals are already starting to malfunction because they've been burned out by all your Wired stage overdoing it. Usually this shows up as crazy fatigue in the morning, but being really overly awake in the evening and late at night when your body finally decides to pump out some cortisol. So you're tired, but then you can't sleep. That's right friends - if you're exhausted but can't sleep, you're already in stage 2!
- Tired as heck: That's it, you're done for. You're exhausted all the time. You want to sleep ALL THE TIME. You might feel depressed or just hopeless at this point because your "go" hormones are all gone. Cortisol also controls inflammation, so you might get things like joint pain, asthma, thyroid issues. Here you're more likely to crave salt because your electrolytes are all funky.
Here's the thing y'all. I wish I had known about this stuff soooooo long ago. Even if I had, I'm not sure I really would've "gotten" it, and despite trying to get medical help, nobody figured this out and I had to learn the hard way. But I wish someone who knew this stuff recognized what was going on with me and made me stop and get tested and treated before it got really bad.
I think I spent most of my early years in stage 1 - we're talking like high school and my first couple years of university - a little young yes, but pressure to achieve, anxiety, and never feeling adequate will do that. Around the middle of my undergrad degree, I probably started transitioning into stage 2. I used to crash hard after powering through each day. This continued through grad school, and through the first 3-4 years of my working life after university. Somewhere around year 4-5 things started to cross over into stage 3, but I was still hanging on by a thread. That is, until I left my job in spring of 2012.
Just as you tend to get sick after university exams finish up, my body realized it had an opportunity to crash and by golly it did. I spent the next year, yes YEAR, completely exhausted, sick, and barely functional. Some days I could barely do as much as get dressed, never mind go pick up groceries or a prescription. You may not have seen me at my worst, but it did happen.
How to recover
I think this is why people don't want to believe that they're actually burnt out, like in a clinical fashion: because they don't want to know that it's true and then have to do what it takes to recover.
It's not a quick fix, not in the slightest. And the longer you put off dealing with it, the further it progresses, the sicker you get... the longer it'll take to get well. If you really go over the edge, your body may not be able to recover at all, and you can end up with a condition where your body cannot produce cortisol anymore. This is life threatening, and will require you to be on medication for the rest of your life. The rest of your life. So don't dawdle, take this on and deal with it now, now, now.
So, how do you recover? It depends what the causes of your adrenal fatigue are, and what stage you're at. If you're in stage 1 some major lifestyle changes, decreasing stress, and rest might do the trick - yay! But if you're like me, and make it all the way into the danger zone, it's going to take a lot more changes and time. For me this has meant:
- Medication: I won't get into detail because every person is different and you really need to get a doctor involved who will run tests and prescribe you medications based on your test results.
- Supplements: there are a ton of vitamins and supplements that can help support your body to recover.
- Discovering and treating other physical stressors: infections, environmental toxins, and many other things can increase the physical stress on your body, which your adrenals then have to deal with
- Rest and sleep: a LOT of it. Nobody can tell you how much. Rest and sleep as much as you feel like you need until you stop feeling like you need it.
- Moderate exercise: moderate as in the verb, you need to moderate the amount of exercise you're doing because pushing yourself makes this all worse. Gentle exercise only, if you feel tired afterwards for more than a few minutes, you did too much. As your body recovers you'll be able to increase.
- Decreased stress: whether it's stress from your present life, or as the author calls it "historical stress", as in crap from earlier in your life that makes you feel mentally shitty every single day, you have to deal with it and decrease your stress load.
- Meditation or other relaxation techniques: meditation is specifically good, but anything that helps keep your mind and body calmer and engage your parasympathetic nervous system (the parts that work when you're at rest) will help.
- Counselling: if you have a lot of historical stress, this is going to be key.
- Dietary changes: decreasing the things that tax your system more, like caffeine and sugar, increasing supportive foods - the healthy ones, and possibly (if it doesn't put you at risk for other things) salt.
- General life overhaul: if you've got moderate to severe adrenal fatigue, you can't just fix this and then go back to business as usual. You may need to make significant and permanent changes to how you're living your life.
- Time and patience : it's hard to believe, but it's been 14 months since I left work and started my downward plummet. I found my awesome doctor in December, and started on treatment soon after, fine tuning as more test results came in and we saw what worked and didn't. I don't want to jinx it, but it's just the last couple months that I've been starting to feel some tiny changes - feelings that have been confirmed by blood tests where now some hormones that were completely off the scale and not even traceable are now creeping into the very bottom of the normal range. It's taken a lot of time, and I know it's going to take more. Patience is the name of the game.
I know this might all sound overwhelming and scary, but seriously if you think this might be something you're dealing with get help NOW, when you can still recover. Don't wait until it gets worse, until your only option is to bail out on life for an extended amount of time to get better, or you don't even have any options left. Most things that you're pushing yourself so hard for truly will not feel worth it when you end up stuck in your house for the better part of many months or on medication for the rest of your life.
If you want to know more about this, there's lots of information on the internet, but this book is seriously the best and most comprehensive resource I've found so far. Well worth the read.