Adrenal Fatigue: My Story / by lee tilghman

Adrenal Fatigue is not foreign to me. I suffered with serious adrenal fatigue for about 16 months when I hit my mid-twenties. Until then, my go-go lifestyle was something I treasured and held high. I liked always being pumped up and having something to do and somewhere to go. I hated the idea of slowing down or falling behind. But then, my hormones caught up to me, and I tried everything but the only thing that worked SLOWING DOWN. 

Background:

After I graduated from college, I moved to new york city for my dream job as the executive assistant to a restauranteur. We owned and operated some of the most successful and hippest restaurants in New York City. 

During this time, was living a very high fast paced lifestyle - though the job was fun, it was very stressful with long hours and emailing on nights and weekends. While at the office, I was drinking cups and cups of coffee (probably 3-4 a day), and running from meeting to meeting. I was staying out late with clients, and on the weekends I was playing catch up just to keep track of my life.

In terms of my diet, I would go through really intense periods of heavily restricting and under eating/overexercising and then switching to periods of no exercise at all compiled with heavy drinking and eating whatever I wanted. This was a very toxic mental and physical cycle that I didn’t know how to get out of, and was too embarrassed to ask for help with. I didn’t feel “sick enough” to go back into in patient treatment, but I knew I was having trouble achieving balance. It was pretty isolating, if I’m being honest. 

I didn’t know it at the time but this was putting my body under a tremendous amount of stress. I was also depressed that I couldn’t get myself to maintain my weight. I was either underweight or had an extra 5 lbs or so on me. As someone who’s had an eating disorder, this was always the hardest part. 

Throughout this really stressful year of my life, I was working out pretty regularly, but it was never with a healthy mindset. I'd push myself to the point of overexercise and injury, I definitely was not listening to my body. I got really bored with the elliptical and my gym routine, so I began running as a way to deal with all the stress. 

Running was my getaway from the reality of my stressful job. I soon built up strength and was running 8 or 9 miles at a time. 

How I found out I had adrenal fatigue:

ExhaustionRunning made me feel strong, energized and empowered. I knew there was an issue when I would go out for a run and within 3/4 of a mile, I felt about as wiped as I did when I went on my longer runs. What was happening? Even after rest days, 1 mile felt like 10 miles on my body. I could literally not run. My body was screaming at me to stop. I ended up fighting through the fatigue the first month or so and injuring my ankle, only making matters worse (a friendly reminder to always listen to your body!)

Sleeping issues: I would stay up pretty late at night with racing thoughts and anxieties, and then when I finally fell asleep, it was so hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. As someone who’s naturally a morning person, this was very strange for me.

Fatigue: Oh man, the fatigue! If you have adrenal fatigue, you know how energy depleting it can be. I’m not talking about regular fatigue if you’ve had a long week or if you didn’t sleep much the night before. That's part of life and happens sometimes. The fatigue that accompanies adrenal fatigue is unlike anything else you ever imagined. It feels like suddenly you are completely zapped of your energy. 

I get kind of choked up when I think about the state that I was in. It was a dark place. The fatigue was getting in the way of my life: I was scared of making plans, and I absolutely dreading the 3:00PM hour, since that's when it would usually set in. On some days, I could still power through, but on others, I would get hit with what I like to call the Fatigue Blanket. On these days, I was completely useless. Sometimes I’d have to get into bed and take a nap. Others, I’d just lay on the couch feeling completely wiped out and too tired to even fix myself a healthy meal. I would develop migraines and it would be hard to carry conversations, look at light, or be outside with a lot of stimulation. 
The fatigue began when I moved to California in February 2015. It continued for over a year, and I remember the peak of the fatigue when was my mother was visiting in April 2016. I had known something was wrong with me, and was beginning to open up to my family about my health challenges.  I was so excited for her visit. One day, we drove out to the West side to go to the Getty Museum. We were having a great day together, and then suddenly, as we were leaving a coffee shop, I felt the initial signs of the fatigue blanket coming on. I grew anxious and felt so horrible that my mother and I had come all the way out from the east coast and was so excited to see the museum. However, I knew how rough these fatigue blankets were. We arrived at the museum, and I explained to her what was happening. She was so understanding and we walked around the museum for about 10 minutes before having to turn around drive back to the east side. I remember I couldn't even drive, that’s how depleted I felt.

Mood swings: Bouts of feeling extremely overwhelmed followed closely with weeks of depression and feeling completely powerless. This was extremely difficult. It was as if I didn't know how to tackle my own life. 

Getting Better

Cutting out Coffee: Coffee was one of the largest culprits of my adrenal fatigue. I decided to go cold turkey on coffee. This was probably the biggest aid in getting over my adrenal fatigue. I didn’t cut out caffeine completely, I switched over to chai tea. But somehow the caffeine from black tea didn’t shock my body as badly as coffee did. I’ll share how I quit coffee on another blog post. Quitting coffee wasn’t easy, but it was so worth it. 

How I exercised with adrenal fatigue: I followed Alisa Vitti’s (the author of Womancode) directions very closely for this part.  Alisa explains that contrary to popular belief, extreme cardio and intense working out with adrenal fatigue can actually lead to weight gain. It was scary to trust this but at point I had nothing to lose. For those of with adrenal fatigue, it is not uncommon to have an extra 10 pounds around the midsection. This was so difficult for me because during the height of my adrenal fatigue, I was literally exercising to my highest capabilities. I was doing the BBG workouts (bikini body guide) and attempting to go on runs, but nothing was working. I was pushing myself so hard and getting so down on myself for not being able to shed that extra weight. In January 2016 I signed up for a 30 day intensive 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training at Yogaworks. It was during this time that cut out cardio, dairy, animal products, coffee, and alcohol completely. We were doing yoga 2x a day for 30 days straight. Sometimes after yoga I’d go on a little walk (about 20 minutes long). On weekends I’d sometimes go on moderate hikes with friends or take rest days. This break from high intensity cardio was exactly what my body needed. Throughout teacher training, I noticed that some of the stubborn weight around my midsection was falling off, which literally shocked me. That’s when I really realized that my extra 10 lbs. was deeper than just my food and exercise. It was hormonally based. That’s why it breaks my heart when doctors just tell people in order to be healthy you need to eat healthy and exercise. No, you need to balance your hormones too!

Yoga: The yoga also helped healed my adrenals and reduce the amount of stress in my life. Through breath and movement, yoga helped me gain a deeper understanding of myself and helped me fall in love with myself again which is such an important thing. Yoga helped me get out of my head, move my body, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. After my yoga teacher training was over, I continued to do yoga 4x a week and LISS 3x a week. I also began taking restorative yoga and kundalini classes, which was something I would always skip over before when glancing at the schedule.I didn’t know it at the time, but restorative yoga helped me relieve a ton of stress that I was carrying around and helped me achieve balance by undoing all those crazy years of intense cardio

Cutting out Sugar/Gluten In February 2016 right after my yoga TT is when I was diagnosed with PCOS and got my blood tested which is when they saw that I had high levels of DHEA (the hormones produced by adrenals) The doctors told me to go back on birth control but I refused. This is when I started doing some my own research on how to heal my adrenals and reverse PCOS. I read that it had a lot to do my diet, and thats when I had to do a really honest check-in with my diet. I realized I was still eating a substantial amount of carbohydrates and sugar (even the healthy ones from sweet potatoes, bananas, grapes) and was still experiencing these crazy days of fatigue and brain fog that would almost leave my paralyzed. In March 2016, my best friend and I decided to do a 21 day elimination diet. We eliminated gluten, dairy, soy, dates, bananas. During these 21 days, I felt completely amazing. It was then that I realized how much diet affected me. I decided to keep all of these triggers out of my diet for a substantial amount of time while my body healed. To this day I keep these foods to a minimum. Keep in mind that this is what worked for MY body, and won't necessary work for yours. We are all different!

I read Womancode and realized that my carb and fruit-laden breakfasts with almond butter were not only spiking my insulin and cortisol levels but I had developed a serious intolerance to sugar and high glycemic fruits and they just left me feeling plain crummy. I did almost 1 month straight of no sugar and felt amazing. My skin cleared up and my energy levels were through the roof. I then saw first hand that I was indeed insulin resistant and all the PCOS pieces began falling together. 

Herbs and Supplements: I also take a few different herbs and supplements to help me with my adrenal fatigue, including magnesium (helps you relax and relieve iBS-C), ashwagandha (stress reliever), cinnamon, and chaga and reishi mushrooms. I get most of these herbs and supplements on Amazon or from Sun Potion. You have to experiment and see what fits you.

Limiting Stress: this may sound general and vague, but limiting or watching my stress levels really helped me get over my adrenal fatigue. This includes daily rituals like journaling, baths, or self care routines like manicures or face masks. It's different for everyone, but adapting habits that you know help relieve your stress and incorporating them into your every day routine is essential to living a healthy and well balanced life.

Drawing Boundaries: I had to learn to say NO to more events to make sure I am not overexerting myself and not burning the candles at both ends. This is a very common practice amongst people in this day in age. Learning to say no is one of the biggest forms of self love I have ever cultivated.

I know how overwhelming it can be to find out you have adrenal fatigue. It's also scary because there is no "quick fix", which is what we are so used to. But know that it IS possible to heal your adrenal fatigue naturally. You have to take one thing at a time, and adopt new lifestyle habits. To this day, I stay away from coffee and make sure I get 5-10 minutes a day to myself to practice some form of self love of self care, whether it be a bath, a meditation or breath work session, or something else from my list. There is also plenty of other information in how to get over adrenal fatigue in the book Womancode by Alisa Vitti

What is your experience with adrenal fatigue? How have you managed to get over it?