The other day I realized, as of this month, I’ve lived in New York for 9 years. Apparently, 10 years makes you a true New Yorker but I’m going to call it and say I’m already official, because for 8 of those 9 years I was a sentient ball of stress and hustle as only a true New Yorker can be. During and immediately after college I took on a lot, juggling school, internships, jobs and trying to have a social life. I was burnt out and up until a year ago I assumed everyone else was an exhausted anxious mess too (just better than me at coping with it).
When I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disorder a little less than a year ago, my doctor also suggested some of my symptoms could be related to adrenal fatigue. I felt exhausted all the time, physically and emotionally anxious, had trouble falling asleep and I was waking up every few hours during the night. While there isn’t a direct way to test for adrenal fatigue, it was a safe bet based on my symptoms, along with the obvious long term stress put on my body by my overextended lifestyle. Then there was my undiagnosed autoimmune disease.
So, what are adrenals and why do they get fatigued? Your adrenals are glands just above the kidneys that produce hormones related to how your body deals with stress. Cortisol, for example, fuel’s our “fight or flight” response, controls our sleep/wake cycle, increases blood sugar and manages how our body uses and stores carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Healthy adrenals release cortisol in a rhythm in the morning to help us wake up, then slowly declining throughout the day to help us sleep. However, bouts of stress interrupt this cycle. When you experience emotional or physical stress your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline as your “fight or flight” response. During this time, functions that aren’t immediately necessary to survival like digestion, immunity, and fertility are put on the back burner. This is all completely normal for occasional moments of stress, it’s the chronic stress that causes issues. If you’re in a constant state of stress, whether physically or emotionally, eventually your adrenals will struggle to keep up. This leaves you with inconsistent levels of cortisol, disrupting your natural daily cycle and inhibiting those “unnecessary” functions like digestion and fertility long term.
– Stressful experiences such as death of a loved one, illness or surgery
– Chronic stress due to relationship, job, or financial issues
– Emotional trauma
– Lack of sleep
– Poor diet
– Food sensitivities and allergies
– Exposure to environmental toxins and pollution
– Dependence on caffeine or other stimulants
– Chronic fatigue
– Restless sleep
– Low immunity
– Hormone imbalances
– Low sex drive
– Craving sugar or caffeine
– Weight gain
– Digestive issues
– Brain fog
– Depression and anxiety
– Hair loss
– Skin issues
The first step I took to address my symptoms, lessen some of the physical stress on my body and give my adrenals a rest, was to clean up my diet focusing on real whole foods. I cut out any food I was sensitive to, like gluten and dairy (though that might be different for everyone). I lowered my carbohydrate intake to come mostly from vegetables, added lots of good fats like olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and cut out all forms of sugar, which included limiting fruit to one serving of berries a day. I was never a big coffee drinker but I did have a pretty bad diet coke habit to kick.
However, I’ve recently discovered my love of bulletproof coffee. I blend a teaspoon of 4th & Heart Vanilla Ghee (or any other fat like grass-fed butter, MCT or coconut oil) in my coffee, which slows the absorption of caffeine and gives me energy throughout the day minus any jitters. I started incorporating adaptogens from Sun Potion, Moon Juice and Four Sigmatic like ashwaghanda, reishi, chaga and mucuna pruriens into my smoothies, plus tonics to improve my physical response to stress. I also started taking adrenal supporting supplements, some recommended by my doctor, like fish oil, vitamin D, B-complex, magnesium and selenium in the form of a couple brazil nuts a day.
If you think you might be suffering from adrenal fatigue or other hormone imbalances, I would highly recommend seeing a functional medicine doctor to get some baseline blood work done on your hormones and consider any food sensitivities. It never hurts to have more information on what’s going on with your body.
Above all, try to weed out the root cause of your stress: what is it that is making me, and you, so wired? And when so many of us feel that it’s normal to be pushing ourselves to exhaustion, what does that say about the society in which we live?
Obviously, being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder is stressful, but I could reframe my outlook on it. I could take this time in my life to focus completely on my health and wellbeing. I’m fortunate enough to work as a freelance illustrator, where I make my own schedule and can decide who I work with and what projects I take on. I’ve always had a hard time saying no to work or friends, but I realized to cut the stress I had to set firm boundaries. No more jobs that didn’t serve me and no more feeling obligated to say yes to every invitation. I also took a closer look at the way I was exercising. What good was a workout if I left exhausted and it was taking a toll on my wellbeing? I realized I felt best just doing a few Pilates matt and reformer classes a week, that incorporated more of a mindful practice in the workout.
It’s time we reevaluate our preoccupation with busy. You are so much more than your productivity and the world deserves the best version of you – the one that’s happy, healthy and stress free.
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