The Adrenal Fatigue Diary: A Personal Story of Chronic Illness, Diagnosis, and Recovery
If there was ever something that has been difficult for me to accept, it’s weakness. This is a piece that I’ve put off writing for a very long time, because I loathe the condition I’ve been dealing with for the past three years.
I mean, what kind of prepper is so exhausted after emptying the dishwasher that she has to lay down for an hour? How the heck am I going to survive the Zombie Apocalypse when every joint in my body hurts with every motion? How would I ever bug out on foot if walking to the end of the road makes me feel like I have concrete blocks on my feet?
I guess, a prepper with Adrenal Fatigue.
133 million Americans are dealing with a chronic illness right now. That is a full 40% of the population of our country. By 2020, that number is expected to skyrocket to 157 million. (source)
With numbers like that, some of these people are bound to be preppers. Having a serious health issue doesn’t mean that you should forsake your goals of being prepared.
So, despite the fact that I hate thinking about it, I’m going to tell you about a debilitating health issue I have faced for the past three years. Maybe my story will help someone out who is dealing with Adrenal Fatigue or another chronic illness. Even when you have reached the point at which you feel like no one can help, sometimes if you search long enough, finally you will find the person with the answers.
I wrote a factual article with information about Adrenal Fatigue here since I figured not everyone would be interested in the personal aspect of the condition. But those facts can’t even come close to illustrating what it’s really like to live with it.
The mindset that causes Adrenal Fatigue
I have always been a person who demands a lot from herself. During my days working in the automotive industry when I worked long hours, I still hauled my kids around to their various activities, cooked dinner from scratch, and got up early to exercise.
Later, when I left the rat race, I worked long and hard to begin a writing career. I worked on other websites and projects but still made time for my own. Our finances were stretched very thin, with one kid in college, so money was a constant source of worry.
There was always pressure and an effort to be “perfect.” Type A overachievers are very much at risk for stress-related illnesses, even when we do all the right things like eating healthfully, exercising, and taking vitamins.
Fast forward: after a couple more years of perfectionism, it all caught up with me. We can only deal with high pressure and stress for so long before it begins to take a physical toll on us. This is because of the production of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Many of the people who pride themselves on working well under pressure do so because they handle spikes of cortisol and adrenaline well initially. In fact, these things are almost like drugs – we only feel productive when we are working hard and accomplishing things that seem kind of outrageous to other people.
The onset of chronic illness
In the early stages, Adrenal Fatigue crept in quietly.
There were off days when I was really tired but I could still get my stuff done. I could clean, cook, raise a garden, work, and educate my daughter, but by 6:30, I would begin to fade. I wasn’t yet at the point when I thought of days in terms of “good” or “bad.” That would come later.
My desire to go to bed increasingly earlier was probably the first sign. At the time, I didn’t realize it of course. I just thought I needed extra sleep to do the things that needed doing.
The next sign came after I began to not bounce back from overexertion like I had before. I realized that I said, “I’m so tired” a lot more frequently. I still didn’t realize anything was seriously wrong and just figured I had been pushing myself too hard. I tried to let up a little, but with a business to run, book deadlines looming, a young teen to raise, and client work on top of this, I had stuff to do.
I began to dread my daily walk with the dog. This had always been one of the highlights of my day – getting outside in the fresh air, away from the computer, looking at the beautiful scenery of Northern California. But soon, I was just too exhausted to do it. I began to put on a few pounds, but I chalked it up to my “laziness” and lack of exercise. This sporadic ability to exercise went on for about a year and I felt more and more tired.
I began to think that something was going on, so I went in for some routine bloodwork which showed that I had some pretty significant hypothyroid numbers. I grudgingly began taking the medication that the doctor prescribed and expected to feel like my old self within a few weeks. There was little doubt in my mind that I would have energy, lose the weight I’d gained, and bounce right back.
Except, I didn’t.
I felt worse.
I began to crash and crash hard.
Soon, the thought of walking the dog for a few miles seemed as outrageous as climbing Mount Everest in flip flops.
And this was the beginning of the second year of Adrenal Fatigue.
The symptoms worsened over the second year.
The following year was a bit of a blur. I kept things going. I wrote often, but doing other stuff was harder and harder. I had all of these awesome things going for me: we finally had rented a farm and had livestock, we had a cool vehicle, I had a best seller on Amazon, and we were financially a bit more comfortable.
But it was hard to enjoy it when walking up the stairs to my room seemed nearly insurmountable because of the crushing exhaustion. If I had not been fortunate enough to be self-employed and work from home, I would not have been able to hold down a job.
That wasn’t the only symptom though. Oh, how my joints hurt. They were so stiff and sore that when I would drive for half an hour and get out of the vehicle, I walked with the stiffness of a 90-year-old woman for at least half an hour after that. I actually considered getting a cane. The idea of going to both the grocery store and Target in one day was completely overwhelming. If I tried to do something like that, I would be in bed for the next 3 days recovering.
I took shortcuts so that I could continue to eat well. Gone were the days of complicated meals from scratch. We ate a lot of crockpot meals and sheet pan meals because they took so little effort. I tried every healthful way of eating under the sun, including paleo, primal, keto, gluten-free, and vegetarianism. Each one helped temporarily, but then I was back in my haze of walking through life in gravity boots. Despite strictly counting calories to make up for the lack of exercise, I continued to gain weight in a manner that could not be attributed to what I was eating.
If it hadn’t been for my daughter’s help, I could never have kept any of the livestock. We pared down to just a few laying hens and only planted part of the garden. I put down cardboard and hoped that the vegetables outgrew the weeds.
I said no to any social obligation that would require more effort than walking into a restaurant and sitting down because I knew there was no way I could spend a day shopping with friends or doing something outdoorsy.
It took longer to think things through, as though my mind had slowed down with my body. I wondered if I was just aging rapidly like someone in a sci-fi movie. I read and researched constantly to try and figure out what on earth was causing this horrific pain and exhaustion.
I began to wake up in the wee hours with what felt like panic attacks. Imagine waking up every single night with your heart racing as though you just heard someone try to kick down your door. Every. Single. Night. It was such an intense rush of adrenaline that I couldn’t usually get back to sleep, so my new pattern was dozing for a couple of hours two or three times a day.
I finally found a doctor who took me seriously and didn’t just tell me to “push through it and get some exercise.” I spent thousands of dollars, out of pocket, on medical tests.
Here are a few of the things that I learned.
- Somehow, despite my strict organic diet loaded with produce, I was malnourished. My body wasn’t absorbing nutrients.
- My thyroid condition had worsened.
- I was having massive food intolerance issues. Intolerances, as you know, are different than allergies. Instead of causing a histamine reaction, about 40 different foods were causing a terrible inflammatory reaction.
- A saliva test (you can get one here if your doctor won’t order it) showed that I was having massive cortisol spikes in the middle of the night, and producing so little during the day that I could barely function.
Finally, I had a diagnosis.
Adrenal Fatigue. All the stress and all the pressure of being a single mom struggling with money had resulted in a condition that felt all-encompassing. I had simply worn my body out by running it on coffee and adrenaline for the past 12 years.
I cut out all the foods that were causing inflammation in one fell swoop, which limited my diet a great deal. This helped rid me of the crushing joint pain, but did little to alleviate any of the other symptoms. The test I took to learn about the food intolerances was the ALCAT, which can be found here. You can have this test performed without a doctor’s requisition.
Some of the foods I learned that I could not tolerate were the last things you’d expect. These were the more severe intolerances:
- Kale (yuck – I was thrilled to see that on the list)
- Rice (seriously – that one stunned me)
- Baker’s yeast (this explained why I felt better when I cut out bread, but why “gluten-free” breads still bothered me)
There were also about 30 other foods that I avoided, but the ones above caused instant excruciating joint pain.
My thyroid medication was increased. This didn’t help at all.
I began taking handfuls of supplements to try and correct the malnutrition. But, just like the healthy food I was eating, these were also not absorbed.
I felt like giving up. It really seemed like nothing would help and this was just my life now.
I plodded through the next year, even taking my daughter on a major cross country road trip so that we could finish off her last year of homeschool with a bang. It would have been nicer if I’d been healthier but we still managed to do a tour of almost 10,000 miles. When we got home, I was so exhausted that I was in bed for a month.
Despite the doctor who actually believed something was wrong and gave me a name for it, I wasn’t getting better. I wondered if I was just going to fade away from this.
The third year
During our road trip, we had decided that we were getting out of California. The laws were repressive, I wasn’t able to get my 16-year-old homeschool graduate into a vocational program until she was 18, and it was outrageously expensive.
Getting ready for the move was absolutely brutal. Our landlords were showing our house to potential buyers while we were trying to pack, so it always had to look nice, despite the fact that we were trying to sell off bigger items and had boxes everywhere. Before that move, I hadn’t thought that I could actually get more tired or unwell, but there were several days that, despite looming deadlines, I simply couldn’t do a thing.
The stuff of life that occurred seemed so much more devastating due to my health. During the last weeks in California, my beloved 18-year-old cat began to decline, then died. I was utterly heartbroken since she had been with us from the age of 2. We also had a large amount of money stolen, we can only assume from someone that was touring our house while it was for sale. Both of these things added a seemingly-insurmountable level of stress to an already debilitating situation.
We said goodbye to our chickens, our furniture, and our friends. We sold so much stuff that we pared down to a 9×6 storage container.
We powered through. We loaded our moving pod and took off, driving 5 days with 3 pets and we made it to our new home in Virginia.
Recovery from this took a couple of months, but I immediately began pursuing better health.
And finally, there was light at the end of the Adrenal Fatigue tunnel.
I found a wonderful doctor in our new area who, like my previous doctor, understood hormonal issues like adrenal fatigue. She changed my medication to a natural thyroid supplement that immediately seemed to perk me up a little.
But the best, most life-changing thing I did was begin working with a Registered Holistic Nutritionist. It was a huge financial investment for me, and it felt like a last ditch effort. If this didn’t work, I figured that nothing would.
The nutritionist had the following protocol:
- First, she took away my beloved coffee. Caffeine had been my crutch that had helped me function through the past few years, but it turns out, that it was actually causing part of the problem. Caffeine stresses your adrenal glands, and this is the last thing you need when dealing with an adrenal issue. I was instructed to avoid anything that could be a stimulant, like caffeine or sugar.
- I also began a strict elimination plan. My nutritionist explained that the reason I wasn’t absorbing nutrients was because of the massive inflammation in my body. Instead of being absorbed, the nutrients were being excreted.
- Finally, I began juicing raw, organic fruits and vegetables twice a day. Immediately after juicing, nutrients are for more easily bioavailable.
Some things were behavioral.
- I had to rest. Instead of “pushing through it” she pointed out that resting through it was the better solution. I slowed down my editorial calendar for the website to a couple of times per week in order to focus on my health.
- I had to learn to deal better with stress. When I began to feel the adrenaline rising, I had to focus on consciously relaxing and thinking through the situation calmly. I began to write myself lists of steps to take in order to conquer a task or problem. I began to practice meditation, just focusing on the music from the birds, so that I could clear my mind of the stressful clutter.
After the brutal caffeine withdrawal, I continued with the elimination/detox plan for two months, no cheat days. Not easy at all, but I managed to hang in there. I continued juicing twice a day, actually burning out my first cheapo juicer from all the use it got.
I take a few different supplements now that the inflammation is reduced. The supplements you should take for your adrenal fatigue will vary based on whether your cortisol is too low or too high. There are some, like this one, that help to balance the cortisol response, which means that it can be taken throughout your illness and recovery.
It’s important to note that if your body is in a state of extreme inflammation, you’ll be wasting your money with supplements. Focus on the steps above instead until you know you are absorbing nutrients properly.
And…lo and behold…
I started losing weight.
I started sleeping, completely unaided.
I started to have the energy to unpack my boxes, clean my house, and cook again.
I planted a big garden.
I walked the dogs a mile or two per day.
I am living again.
I still have “bad” days, but I listen to my body and don’t try to just push through them. I rest. I work from the comfort of my bed on those days and cut my workload down to just a couple of hours. Most days, I walk 1-2 miles and I still have the energy to do other things after that.
I juice at least once a day, usually twice. My food intolerances have lessened in severity but I still avoid the things that caused the most severe responses. The cup of coffee I enjoy in the morning is decaf and I avoid sugar most of the time.
I am starting to get in shape and feel like the person I was before all of this started. Someone lively and full of energy who loves to hike and raise food.
This isn’t the end of the story. Full recovery from adrenal fatigue can take years, depending on how severe your adrenal burnout was. Adrenal fatigue experts say that a complete recovery can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years of consistent care.
Adrenal fatigue is a condition that we bring upon ourselves to some degree. We have to understand that living in a state of chronic stress can be deadly. Not only can it cause adrenal fatigue, but high cortisol levels have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, digestive issues, cognitive impairment, suppressed immune systems, and hypertension. (source)
You have to learn how to deal with your stress before you are forced to by your own body.