Have you ever exercised and exercised and found that you still can’t lose weight? Do you feel exhausted and even more run down after exercising? Why can’t you get that runner’s high?
I meet with so many patients who have convinced themselves that they just need to work harder, exercise longer, and eat less to lose weight and regain their health. The current craze to run a marathon or a half marathon just isn’t smart for most people. They are putting their bodies through significant physical stress. They continue to feel exhausted and become prone to injuries. Their body starts to feel older instead of younger. Why is this?
Many people have overworked their bodies (physically, mentally, and emotionally) so much over the years that they can no longer handle vigorous exercise without further stressing the system. I remember when I left my primary care practice almost four years ago. I thought that I would enjoy exercising every day and getting back on track since I finally had the time. I started going to classes at the YMCA and found that not only could I not keep up, I felt worn out and awful after I did exercise. It was rather disheartening.
What I learned about myself, was that before I could go out and start a new activity program, I needed to heal. I had spent years working in a very stressful field, not getting enough sleep, having my sleep interrupted by night call, and at the same time I was juggling new family commitments. What I needed when I left my job was about a year of regular sleep. Then I could finally begin a gentle exercise program of walking in my neighborhood with some yoga mixed in.
I remember feeling like I was lazy when I started getting nine hours of sleep each night. It seemed like it should be a luxury instead of a necessity. Eventually I realized that there was nothing to feel guilty about. If I was going to change the course of my career, improve my health, and alter my life trajectory, then I had to get well.
Intermittently, over the past few years, I would try to add a more intense work out routine again, but found that it still didn’t make me feel good and I couldn’t maintain it. So, I would go back to my walking. I was slowly able to add in and tolerate some resistance training for strengthening.
During my studies I learned about adrenal fatigue and knew that I was significantly impacted by this. I had been living on a high carbohydrate diet for years trying to find enough quick energy to keep going, not realizing at the time that it wasn’t a healthy diet. I ate some vegetables, but no where near what I should have been eating. Eventually, I checked my salivary cortisol levels and confirmed that my adrenals were wearing out. My body was in an ongoing stress response and was never having a chance to get into a repair mode. The stressors kept coming and then, even when life settled down, my body wasn’t sure how to stop being on constant alert.
In order to heal, it was going to take patience. I had been living this crazy lifestyle for over a decade, so I couldn’t expect to undo the damage in a few weeks or even a few months. I think that time is the most difficult aspect of helping patients with adrenal fatigue. These are usually highly motivated people with busy lives. Many are mothers. Many also have high stress careers and very hectic family lives. We don’t live in a culture that supports slowing down.
In addition to my new and improved sleep schedule, I began eating a much healthier diet which included as many whole plant foods (vegetables and fruits) as possible. I also worked to take some time for my spirit each day, even if it was only twenty minutes before bedtime. It is a work in progress. I continue to work to control my stress levels, do belly breathing when I feel it all creeping in on me, and am constantly working to try to simplify my life. It will be an ongoing battle, but I am making progress. I also took some adaptogenic herbs for a few months to help support my adrenal glands and reset their stress thermostat. These were specifically chosen according to my salivary cortisol levels and pattern. I check cortisol levels in many of my patients in order to appropriately direct their care.
Here I am nearly four years into my recovery. I continue to eat well because I know what a difference it makes in my life. I love to sleep and make it a priority, but no longer feel tired and nappy during the days. My energy level is good again. Recently I was able to add back a more rigorous exercise program to help me regain some muscle mass, endurance, and strengthen my core. So far, so good. I actually feel invigorated at the end of my workout.
I share my story because it has been a long journey that continues to take time and effort. There are no easy fixes and it certainly is not quick. Taking care of your body is an ongoing commitment that is never complete, but don’t wait to get started. There will never be a good time to begin, life will continue to throw unexpected challenges at you. Now is the time to start!