adrenal fatigue: wtf it is & how to diagnose & recover from it

Fun health disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Very far from being a doctor. This is based on my personal experiences, others' personal experiences, and research that I have done (thanks Google).

What is Adrenal Fatigue?

The technical definition: adrenal fatigue happens when our adrenals, which are the glands that sit above our kidneys, don't produce enough cortisol (also known as the "stress hormone"). It's prompted by extreme stress on our bodies, which wears out our adrenals, which in turn don't produce enough cortisol to give us steady energy.

Common stressors:

How to Diagnose It

Fatigue is normal. Everyone gets tired sometimes. But the difference is that with adrenal fatigue, your tiredness doesn't go away with coffee or sleep. No matter how much you get, it's not enough. And it's debilitating — it prevents you from doing everyday activities, even something as simple as walking to the grocery store.

Sound like you?

Let me tell you my story.

(If you just want the tips, scroll down to "Symptoms" or "How to Recover")

I was a chronic over-exerciser. Coming from a competitive swimming background, it felt normal for me to do double workouts, so working out every day in college, sometimes twice a day, felt like "scaling back." Even when I was training for a half marathon and then marathon, I told myself I needed the endurance. There were so many reasons to not take rest days: workout classes with friends, trying to get yoga in, needing to hit a certain amount of miles during training, the fact that I genuinely enjoyed exercise, the fact that sometimes I felt guilty for not exercising...

Check out this article on how to be OK with taking rest days: "How to Overcome the Mental Block of Taking Rest Days"

This lead to a terrible cycle of exercising a lot, then crashing and not being able to leave my bed for a whole day or two. Things like walking were hard. I felt this bone deep exhaustion.

But then it'd be OK, so I told myself it was OK, and I continued with my life.

Even as I began teaching boxing, I didn't scale back. It became even more difficult to take rest days; the days I intended for rest would be filled with either teaching or again, trying to get miles in for marathon training. I would go to yoga or take a boxing class even on days I taught, because that didn't count as a real workout in my books.

The cycle continued.

There came a point right before graduation when I was trying to find a job, trying to find an apartment, then trying to move into the apartment, trying to graduate with the highest GPA I could manage, still teaching, still training, and still trying to be that "fit girl" that everyone idealized. The exhaustion was so bad that the only way I could get energy was from working out, which only made the problem worse.

I broke out of the cycle when I went home, prompted got food poisoning or a stomach bug or something, and didn't leave my bed for a week.

But as I started teaching classes full time, stopped having time for regular yoga, and didn't remember a time when I wasn't perpetually sore, I began to crash harder. I would wake up every day exhausted, my legs feeling like lead, unsure of how I would get through the day. Coffee didn't help; I began feeling light-headed and dizzy when I taught.

One week, when I taught 14 classes, I felt like my entire body was breaking. I would fall asleep anywhere I could: the T, the five minutes before yoga class, anywhere. But I had trouble falling and staying asleep; I would get a second wind at 10 pm and end up staying up until 12 am, only to wake up at 4:30 am for work the next morning.

And that, my friends, is what adrenal fatigue feels like.

But I also felt stabbing pains in my wrist and in my knees; doctors said I had extremely low levels of calcium and had been doing high-impact, high-intensity activity for too long. You need to slow down, they said.

For once in my life, I was OK with that. I knew I had to put my foot down on something. Because ultimately, nothing is worth sacrificing your health for.

So I said no to teaching more than 8 classes a week. I stopped all exercise for two weeks other than yoga. I began eating a lot more carbs, sleeping a lot more, cut out caffeine and limited my sugar intake. I stopped worrying about being "perfectly paleo" or "eating only healthy food" or "needing to workout x times a week."

Photo by the Bizzy Coffee team

Photo by the Bizzy Coffee team

My focus shifted from being “fit” and “lean” to being healthy. If that meant a couple of extra pounds, I didn’t mind. I wanted to feel OK in my own body again. I wanted to be able to do things without the constant burden of exhaustion on my shoulders.

Something amazing happened when I started doing that. I began to eat intuitively. I stopped stressing about "what if I binge" and how much food I ate in a day and if that was normal. I began to take serious care of myself, and prioritized my health, both mental and physical, over anything else.

Two weeks. I may be less physically strong than I used to be, but I feel healthy again, happy again, and whole again, and that's all that matters.

Some symptoms:

  • Waking up feeling exhausted after even 10 hrs of sleep

  • Craving salty or sweet foods late at night

  • Using food to make you feel less tired
  • Bones and muscles feeling like lead
  • Light-headedness and dizziness while teaching or after sitting for so long
  • Exhausted during the day and wired late at night (like getting a “second wind” at 10 pm)
  • Reduced effectiveness during work
  • Weight gain, depression, anxiety, loss of motivation
  • Unbalanced hormones — loss of/heavier periods, increased PMS symptoms

How to Recover From It

I took two weeks and focus on de-stressing my body. Healing is a slow process, but I’m feeling much, much better.

What I did:

  1. Cut out all caffeine. I used to drink a small cold brew a day, but I cut that out completely. I drank a lot of herbal teas and occasionally a decaf coffee.
  2. Minimize sugar, especially in the morning. I focused on eating real foods again for breakfast instead of a RXBar (which are great, by the way - I had just been having them for breakfast every day). I returned to my eggs/kale/avocado combo and tried not to eat as many protein bars, dates, or bananas.
  3. Increase carbs, especially at night. I had never really felt like my body needed many carbs, except at certain times. I guess it naturally carb-cycles itself. But I’ve been trying to get more carbs in, in the form of sweet potatoes, potatoes, white rice, and minimal-ingredient gluten free bread.
  4. Sleep at least 8 hours a night. If that meant going to bed at 8:45 PM, I did it.
  5. Minimize (or cut out completely) the amount of alcohol. I did pretty well on this - one glass a week, up until recently.
  6. No cardio (other than the times I taught boxing). I did lots of yoga instead - 3-4x a week.
  7. Spend more time with friends and people you love. You might want to isolate yourself because you’re exhausted, but if you want to decrease the stress, human contact is vital.
  8. Spend time unwinding at night and gearing up in the morning. I returned to my nighttime routine of burning a candle and reading before bed and tried to incorporate back in my morning routine of journaling/writing in the morning.
  9. Eat before your workout. I was a huge fan of intermittent fasting and eating after a morning workout, not before. But I made sure to have something in my stomach before I taught or did yoga, and that helped immensely.
  10. Drink a lot of water. I started every day with a 1L mason jar full of hot water, lemon juice, turmeric, and cayenne.
  11. Add in adaptogens. These herbs (like ashwagandha) help with reducing inflammation and stress. They're almost tasteless — I just add to my tea or whatever breakfast I'm eating!

Check out this article on best yoga posts for adrenal fatigue: 6 Restorative Yoga Poses for Adrenal Fatigue

Some Meals I've Eaten

I've been focusing on incorporating fermented foods and wholesome foods into my diet, along with more water.

I've been focusing on incorporating fermented foods and wholesome foods into my diet, along with more water.

I've also been adding more carbs, especially at dinner, and spending time with friends.

I've also been adding more carbs, especially at dinner, and spending time with friends.

Meal-prepping has helped immensely. Especially since I've been craving meat more and more recently. Click on the picture for a recipe for this Paleo Turkey Chili!

Meal-prepping has helped immensely. Especially since I've been craving meat more and more recently. Click on the picture for a recipe for this Paleo Turkey Chili!

What I Learned

I do feel weaker than I have been. But I also feel better. I think my body is thanking me for taking the time to slow down after putting all this pressure on it. Don’t let other people guilt you into thinking you need to do more (workout more, sleep less, work more) just because they are or just because you’ve done so in the past. You have limits. Everyone does. It’s not weak to know your limits and not push past them — it’s smart.

I’ve been loving the increase in yoga, but I missed boxing. I took a class on Sunday and it felt great.

I’m definitely going to continue trying to limit caffeine and to drink a 1 L mason jar of hot turmeric/lemon/cayenne water in the morning.

I feel a lot better not eating immediately before bed. The past couple of days I’ve done this weird intermittent fasting in the opposite way I’d done it in the past — I ate pretty soon after I woke up (usually 7-8 am) and stopped eating at 4 pm. I drank a lot of liquids after 4 pm and felt that I slept a lot better. I also made sure to get all my calories in and three solid meals during that shortened eating window. But then these days I'm eating a mini second dinner of leftover meat, and I feel OK on that as well. Intuitive eating at its best.

I’ve felt a lot more mental clarity. I don’t need coffee to give me clarity. If I need to rest, I’ll take it. If I need to work, I’ll do it.

Above all, I feel whole again. I feel new, happy, ready to work on my fitness goals without overdoing it. I'm embracing the addition of yoga back into my life, and realize that it's something that I needed. I'm happy to reduce the amount of cardio I've been doing. I'm no longer scared to eat or not eat; I'm no longer worried about what's normal and what's not. No two people are the same — something that I've preached and preached and preached but haven't been able to ingrain completely in myself.

I'm at peace with my body, grateful for all it can do, and comfortable in my own skin. It's been a long journey, but a much-needed one.

Links I found helpful in my research: