What I did to heal my adrenal fatigue + reverse weight gain

adrenal burnout

After my video that I posted the other day, I had a few questions about what my symptoms of stress were, and how I was able to reverse them and lose weight without a specific diet or exercising.

So I will give some more details here for clarity. This really can be a complex area of health to discuss, and everyone is unique in what symptoms will present for them, and what triggers that – as well, as what exactly will be needed to reverse it. Everything from genetics, personal history, present circumstances, nutrition deficits and requirements, and overall health and fitness level will be part of this formula. And then of course, there is the matter of working with a physician who is qualified to assess and treat complex, integrative health concerns.

I am fortunate to have a local certified Naturopathic doctor who could help me. Where I live, NDs are licensed to prescribe both nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals – I did not want to be passed off with an anti-depressant from the scope of an MD, so it was helpful that my ND had the ability to use her discretion if necessary to prescribe the appropriate means to heal me if the natural therapies were not adequate. More on that later.

The other element of natural medicine that was important to me was the ability of my doctor to order a range of blood tests. Now, I live in Canada where our healthcare system is designed in such a way that doctors are not always able to simply order random, integrative testing unless there is a qualified reason for it. And from my experience, many doctors are reluctant to go out of their way to do this, regardless. So even though I had to pay out of pocket to get testing done through my ND, I got what was needed to help put all the pieces together. I also appreciated that she reviewed the results with me and discussed what it all meant in context – because a “normal” range result is not always “healthy” in context of the whole picture of one’s health.

Working with a qualified doctor – whoever that might be for you – is crucial in the process of digging deeper into identifying the underlying issues that can be present and contributing to imbalances. This is need-to-know information, because part of the ability to heal (not just band-aid over it) is to get to the root of the problem and nurture that, not just get rid of the symptoms. Depending on what is going on, just deciding to go on a strict diet or taking random supplements may actually do more harm than good.

Ok, so what were my symptoms?

First, remember that I already had training around the symptoms and effects of stress. I knew the many ways it could manifest and the imbalances that could occur because of it. I thought that I was actually doing a pretty good job at managing my life, and on top of it, I was aware that this could be an issue for me. My point is, I already had a great deal of awareness about my body and I still did not effectively prevent what happened. But had I not been so AWARE and open to understanding it, then it probably would have become much worse.

Initial symptoms (before I went to the doctor):

  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Night-waking and then not going back to sleep
  • General feeling of fatigue – too tired to focus on anything
  • Craving sugar (although I was able to manage my cravings most of the time because I had connected the dots as to why I was craving it)
  • Heavy periods, some irregularity + PMS (swollen, tender breasts, cramps, mood swings, bloating, etc)
  • Dizziness, especially when standing too quickly
  • Sudden weight gain – particularly in my legs and mid-section
  • Water retention – general puffiness
  • Consistently escalating depression, panic, and anxiety
  • Constant aches and pains, as if I had done a major workout and was sore – but yet, I had not exercised to that degree or at all.

Assessment of symptoms after blood work and seeing the doctor:

  • Cortisol imbalance – reverse cortisol (meaning that my cortisol was extremely low first thing in the morning when it should have been highest, and extremely high cortisol in the evening when it should have been low)
  • Thyroid imbalance – after assessing the whole thyroid range of testing, not just basic TSH. Thyroid imbalances can occur due to the primary dysfunction of the adrenals. It’s like a hormonal chain-reaction. So I did not get to the point of thyroid *disease* yet, but there were starting to be signs that may have progressed if the root cause had not been dealt with.
  • High glucose, high cholesterol – often signs of over-worked adrenal function
  • Progesterone / estrogen imbalance – my hormone levels were that of a menopausal woman (I’m 41 and my ND confirmed this was not perimenopause) – very low progesterone and low estrogen, however the imbalanced relationship between the two was also crucial. Again, progesterone is produced in the adrenals and so when adrenals are tapped out, they also are not able to produce adequate progesterone.

Other than that, my blood work showed that I was in very good health. It actually took many months to really pinpoint what exactly the problem was and what needed to be addressed. I am thankful that I had worked hard to build up my general health all these years, because I think my bloodwork would have been way worse at that point, given how lousy I felt. It was clear (to my doctor) that I was doing so many things “right”, yet my symptoms were not reflecting that. But at the end of the day, most of my issues pointed directly to my worn-out adrenal function.

 

So how did this happen? I seemed to be doing everything “right” – especially in the nutrition and fitness departments – and not to mention, I was pursuing my dream and doing amazing things in my life. Five years of improving my diet and exercising every day, running 5k’s and half-marathons (and everything in between over the course of 6-7 years), training for figure body-building competitions (I had done two shows over two years prior), and then starting my own business to help other women get healthy which had culminated into my biggest dream of opening my own studio where I was teaching small group fitness classes, as well as coaching women in weight loss and lifestyle changes. Everything was what I wanted. I loved my life. I have a loving, supportive husband and a happy marriage, and three wonderful kids that are really the best I could ever ask for. Everything was GOOD. I felt successful. Then BOOM – it all started to change after about a year of owning the studio, and facing the realities of running a business, balanced with taking care of my family.

 

It was confusing to suddenly feel crappy and gain weight – not because I was neglecting exercise, but in spite of the fact I was teaching 3-4 fitness classes a day and staying very active – go go go! All of this, however, was starting to become too much for me. I know from past experience that I am sensitive to stress – even stress from exercise – so this was not a total surprise. But again, because I was prepared for it, I thought I was managing it ok. But nonetheless, it was the culmination of “too much” over the years, and apparently this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It really became a situation of not physically being able to DO the exercise anymore without feeling like I might literally fall over. So it was a no-brainer that I just had to stop doing anything intense, or otherwise. And the hardest part was not beating myself up for not exercising. I was tempted to believe that if I could just get “back on track” then I would feel good again, however, it was the exact opposite of what needed to happen.

 

I think most people assume that if you are gaining weight, then its because you are eating too much or eating junk – but in my case, I was just not eating enough to keep up with my activity level. And while for some this might just result in weight LOSS, for me it was GAIN – this was my body’s way of protecting me: add more protective layers of fat. It’s almost like the “improvements” I had made over the years, combined with extreme exercise at times, had messed up my metabolism and this had become a source of stress in itself. So I had to focus on eating more, not less. Not cutting things out and restricting myself to just “super-healthy” foods, although I do believe that it is vitally important to be aware of what you’re eating, how you’re eating, and why you’re eating. This is a unique process for each person and what is affecting the stress triggers – for many people, a specific nutrition plan may be a vital part of healing. For me, it was not so much about food sensitivity (there might be opportunity for that down the road, if necessary) – but my main point here is that often people will assume that their issue when presenting similar symptoms is that they need to eat less or be more restrictive. This is not always the case – and like I said before, may actually worsen what is going on. And just because I started to eat “more” didn’t mean that I wasn’t practising awareness around my nutrition – I maintained the general structure I know works best for me. Not being “strict” was part of my stress-management – it was more important for me to spend time resting rather then prepping food and getting in a panic about what was available to eat. I needed my body to fed, not starved of what it needed for energy and healing.

 

The strategies I used to heal my adrenals and overcome stress were not about trying to exercise more to burn calories or instituting a restrictive diet – tools that mostly tend to address the weight management part of the issue. Unfortunately, the weight gain symptom is the one most people will identify first and may not realize that the root of it may be more complex than just diet and exercise and a lack of discipline.

Here is what I did do:

  • Supplementation, as directed by my ND, including (but not an exhaustive list):
    • Cortisol Manager nutraceutical
    • Dessicated Thyroid
    • Vitamin B complex
    • Vitamin D
    • Omega 3 Fish Oil
    • Progesterone
    • 5-HTP
    • St, John’s Wort
    • Rhodiola
    • CoQ10
    • Iron
  • Sleep
    • Changing my schedule so that I could sleep in a little more, rather than get up early to workout
    • Practicing sleep-inducing behaviours (ie. Avoiding TV late in the evening, settling into bed an hour early to get relaxed and comfortable)
    • Awareness around my thoughts before I went to bed – keeping my mind at ease instead of filling it with over-thinking. Reading something relaxing before bed helped me with this.
  • Restorative Activities
    • Instead of forcing myself to do an intense workout, I simply walked as much as possible. It was hard to let go of the idea that I wasn’t “doing enough”. But I decided that walking was the best thing I could for myself and that had to be enough right now. I really started to enjoy my walking and came to look forward to that as my “me time”. Instant stress-buster!
    • Allowing myself to do less, instead of more. This was big for me, because traditionally I had relied on my super-adrenaline abilities that allowed me to function on little sleep, go hard towards my goals, and get stuff done like a super-woman. In order to heal, I had to learn to be ok with relaxing instead of doing. I realized that striving is not always a good thing, and that there are plenty of “moments” to enjoy instead of trying to get ahead.
  • Perspective
    • Part of healing myself and doing so for the long-term, not just losing weight and hoping for the best, was that I had to gain a new understanding of myself and my life. There were things I had to let go of – emotionally, spiritually, physically – in order to be built back up in a transformed way. I spent a lot of time switching my focus from my own perspective and the ideas I had embraced, to getting to know and understand God’s perspective better, the practice of gratitude in my life, and what was actually missing from all the “good things” I had worked so hard for over these past few years. This was the toughest part of the healing process for me – letting part of myself die in order to be made new. I knew I could not change unless I changed. I knew that healing could not place in all the ways it needed to, if I refused to let go of all the things that had brought me to that place of ill-health in the first place. It has been a challenging process, but so rewarding to accept renewal in my life. It was all worth it.
  • Diet and Exercise
    • My goal was to simply stay aware, practice my own sense of balance, and gain a better understanding about what makes me feel my best. It was about letting go of everything I “thought” was good for me, and re-assessing those ideas. I was not judgemental about my choices, but I chose to use my experiences to collect data about myself. I think the important distinction here was that my goal was not “weight loss” – it was HEALTH, ENERGY, VITALITY. I came at these areas with the attitude of: If I never lost a pound, then what must I do to FEEL good ALL THE TIME? Ironically, as I have overcome these foundational issues – on a much deeper level than I had previously in my life – I have realized just how connected the conviction and pursuit for health and vitality is linked to how well the body naturally balances out to a healthy weight – not super-model weight, just our own personal “perfect” weight and body composition. And as a result, we can easily focus on the things that don’t really get us there (permanently) which keeps us spinning our wheels in the process, and possibly not even addressing the factors that could more positively impact our WHOLE health and weight management.

The Result:

  • I now protect my sleep. I need 8-9 hours a night to not feel exhausted. I sleep soundly through the night generally, and fall asleep quickly and don’t wake up before my alarm. I look forward to bedtime now.
  • My periods are normal again. Regular cycles and symptoms of PMS eliminated.
  • Depression and anxiety is mostly non-existent. I have battled this even before this year, but it was the worst ever this year. I now feel totally balanced, motivated, and calm. This was actually the most important thing to me to find healing for.
  • Cravings are more “back to normal” – LOL. I do not feel desperate for quick energy anymore, like I was before when I felt compelled to eat sugar and starch to make up for my extreme fatigue. I eat when I’m hungry and do not get tempted to overeat. I eat a range of foods, and nothing is really off-limits unless it’s something that I do not feel like eating for whatever reason. I WANT to feel good, have energy, and be happy – so I structure my nutrition to provide those things. Doing otherwise would just make me feel more crappy, so that does affect my choices.
  • My weight (this is a loose term – I actually don’t weigh myself – but I go by fit of clothes and appearance) is returning to a normal, comfortable place. My clothes did not fit earlier this year – it was stretchy pants and loose shirts all the way….this was so discouraging, because I really didn’t want to have to go spend money on new clothes….but now I am finding my clothes loose on me and I can see my shape coming back in my waistline and legs. I have lost a lot of muscle in the process of slowing down and not training, but that’s ok. It’s a new start for me in that area, when that time comes. Six months ago, I did not recognize myself in the mirror – but I feel and look like myself again and to me, that is a good sign that healing has been taking place, despite whatever my actual weight or size might be. And again, the key point as far as I’m concerned is that my body shape is coming back, not because of dieting hard and hitting the gym more – but in spite of NOT doing any that. There was a LOT of trust in that process, but in the end such a great lesson for me in how amazing and complex our bodies are.
  • My endurance level for exercise is something that I am still working on and being patient with. Even though the temptation is there to go into a “no excuses” mode about it, for the sake of being sure I’m not just lazy, I KNOW that it would not be wise of me to rush into doing too much too soon – “too much” is what got me into this so it certainly is not the remedy. I can tell that my physiology is not quite ready yet, even though my psychology is – so this is something that I plan to create a whole new strategy around as I ease back into regular exercise again. Meaning, in the past I would probably give myself a big goal as motivation to get on it….however, this time around I will be looking at my goals from a new perspective.

I will end this post here, because hey- it is LONNNNG.

But I wanted to get all those questions answered for those who might need that info. Hopefully at least this has enlightened you in some way, regardless. But I want to reiterate that this is MY story and experience. If you feel that there is something that needs attention in your own health, then I would encourage you to seek out your own answers.

As a coach, I do not focus so much on a “plan” for my clients to lose weight – rather, my role in how I do coaching is to integrate these many factors into helping you seek out your answers and solutions beyond just how many pounds come off. I have found in my practice that many women who come to me simply wanting a “plan” to lose weight and feel better have not considered how their own unique make up and circumstances could be affecting this area of their life – and in reality, they do not know how to go about understanding and improving it. So, as a coach I do not act as a doctor (obviously!) but as your partner in seeking out the appropriate resources when necessary and helping you identify key strategies that can be implemented beyond just diet and exercise for weight loss.

If you have questions or would like to chat about your own story, I’d be happy to hear from you!

Email me at allison@wholesome-fitness.com anytime.