Adrenal Fatigue

One evening in April 2008, Charlotte was 9 weeks old. I was sitting at the dining room table of our former home. A plate of 5 or 6 scrambled eggs sat in front of me. Charlotte was wearing a white onesie smiling happily in a travel-sized swing near the couch. Dana, age 3 at the time, was sitting at her small table playing with miniature princess and their castle. I had just risen from a rest in my bedroom and came out to eat the dinner Chad had prepared for me. We both knew something was not right with me, and both being aware of my hypoglycemia issues, he had prepared a heavy protein meal for me.

Hypoglycemia was sadly the beginning and the end of so many of the issues that were going on with me at this time. I had just been to the doctor a few days earlier for my chronic insomnia that was growing more and more out of control each night. I think at this point I had a meditative cd that I had burned on my ipod, and I played it continuously in my ear all night. Even though I never fully fell asleep, I kept the music and soothing words playing in my ear to trick my mind into thinking I was sleeping, and this helped avoid the full-blown panic attacks I was having while the rest of my family slept.

The doctor had just told me that I had some post partum anxiety and that I should be taking Zoloft, but I would have to stop nursing. She recommended yoga and taking breaks from the baby. She advised me not to take Ambien (a sleep aid which I had tried and it wasn’t helping) because it was habit-forming. When I looked her dead in the eye and said, “I am not sleeping at all. I don’t think yoga is going to help”, she had no response. She had ordered blood work for post partum hypothyroidism. For the next few days, I prayed often that the issue was in my thyroid, and it could be quickly resolved and I could be a mom to my new baby, sleep through the night, and stop the fear and panic that were running through my veins constantly.

Back to the scrambled eggs…I took a few bites and then noticed a strange sensation occurring in my legs and arms. I couldn’t quite feel them. My head began to slump forward as if I might faint, but my mind was fully lucid. I opened my mouth to speak and found that no words could come out. I was sort of zombie-like, staring straight ahead and not really able to move or speak at the same time. My neighbor appeared in my doorway after Chad had sprinted next door to retrieve her, and I remember a conversation about who would watch the kids and who would take me to the ER. Relief flooded me. Somebody would take care of me. Somebody would fix me. I would sleep again.

Chad drove me to the ER, and I was able to speak in bits and pieces and that I was okay but had to move and speak very slowly. I could feel my milk letting down as it was approaching Charlotte’s feeding time, in the midst of my physical crisis. I felt deeply at peace under a heated blanket in an ER bed, blood being drawn, and nurses attending to me. My children were okay, and somebody was helping me.

I can’t recall a more confusing conversation in my life than the one that took place between the ER doctor and Chad and I that night. I was so positive that my bloodwork would show some major thyroid or hormonal issue that was causing this crashing feeling that I was experiencing. Nope. When the words “post partum depression and normal bloodwork” came out of his mouth, I shook my head. I had definitely felt anxious, and I was having some disturbing images run through my mind since the birth, but I had experienced these with my first child and worked through it without medication. I had never in my life had trouble sleeping and didn’t even know what a panic attack was. This could not be just depression. I had never been on any medication for depression or anxiety. Nevertheless, I was told to go home, see my regular doctor asap, and get on an anti-depressant.

Getting myself up and out of the safe and warm bed and getting back in the car to go home to my children with no more answers was traumatic and terrifying. At home I found my mom, who had cleaned up the house and put the children to bed. She nodded appropriately when I looked at her confused and delirious and said, “It’s post partum depression.” Chad took the rest of the week off of work, and we got me on drugs and Charlotte on formula.

Because no one really knew what was going on with me, things got worse before they got better. I started on a low dose of Zoloft at this point, and it didn’t touch the crazy brain chemistry that was going on. More insomnia, more panic, and a complete loss of appetite followed for the next few weeks. I was headed down a very dark path, and I felt that there was no one to help me.

My doctor had recommended therapy, and I figured since I had such severe depression there must be something really wrong with me. I went diligently to therapy sessions and raised a few red flags when I mentioned that I couldn’t sleep and was hardly eating.Thankfully, my therapist recognized that the low level of Zoloft was not touching my issues. She referred me to a psychiatrist immediately and that’s when the drugs really kicked in. My prescription for Zoloft nearly tripled. In addition, I was taking Ativan (Lorazapam–one of the drugs that Michael Jackson used to induce sleep) and I was ordered to take Ambien sleep aid. The long-term effects of habit-forming drugs were not on my radar at this time.

I finally began sleeping. On Mother’s Day 2008, I woke up from my first peaceful slumber in months, and I thanked God that all of my issues were behind me. I continued seeing the psychiatrist and he monitored my depression symptoms closely. I went to therapy every week for two years, working through the issues that I thought had led to my breakdown. I was president of my Mom’s group at the time, speaking openly about Post Partum Depression and Anxiety and the drugs to fix it.

It wasn’t until 2009, a few months after my dad passed away, that I began to come out of the fog and tried to come off of the medication. As I weaned the meds from my system, chronic and excruciating PMS showed up each month after ovulation. I had horrible mood issues and just felt awful for 2 weeks out of each month. Again, I went to the doctor and began to take Yazmin birth control for my PMS symptoms.

It was shortly after I realized the Yaz wasn’t really working, that my Ob-gyn talked to me about a higher fat diet. I felt the effects immediately. I cut carbs out of every meal and didn’t need to nap every afternoon to make it through the day. Enter my friend Rachel, her husband Dr. Mike, and the Paleo diet. I read everything I could get my hands on. I learned that my insulin and hypoglycemia were a key players in my mental and physical health, and when I was nursing, I was burning through fuel so fast, many of my systems were functioning in a depleted state. It wasn’t until I regulated my insulin and controlled my hypoglycemia that I could think about feeling normal and weaning some medications. Sadly, my psychiatrist did not support the diet change as a means to help my depression, and so once again, I had to figure a lot out on my own.

As I emailed my friend Mike for information on getting off of the Yaz and antidepressants, he asked me to tell me complete my complete story of Charlotte’s birth, her issues, and my ultimate breakdown. In a long and emotional email, I told the same story as above, and I cried real tears when he explained Adrenal Fatigue. I had known all along that my issues weren’t just mental. Yes, I had plenty to talk about in therapy, but there was a physiological breakdown when the nursing wasn’t successful. All of the insomnia and panic were adrenaline. My body was trying to keep me alive when I was really in a primal fight or flight mode. The adrenal glands are like factories that pump out the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, among others. My adrenaline glands were fried and were working hard to do the job that my scrambled brain was sending via mixed signals. 

Why didn’t anybody recognize this sooner? Sadly, adrenal fatigue is not recognized by Western medicine. So many systems are at play when we talk about stress response, insulin, and our adrenal glands, modern medicine treats it all as separate components. When in fact, learning how my body works together with appropriate food, rest, and exercise has been the best medicine.

My adrenal issues are not completely behind me. The only true cure for adrenal fatigue is rest, reduced stress, and time to heal. Since Charlotte’s developmental issues have kept my stress hormones on alert, I know my recovery is slower than most. I still fight panic on a restless night’s sleep. I have to avoid all sugar or my sleep and mood are affected. I still deal with raging PMS, and I am still working on coming off of my meds completely. I still go to therapy to work through some of the lingering Post Traumatic Stress that the last 3 years have brought.

Just as the Paleo lifestyle was a vehicle for improving Charlotte’s health, it has proven equally as effective for me. The Paleo lifestyle has taught me to listen to my body’s needs and respond to them appropriately. After years of searching for an exercise program that I could enjoy and stick with, I found yoga (funny how the doctor was right all along) and practice regularly. It has proven very beneficial for me as a way to regulate my stress by quieting my mind, strengthening my body, and not depleting too many energy reserves.

About six months ago, after feeling like I did not have a handle on my PMS cycles, I started acupuncture and began an herbal treatment to replenish and restore my weakened systems. I am loving how the basis of Chinese medicine matches up with the Paleo Lifestyle in that all of the systems of the body work must together to achieve health.

Many people experience varying degrees and symptoms of adrenal fatigue, depending on an individual’s cortisol levels and how the body responds to stress. Adrenal Fatigue can be debilitating and very serious.  Please see the links under Resources and Contacts for more information on Adrenal Fatigue.

16 thoughts on “Adrenal Fatigue

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your family’s story. it’s amazing how eating good, clean, whole foods can make your body work so much better. My family and I also eat paleo and my son’s type 1 diabetes is being handled so much better because of it. I look forward to reading more from you guys.

  2. NomNomPaleo posted a link to your blog on her facebook page. Wow. You have created a wonderful resource. Your writing is emotive yet efficient in passing on valuable information. After reading your story I now know I had adrenal fatigue, less severe than yours, after the birth of my son. I, too, thought there must be an underlying physical reason to my situation. If only every woman knew to eat paleo-properly before getting pregnant! I look forward to reading your blog!

  3. I found your blog through the comments of a distant relative’s post on FB. I read this story and this is me. This has been my life since my twins were born, right down to the ER visit and the feelings of finally someone is going to help me. The only difference is that I sleep too much. I hope this lifestyle can work as well for my family. Thank you for putting your story out there.

  4. Came across your site via facebook. I went through adrenal fatigue in 2007 that was so scary. I have back slid from 100% paleo some and can tell. Thank you for inspiring me.

    • Recovering from Adrenal Fatigue is a long road, and I have found that being 100% Paleo is extremely helpful but being diligent about my not exceeding my body’s limits is the real key. Good luck with your Paleo journey. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Thank you so much for your honesty. I expereinced almost the *exact* same reaction to meals many times before a doc (shockingly!) diagnosed severe adrenal fatigue. God’s peace be with you and your family as you continue to heal and grow.

  6. thanks for sharing. I too have adrenal fatigue and I am always looking for people who have been through it too. I just want to get better.

    I hope you are well on the road to recovery. I hope your adrenals are healed soon

    • Hi Melissa, it does help me to know that others are struggling, too. It’s been a long journey for me but I’m learning more and more about caring for myself with every day. Best of luck to you on your healing and thank you for your comment!

  7. Hi Melissa…
    Just wondering if you’ve ever thought that antidepressants slowed your healing process. I’ve read that SSRIs can make adrenal fatigue worse. How is your healing going?

    • Thanks for your question. I would have to say that I really couldn’t heal from the adrenal issues until I came off of the medication. On the meds, I felt numb to everything and didn’t learn to manage the triggers that elevated my adrenaline and cortisol and caused my insomnia. Now, I feel everything, which is certainly a challenge. But I have just committed to learning how the mental signals trigger physical symptoms and how to think/react or prepare differently to a stressful situation. When I get insomnia now, I carefully retrace my thoughts and actions and usually find a trigger. I wouldn’t be able to do that on meds. It’s exhausting and frustrating but I haven’t found any other way. I hope that’s helpful. Others on the thread, feel free to chime in. How have meds helped or hindered your adrenal healing? –Joy

  8. I have been suffering from adrenal fatigue for 4 years + i have been prone to sinus infections, allergies and compromised immune system. I have decided today that going Paleo is the answer. I have had very similar symptoms as you have mentioned, and visited many doctors with no answers. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Hi Joy I just came across your blog as I was desperately searching the internet for recovery stories from adrenal exhaustion.
    I’ve been really ill now for just over a year and at times I feel like im just getting worse.
    Just last night I had severe nervousness that lasted till the morning, I did not sleep at all and today i can’t manage to look after my two year old boy.
    Can I ask you how long did recovery take for you?
    How did you cope with depression?
    My depression has gotten so bad that I just cry the whole day.
    I have this fear that I won’t get any better!
    I’ve never suffered from anxiety or depression before this illness.
    Your story has given me some hope, Thank you and God bless your family.

    • Hi Marian, thank you for your comment. I am sorry you are struggling. My recovery has been a steady process of learning my body and its signals and limits. I certainly still have bad days and weeks and have use all of my tools to get back on track. I would encourage you to see a doctor that you trust and explore all of your options for treatment right now. Medication did help me find my bearings when I was in the depths of the depression. Everybody is different, and the most important thing is getting yourself in a better place to care for your son. I would also encourage you to reach out to friends and family and ask for help getting well. There is hope. You won’t always feel this way. Best of luck to you. Keep in touch, Joy

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