BY VICTORIA WALSH
“Are you ok?” Like a cartoon, my wide eyes blinked twice, welled up with tears, and burst into full sobs. I’m not even sure my response was coherent. The university doctor simply smiled empathetically and said “congratulations, you my dear are the very definition of burnt out”.
It was the end of my first year in the nursing program. I was a full-time student, still maintaining a full time professional job, amid home renovations, and going through a challenging break up. My body was revolting. Hard.
Exhaustion, muscle fatigue, night terrors, night sweats, adult acne, severe joint pain, significant weight gain, inability to concentrate/feel ‘awake’, needing stimulants, irritability, frequent infections, salt cravings, mild depression, dry skin, faintness/dizziness, blurred vision, inability to cope with stress, anxiety/jitters, forgetfulness.
Amazingly, little miss rose coloured glasses here didn’t see this coming. So when I stumbled into my Naturopathic Doctor’s office (at the request of my MD, because he’s crazy amazing like that) there was the laundry list of symptoms above. Now we’re down to only two!! Ah-mazing.
Ok, reality check here. There is no quick fix. NONE. You only need three things to recover. Ready for the BIG SECRET? Because here’s your golden ticket to recovery; a willingness to change, a damn good doctor, and a boat load of self-compassion.
My arsenal against adrenal fatigue and chronic stress includes:
Nutrition: Right off the bat, a reduction of sugar and caffeine intake was recommended. Aaaand by reduction, I mean elimination. Sugar is one thing, but I’m not quite convinced I would ever be able to give up my beloved dirty chai lattes. The main effort was put behind sustaining a nutrient dense diet and including vitamin and mineral supplementation as directed by the health care provider. This is where Pranin Organic PureFood Smoothie Boosters in Raw Cacao and the PureFood A to Z multivitamin quickly became a mainstay in my dietary support. Tip: Buy reduced price produce and either cook or freeze them immediately for your meals (ex: brown bananas are cheap yet perfect to freeze for smoothies!) drink teas or bone broths in the evenings to curb cravings, and roast probiotic vegetables such as leeks and parsnips to aid in creating a healthy gut flora.
Meditation: Don’t scoff, hear me out here. Mindfulness and meditation was a game changer when it came to stress. I meditated early in the mornings for 5-10 minutes, before stressful events, and even in the car (parked) to tell you the truth! Eventually there was no longer that anxious feeling (like a hummingbird in my chest!) and calm returned. The clear health benefits of meditation include stress reduction and increased sleep Tip: Apps like Breathe and Headspace are guided mediations that track your progress.
Fresh air: When was the last time you had a moment outdoors? Believe it or not ‘forest bathing’ is actually a thing and gaining in popularity. With good reason, there are multiple studies that link the health benefits of getting outdoors including enhancing immune function and lowering stress levels. Tip: Sign up for an accountability group that motivates you to get outside like the 52 Hike Challenge. Use a local playground or your patio to mediate or practice yoga. If you need extra motivation, try indulging in photography, bird watching, or geocaching.
Simplify life: Say no to optional activities/tasks that add stress and start putting your health first. It’s not selfish to do so, it’s necessary. Seek help, and then seek more help. Gather your tribe, call in favours, consider community and local health initiatives. (Think financial aid, babysitting services, free counselors, house cleaning, study groups, meal prep, food banks, online support groups, anything that could possibly make your life easier.) Tip: Eat humble pie and ask for friends/family to help give you a break, it’s amazing the return you’ll have.
Sleep: An absolute must is getting a grip on that sleep cycle. Seriously. No all-nighters fellow students! On average, I’ll sleep 8-9hrs a night and always in bed by 11pm if possible. I’ll refrain from using electronics one hour before bed and drink Nighty Night tea. This is a great time to prep for the next day, journal, read, or meditate.
Tip: Consider investing in a light alarm. It simulates a sunrise, waking you up naturally without the anxiety of a horrid electronic alarm. At the very least, remove all electronics from the bedroom and keep the bedroom for sleeping only.
Journaling: Remember that journal you had as kid? It may be time to start again, only this time with an adult twist. There are two journals in my life, one to express feelings and events, and the other to explore new ideas and future goals. Tip: Discovery ‘bullet journaling’. Write down your goals, dreams, stressors, progress, brainstorm new ideas. Keep a journal by the bedside and use it during the ‘electronic free’ time before bed.
No Exercise: It sounds shocking, but extreme exercise while going through adrenal fatigue is the equivalent to drinking from an empty cup. The body needs time to heal and some of the best ways to help support that healing is to engage in light exercising. Great options include flow yoga and walks in nature. Tip: Listen to a podcast while walking or study while leisurely cycling at the gym.
Self-compassion: The first thing my doctor advised me to do was to start showing myself a little self-compassion. Little things like recognizing our own strengths, accomplishments, and being ok with perceived failures. There is no linear route to healing and setting your mind frame up to accept small setbacks is a healthy way to continue moving forward without being too discouraged.
“The best six doctors anywhere
And no one can deny it
Are sunshine, water, rest, and air
Exercise and diet.
These six will gladly you attend
If only you are willing
Your mind they’ll ease
Your will they’ll mend
And charge you not a shilling.”
~ Wayne Fields
My humble advice would be not to change everything at once and to start with what you can manage. Personally, I focused on sleep, no exercising, and simplifying life first (recovering). Soon to follow was meditation and nutrition (fueling). Lastly was journaling (exploring self). You may take a different path, but hopefully we all end up at the same wonderfully sunny destination of manageable stress and balanced health.
“I don’t think of myself as unbreakable. Perhaps I’m just rather flexible and adaptable.”
~ Aung San Suu Kyi
Ask your doctor about:
- Lab tests: help identify the area that needs the most support, consult with your health care provider.
- Supplementation: like adrenal support supplements, multivitamins, vitamin B12, vitamin D, l-glutamine, fish oil, probiotics.
- Therapy and support groups: sometimes there’s more going on or we could simply use a little help. It’s more than ok to ask for it.
In my specific case, prolonged stress lead to a severe lack of cortisol production. Almost none in fact. I had scary moments of blurred vision, extreme weakness, and speaking incomprehensibly. Remember that will all receive and process stress differently, which means different symptoms/physiological responses that will require tailored treatment plans. There is no one shoe fits all, hence the importance finding a damn good doctor to guide you through your healing.
It is incredible that a year of lifestyle changes and supplementation has resulted in living mostly symptom free. I am back to hiking mountains and even managed a Spartan race last week (with an amazing team and a slow pace). Better yet, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I needed to learn about myself and others. Maybe I needed this lesson in life? Who knows really. Whatever the reasoning, I’m going to run with it and find the silver lining.
Victoria Walsh is the voice behind Girl Gone Good, a little blog that grew out of the desire to embrace better health and explore the world in earnest. As a military veteran, she loved the adventurous life full of challenges, travel, and skydiving. Trading her combats boots for hikers, a love for mountains, wellness, and a small smoothie obsession emerged.
She is currently earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Ottawa.