If you have done the research, you know as well as I do that adrenal fatigue has two camps- those who believe and those who don’t. Further, if you are like me with a list of non-specific symptoms, you have been on an endless road to figure out the root of the problem and how to heal adrenal distress. If along the way the best match you’ve uncovered points to adrenal fatigue- you are more than likely to adopt the condition and hope with an identifier to your problems, you will feel less crazy and alone.
As I continue to unearth why my body presents with chronic depletion and poor resiliency, I care less and less about whether or not adrenal fatigue is real. I know that many of my most problematic symptoms are due to hormone imbalances of the adrenal glands. I also know that chronic stress underlies a majority of our contemporary illnesses. Further, the adrenal glands are key players in stress physiology overall. Most importantly, I want to heal whatever you want to call this . . . adrenal distress condition.
Adrenal Distress is a Decline in Resiliency
Adrenal dysfunction can look many different ways as it has numerous manifestations concerning health. I currently simply identify adrenal dysfunction as an imbalance of stress physiology. Considering our ability to respond and adapt to, as well as overcome stress is a primary survival need, one can imagine how widespread the effects of our stress physiology span. When the orchestrated interactions of our stress response begin to fall out of sync, the talented regulatory mechanisms that favor self-organization perform calculated moves to keep us in alignment.
However, with each and every required correction, more and more resources are required to support allostasis. When the stress response is in hyper-drive, eventually our resiliency declines. No longer able to recover in the same way, the body presents with a multitude of symptoms showcasing its depletion. Where the response to a minor life episode previously matched resources for intensity, the depleted environment of the body landscape can hardly manage a day without sun. The redundant alarm signaling a call to arms, a primary stress management operation, will eventually fall silent, no longer capable of sounding for help. Adrenal overload is a slow, steady decline of a most basic function of survival, that of responding and adapting to stress.
The bigger system at play here is known as the HPA axis which is our central stress response system involving complex interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. Read more about the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. To me, it seems that the adrenals receive so much attention in the case of fatigue related illnesses because of the correlation between symptoms and the effect of adrenal hormones.
Adrenal Distress in Stages
Adrenal fatigue is often described as occurring in stages. Stages 1 and 2 seem to reflect the state of many people in our society. Metabolic dysfunction, hormone imbalances, sleep issues, allergies, and energy continuity issues are common themes in adrenal fatigue literature. However, even with a host of symptoms and imbalances, these bodies keep on going. The alarm is sounding and regulatory mechanisms are doing their best to keep the party hopping and the ship on course.
Don’t get me wrong, people do not generally feel their best under these circumstances. The saying “wired but tired” describes this state of being: one of pressing forward passionately while ignoring the body’s need for rest. Inevitably, it becomes an issue of slowing down sufficiently to check-in to the soma and achieve deep physiological recuperation. Then one day, you wake up and all of the rules have changed. You wake up in Stage 3 adrenal fatigue. Now that’s a different story.
Stage 3 came out of the blue for me. The night before I was at a lovely sushi dinner with my partner and we were celebrating. We had a successful day implementing a Fitness Challenge for more than a dozen REI managers. The launch event for the Fitness Challenge went great and we were excited about our collaboration to make the whole thing happen.
The next morning I entered my first week long adrenal crash. I have taken on the term adrenal crash from Dr. Lam. If you want to read in-depth information from the camp who believes in adrenal fatigue, definitely check out his site. Here is his article on Adrenal Fatigue Crash. I had another significant crash 4 weeks later. Those both occurred in February and March of 2016. After months of dedicated self-care, and just when I thought I would never have to experience anything like that again, 6 months later, here I am, back in the underworld.
Adrenal Distress Feels Real
My blood pressure drops. I have no choice but to lay down and hibernate. For like hours at a time. For days. During these episodes it can be difficult to even feed myself. I cannot think very well and I cannot move much. I literally feel like someone pulled my main power cord and the system shut down. During this third adrenal crash, I have cycles of down days with up days in between. Today I am managing fairly well. I can drive a car to pick up my daughter from school and take a short walk with my dog. I even made dinner for my family. Yesterday my blood pressure never raised above a 100/60 and I could not remain upright for longer than a few minutes!
In this case, the adrenal hormone aldosterone is the big problem. Aldosterone helps to manage fluid balance and sodium levels in the body. When this hormone is very low, the body’s ability to retain sodium and water decreases. This low blood volume state sets the stage for low blood pressure and along with it the symptoms of lightheadedness, dizziness, fatigue, and low cognitive function. Here is a good article on Aldosterone and its Health Effects.
My joke about adrenal distress this year has been, “If you want to have a spiritual crisis, try adrenal fatigue.” The physical decline is very hard. And scary. For me it is in stark contrast to my reliance on body expression and physicality for energetic and spiritual health. As a dancer, somatic educator, personal trainer, and movement scientist– well this condition really threatens my identity and passion. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all, though, is the soul work revealed in the process. Paradoxically, it is also the gift.
What I Have Learned From Adrenal Distress
Considering this dis-ease is related to the body’s stress response system, often called the “fight or flight” response, the question that comes up for me is , “What are you fighting?” The tension, the resistance, the dis-satisfaction, the suffering . . .what are you fighting? In the ring, I found me, myself, and I.
Rumi is one of my most revered teachers. He has guided me through many dark nights of the soul. The underworld of adrenal fatigue has been lit by his words. The Guest House is an invitation for any visitor- regardless of their demeanor, baggage, or intention. As I have opened my house to Adrenal Fatigue, I have been robbed of my resources, stripped naked, humiliated, taken down and tied up, whipped like a rug, and turned inside out.
Miraculously, the assaults of adrenal fatigue have manifested into unforeseen gifts and lessons: stop grasping externally, stop trying so hard to be somewhere or something else, quit the struggle against humanity and all of its messiness, and slow down until you can embody the gift of yourself. Die in this moment, die! Die to the illusion that this even exists as more than this, here. And if you already believed that you have done the work- stop wasting time believing and do the work again. And again. Infinitely, be the practice. The never ending practice of HERE.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
~ DAVID WAGONER (and a special thanks to Jody)
Adrenal Distress and Long Term Care
After the entrance of adrenal distress into my life early in the year, and the sense that I somehow overcame the condition only to find its return, I am now aware of the respect required to be on this path. The fundamental daily practices of eating well, taking supplements, sleeping enough, mindfulness check-ins, movement drop-ins, being outside . . . those are an inherent part of my life. Although recovery requires those daily elements, and I need to continue to fine tune their specificity to meet my current needs, I sense a distinct healing venture presenting itself.
Adrenal distress is a prompt to “take an axe to the prison wall” and an invitation to “become the sky”. This venture is about bringing me out of myself and into connectivity with life, fearlessly. The calling is about clarity of sight and settling in to this place, now. The risk is giving myself permission to be whole, even in my humanity. Truly the grief exceeds my personal story. The passion for wellness and healing grows from a soulful prayer: may we each transform toward brilliance, so that collectively, we lend a hand, and do it as One.