I focus on empowerment every day with my patients, but it struck me this Fall just how critical personal empowerment can be in our healthcare journeys. Everything we learn, how we make changes for life, how we create new patterns for success in weight loss and healthy habits: all this comes from a sense of owning knowledge about our bodies.
A few months ago, I started to have a nagging sensation that something beyond the ordinary was off. I had changed up my schedule in April, having been hired on at Lifetime Fitness to take over a Tuesday and Thursday 5:30 am yoga class. I started setting my alarm clock for 4:30 Tuesday and Thursday to attend the class for a few weeks before making the shift to teaching it in early May.
Now, for the past few years I have been getting up to run at 5:30 or sometimes 5:15 a few times a week with my neighborhood friends. My alarm’s been set to 6:00 for years to get kids ready for school and the bus. But these activities don’t require driving. Or using much brain power. Or being “on” for other people.
I have never been a “go to bed at 9 am” type of person. Our household gets up early, but my hubby and I are night owls. We like to hang out after the kids go to be: read, watch our shows, catch up. We can stay up to 2 am and sleep in until 11 in a perfect world. Teaching at sunrise went against the grain of my whole life pattern, and I underestimated just how much it would drain me.
I tried going to bed early. But 10 pm shut-eye with a 4 am wake up call is still not enough sleep for someone who also helps manages a business, sees clients, teaches yoga, takes care of kids, and runs a household.
I loved the challenge of my early bird classes, establishing rapport with students, sequencing classes and making playlists. But after a few months, I started to notice bags under and wrinkles around my eyes. I would be irritable with kids in the afternoon, with weird surges of energy when I should be winding down.
I would jump up and go teach on those early mornings, putting my all into it, then push through the day at work and at home. I noticed how tired I was, but figured I would catch up on weekends as I got used to this new routine.
But I didn’t catch up on sleep over the weekends.
Gradually, my tiredness started to hit me like a tidal wave. After work, driving home to get the kids or stop for errands, I would feel a fog of fatigue. I remembered back to when we first diagnosed me with low testosterone and progesterone 8 years ago: a total vitality zap. This felt somewhat different but similar to that feeling of losing myself.
I knew a few friends who had been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, and started to recall conversations about how they recovered. “Could that be me?” I wondered. Could my adrenals be that shot from stress and sleep deprivation, which then made my neurotransmitters out of whack?
With a vitality zap this severe, depression comes in. You start to feel bad about yourself because you can’t shake the malaise or be awake for those you love. You don’t feel like yourself, which makes you irritable and frankly not fun to be around.
We had recently drawn my labs; thyroid and sex hormones were in range. So it wasn’t that. I started to notice my craving for salty foods: another hallmark symptom of adrenal fatigue. The full realization of my intuition screaming ‘your adrenals are a mess!” hit me at the end of August. I stopped by Safeway to grab a coffee and dog food at 2:41, preparing to be home at 3:15 for the school bus.
But I couldn’t get out of the car. I literally sat in the parking lot with the A/C blasting, my head to my chest and arms loose as I gripped the steering wheel, willing myself to get it together. I sat there for five minutes trying to muster up enough energy to open the car door. Take one step and then the other towards the entrance, and walk into the store.
That night, Dr. B told me to grab an adrenal saliva test kit from our office. To stop wondering and researching and take the diagnostic step to test my hunch.
When my results came back, he texted me this comment: “You were right.”
My first reaction? Empowerment. I was experiencing what I counseled my patients to discover, what our doctors tell patients to tune into about their own wellness when something feels wrong. I felt empowered that I listened to my gut instinct and had an answer to the “why” I felt so bad.
My second response? How can I fix this, how long will it take, and when can I start.
Here is a picture of my cortisol panel test, which looked at my 8 am, noon, 4 pm and bedtime saliva collection to track how my cortisol leveled out throughout the day.
No wonder I felt so bad every morning. My cortisol tracked way below the range at 8 am, and barely in the bottom range at noon. It picked up later in the day and evening, which explained jittery bursts of energy in the evening as my body tried to regulate.
Cortisol, a hormone created in the adrenal cortex, is designed to start high in the morning to get us moving. It keeps firing up and then gradually declines as our systems prepare for rest and sleep with sunset and bedtime.
As Dr. B explained to me, adrenal fatigue can correct on its own by catching up on sleep, managing stress better, and the healing nature of time. But I had on this downward spiral for so long, I wanted to feel better fast. My busy life was not slowing down, and I owed it to myself, my family, my clients and my yoga students to work at my optimal level. I am normally a happy, high energy person, and I wanted her back.
So Dr. B prescribed 5 mgs of hydrocortisone in addition to vitamins and supplements I am already on. Almost immediately, taking it in the morning with my thyroid, I noticed a difference. I felt less fatigued and more motivated to jumpstart my days, with less of a crash later. It was still there, but it didn’t feel as elevated.
I don’t want to be on medication forever. I have set some boundaries with my time and am sleeping more. I gave up one of my 5:30 am classes and took on a later morning one instead, which works better with my normal output of energy.
Knowing the “why” to my symptoms decreased my stress tenfold. For me, and for most people I talk to, not knowing why, wondering if you’ll ever feel right again, or if you’ll even get to the bottom of whatever it is that ails you, creates an invasive level of stress.
Stress that you feel when you eat a meal and can’t figure out what you ate that gave you indigestion. Stress of having a nagging feeling that you have an allergy but don’t know how to decipher it. Stress of feeling that something is “off’ – hormones, mood, energy, your clothes not fitting well – but you are unsure where to turn.
Empowerment is the cornerstone of the medicine we practice at Protea. It puts the role of advocate, healer, and educator back in your own hands once you ask the questions, get the answers, and start to fill in the blanks.
Nothing feels as good as knowledge, especially when it comes to understanding your body and learning how to listen to signals. Lab work can verify your hunches as you begin to own your “why” and make choices based on your gut instead of relying solely on what someone else tells you.
As I discovered this Fall, once we start to tune in, we realize that we are smarter and wiser than we think. Our bodies want to restore to balance. From here, we use lab work and all the tools in our medicinal arsenal to fix the problem.
Wellness creates empowerment and empowerment creates wellness. We still need patience, as I am discovering in my recovery from adrenal fatigue. I wanted to restore my adrenals as soon as I saw my results, knowing full well that that would be impossible. I know the healing process will happen in time.
But I now have the answers necessary to recommit to my best health with my own instincts, empowerment, and knowledge at the forefront.
And that is the greatest wellness gift of all.