Securing My Mask First Before Helping Others

I’ve been alluding to something in my posts and comments and I thought I’d go into more detail here since there’s been some interest. But before I do, I must credit Diana Rodgers of Radiance Nutrition for the title. While I’m sure it’s not hers, she used it at PaleoFX to great effect and it’s stuck with me ever since.

I think I might be having some adrenal fatigue (or insufficiency). Before I go into too much detail, let me send you to Robb Wolf’s blog to see what guest blogger Diane Sanfilippo (of Balanced Bites) has to say about it (here). This is far more succinct and informational than anything I could manage.

Tell me again about how you’re a lazy pansy who can’t handle life.

Adrenal fatigue or insufficiency is not a medical diagnosis and as such, has caused a bit of controversy in my household with my Emergency Medicine-trained husband. I’m not thrilled about it either, as I’ve always been skeptical of what I’ve considered boutique diagnoses that people love to have. But it was just a few short years ago I thought gluten intolerance was a sham, so…you know…what the hell do I know? On top of that, when I zoom out and think about how destructive this last century has been on human health and well-being, there are a myriad of ways this could be manifesting in people. Far be it for me to deny anyone the opportunity to feel better, even if it is from the placebo effect.

The first symptom started around the time my daughter weaned herself, sometime in the fall of 2010. I suddenly noticed, after a super smooth infancy, that I wasn’t coping as well with the everyday stress of having a little one. I wasn’t as resilient and my coping skills were fraying. Edie has been the easiest, most docile little creature in all of humanity, so it never made sense to me that sometimes my reactions weren’t matching the situation. Everything would be fine until suddenly it wasn’t.

When this began, it was pre-Paleo. We made dietary changes in January of 2011, and it was instantly miraculous, not just for my weight, but for my mind as well. My anxiety reduced significantly, by a range of 80-95%. I felt calmer, clearer, and more focused—all those amazing hyperboles we hear about the Paleo diet, all true. But.

My little mood problem never went away. I call it a mood problem, because it’s important to make some distinctions here. I am certain this is not depression. I experienced depression as a teenager and this is not it. This does not inform my worldview or permeate every situation. It doesn’t define me. It isn’t emotional in nature, meaning I’m not more prone to crying or being upset in any other part of my life.

What it is: a sudden and unpredictable spike of anger in response to repeated stress. While these episodes are few and far between, they were becoming enough of a pattern for me to feel like I was in crisis mode. For a year-and-a-half, I just assumed I was broken somewhere and I’d have to wrestle with myself to fix it. And when I failed, I berated myself and wondered what was wrong with me. Hmm…that sounds familiar…

Just as with my weight that wouldn’t come off with exercise and “healthy” SAD-style eating, I began to wonder if this wasn’t something more organic.

Then I think PaleoFX just about sunk me. Ironic, no? But Daylight Savings was that week, along with a super-early flight to Austin, the two-hour time difference, and early shuttles to get to the conference venue and the combo felt like a brick wall. I got home and it became clear that something just wasn’t quite right with me. Luckily, I also learned a few great tips from the conference I could use in my recovery.

Oh latte. I hardly knew ye.

But unstable moods alone do not adrenal fatigue make. In October of last year, I began having some serious fatigue and brain fog. This happened to coincide with beginning some professional writing and projects. As a result, I started drinking coffee again for that little extra boost of inspiration, motivation, and focus. We have some childcare coverage for Edie, but not a ton, so in order to meet deadlines, I was often up way past bedtime. I began to get grumpy toward my husband on a more regular basis.

What else has been going on?

  • Sugar cravings. I’ve never been a binge eater nor have I ever had an eating disorder. So you’ll understand my surprise when, after a morning with nothing but coffee, I was tempted to buy a bag of those raw vegan macaroons at the store. And then proceeded to eat nearly the whole bag during a 5 minute drive home. Yowza. What the hell was that about?!
  • Fatigue. One of my favorite side effects of going Paleo was that I never needed the afternoon nap anymore. Well, I’m back to napping. Luckily, my daughter still naps in the afternoon, so sometimes Mommy does too. For a while when I was in the thick of it, it was more of a daily necessity. Now I’m down to 2-3 a week. I call that progress.
  • Tired yet wired. As Robb Wolf calls it. I felt better in the early evenings, especially if I’d napped, but then 9-10pm would roll around and I could’ve already checked all my favorite online sites 5 times in the last twenty minutes, but it suddenly became imperative to look again. Or I’d start to think about menial tasks around the house. Even though I was exhausted and in dire need of a good night’s rest, my brain wouldn’t let sleep seem attractive. I also had a bad habit of playing games on the iPad in bed because they made me very sleepy very quick, but the light may have been messing with my brain and quality of sleep in other ways.
  • Dizzy. More frequent and more severe than before. I stood up from a deep squat the other day and nearly passed out.


So what am I doing to help?

  • I started supplementing magnesium by taking Natural Calm at night before bed. As the name suggests it’s supposed to help with calm stuff. I find that I sleep better with it, because the two times I’ve forgotten, my sleep has definitely suffered.
  • I’ve stopped drinking my morning latte and returned to chai in the morning. I’ve started using Tulsi brand which has some holy basil in it, an herb recommended for adrenal issues. I also occasionally drink their rose flavor herbal tea in the afternoon.
  • I eat a breakfast with protein and fat every morning. I definitely feel better with a few eggs in me before I run out the door.
  • No more iPad in bed and my track record for getting to bed at a decent hour, while far from perfect, is better.
  • I’ve been avoiding strenuous exercise. I miss it, but I’m afraid of a set-back. My progress is still too fresh to start testing it. For now it’s walks and hikes with an occasional play session of balancing, climbing, and jumping.

Some other things I’ve been thinking of implementing:

  • Licorice root. Couldn’t find it locally in supplement form, might try looking for some teas.
  • Meditation and yoga. I was a faithful yogi for about 8 years until last fall when it became too much of a mental struggle on the mat for me to comfortably continue. I’m thinking of returning soon to see how it goes. I also have a dusty meditation cushion floating around somewhere that I should try sitting on for a while and see what happens.
  • Getting to bed earlier. Says she who’s typing this at 10:37pm…
  • Stop procrastinating. I need to get things done in the morning and stop putting things off for later because I can’t guarantee I’ll have the energy to be vertical later or even remember to do it.

Something like that…

One of the biggest problems is that the stressors we have in our daily lives are totally Neolithic. Which isn’t to say our ancestors had none, they most certainly did. But not in the same systematic, chronic way we do now. We mistake deadlines at work with a lion attack and it ain’t doing us any favors.

On top of that, our culture rewards the relentless. People glorify their 80-hour work weeks. They huff and puff about all the family activities they have going on. They spend vacations constantly in motion, flitting from one attraction to the next. Work hard, play hard—right? I’ve never been a fan of that life, and now, my hermit tendencies are even worse. But who else is going to take care of me? And if I falter, who will take care of my family? This isn’t easy and there are no honors for doing what it takes to put yourself back together.

And I shake my head because I have a truly blessed life (great family life, financial security, live in a great community) with far fewer stressors than many. How the rest of the world copes is beyond me. No wonder we’re all crazy.


14 Responses to “Securing My Mask First Before Helping Others”

  1. Wonderful post.
    I have been Primal/Paleo since 2/21/12. Felt great for awhile. But I started to get really stressed again and my adrenaline is wearing me down, exhausted. Due to “life” new job, dishwasher flooded and now major home repairs that drag out, volunteering, end of school year, keeping up on kids and housework, oh, and trying to make our house a Primal eating residence has about done me in. I keep focusing on myself and hoping the family will stop complaining at every meal, saying they hate Primal (even when it’s not) I learned to label it was a terrible thing and added much more stress to myself.
    I am going to try a few of the teas you mentioned :O)
    Best wishes to you.

    • Yes, that is quite the load you’ve got there, sister.

      I don’t know how anyone does the Primal/Paleo thing without complete family buy-in. I feel so lucky I discovered it while my daughter was too young to notice (though she devours bread at restaurants and scopes out her friends’ snacks for crackers). I’m sure I’ll get some blow-back at some point, but for now, all is calm in Paleo-ville on that front.

      I’ve often wondered what would happen if parents didn’t talk about the food with their kids. Like, don’t label Paleo or Primal, just serve it up. Sometimes the idea gets in the way, you know? But the older ones are too smart, aren’t they? ;) Maybe give them three treats they get to keep for now and the rest is Primal? When my daughter is older I plan on letting her have free reign at restaurants, for example. Even soda, I guess. *gulp*

      All of this is also a major factor in making us think we should stop at one kiddo. I just can’t fathom doing all of this times 2 or 3. Makes me sad to admit that, but I just don’t think I’d survive another. :/

    • Oh, and be sure to check out the piece on Robb Wolf’s page, they have more suggestions there.

  2. Karen — Have you had your thyroid checked? Many of the symptoms you describe (especially fatigue/brain fog/tired then wired) are classic symptoms, especially for postpartum and/or women in their 30s, when hormones are in great flux. No amount of food carefulness will fix your thyroid — it either works or it doesn’t.

    And I should know — I’m both a patient and have worked for endo orgs for years. If you want to know more, ping me by e-mail. Happy to share what I know.

    • I want to say yes…but it’s been a while.

      Yes, all options are on the table, though I can’t remember why I’ve ruled out thyroid. I’ve been thinking about running the gamut of tests, but I’m not keen on going in to my usual doc for a few reasons, mainly that I think she’s too busy to devote time and sleuthing to this and I suspect I’ll be offered anti-depressants right off the bat.

      I tried to get into the one functional medicine doc in town, but they’re not taking new patients and I never heard back from them about getting to see an NP or PA. Grr…

      • Grrr. Well, anyone can pull the full thyroid panel — check TSH, T4 and T3. And antibodies. I’m not a doctor, but I can read those numbers for you, if you like. The lab ranges are not necessarily the same as what endos want to see.

        I think all women should get their thyroid checked every 10 years after age 40 (after age 30 if autoimmune problems or thyroid issues run in your family). My diagnosis (at 28) totally changed my life — I truly had no idea what normal felt like until I got there. Whoa.

      • I thought my problems were “normal” as well. Thyroid hormone definitely changed my life for the better. I’m now an early bird instead of one of those people who rolls into the office at 10am, maybe. – order your own tests. It’s true empowerment!

  3. The guys who used to eat the REAL paleo usually had a far quieter life apart from the odd inter-tribal clash or run-in with a big cat…I suspect if we emulate the quiet relaxed evenings (offline, no TV ! in front of a fire with the dark night sky above, ah I’m relaxed just thinking about it) we wouldn’t need to figure out our biochemistry to the teensiest level, it would just take care of itself. But no, I’m addicted to Pinterest, I’m an artist and I love images I argue to myself, but when I dream in pins and website clicks to get to the next stage of the dream I know I’m online far too much. How to pull back?

    • Totally. As a writer, it feels imperative to be on top of things, but…it’s kind of this weird thing we tell ourselves to justify it to ourselves, isn’t it?

      I’ve been wanting to initiate an after-dinner tech dead zone for a while now, but our lives here are just not regular or routine. My husband works random shift-work schedules and he has a side project he’s working on from home. Then I work from home in the small chunks of time I’m not watching my daughter, and that includes after she’s in bed. Argh.

      When I circle around this drain long enough, I really understand those folks who have an off-grid cabin in the middle of nowhere Alaska. Is that what’s required to maintain our sanity?

  4. I hear ya, sista. And if you need some licorice root extract, you just let the supplement dealer know. I would be happy to send some. I have been trying it out and it has really been helping with my afternoon slump/inability to deal with my life/exhaustion. You have to watch out for hypokalemia, but us paleos eat a pretty potassium-rich diet, so I think it should be fine.

    • I found some! Where else? At the best co-op ever. ;) It was in the bulk spices aisle, duh. I have no idea how much to take or what to do with it, but this morning I just steeped about a Tbsp. of it in my chai. You’ll have to advise on what the heck to do with all this dried, shredded rooty stuff.

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