Does this sound familiar? Gain the Freshman 15, lose it again, be terrified of gaining it back, and be willing to do anything so that you don’t gain it back. The cycle begins: restrict, restrict, restrict. Binge eat on the same foods that you were avoiding. Overwhelming feelings of guilt over your “lack of willpower.” Over-exercise to “work it off” and then restrict some more. Continue until you just can’t take it anymore.
That was my experience. After gaining weight my freshman year and losing it again during swim season, the self-conscious perfectionist in me was terrified of gaining any of it back again. So, like many others on college campuses, I started to extremely restrict my food. I skipped meals, obsessively counted calories, and exercised like a fiend. I had never been a “runner” before in my life, but I began running six to seven miles and spending an additional hour or more at the gym every day in the off-season. I was hyper-conscious about my body and what other people thought of me. I wanted to be lean, strong, and confident. But in reality the “leaner” I got, I didn’t get more confident or stronger! I was less confident with a more screwed up body image. I had an extremely unhealthy relationship with food.
The food restriction and exercise binges continued throughout college — even during swim season, when I trained between three and six hours a day. I ate only within my “healthy” guidelines: a lot of plain salad, low-fat, and extremely low-carbohydrate. It wasn’t enough food for a regular college student, let alone a varsity athlete. But I just kept going. I totally overworked myself physically in the gym and in practices, mentally in school, and in hindsight, probably abused my liver one too many nights, as is so typical for college students.
Even after college, these habits continued, but the physical and mental stressors piled on. I suffered from a chronic lack of sleep and elevated stress levels while working a highly demanding job as part of a political campaign. I loved it, but I couldn’t slow down. Stress-reducing practices like meditation and yoga? Those were for people who had time. I was running myself into the ground, and it became worse and worse as the months went on. Some days I was so exhausted I could barely get out of bed for work, but I had to keep pushing myself. Because that’s the norm in our culture, right? Work hard, play hard.
Looking back, there were many warning signs over the years of where these unhealthy habits might lead, but I never stopped to notice. I lost my period for years, totally messed up my hormones, experienced digestive upset, felt constantly exhausted and anxious, and my athletic performance suffered. My type-A, perfectionist, and competitive ways had for years been planting the seeds for a total physical, mental, and emotional breakdown, one for which I would have to pay a heavy price for years to come.
Finally, I went to see a naturopathic doctor to sort out all my health problems. After countless blood and hormone panels, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, a condition that occurs when the adrenal glands are so overtaxed they can no longer produce cortisol (a hormone your body releases in response to stress), and your HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is thrown off (meaning your hormones are all messed up, and your body can’t compensate for it). Normal cortisol levels are high in the morning to get you out of bed and low at night to help you go to sleep, whereas mine were completely opposite. I was shocked to learn that my overall cortisol outputs were so low that I was heading into more advanced and dangerous stages of the condition. I learned that adrenal exhaustion (and HPA axis dysregulation) also tied in with a host of other problems, such as my thyroid issues, the loss of my menstrual cycle, leaky gut, sudden onsets of anxiety, low blood pressure, weight gain, and massive blood sugar imbalances, just to name a few.
The doctors told me that many people who suffer from adrenal fatigue have lifestyles similar to mine. They overwork themselves in every aspect of their lives, make food choices that don’t adequately support their bodies (specifically with extremely low-carbohydrate, low-fat diets and excess amounts of caffeine and alcohol). They have the “can’t stop, won’t stop” mentality, and they force their bodies to go until they literally can’t go anymore! My doctors also told me that if I kept up with the extreme diet and exercise habits and if I didn’t try to address the stress in my life, I might be completely bedridden until I recover — a process which can take months or even years!
Years and years of striving to be “healthy and fit” had left my health in shambles. And yet, I was only doing what so many others seemed to be doing: living a high-stress life, exercising more, eating less and not sleeping enough.
I finally had to accept that the only way to heal my body was to completely change my lifestyle. Easier said than done, right? Instead of eating less and exercising more, my body needed real rest and real nourishment. The previous year I had tried to heal myself with strict elimination diets, but I had only been working on one piece of the puzzle — food — and neglecting or even making worse the other parts of my life that needed to be fixed.
So here’s what I figured out: When it comes to your health, it starts with food, but it doesn’t and can’t end there if you really want to heal and thrive in the long term. Even if you think you’ve got your “clean” diet dialed in — whether it’s Whole30, paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian, or whatever — if you’re still feeling sick, unhealthy, unhappy, and stressed out, you need to take a look at the other areas of your life. Scale back on stress. Eat enough calories. Get enough sleep. Quit that job that makes you dread waking up every day. Take a day off from strenuous exercise, and take a relaxing walk or do some yoga instead.
It took a lot of trial and error, but I finally transformed myself from that obsessive, perfectionist, type-A, orthorexic exercise freak. After all those years of struggling with what I perceived would make me “healthy and fit,” I am finally healthier, happier, less stressed, have much more energy, and live a much more balanced life. Better yet, I achieved all of this by first making the simple change of listening to what my body really wanted to heal itself — changes that your body might need too! Because sometimes, listening and the willingness to meet your body where it is can be all it takes to start healing.
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Note: PLEASE consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or medications. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only, and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.