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The Reality of “Chronic Fatigue”

I’m sick. I hate being sick. My roommate brought this bug home, and of course I was exposed to it right when I was having a very stressful few days trying to sort out what was going on with my dissertation. There were a couple of days last week when I really wondered if I was going to be continuing on with this program. The thought of walking away from 4 years of work with a crippling debt and no degree to show for it is enough to give anyone pause for thought I’m sure. It left me with heart palpitations, a chronic eye twitch, and a return of my chronic fatigue symptoms.

Actually, the first two are part of the latter, as is feeling exhausted mid-afternoon, getting a second wind at 7pm, and a third around 11pm (ever notice how much cooking and writing I get done at that time – like right now in fact…), sleeping horribly with very vivid dreams and waking up several times a night, not being able to get up in the morning, becoming apathetic about life, sliding into depression and so on. Oh, and unexplained neck, back and other joint pain (I think this is often referred to as ‘fibromyalgia’. And so on. It’s really quite miserable.

I suffered from this condition quite acutely for several years, starting around 2000. It hit its peak in 2004, right when I started my PhD. I ended up losing pretty much my entire second year, not being able to do anything but my teaching duties and sleep. Every doctor I went to said it was just in my head, that I couldn’t handle the stress of grad school, and that I needed anti-depressants and a psychiatrist.

I rejected this advice and went to a naturopath, who figured out what the problem was: I was suffering from adrenal fatigue. That is, my adrenal glands weren’t working properly; they were not working when I needed them (like all afternoon while I worked) and then firing away all night to catch up (hence the vivid dreams and frequent waking up). Adrenal glands produce cortisol and adrenalin and all sorts of very important things for basic function. If they go off-line completely, you die. It’s really not something to take lightly.

I worked with this naturopath to change my diet (cutting way down on refined sugar, grain, caffein and alcohol) and lifestyle (reduce stress!!), and she gave me vitamins and herbs to help support my adrenal function until it came back on-line. She told me it should take about 6 months. I have since read that if you have adrenal exhaustion to the level that I had, it will take over 2 years to get things back in order, if you can recover at all. After a year of herbal support treatment, I started going to a homeopath. This is what really made a difference and gave me my life back, after another 8 months or so of treatment.

Unfortunately, since running out of funding in July, my stress levels have been going back up again. I thought I was managing it ok, but recently the aforementioned symptoms started coming back. First the eye twitch, then the vivid dreams which evolved into nightmares and fitful night sleeps, and most recently the increasingly numerous afternoons of incapacity. The stress of the last couple of weeks really put things over the top and I realized I had to go back on my ‘adrenal support’ regime. I expect once I shake this cold (which I am sure is linked to the immune suppressing effect of stress) I will start to feel much better very quickly.

The reason I am writing about this is not to complain or to seek sympathy, but to bring attention to this condition which is extremely common in our society. Chronic fatigue is such a common diagnosis now, but it seems that few medical practitioners realize that there is a very real, and a very treatable, physiological condition underlying it. I should mention that the conventional treatment for adrenal fatigue is to put the patient on cortisol supplements. This is a corticosteroid that the body produces naturally. However, it is also immune suppressing and has other side-effects. It is not something I personally would consider taking. There are gentle, natural means of recovering from this condition involving changing diet, lifestyle and supporting the body with vitamins and herbs (and if necessary, adrenal extract for a short period of time). For more information, read this. And for a really detailed discussion of ‘hypoadrenic’ condition, read this.

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