Out of everything that motivates me in life, I’ve finally decided one of them needs to go. It turns out my main motivator has also been serving as my number one detractor, and as time went on, the symptoms of this perceived symbiotic relationship started to get toxic.
It’s also not your typical “toxic” relationship, because it’s between me and myself. I found out my body had begun producing too much cortisol, and it was starting to have a drastic impact on my day-to-day life.
And since we just recognized #worldmentalhealthday (October 10th), I thought today would be the perfect day to shed some light on stress and why our mental wellness is just as important as physical wellness. Because little do we know, they impact one another significantly.
My relationship with Cortisol: When too much of a good thing becomes toxic
Cortisol, one of our main “stress” hormones, is produced naturally by the adrenal glands on our kidneys. Normally a little bit of stress is a good thing. It helps our body become more robust – stronger from the presence of a little adversity! It also ramps up our sympathetic nervous system to avoid danger (you know, that whole “fight-or-flight” thing when we need to run from a bear).
But there comes a point when it wears out its welcome; when its presence starts to wear you out. Like having a friend sitting on your couch for weeks, eating all your food and watching marathons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians…there comes a point when it slowly starts to wear on you.
I’m not sure exactly when the cortisol started making itself at home, but I know the moment I needed to do something about it. (More on how I discovered cortisol was the problem below.)
The havoc stress was starting to wreak on my body
I didn’t realize how much stress was taking away from me because I was achieving so much in the process. Both academic and athletic successes never seemed to slow my achievement mentality and I was always going. Those that know me well know I don’t just chill. I never wanted to slow down or hang my hat on a single achievement because there was always more to be done. More people to help, more to build and create. I would go-go-go and then silently crash-crash-crash.
But it’s worth it, right? To a point, absolutely! I have had the fullest, most fun 29 years of life so far, full of irreplaceable memories and opportunities. Maybe stress was a good fuel source! At least it felt like it, until this last year. After receiving my doctorate degree and passing the national board exam, I hit a very solid wall…and I had no idea what was wrong with me.
- I started losing motivation, energy, and drive (and if you know me, I’m naturally operating on another level, hah!).
- I was gaining weight, but eating well and working out daily.
- My workouts weren’t energizing, in fact they were exhausting within minutes.
- Brain fog and fatigue were a regular occurence.
- Heart palpitations started catching me by surprise (specifically premature ventricular contractions).
- I was experiencing decreased libido and inconsistent mences. (Hey, I have to keep it real and honest for all the ladies out there who may be experiencing something similar!)
- But the scariest symptom? I was beginning to forget things. Not just misplacing my wallet (which I do often), but losing my train of thought and forgetting what I had just discussed with my husband the day prior.
As a healthcare professional I was feeling stripped of my identity to maintain my own health, so it was time to do something about it. So I put on my big girl pants and went to see my doc for answers.
Practicing what I preach and putting my health first…
This last summer I went to my incredible Nurse Practitioner, Dr. Kyle McAvoy, at Pearl Women’s Center in Portland (highly recommend her, local friends). She tested all sorts of hormones, from my thyroid, to my androgens, to my stress hormones — we left no stone unturned. Throughout my education I learned enough to suspect my hormones were the culprit, but which one(s)?
The results came back. Estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone were in check – sweet! But there were two concerning lab results:
- First, I had elevated thyroid antibodies, a condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis – which basically meant my immune system was creating antibodies to my own thyroid and attacking it. Once it starts attacking, a whole slew of symptoms emerge over time.
- Second, my cortisol levels were through. the. roof. This data was obtained through saliva samples every two hours throughout my day. Apparently every morning when I would wake up the levels are DOUBLE the normal value. Then, throughout the day they remain high and spike again every evening.
With these two (somewhat daunting) lab results I was actually relieved. I had somewhere to start!
Next steps…what now?!
I had so many questions. Why were these lab results so off and how do I fix them? Why was my immune system overactive and what was causing the release of so much cortisol?
I’ve been on a constant hunt to figure this out ever since, with guidance from my medical team of course. I was recommended the book The Root Cause, by Dr. Izabella Wence, Pharm D, and it’s been a useful educational tool! Along with other (safe & practical) resources and references from empathetic friends.
Outside of educating myself, I’m still working on making small changes in my wellness routine, and will keep you updated as I go! It’s been an adventure exploring some targeted nutrition and natural cortisol lowering supplements, getting rid of environmental toxins and chemicals, as well as finding my own peace and learning to manage my stress. So many changes, there could be a blog for each!
A work in progress and wisdom for the journey
Aside from learning about my own body and health, there are some other nuggets of wisdom I want to pass on from all of this! Especially if you’re looking to improve your health, longevity, and quality of life.
- Don’t be afraid to be an advocate of your own wellness! If you feel off, whether it’s physically, mentally, emotionally, etc., do something about it. Our world is plagued with chronic illness and disease, and many people are afraid to go to their healthcare providers or find the root cause. Which leads to my next point…
- Your health should be your biggest investment. Because without it? You have absolutely nothing. You can’t work, play, or do the things that fill your life with joy. Put time and money into what you value; and what has more value than years of life?
- “To get somewhere you’ve never been, you have to do something you’ve never done.” It’s hard to form new habits, make changes in your routine, or know where to start. And if you have absolutely no clue where to start, call and ask a local healthcare provider or one you trust. It is usually free to ask, and you can get directed to the appropriate place!
Cheers to putting yourself first, and to health and happiness. Thanks for reading, friends.