Dear Mom, Your Utter Exhaustion Is Not Normal.
Four weeks ago, after two too-exhausted-and-in-pain-to-get-out-of-bed episodes in one month and months of generally feeling like crap, I finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired. Okay, technically, the epiphany happened a few weeks earlier, but the actual doctor’s appointment was exactly 28 days ago. I can’t say it’s changed my life yet, but here is what led up to that moment and what I’ve learned so far about chronic fatigue, diet and the normalization of mom malaise (spoiler alert: it is NOT effing normal!).
Mom, You’re a SuperHero, Right?
You do too much, work too hard, take on all the things in an effort to be the best.mom/wife/breadwinner/daughter/friend.ever. You’re tired, but insist you have to get up early (or stay up late) to do all of the things. You drink too much wine because that’s what the moms do to bond and relieve stress (and it actually masks your exhaustion). You think you’re getting older and being tired is just hormones and resign yourself to this is how it is. And the memes and articles your mom friends post on Facebook confirm that everyone else is just as tired as you are and you probably just aren’t doing the self care thing right. So for god’s sake, go run a bubble bath and pour another glass of wine.
For those those who don’t know me personally, I’m a 47-year-old mom of an amazing 9-year-old girl, two energetic rescue dogs and a 50-something husband, whom I’ve spoiled into uselessness when it comes to pretty much anything domestic (sorry, Spy). I love them all and they all require a lot of physical and mental attention. Combine all that with the stress of a demanding job I don’t really love, volunteer efforts for my daughter’s school and you know, just trying to do normal stuff like work out, have a social life and not let our home fall into total squalor, and a little exhaustion probably does just seem par for the course of living the American Dream, right?
What Does It Feel Like When Your Tired Is Not Normal?
I am not exaggerating when I say that some days, my mental load feels every bit as heavy as the 20 extra pounds of physical weight I’ve been carrying lately (which I also now know is not just a part of being a mom at this age). I feel it physically.
I am also not exaggerating when I say that over the past few years (yes, years) I have, on most days, felt tired — like I need a nap nearly every afternoon or like I’m just kind of low on energy all day long. Sometimes it hits suddenly like a ton of bricks and I feel like if I don’t take a nap right now, I might die. It’s the kind of exhaustion a vacation can’t cure. Trust me, I’ve tried. Last summer we spent 10 days in Seychelles, which has got to be pretty much the most relaxing place on Earth, and despite normal bedtimes and sleeping in every single morning, I was never quite able to shake feeling tired. It was like that in London, Paris, Strasburg and Hawaii, too.
There’s also physical pain — whether that means just the swollen brain feeling (not exactly a headache, but pressure) I have when I wake up many mornings (no, it’s not wine related) or the debilitating muscle aches I feel all day long some days. The latter feels both dull and stabbing at the same time. It makes me just want a hug, but recoil at the thought of anyone touching me because it would be too uncomfortable.
As you can imagine, it all gets a bit depressing. And that makes everything worse. Why can’t I feel normal? What’s wrong with me? I’ve even wondered if the depression actually came first and the fatigue and pain are a symptom. I’ve suffered from depression before and when I think back to what that felt like, well, it didn’t feel like this.
Do most of my friends or even my husband know any of this is going on or to what degree? Of course not. It’s just not the kind of thing you talk about. You simply get through it because it’s what you do and you don’t want to seem like a whiner. I’ve recently read several articles noting that this is a trait of many sufferers of adrenal fatigue — we’re the doers of the world and we burn ourselves out. Also, since it’s not something people can see, it’s hard for them to understand how horrible it feels and honestly, it can seem kind of made up.
When You’re Doing Everything (Mostly) Right and Your Well-Meaning Doctor Makes You Feel Crazy
I eat fairly clean and count calories. I don’t exercise as consistently as I probably should or want to, but I get my steps in and manage to break a sweat a couple times a week. I try (and mostly succeed) to get seven or eight hours of sleep on most nights, but sometimes just wake up at 3:00 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep for a couple hours. I even get a massage a couple times a month because every time I think of quitting Massage Envy, I see how many credits I have banked and it just doesn’t seem worth it. So, no way should I feel this terrible this often and, let’s be honest, have such a hard time losing (or lately, maintaining) weight.
My gynecologist attributed my symptoms (weight gain and fatigue) to my age.
Oh, it’s just how it is at this age. You’ll get through it.
She basically refused to test thyroid or other hormones, saying what I was feeling was normal. I later went to a GP who told me to eat fewer carbs to lose weight (I did keto for a month and lost 1 pound, y’all.). She did run thyroid and hormone panels and, when my bloodwork came back in the “normal” range, had nothing to say about why I felt like crap.
After getting no answers or even much sympathy from my regular doctors, I sought out someone who would take a different approach. Having done the requisite Google searches and read a ton of articles in hopes of figuring out what is wrong with me, I’ve become a firm believer in integrative medicine. I’ve always thought my daughter’s dermatologist’s approach of just treating skin without addressing underlying issues like diet or allergies because she is a skin doctor was ass-backwards. So why should it be any different with any other issue? Of course all our internal systems are intertwined. So of course it makes sense to work with a doctor who takes an integrative approach to diagnosing and treating issues.
Starting the Process of Getting Better
Based on more Google searches and some investigating in a healthy food Facebook group I am part of, I found Southern Integrative & Environmental Medical. The list of conditions they treat includes multiple bullet points on fatigue, weight control, fibromyalgia, thyroid/adrenal disorders . . . pretty much everything Google had already told me I probably had. And I’m not gonna lie. In Atlanta, geography is everything and the fact that this practice is only a 15-min drive from my house sealed the deal.
The pre-appointment paperwork was a bear. Something like 25 pages, including extremely detailed questions about health, habits, past medical issues, even where you have traveled, worked and lived, in order to determine if there could be any environmental factors at play.
My initial appointment was just as thorough, lasting about two hours. When do you ever see any doctor for more than 10 minutes at an appointment? Dr. Williford basically went through all my paperwork with me, asking follow-up questions and commenting on potential trouble areas.
I shared my lab results from Dr. Low-Carb (eyeroll) and some I’d ordered from EverlyWell. Both were about two years old, so not totally relevant to how I’m feeling today, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt. Dr. Williford confirmed my suspicions that even though everything fell with in “normal” ranges, normal and optimal can be quite different. She explained that in traditional medicine, there’s basically dying and normal.
If you fall in the normal range, it means you’re not dying, but doesn’t mean you have the right amount of whatever vitamin, hormone, etc. for your body to feel and perform its best.
This was one of many points during the conversation when I knew I liked this lady.
By the end of the appointment, I had an initial diagnosis of a lot of inflammation, possible thyroid/adrenal issues, possible food sensitivities and possible leaky gut. Maybe I just liked being told what I wanted to hear, but that all aligned pretty much perfectly with my self-diagnosis. I had six vials of blood drawn that day and was sent home with kits to collect saliva, urine and, yes, feces. If you have not prepared your own fecal sample for labwork, you have truly not lived, y’all. I also had a second appointment to draw a fasting blood sample.
The initial prescription: A 28-day detox designed to help relieve the inflammation by eliminating foods that could be giving my gut a hard time. So, no dairy, gluten, soy, peanuts or alcohol. How the F am I supposed to do self care without wine? I wondered. And looking back at the instruction sheet she gave me when I got home, it didn’t actually say no alcohol. Did I imagine that part? I still eliminated it, just in case.
Additionally, she recommended a slew of supplements to help my gut and liver and bolster levels of some critical vitamins. Every day, that meant:
Glutathione — liver support, detox, antioxidant, hair
Ubiquol — energy, antioxidant
OptiCleanse Shake — gut repair, detox
100B CFU Probiotic — gut repair, immune system, brain
Fish Oil — cell membranes
Curcumin — anti-inflammatory
Vitamin D — immune system, fatigue, muscle pain
Electrolytes — hydration, nerve and muscle function
I also continued to take my multivitamin, a B-complex and DHEA, which I’d started shortly before my visit. These were all ingredient-checked and approved by the doctor.
I literally had to buy an old-lady pill case. I thought all this was supposed to help me feell younger again!
I am still awaiting my lab results (not happy with this part of the process — if I’m gonna poo in a paper tater tot tray and put it in the mail, the least the damn lab can do is take less than three weeks to look at it, amiright?) and follow-up appointment for a verdict and next steps, but the past month has certainly been eye-opening in many ways and not as challenging as I thought in many others. I will definitely post an update once I have any answers and know what the next steps are.
I know you’re wondering, so yes, I lost six pounds basically without even trying, which seems incredible, considering that for the past year, I haven’t been able to do more than lose and regain the same three pounds, even when I really try. Overall, I had good days and bad days as far as fatigue, but none of the bad days was as bad as bad as what I’d experienced previously. I never had any pain, and experienced several what I called 100% days in my health tracking journal (yeah, really), where my energy levels were great and what I would like consistently. I’m mostly sleeping better, which I’m sure makes a big differnce. So, in short, while this eating and supplement plan may not be all I need to fix my broken system, it had a positive effect, which gives me hope that I am headed down the right path.
What My 28-Day Detox Taught Me
Stop. Just stop. I don’t have to do everything right now. I allowed myself to actually feel how tired I was, instead of always pushing through and doing one more load of laundry, cranking out one more thing for work. And I gave myself permission to stop. When I hit that wall, I let myself go upstairs, get in bed and take an actual nap, even if it was the middle of the work day (I work from home) or time to cook dinner for my family. And guess what, I’m still employed and nobody starved.
Soy is in everything. I never thought cutting soy would be harder than anything else, but once you start reading labels, you start realizing how prevalent it is. Weirdly, I think this was the hardest part of the detox. For one panicked moment, I thought I was going to have to learn to make mayonnaise to replace my beloved, soy-laden Duke’s. Thankfully, I discovered avocado oil mayo that has no bad stuff in it and is delish.
Nut cheese isn’t nearly as gross as it sounds. Seriously. I was completely pleasantly surprised by the several non-dairy cheeses I tried. I never thought it would something I could tolerate at all, but it is definitely doable. Though unless my labs come back with dairy issues, I’m switching back. On the other hand, I found an almond/coconut milk creamer I absolutely love in my coffee and the gluten-free English muffins I already ate 100% hit the spot. So substitutions were pretty much a breeze.
Carbs aren’t the enemy. Seriously. In addition to those English muffins, I also ate steel cut oats for breakfast. I ate quinoa and chickpea rotini. I pretty much gave myself permission to eat anything that was on my plan and healthy to feed my body what it felt like it needed for a month. I feel like I ate more different kinds of food than usual, definitely a lot more plant-based and, well, six pounds!
A news break didn’t break me. I’m a news and politics junkie. There, I said it. Before last month, not watching any news for days on end seemed impossible, even though I honestly believe it’s a contributing factor to my stress, and in turn, my physical ailments. In the past four weeks, I consciously tuned out and filled my newly significant TV time with fluff like Very Cavallari, Riverdale and other super light fare. I might not be any smarter for it, but I can tell it helped my psyche.
I can do anything. At the start, I really thought changing my eating habits in this way was going to be impossible — so much label reading, so much planning, so much giving up of stuff (I am a Sagittarian and excess, after all, is one of our best-known traits). But my desire to feel better was so strong I couldn’t not give it an honest shot. In the first week, I had to attend a black-tie dinner without drinking any wine, picking around the salad and main courses, obviously not touching dessert and not even getting cream in my coffee. I also had to attend a boozy work offsite at Braves Stadium and, over two days, navigate three meals over which I had little control. My lips may have touched something with a trace of gluten in them (oh, hey, five curly fries at the ballpark), but I did not give up and getting through those couple events proved I could successfully get through anything. It also taught me to always carry an RX Bar and a bag of almonds.
Again, I’ll post more, once I know next steps and until then, I’m happily continuing the program . . . with a glass of organic wine every now and then.