It’s a trend in the fitness culture and one that is pushed heavily on social media that you should never skip a workout, train even when you don’t feel like it, push yourself to all extremes and never take it easy on a workout. Every fitness model you see is in competition with each other to train harder, train more, and boast about it on social media. Never taking a rest day or training several times a day is NOT something to boast about. There’s only so much stress your body can take, and eventually it WILL break down and it’s a slow road to recovery when it does. I’m sharing my story about my body breaking down from chronic stress because I failed to listen to the warning signs, in the hope that you might just stop and listen to yours before it’s too late.
The difference between being lazy and genuinely needing to take a break
I’m not encouraging anyone to be lazy here. I’m not saying to skip the gym when you just can’t be bothered and would rather go home and watch Bachelor in Paradise. But this “never say die” culture that has been pushed in the fitness industry is encouraging people to ignore warning signs from their body that sometimes you really just have to take a BREAK.
Training hard and having a “don’t give up” attitude in your life is a fantastic trait to have. The most successful people in the world are the hard workers, and the people with no excuses. HOWEVER; there comes a point where you need to actually LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. If you are genuinely sick, run down, excessively sore, etc you need to know it is OK to take a rest day, or week even. This applies to training, work, socialising and every aspect of your life really. There comes a point where you need to STOP pushing and follow the warning signs that your body is so desperately trying to give you.
Personally, I’ve always gone too hard at everything in my life. The quote “never touch something with half of your heart” resonates deeply within me. At school, at sport…. Then at university, at socialising, at fitness…. Now at fitness competitions, at work, my clients… everything I choose to do I give it 100%. I very rarely sit down and chill out, and although it’s something I’m working on, I still find it makes me anxious trying to sit down without doing something productive.
I think this attitude to life is what has led me to burnout several times in my life, culminating now after doing 3 years of Bikini competitions back to back. Competing is an extreme stress on your body, training twice a day and dieting down to low levels of body fat, and doing that all while working in excess of full time and sleeping very little running my Personal Training business both in person and online was just too much in the end. The years of accumulated stress all built up and left me broken down by extreme fatigue, unable to do all the things I usually do on the daily. In recent years I’ve invested more time in taking care of myself, meditating, getting acupuncture, ensuring I always have a complete rest from training each week, yet still I’ve hit a point where my body just can’t take any more stress. This article outlines the symptoms I started feeling when my body started to break down from chronic stress, the results from my tests and how I’m overcoming excessive cortisol naturally to get my body and my health back on track.
Symptoms of elevated cortisol
One of the reasons you haven’t seen training related content on my social media for a while is because I haven’t really been training as much as usual. When I have, it’s hardly been a workout to boast about. But I’m telling you now; the reason I haven’t been training is certainly not a lack of motivation or desire to work out. Training is a huge part of my life – it makes me happy, makes me feel empowered, gives me an outlet for emotion and plays an important role in my mental health.
I haven’t been training as much , because I’ve felt like my body has given up on me. My body has felt heavy, lethargic, slow, and weak. I’ve watched my strength diminish progressively over probably the last 12 months or so. I kept blaming it on things, like recovering from surgery or dieting on competition prep. But when all those things when away and yet my strength still didn’t really budge – I knew there was something up.
I was also experiencing a host of other symptoms, including:
· Chronic neck/ jaw pain and tightness
· Seeming to LOSE MUSCLE and GAIN fat despite following a meal plan and training program that I know works for my body type
· Poor mental focus when trying to get work done
· Recurrent infections (I usually don’t get sick at all, so this made me feel extremely frustrated and deflated, feeling like I’d lost all control over my body)
· Diminishing mental health – more anxiety and sadness than I usually experience and often for no particular reason
· Diminishing strength
It’s very unlike me to feel unmotivated, and even when I do it’s unlikely that I give in to that feeling and find myself unproductive. But I was feeling exhausted, skipping workouts, and struggling to complete all the tasks I can usually manage. This made no sense – I love my job, I have a wonderful support network and I usually have such a positive outlook on life. It was extremely upsetting for me, experiencing all these things progressively worsening over a 12 month period and feeling like I was losing myself in the process.
The test results
I saw an array of doctors all of whom wanted to blame something different, but after several tests I was told my “vitamin levels and organ function are all fantastic” and there was no real indicator to why I was feeling the way I was or getting sick.
I had mentioned my adrenals and cortisol levels to every doctor I saw, telling them I thought I had run myself into the ground after 3 years of fitness competitions and needed to check my adrenal function. But they all pushed me toward other tests, and it wasn’t until I got a referral to a sports doctor who works with athletes specifically that I was able to get someone willing to test my cortisol and other hormone levels.
And BANG – there it was, the answer to why I was feeling the way I was feeling. My cortisol levels were WAYYY above the normal range ALL DAY LONG. Essentially, I have chronically elevated cortisol levels in response to chronic stress.
My estrogen and progesterone was also quite low, but because this can be a result of my neuro-endocrine system being impaired from the excess cortisol in my system, I’m addressing the cortisol issue as priority and hopefully my other hormones will take care of themselves.
How to treat excessive cortisol?
Unfortunately, a large part of reducing cortisol levels relies on lifestyle changes. Tell me to pop a (natural) tablet in the morning and I’ll do it. Tell me to change my long ingrained habits and we have a problem! But I’m at a point now where I know that something’s gotta give, so here is a list of daily lifestyle habits I’m introducing or changing: (and a public declaration of such to hold me accountable 😉 )
- Reducing weight training days from 6 to 3 per week
- Replacing weight training with 3-4 mind-body training sessions per week including: Yoga, Hot Yoga, Pilates (this way I reduce my training INTENSITY without reducing total VOLUME so that it doesn’t take a toll on my mental health by avoiding training altogether).
- Meditating daily. I’ve been using an app called Insight Timer with so many free meditations and I’m loving them! Now I just have to make it a habit that I commit to.
- Avoiding coffee before 10am and having maximum of one coffee a day. I’ll drink more green or black tea as replacement which actually lowers cortisol due to the theanine content (I wasn’t an excessive coffee drinker, but being more mindful of the time of day I drink caffeine and how it affects my circadian rhythm will be important.)
- Get more SLEEP. This is a hard one, when as a Personal Trainer I’m up at 5am most days and finish at 7.30 or 8.30pm. I’ve also suffered with insomnia throughout my life, but I’m taking steps to wind down before bed, getting to bed earlier and limiting trying to start work at 7am instead of 6am on some days.
- Find a creative outlet once a week – I’ve always loved painting and writing, so I’m going to make time to do something creative once a week. Whether its blog writing, journalling or taking time out to do artwork, focusing on a creative hobby where my brain can relax and focus on the task at hand instead of thinking of all the things I have to do.
- Essential oils. Using lavender and other calming essential oils on my temples before bed and before meditations.
- LISTEN TO MY BODY. I’ve been trying to do this more, and skip a workout when I’m not feeling up to it (something that kills me inside just a little!). If I start a workout and I’m not feeling great, I’m going to STOP. I’m also going to pay attention to how I feel during, after and the following day after a workout to determine if that particular workout is a good idea for me to be doing at this point in time. I am learning to accept that listening to my body isn’t a sign of weakness, but it’s a sign of strength dedicating myself to feeling better and doing whatever it takes, even if it’s not always my preference
In addition to lifestyle changes, I’m also introducing (or continuing) to take the following natural supplements:
- Adrenoplex by Bioceuticals. I found this supplement looking for the best all-rounder to help reduce cortisol levels naturally but WITHOUT providing ‘false energy’. It contains a mix of ginseng, reishi mushroom and Ashwaganda which are all adaptogenic herbs that can support your body’s adapation to stress and overcome fatigue.
- Vitamin C
- Jing by Superfeast – contains He shou wu and Cordyceps amongst other herbs to help nourish the kidney and restore hormonal balance.
- GABA and on some days melatonin before bed to get a good night sleep.
So that’s my plan, published permanently online for all to see to help hold myself accountable to these changes that I might not like but KNOW are necessary in order to get my body and my health back on track. There’s one thing I know about stress and it’s a silent killer, linked to many diseases including cancer, mental health break down, and a range of other health issues. I train because I love it. I train because I want to look good. But most importantly I train to be HEALTHY, and right now I’m far from it. My focus is on getting my health back, and the rest will fall back into place.
If you have any questions or are experiencing similar symptoms please feel free to contact me, I would love to support you and help you make the changes you need to before you get to breaking point.
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