Everyone talks about what to do in training to train harder, faster, get more gains. Very few mention that it’s the return to a parasympathetic state and the rest in between that is THE most important part of any state you want to take your body/mind to. This article is about the maladaptations of stress. I plan on writing a series of seperate articles on conditioning your brain, nutrition, training, sleep, gut health, etc explaining how these things place stress on us in the first place, and how to manage that stress to allow you the results you are after. Apart from being valuable to those who seek me for help, the following articles will be valuable to anyone looking for health, athletic performance, weight loss, growth, and more. I’m starting on the topic of maladaptation so you can understand why it’s so important to manage your recovery.
Defining stress is hard. Even the man who came up with the term in 1936, Hans Selye, spent his whole life trying to find a workable definition, never to find a satisfactory one. To simplify one of his main ideas, stress can be thought of as a response to ANY demand for change. The most poignant determining factor as to how that demand affects you seems to be your perceptions and expectations about the demand, the actual change, and what it will all mean/require.
As I’ve said in previous articles, the first thing you need to understand is that the body does not differentiate stress, and stress is cumulative. So understand whether it’s illness, sunburn, chemicals, emotions, exercise, bad food, medication, etc from a stress response perspective, you react the same way. And they ALL fill the same bucket shall we say. Once the bucket is full (stress is accumulating faster than you can deal with it) the bucket overflows and you get symptoms. Understand in some this could result in the body breaking down with cancer, others auto-immune disorders, Adrenal Fatigue etc. Understand that all of these are multi-factorial illnesses where the biological terrain has been changed so drastically, sickness is the result. One of the most common maladaptations of chronic stress nowadays is Adrenal Fatigue. Having been there, I have to bite my tongue when people say to me, “so were you just really overtrained?”. I need to remind myself they are not to know.
Recently a friend of mine suffering from Adrenal Fatigue contacted me for help. She makes the 12th person in half a year. These people contact me not because I’m a Naturopath, Holistic Dr or Functional Medicine guru, but because I’ve been there and I’m often their last resort. So many health practitioners simply have no idea how to diagnose nor treat Adrenal Fatigue. I’ve had people from Spain, England, the US, Sth Africa, Poland, Canada, Hungry, The Netherlands, and obviously Australia contact for help with fatigue issues. But not just “I’m tired” every day fatigue. But, I can’t do anything, I’m getting sick all the time, my body is falling apart, everything hurts, I can’t concentrate, I want to cry over TV ad’s, I can’t sleep or sleep 10 hours every night and feel no better, I keep getting infections, I’m anxious and/or depressed all the time, excessive fatigue all day but bursts of energy in the evening, no sex drive, brain fog, the list goes on.
For anyone who’s experienced Adrenal Fatigue or Chronic Fatigue, they’ll appreciate what I’m saying. And they’ll also appreciate the feeling that it is all in their head, that they’re making it up because well ‘just look at me, I look ok right?’. Those suffering Adrenal Fatigue don’t necessarily appear unwell. A lot of this has to do with them propping themselves up with caffeine and sugar to get through the day. But inside they’re a wreck. Early studies by Hans Seyle found that in this state of stress the adrenals have first gone through an alarm reaction phase where they work over time to produce the hormones required to manage the stress. Then they go through a resistance stage where they hypertrophy to improve function. Then, when the adrenals have been overstimulated for so long trying to keep themselves going, they called it quits and end up in the exhaustion phase. Just briefly, most conventional Dr’s don’t fully understand what this condition is, nor do they recognise it as a condition at all actually. Only the one’s I’ve trained who’ve experienced it themselves recognise it. Funny that.
So why does this cause such havoc? The Adrenals produce a spectrum of hormones vital to life, for example cortisol which is responsible for how we regulate all our macros, regulating our immune system, and inflammation. This hormone also helps control our sleep/wake cycles. They produce aldosterone which helps maintain fluid balance (the reason why salt in water in the morning will make those afflicted feel better) and blood pressure. They produce DHEA’s which males turn in to testosterone via the Testes, in women they produce most of their male hormones. Essentially, once this syndrome kicks in your body stops being able to produce adequate amounts of stress hormones, sex hormones, neurotransmitters and other hormones. It’s no wonder then that someone experiencing this syndrome experiences the symptoms described above.
If you’re interested in my own experience with this, read on. If not, wait a month and find out how the elements briefly mentioned above cause stress and how to manage this so as to manipulate it best for the result you have in mind.
The really frustrating thing about looking ok on the outside is that you feel like death warmed up, but everyone thinks you’re fine. No one looks at a cancer patient early on and judges them, it is simply accepted that the person is really sick, even if you can’t see the effects yet. However it seems common that with Adrenal Fatigue comes judgement. From uneducated Doctors through to the general public. Well, when I had all my health markers first tested, full bloods, hormonal profile, gut health, neurotransmitters, and more… the Dr stood up and congratulated me. He said, “Well done! If you're going to do it you may as well be the best right?” Then he laughed and said, “these are the worst results I’ve ever seen. You’re system is in worse health than a lot of the cancer patients I see.”
The first time I experienced uncontrollable fatigue I was about 3. I can’t remember this obviously but my Father (a Dr, Sports Dr, and Environmental and Occupational Dr) and Mum both relayed to me how I’d follow them around the house and as soon as they stopped, I would lie down and sleep. Almost all day. Then all night. Without any energy to play, and do any normal toddler stuff. I was totally listless. This went on for months on end. No tests could say what was wrong. I can’t help but think that whatever afflicted me then left me prone to what happened later.
The next time I started experiencing heavy fatigue I was 26. Within a year it became Chronic Fatigue, and then Testicular Fatigue too. How? It’s all in the timeline. Remember as you read below… stress is cumulative, and stress is any demand for change most commonly from emotional, physical (illness/surgery), medication, poor nutrition/movement/sleep etc. Maladaptation occurs when resources cannot keep up with the demands.
At 18 years of age I started getting massive anxiety. Panic attacks, the whole deal. This lasted badly for about 5 years. I was a full time uni student working 3 days per week at a cafe. During this time I took up Shoot Fighting, Muay Thai, started lifting weights, and doing conditioning work. I trained twice a day, five to six days per week. I used typical body building supplements, ate a typical diet with grains, dairy, processed sugar added to “foods” and went out drinking 1-2 nights a week with friends. I was already having 2 caffeinated drinks per day, the second before evening martial arts training to help me feel ok for it. Living at home made this schedule easier to handle but warning signs were already there. I sought the help of a nutritionist for my ever reducing energy levels. She said it was simple, I just wasn’t eating enough. Energy in versus energy out right? She suggested I have a Gatorade and a Snickers bar per day. No shit. A Gatorade and a Snickers. Particularly before training. Suffice to say I didn’t follow her advice.
My love for BJJ was growing rapidly and I was an avid competitor. Driving myself to be the best I could. During this time I contracted staphylococcus no less than 12 times. During this time I used antibiotics at least 10 times to help beat the infection. Each time making my immune system worse by wiping it out with the antibiotics. At 22, I moved from NZ, to Australia. Lived on VERY little money for a long time, trying to keep my training up and laughably often eating white bread, honey and banana too see me through because they all provide energy right? Laugh at me please. Early on I would start my training week and by Wednesday be sick. Rest until Sunday and hit the week again, only to fall in to the same trap. I was using a lot of CrossFit style methodoligies during this time, a bit before it became popular to call it such.
A few years later I travelled to Brazil to compete in the world championships (2004), and to get in to the country needed a few vaccinations. I had massive financial stress the entire time, relationship stress was high, and as I said, had started getting sick all the time. I can recall 3 different auto-immune disorders occurring during this time. Thankfully now, all are gone.
Ironically, after getting my Black Belt in 2006, I noticed my energy levels and health take a big dive. I had started as a personal trainer a year before and remember having to wait at the top of the stairs in the gym until I caught my breath before I went to find my client because a flight of stairs would make me breathless. If I spoke to a new client on the phone, I’d often have to hold it away from me to again disguise my breathlessness because the slight elevation in heart rate from “trying for a sale" was enough to fatigue me further. Possibly most annoying, was the constant burn in my muscles. I was suffering mitochondrial dysfunction and my aerobic system had all but shut down. My body was stuck in an anaerobic state. The burning was akin to the feeling you get just before muscular failure. Just all the time.
Coffees picked up to 3x per day, mostly double shots. And I was amusingly emotional. I saw at least 4 Dr’s who told me to take a week off. Then found a Dr who claimed to specialised in Chronic Fatigue, but with women mostly. Remember how the adrenals produce DHEA which the testes then use to create testosterone? My testosterone was non existent at the time. She put me on bio-identical hormones (non synthetic). Obviously with my body not having to produce the minimal amount of testosterone it was because of the supplements, it stopped practically all together. So I went from bad to worse.
Finally I found another Holistic Dr who helped. He cleaned up my food. Put me on supportive supplements and generally taught me how to live well. Within 3 months my testosterone had climbed back to normal levels and I felt about 80% better. The next two years brought me to about 95%. In total it took me 5 years from start to finish to feel normal. Since then I’ve come to realise that I need to constantly manage stress from all sources, because it seems I can slip back in to less severe but similar states to the above. I’ve come to recognise the signs early so I can do something about it, for me its’ usually sleep and work related. It definitely still effects my ability to perform physically at the levels I used to.
So that’s how maladaptations to stress ultimately undid me. If nothing else, hopefully it gives you an understanding as to how stress from all sources can make someone very unwell. The next few articles, as I said will be on how nutrition, gut health, sleep, conditioning the brain, and exercise can each be your worst enemy or best friend when it comes to more resilience, helping you recover faster, and perform better.