It’s no surprise that the body goes through a ton of changes through pregnancy and postpartum recovery, especially if you choose to breastfeed during the first year of being a mom. I’ve been aware that adrenal fatigue is a real possibility as a new mom, but I didn’t really know what that meant or what I could do about it. In all of the doctor visits that I’ve had as a new mom, I have yet to get a very clear answer of what the typical postpartum body looks like from a hormone balance standpoint. (Spoiler alert: before you read through this whole thing, I’ll go ahead and tell you that I do not have adrenal fatigue.)
I ask a lot of my body as a mom and as a runner. First, I grew a human with my body for nine months, and now, I’m keeping that little human alive through breastfeeding. All through this time, I have maintained running and increased my intensity as I train for various races. While breastfeeding and running definitely require a lot of energy from my body, sleep deprivation seems to be the icing on the cake. My little one was waking up to 10 times a night (my rule is to stop counting when you reach double digits), and she is still waking at least once a night now that she is nine months old.
I’m a working mom, so I was burning the candle from every possible direction leading up to the Boston Marathon. (Cadence got colds from daycare and that is partly why she was such a terrible sleeper between 3-6 months of age. Poor baby!) I was able to PR at Boston, but I relaxed my goal by about 10 minutes when I realized how thin my reserves had become. After Boston, I went to the doctor for a general physical, as suggested by my husband. At that visit, I learned that I had a hernia, and you can read all about that fun little detour here. I got my results from the general practitioner and learned that my TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels were high. The report sent to me by my doctor suggested that I get retested in a month.
Trying not to be too disturbed by these results (what is happening to my body!?!?), I went for a re-test about a month later, and I learned that my TSH levels are still on the high-ish side, but all of my other hormones are in the right range. My thyroid is producing the correct levels of TPO antibody, Free T3, Free T4, Thyroglobulin Ab, and Cortisol. This is important because all of the hormones in the body act on a feedback system, and one abnormal hormone level could create a cascade effect on other hormone levels.
While I learned that my hormone levels are in a safe zone, I decided to refresh my memory on the endocrine system and understand more about adrenal fatigue and thyroid dysfunction (I have a background in biomedical engineering, but I did not picture myself being the subject of this jargon when I was studying it ten years ago!). Cortisol is produced by the pituitary gland, and a high level could indicate the signs of adrenal fatigue. The pituitary gland produces adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) when a stressor is perceived by the brain, and this chemical in turn causes the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is good when the fight or flight response is necessary, but it is tough on the body when it is in a constant elevated state.
Constant stress can signal the adrenal glands to overproduce adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones. The adrenal glands, which are the front line in the stress reaction, can then become depleted. Once the adrenal glands are tapped, it can lead to impairment in the thyroid gland, as hormone regulation is one big feedback loop. There are a lot of symptoms that can indicate that the adrenal glands are overproducing hormones, some of which include a suppressed immune system, fatigue, unrelaxed sleep, depression, and anxiety.
A few things that I am doing to stay healthy:
I didn’t have any of the above symptoms when I was tested, so I was fairly confident that I did not have adrenal fatigue. That being said, I do not want to get adrenal fatigue, so I made a few changes which also happen to make me a happier, healthier person in the process.
- My first test result came back just about the time of my hernia surgery, so I had a mandatory resting period while I recovered. As much as I hate to admit it, this was probably a really good thing for me, as I tend to go all out, all of the time. Ben Greenfield advises to avoid excessive exercise, which is hard to do when you are training for your first 100 mile race. 😉
- I have also focused on eating more nutritious foods. I eat a lot of food, especially with training and breastfeeding, but I really try to cut out the processed foods and eat a lot of organic, healthy stuff (although I have a weakness for candy bars at night).
- I also have made an effort to get to bed earl(ier) every night. This is so hard for me because I really can’t get much done around the house or unwind until Cadence goes to bed. That little baby has a ton of energy, and we are busy playing until right before bedtime!
- Recently, my massage therapist introduced me to doTERRA essential oils. I’m still learning about them, but I did find an interesting journal article that found that inhaling the scent of lavender for 4 weeks can prevent stress, anxiety, and depression after childbirth. I love the smell of lavender, so this was an easy addition to my retinue of healthy adrenal actions.
- Finally, this research study in the British Journal of Midwifery found that the release of the hormones prolactin and oxytocin during breastfeeding have an inhibitory effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is activated at times of stress, and can reduce the incidence of postpartum depression. I think this just shows how much our God loves us! He not only gave us the capability to nurse our little ones for healthy growth, he also made the act protective for the mommas who might so desperately need a little tlc themselves! This infographic is another really neat little snapshot of just how beneficial breastfeeding is to both momma and baby.
I hope my little walk down discovery lane can be of help to another new mom out there who may be feeling a little worn down. Take care of yourself and be aware of your body! I think as runners, we are acutely aware of our bodies, but we are also the first to tough out the hard times and push through when we might need to re-evaluate and rest.
Have you had any experiences with adrenal fatigue?
What do you do to relax and reduce stress?