I have an unopened prescription bottle of Prozac in my medicine cabinet. It lives right in front, label facing out, so that I can see it every morning. It’s occupied that spot for over a year, so one might think that the lid is collecting dust, but that’s not the case. You see, this particular bottle speaks. Yep, you heard right, and no, I’m not crazy. Each morning, I wake-up, get-up, walk into the bathroom, clear the sleep from my eyes, and open my medicine cabinet. “Vitamin P” as I like to call him, faithfully in his front row spot ,says “Good morning Shanon! Did you get enough sleep last night? What’s on your crazy schedule today? Don’t forget that I am here for you, anytime you need me”. I know. It sounds ridiculous, but stay with me. This is why Vitamin P is not dusty. Most mornings, I smile into that cabinet and close the door. But sometimes, yes, more times that I feel good about, I pick up Vitamin P and carry him over to the toilet where I proceed to have a seat. I have memorized every detail of his label. I have counted his contents through the plastic again and again. I have placed my hand on his lid, and envisioned myself with one of his pretty pills in the palm of my hand. But each time, before I have cracked that tamper-proof seal, I have found the strength to stand-up and place Vitamin P back where he belongs, unopened and whole, in my medicine cabinet.
So now you’re probably wondering…”What the heck are you doing with an unopened prescription of Prozac with your name on it in your medicine cabinet? You have a beautiful family, a fulfilling career and fabulous friends! You exercise and eat right. What gives?”. That’s a fair question, so let’s rewind a bit.
I have been blessed in countless ways. My body is healthy and strong. My husband is amazing. My children are well-adjusted, intelligent and content. I have a network of tremendous friends. Thank heaven for all of these things because without them, I may not be in the wonderful place that I am today. See, I struggled with severe post-partum depression. When my oldest daughter was 7 years old, my son was born. I’ll never forget the feelings I experienced immediately after his birth. First of course was relief, followed by joy, and then horrible, awful dread. I remember looking at my precious, perfect son in his bassinet and thinking “I don’t want to take him home”. As you can imagine, I was mortified and disgusted with myself. How could I have these thoughts at a time when I should feel nothing but happiness? Ashamed, I didn’t share my feelings with anyone, not even my husband. Instead, I put on a happy face and struggled alone during the first several months of his life. I didn’t want to admit what I knew to be true…that I needed help and possibly medication. People like me don’t get clinically depressed, right?
Eventually, over that first year, I began feeling like my normal self again. It became easier to get out of bed in the morning. Life felt more manageable and positive. I began training for the Nike Women’s Half Marathon…my very first race. After completing that race, I signed up for another, and another. When Jacob was 15 months old, I ran my first marathon. Three months later, I ran my second, and five months after that, my third. Over the next 3 years, I ran many marathons…too many marathons as I would later learn.
In 2007 I became pregnant with our third child. My marathon training was put on hold but I continued to exercise at a moderate level. Not wanting to experience the same feelings I had following Jacob’s birth and having learned a whole lot about postpartum depression, I discussed my concerns with my OB. She suggested I begin antidepressant medication immediately after I delivered. I did and continued with medication for about one year. How grateful I was to not feel sad and hopeless! How wonderful to enjoy fully that first year of Hailey’s life!
When Hailey was about a year old, I began training for my first 50K. It was time for a new challenge. So I ran one, then another, and another shortly after that. I was running an average of 50 miles per week….lots and lots of long runs….no speed or sprinting workouts. Funny things were starting to happen to me. I wasn’t sleeping very well in spite of my constant state of fatigue. Fine lines were appearing on my face out of nowhere. I was tense, irritable, impatient and snappy with my friends and family. I was underweight but had an annoying layer of fat around my tummy. My IT band and plantar fascia seemed to be in a constant state of inflammation. I was getting sick a lot. And oh my gosh, I was sinking into that familiar, deep dark pit of depression. How on earth was this happening again? It had been 2 years since Hailey was born. My life was amazing. I didn’t fit the profile of a stressed-out, depressed person. What in the heck was going on??!!!
What was going on was Cortisol. Yep. I’d never heard of it before either, but over the past few years, we’ve gotten to know each other very well. Let me introduce you.
Cortisol is a super important hormone that’s secreted by the adrenal glands. It plays a part in glucose metabolism, blood pressure regulation, insulin release, immune function and the inflammatory response. It’s called “the stress hormone” because it’s secreted in response to good and bad stress. In small amounts, cortisol has positive effects, like quick energy in the “fight or flight” response, increased memory and immunity, and decreased pain sensitivity.
So you may be asking yourself…”What gives? Cortisol sounds amazing!”. And you’re right. Cortisol IS amazing… in small amounts. Too much cortisol however, produces profoundly different effects.
In my case, my stress was coming from several places. I now had three children and was working as a nurse part-time. My vegan diet, as I would later become educated about, was sub-par at best, AND I was training constantly for endurance races. It turns out that while I was running for hours on end (chronic stress as far as my body was concerned), working, raising my children and trying to have some sort of relationship with my husband, my poor adrenals were pumping out cortisol like water from a fire hose. Oh yes…and add in the fact that I was sleeping an average of 5-6 hours per night. Check out this quick video about stress and it’s affects
Cortisol in small amounts, as we’ve established, is an amazing, normal and healthy thing. So what happens when we have too much cortisol circulating around in our bloodstream? Shawn Talbot, Ph.D. and author of The Cortisol Connection, states,”Over the long-term, elevated cortisol may be as detrimental to overall health as elevated cholesterol or elevated blood sugar”. Scientists are finding that excess cortisol may lead to a slew of health problems, including impaired carbohydrate metabolism, which leads to elevated blood sugar and fatty acid levels and ultimately extra weight around the abdominals. Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution states, “The consequences can be dire, as the more stressed we get, the worse our ability to deal with stress becomes. Abnormally elevated cortisol begins to disturb sleep, which makes us more prone to daily stress, which raises cortisol. The consequences of this downward spiral include suppressed immune function, elevated blood sugar levels, decreased insulin sensitivity, impaired long-term memory and decreased sex drive and libido”. Distance training and long cardio sessions lead to overtraining and are perceived by the body as stress, the same as shorter, sprint type intervals. The difference being that following the sprint, cortisol turns off, keeping blood levels in the healthy zone. Conversely, during distance training, the adrenals continue to pump it out. Chronically high levels can lead to Cushing’s disease and aortic arch dissection…both really really bad things that can kill you. Ever hear about the super-fit distance runner who happens to die suddenly of a heart attack? Yikes! Oh ya, and it weakens connective tissue in our skin and joints. Ah…wrinkles, ITB syndrome and plantar fascitis…..lovely.
I had pretty much become the poster child for “Results of Cortisol Offenses”, minus the death part, though I’m certain had I continued on that path, I could have easily added it to my credentials. It may sound odd, but I am grateful for my experience with postpartum depression, as it allowed me the ability to recognize the symptoms, and consequently the motivation to learn the reasons for them within my lifestyle. I was stressed to the max, both mentally and physically and I was suffering the effects. It was time to make major changes!
I will always be eternally grateful to my very best friend Traci for introducing me to CrossFit, and to my Lifeworx CrossFit family and coaches for gently and patiently educating me with literature, studies, and by example. The following is a list of changes I have made that I truly believe have saved my life.
*Sleep ~ I have learned that my body requires a minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night, without exception. When I rob myself of precious Zzzzs, I am punished by decreased exercise performance, irritability, forgetfulness, and my skin just looks like crap! Remember that lack of sleep registers as a significant stressor to the body, which equals increased cortisol, which equals bad news. My earplugs go in and all lights go out, including my alarm clock and computer lights. Total darkness!
*Nutrition ~ Cortisol increases in a linear fashion as we drop below caloric balance. My raw vegan diet wasn’t cutting the mustard in terms of calories, protein and various other vital nutrients that my body requires. I struggled with my reasons for being a vegan in the first place and eventually came to peace with adopting a grain-free Paleo diet. Since doing so, I have never looked back with regret and consider this one of the most important lifestyle changes I have made.
*Work ~ Managing my family life and working 3-4 days per week week was a huge source of stress. Not mention the fact that my job as a labor and delivery nurse is extremely stressful. We have been blessed in that I have recently been able to decrease my work hours significantly, thus allowing me more time to focus on raising my children, nurturing my relationship with my husband, and developing and strengthening my social bonds. Certainly we are having to be much more conscientious of our spending, but the rewards have been indescribable and well worth the effort.
*Exercise ~ The old, waify, endurance runner Shanon is no longer. I have exchanged my long, sustained cardio efforts (which were overloading my system with cortisol), with strength and interval training. The results are stabilized hormones, normalized cortisol levels, lots and lots more time spent with family and friends, AND a strong, beautiful body. It’s a WIN WIN WIN situation!
*Familial and Social bonds ~ Robb Wolf said it best….”Did you know people who lack supportive familial and social bonds are as at risk to develop illness or die as pack-a-day smokers?”. Who knew that by depriving myself of time spent with loved ones could register as serious stress? No longer! Now I make dates each week to spend with my girlfriends. I set aside time every day to talk and play with my children. My husband and I go on dates, talk and laugh, or just hang out on the couch together to watch our favorite shows. Small changes that have yielded enormous benefits.
There you are! It doesn’t seem too difficult, right? Personally, I found that discovering the reasons why I was feeling stressed and depressed was the hardest part. Once I was able to identify the sources, it was then just a matter of charting my course to eliminate them.
Am I perfect? Have I now become the poster child for “The Results of Healthy Cortisol Levels”? No way! But I will say this…..Vitamin P doesn’t come out of the cabinet as often. In fact, I may have spied a bit of dust on the bottle this morning. And hummm…what color are those pills again? Every single day, I make choices, and so do you. Resolve to choose a happy, fulfilling, low-stress life. Your body, mind, family and friends will thank you for it!