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Not Superhuman After All

by Georgie Russell(more info)

listed in cfs me, originally published in issue 140 - October 2007

Like many, I was brought up to believe that the harder you try in life, the better you do. At school our motto was ‘work hard, play hard’ and that is exactly what I did. My efforts in the classroom paid off and I enjoyed the success. But what started out as an innocent desire to achieve soon turned into something a little more sinister.

When the time came to branch out into the big wide world there were suddenly more balls to juggle: jobs, deadlines, bills, parties, you name it. The perfect excuse, as far as my more-sensible friends were concerned, was to give all non-essential activities the flick. Goodbye early morning gym sessions. Adios domestic chores. I, on the other hand, found it hard to prioritize. I chose instead to fall back on the ethos of my youth and simply worked harder and played harder.

At first things continued to go my way. I got the degree I needed to secure my first job in radio journalism. I was staying on top of my finances (just!) and was enjoying a busy social life. Lucky me you might say. But by now my instinct to ‘do my best’ was shifting up a gear, and I was throwing fresh challenges into the mix. I signed up for the London marathon, arranged to do some proof reading for a charity and joined a number of evening classes. It was as if I had entered a ‘who can fit the most into their day’ competition. I needed to be busy to feel any self-worth and I had become an addict. A junkie. My drug of choice? Adrenaline.

The Adrenal Rush

Adrenaline has one mission in life – our survival. When our body senses danger it is released into our blood stream by our adrenal glands to give us the fuel we need, either to face up to whatever is threatening us or to run away – a process known as our fight-or-flight response. During such an ‘adrenaline rush’ our digestion and immune systems are put on hold, our blood pressure and heart rate go up, we breathe faster and less deeply and sometimes sweat.[1] All in all an exhausting process for our nervous system, but a crucial one if we are to fight or flee successfully.

Of course you can probably count on one hand the number of times you have actually had to fight someone or run away from something in your life. Unlike our early ancestors, who had to face up to the likes of wild animals and natural disasters, you and I are more likely to find ourselves dealing with stress that does not require a physical response: work deadlines, traffic jams, important meetings. We still fire up our fight-or-flight mechanism to deal with these situations, but tend not to use up the extra energy our bodies generate in the process. As a result, our nervous systems do not get the chance to refresh themselves. After fleeing wild animals, our wise old ancestors may well have nipped into a nearby cave for a quick forty winks. You and I are more likely to ignore our body’s plea for rest and move straight on to the next stressful thing on our to-do list. Consequently our fight-or-flight response finds itself on permanent send, and before we know it we may well find ourselves cruising down Adrenaline Highway, heading for Burn Out City.

Last summer, I was relying on adrenaline round the clock. On top of my busy shifts in the newsroom I was organizing my wedding, moving into a new flat, exercising like a mad woman (to lose weight for the big day) and enjoying a frantic social life. My foot never came off the accelerator. Instead of using my evenings and weekends to recuperate, I was filling them with social arrangements and trips to the gym. Unsurprisingly, my adrenal glands started to tire and the cortisol they released struggled to keep my blood sugar levels stable. In response, I turned to chocolate, caffeine and alcohol for energy, unknowingly putting even more pressure on my poor old adrenals!

Soon I started to drift from day to day without really registering the world around me. At times I felt almost ghost-like as I continued to deny my body rest. I knew I needed a holiday and organized to spend a week with my fiancé and his family in Dorset. A few days into the break though I woke up with a sore throat and an overwhelming desire to stay in bed. I slept solidly for three days before being told by my GP that I probably had some kind of summer virus. It didn’t sound serious so, after an acceptable amount of time off for ‘flu’, I went back to work and shifted my adrenal glands back into gear. It was only when my boss offered me the chance to go to New York to report on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that I realized something was wrong.

Normally I would have jumped at the chance to go, but it was going to mean 12 hours of live reporting, and deep down I knew I wouldn’t be able to manage it. After breaking down on my boss I went home and confessed-all to my mother. She had known something was up and wasted no time in getting me an appointment with a private doctor in London. He immediately carried out a number of blood tests and before I knew it I was signed off work with glandular fever.

Glandular Fever

Glandular fever is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. Symptoms vary, but most sufferers experience extreme fatigue, a sore throat and a fever. For me it was mainly a case of complete and utter exhaustion. My GP told me simply to rest, and I slept night-and-day for a month. Once the fever passed I was able to watch the odd film and read the paper but anything physical was impossible. Even the short walk to the bathroom was an effort. After two more weeks of sleeping, eating and resting I expected to feel a little more human. Most people I’d spoken to who’d had glandular fever had predicted a six-week stretch on the sofa. But I didn’t feel better. My head was permanently foggy, I was unnaturally tired all the time, I had no concentration, I was depressed and I had a horrid taste in my mouth, as if I had been poisoned.

My mother and I started to take our search for answers beyond the bounds of generic medicine. I visited a consultant in Complementary Medicine, a Kinesiologist and a Nutritionist, and the general consensus was I had beaten the glandular fever but had been left with post-viral fatigue. Not good news. Post-viral fatigue falls in to the ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome category and can keep a hold over you for months or even years.

Lifestyle Changes

After more consultations it became clear that there were a few things I could do other than rest to assist my recovery. I changed my diet in order to keep my blood sugar levels stable. This meant giving up all stimulants (chocolate, caffeine, alcohol), refined sugar, white flour and wheat, as well as eating more fruit and vegetables, protein and essential fats (nuts, seeds, oily fish). I also upped my daily water intake to two litres and began taking supplements (as advised by my Nutritionist). On the exercise front I started reading up on basic Yoga postures, Meditation and breathing exercises, and as I got stronger I began trying them out. I also gave my general attitude to life a complete overhaul, forcing myself to be less obsessive about achieving day-to-day goals. It is hard to accept you are not superhuman after 28 years of work-hard-play-hard but I had no choice.

For six months now I’ve been slowly putting these lifestyle changes into action. My energy levels are slowly coming back and the bad days are fewer and farther between. However, I still have to look myself in the mirror every day knowing that I did this to myself. I stopped listening to my body. I pushed myself to my limits. I stopped my career in its tracks. I caused no end of worry for my family. I put my social life on hold. Me, Me, ME!!! It’s a horrible truth to bear. But do you know what? I am not the first to have done it. And I won’t be the last.

Nearly everyone I talk to about post-viral fatigue and ME has either experienced one or the other themselves, or knows someone who has. What was once frowned upon as ‘Yuppie Flu’ has become an every day reality for an ever-rising number of people. (The ME Association puts the number at 240,000 cases of ME in the UK alone.[2]) It is time to face the facts. The human fight-or-flight response was not designed to cope with the continuous pressure of 21st Century living. Adrenaline is not equipped for the rat race. So please...as I endeavour to go back to work (part time) do yourself a favour: Listen to your body. Work hard, play hard, by all means, but rest hard too!

References

1.    Holford P. Beat Stress and Fatigue. p.52-55. Piatkus. 1999.
2.    www.meassociation.org.uk

Editor’s Note

Please see letters pages (44-47) for more discourse regarding ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

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About Georgie Russell

Georgie Russell is a broadcast journalist, employed by Gcap Media Plc in London. She reports on national news stories for the 41 radio stations owned by the company, including Capital Radio, and presents daily reports on Classic FM’s Newsnight programme. She trained as a Journalist at the London College of Communication, and studied for her degree in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. She is married and lives with her husband in south west London. Georgie may be contacted via Mob: 07789 905 683; georgie.russell@yahoo.co.uk

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