Winter was hell, wasn’t it? It felt like the rain would never end.
By November 2015 I was the very definition of ‘burnt-out’. I’d completed a Masters in 18 months, while working full time and training 4 – 6 times per week at high intensity. I studied mostly at night, when my children slept. I survived on coffee to get me out of bed every morning, and alcohol to wind down. I ran on empty for months. Post-its on my wall said “sleep is for losers!” And “Suck it up Princess!”
I gave myself a week off at the end of November, once I got my Dissertation submitted. I thought I’d feel relief, or joy but bizarrely, I felt nothing. A week turned into two, which turned into a big fat boozy Christmas, Christmas turned into the worst flu of all time, which I think everybody caught. I slipped back into bad habits, which I hadn’t allowed myself during the crunch phase of study – skipping breakfast, more coffee, gorging on box sets, eating late, all of which played havoc with my already atrocious sleep patterns.
On the first of January I had great intentions. I trained extra hard, sometimes twice a day, trying to train through the lethargy and the tiredness I was feeling. It didn’t help that the sport I loved was out of reach – weeks of flooding had destroyed our boat club, and the water was completely inaccessible. Coaches had laid on a gruelling series of erg sessions instead of misty mornings on the river. Personally, I’d rather wash rats than do long distance erg work.
Two weeks in I was utterly wiped. Feeling like a total failure I retreated to the sofa, with a conciliatory glass of wine, the children snuggled in close. I was confused and miserable, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, and I didn’t know why. I LOVE to talk! I didn’t blog, I didn’t go out, I didn’t practice yoga, play music, I didn’t phone my mates. I skipped more crucial winter training sessions (rowers need to support their crew through a summer full of gruelling races, so skipping training is really short-changing everyone else in the boat. Sure, you may as well be excommunicated).
I stopped singing in the shower.
Without all those lovely exercise hormones, my mood sank lower and lower. The glasses of wine before bed ruined my quality of sleep. My 6 hours shrank to about 4. Every morning my eyelids were more swollen and puffy. My libido was shot. The crap food (and Christmas) made me pile on about a stone. I couldn’t concentrate for more than five minutes and nothing was fun anymore.
Oddly enough none of these warning signs were enough to kick my mopey ass off the sofa. Apart from one. My eyes! They were swollen each morning with tiredness. Check out this picture. I swear I was actually trying to look awake. So out of pure vanity, I started looking into what was making my eyes puffy. Dr. Google sent me on a merry dance of articles and posts about inflammation and intolerances. Man, there is an awful lot of unsubstantiated bullshit on the web. Having spent 6 months searching for credible references for my dissertation, I began to get really fucked off with appalling ‘advice’ posts about broccoli curing cancer, or about how we are all full of ‘toxins’. A ‘toxin’ is by its definition, substance that poisons. OK, while chomping through a mountain of toasted white bread with nutella is probably not the healthiest option, it is not, scientifically, ‘toxic’.
A ‘detox’ is the process of abstaining from toxic (poisonous) substances. You detox from meth. Or a bottle a day vodka habit. Cutting out gluten is not quite the same thing. (Unless you’re properly allergic, like)
And so it’s ironic that I found myself reading an article from a book that talked the effect of cortisol on the body, about using food exclusion to improve mood, sleep and overall wellbeing.
OH SHIT – WAS I THINKING OF DOING A DETOX?
The article I stumbled on basically listed every symptom I had. Sleeplessness and exhaustion at the same time. Complete reliance on coffee. Demanding job, heavy training schedule. Mood swings and crazy hormonal issues. Headaches, lack of focus. Anxiety. It was written by a high performance coach turned nutritionist who had some fairly basic, and yet surprising recommendations, And so I bought the book and read it cover to cover. It advocated (not a ‘detox’ thank Christ) but a ‘reset’. And there were about 10 pages of medical references and studies backing up the recommendations. Quite a bit of US-style pep talking, but a lot of sensible advice too. It was mostly about stress and the impact it has on our metabolism, and the role of cortisol.
So Cortisol is related to stress. For highly stressed individuals, cortisol keeps you motoring through. Here’s a definition “Cortisol, a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), is produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. It is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress. Cortisol’s far-reaching, systemic effects play many roles in the body’s effort to carry out its processes and maintain homeostasis. … When chronically elevated, cortisol can have deleterious effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.”
Cortisol — Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy – Dina Aronson, MS, RD, Today’s Dietitian Vol. 11 No. 11 P. 38 (Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortisol)
I think it’s fair to say that from September through to November I had probably survived on nothing but stress. And then in January I exercised like a mad yoke which added to my stress levels, which made matters worse. So, what did the ‘Reset’ book say? I’ll boil down the book into the absolute basics.
What Can ‘Burnt Out’ Really Mean?
When you’re ‘burnt out’, no amount of training or dieting will help you build muscle or burn fat, because cortisol is at work. (You can chose to believe this or not, I felt the author made a reasonably well supported case). He advocated for the need to take three weeks to rest, hydrate, sleep and remove stimulants and inflammatory food to let your body readjust. Then reintroduce items one by one, in conjunction with moderation and some sensible habits to find a happy medium.
The Rules for: 21 DAYS OF HELL.
- No coffee.
- No sugar.
- No booze.
- No wheat.
- No carbs at lunch, but plenty at dinner.
- No gluten.
- No dairy.
- 30 mins of light exercise, jogging or walking per day, outdoors.
- No heavy exercise.If you must train, then no more than 2 HIIT sessions at 60% effort per week.
- 8 – 9 hours of sleep per night.
- 10 minutes of meditation per day.
- 3 litres of water throughout the day.
- 3 meals a day (no limits at all to how much food) and a snack before bed.
- Hot water and lemon before breakfast.
- Breakfast is a smoothie with veggies, fruit, coconut milk and healthy oils.
- Plenty of fat in every meal, especially breakfast.
- Carbs with dinner, (no limits on protein or vegetables) to help you sleep well.
And you know what? I decided to do it, and I kept notes. The book said I would feel like shit, but to be honest, I couldn’t feel any worse. Here’s how it went.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying anyone else should do this kind of extreme nutritional change. I have zero medical qualifications whatsoever, and I know very little about the endocrine system or human metabolism. I decided this might help me fix some issues, and I’m simply yapping about my own experience – take from that what you will.
The first 5 days were excruciating. I had the worst headache for about three days. By day two I cracked and started munching on neurofen plus, but they barely took the edge off! It wasn’t until I made the “headache buster” smoothie recommended by the book did I feel it easing off. The trick seemed to be a ton of raw ginger. I thought the toughest part would be giving up booze, but really the coffee was a killer. Giving up sugar was easy, I don’t eat chocolate and I don’t have a sweet tooth. My husband (who is a sugar junkie) had decided it might be a good idea for him to kick the sugar habit, so he jumped on board the ‘reset’ plan. He found the sugar withdrawals intensely hard. We survived the first bit barely speaking to each other! A line from the book helped. “It’s 21 days. Anyone can do 21 days”. Psychologically this really helped.
Five days in and I faced my first real challenge. Working away from home, and staying in a hotel. Luckily, work has a smoothie maker, so I was able to manage breakfast. M&S have an amazing array of high protein ‘clean eating’ lunches, so I splurged in the foodhall. Normally I would go to the gym for three hours in the evening, then grab a light meal and a glass of wine. So instead, I did an hour long meditation session with a close friend, who has this beautiful aura of calmness that I covet fiercely. Afterwards I felt hyper aware.
After the first week, the headaches were gone, and I felt a little better. On night six, I was totally shattered and was the first person in the house to suggest going to bed. For nine hours straight, I slept like a dead person, (I usually wake once or twice) and I woke up feeling human for the first time in months. However, I craved crusty French bread almost constantly. According to the book, our deep cravings can sometimes be for the things that disagree most with our bodies. This thought was depressing. On the up side – I had no cravings for booze whatsoever.
I hadn’t lost weight, but then I hadn’t done any training, and I had eaten plenty, so I wasn’t surprised. My face was a little less puffy and I really felt like a cloud had lifted. Apparently lots of people give up right before this bit, so I was glad that I had stuck through it! John was also sleeping better and over the coffee and sugar withdrawals, but he was very annoyed by the fact that he had lost a few pounds. He’s tall and slim, and he prefers to keep his weight up. He put another hole in his belt and added more coconut butter to his breakfast smoothie and piled up his plate at lunch and dinner. By the end of week 1, I had started calling my friends again, and made plans to venture out for some board games, and to play music.
My second trip away, I kept busy with friends at a speaking event in Google (and ran away when they wheeled out the free beer and pizza, the bastards). I found that I was less tempted to crack because I knew John was going through the same thing at home, and I didn’t want to crack first!
If week one was tough, I was about to face another one, my team at work were having an afternoon ‘day out’. A mix of social and team building. We would go for lunch, play some poker, drink some booze and generally hang out. I decided to let myself off the hook a little bit and have a single shot of premium whisky to celebrate. John had cracked the day before and ordered a coffee, so now we would be level again on the willpower stakes. Half way through our poker game however, I was surprised to see my dissertation results arrive by email. I had passed! I ended up having three more whiskies, and winning the poker. No regrets whatsoever
The next day though, with THE WORST HANGOVER IN THE WORLD, I managed to climb back on the horse and within a day I was feeling pretty sweet. I was surprised to note I’d lost a few pounds at the end of week 2, especially as I was having massive omelettes and fried chicken for lunch, along with mountains of sides. Only eating three times per day was tough, you actually get really bloody hungry by the time dinner rolls around. I didn’t realise how much I was snacking until I hit that rule.
I started having fun with smoothies, chucking in cinnamon and maca powder, spirulina and other sludgy delights. I also started taking B12 vitamins, which the book hadn’t mentioned, but are supposed to be good for concentration and memory. Verdict at the end of week 2? Feeling pretty damn good.
Week three (I’m on day 20 writing this) turned out to be a doddle. Now that I’ve got the routine down, and I’m used to shopping for what I need, there’s no stress to prepping. Hot water and lemon and a pint of sludge for breakfast. Chicken or tuna, eggs, salad and a mountain of rainbow veg for lunch. Dinners are fun – a massive steak with sweet potato chips and asparagus. Chicken and spinach risotto, or this super hot Jamie Oliver green chilli recipe served with coconut and ginger rice. Doing it with another really did help, I made more of an effort with cooking, so John wouldn’t regret doing it with me
This week I had a really hectic week at work. I had one meeting in particular where I had to speak more than I’m used to. For once, I didn’t feel in the least bit anxious. I felt focussed and on the ball, and I actually enjoyed the experience.
Yesterday I was completely shocked to weigh myself and notice I’m now 11lb lighter than when I started. I don’t really weigh myself that often, unless there’s a championship event coming up and I’m checking to make sure I still qualify as a lightweight. I was 9’13 on day one, and I was 9’2 on day 19. However I don’t think this is actual weight loss, I given the time frame, I suspect it’s mostly decreasing water retention and improved digestion. To boot, I’m sleeping like a baby, and my eyes are not in the least bit puffy.
This week, for the first time ever in the history of, well ever – John and I were both up before the kids, having a relaxed chat, making breakfast before the manic morning started. No panic, no stress – It’s like some kind of movie. We’ve also saved a few quid on takeaways, packed lunches and wine. My poor husband lost half a stone that he didn’t really want to lose, and I could wash clothes on the abs now protruding through his single digit BFI (Body Fat Index) but he feels pretty sprightly, so he’s not complaining too much.
The best bit of this whole experience is that I really do feel like myself again. I’m laughing and joking with the kids. I’m losing my temper way less frequently, and that low lying ball of dread that was hiding just under my breast bone for the last six months is gone. Was it the sugar? Was it the coffee? Who the fuck knows. But three weeks of a very rigid routine, plenty of fruit, veg, healthy carbs and protein, mega-hydration and lots of sleep seems to have made a big difference to my overall health and well being.
WHAT A SHOCKER.
I’m actually reluctant to change the routine now that it’s embedded, but I guess it’s a bit tough to do forever. The next part of the book will probably be a disaster – Phase 2 – this starts reintroducing the things you’ve given up, in a way that should indicate if there are any that particularly don’t agree with you. I’m praying that all goes well when I mainline my first block of cheddar.
So I think this type of elimination plan is not a diet, more than a remedy for total stress burn out. You also have an expert saying ‘take three weeks off intense training’. Which in my case, I think I did need to do. I suspect the water, sleep and lack of stimulants (booze and coffee) are by far the wisest components of the rules, with healthy eating coming a close second. I think had I had the occasional sandwich or glass of wine I would probably still have felt 99% of the benefits. But I respond well to challenges, so the ‘All or Nothing’ approach actually worked quite well for me here. I definately noticed a massive improvement in my sleep, and personally I think the carbs at bedtime, after a day of no carbs at all really does seem to knock me out! I also think the hydration has solved my puffy eyes (don’t ask me why, I just think so).
Here’s the before and after, Day 1, and Day 20. OK – I know the light is different, but it was dark at 8am in the first shot, and not at 8am today. I never intended to show the first shot to anyone, and I’m trying hard to match the expression in the second! But, basically my face is all puffy and swolen (as it was most mornings), and you can see my eyes are sore, even after a full night’s sleep.I felt miserable in the first, and I had to force myself not to smile in the second.
So there you go.
If anyone is interested in finding out what book I read, leave a comment and I’ll contact you directly. I’m deliberately not mentioning because I’m not suggesting anyone do this themselves, and maybe I’ll get in trouble for giving away the main contents? But message me and I’ll send you an Amazon link.