I Was Exhausted, Anxious & Couldn't Lose Weight. Here's What Was Really Going On
"Megan, you really can't be coming in for appointments this frequently. I mean this in the most supportive way, but you seem ... unstable. Given your family history, I think you should consider antidepressants," my doctor said, as she handed me a tissue to lessen the blow of her suggestion.
Ashamed, I wiped the mascara running down my cheeks. Moments earlier, I'd fallen apart in the health center where, ironically, I worked as a mental health therapist. One of the benefits to working in the clinic was streamlined access to the physicians. Given the countless inexplicable health issues I'd been experiencing during the previous couple of years, I was a frequent patient.
The breakdown that occurred that day in 2014 had been preceded by months of both constant exhaustion and chronic insomnia. I'd take naps during my lunch hour on the yoga mat I kept in my office, and again in my car before driving home. Still, every night I'd lie awake with heart palpitations, night sweats, and physical anxiety.
I'd been on a health roller coaster of invalidation and dismissal.
In addition to my inexplicable fatigue at age 28, I often broke down crying — a combination of sleep-deprivation-fueled fragility and a constantly low mood I couldn't shake. I couldn't concentrate at work. Someone would say something to me, and it was like they were speaking a different language.
I couldn't understand why I was so exhausted yet was still unable to sleep. I played soccer three times a week and ate super-clean, was mindful about "taking on too much," and spoke to a therapist regularly. I was young and healthy by all other measures. Yet it felt as though my body was throwing in the towel.
A Handful of Diagnoses ... but Still No Answers
At this point, I should mention that I also hadn't had a regular period in almost three years, ever since I went off the Pill in hopes of stabilizing my mood. That only led to a frustrating journey of unexplained amenorrhea, or lack of menstruation. Although I'd been underweight previously while struggling with anorexia, I'd returned to my normal weight and then some. But still no period. I did more yoga and cut out dairy. Still no period.
After a year of no periods, my gynecologist diagnosed me in 2012 with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder. I was shattered. Despite it being incredibly common, I felt ashamed. I felt like a broken woman. Who would want to be with someone who might not be able to reproduce?
As a therapist, I found solace in a friend's words: "Some people are meant to take care of kids. Other people are meant to take care of adults." Still, I wanted to make that decision for myself — not have my body make it for me.
While my girlfriends complained about their periods, I yearned for mine. I worried about osteoporosis and infertility, but not as much as I vainly worried about my thinning hair and weight gain no matter how much I exercised and how little I ate.
Frustrated and ashamed, I began working with a naturopath in the hopes there might be an alternative path. For the next year, we did everything we could to get my cycle back. At first, it was Rhodiola (an adaptogenic herb). Nothing. So we tried a desiccated adrenal supplement, extracted from bovine adrenal glands. Oh! I got a period! But then it was gone again for six months. So we tried vitex, an herb used to increase progesterone production. Oh! Another period! But again, nothing for six months.
We finally moved to bioidentical hormones — a treatment usually reserved for women in menopause — to induce a period. My naturopath gently informed me this was our last-ditch attempt at getting my period started again.
By this time, in addition to my PCOS label, I'd been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, insulin resistance and pre-diabetes, and hypothalamic amenorrhea. The diagnoses were relieving on the one hand — yet crazy-making on the other.
For the first time in years I felt validated in my health journey.
I became obsessed with my lab results and spent hours researching everything from scholarly articles to more digestible health blogs. I went gluten-free. I cut out most cardio. I gave up coffee.
I can't pinpoint which behavior was most effective, but there were encouraging signs at this point. I began to feel more in touch with my body, and I noticed changes that would suggest something happening hormonally. But at this point it had been almost three years without a natural period, and my insomnia and mood were unbearable.
So when my doctor told me I was "unstable" that day, I couldn't disagree with her. It did feel that way. But I could track where my anxiety and defeat were stemming from: I'd been on a health roller coaster of invalidation and dismissal.
"I'm unstable because I haven't slept in months and am frustrated with not having answers!" I responded, my voice shrill with desperation and offense. But I sat in silence as she wrote me prescriptions for Cipralex (an antidepressant), Zopiclone (a sleeping pill), and Alesse (a birth control pill to "regulate" my cycle). "When you're ready to have kids, we'll put you on Metformin, and you'll have a great chance of getting pregnant," she reassured me with smile.
I walked out of the office both defeated and infuriated. Not only did I feel completely invalidated, but I still didn't have any answers. It seemed crazy to me that the solutions for a 28-year-old with hormone levels in the "prepubescent" category and high blood sugar — despite an extremely clean diet — would be a cocktail of meds and no formal diagnosis.
How I Finally Figured Out My Diagnosis ... and Regained My Health
I didn't fill the prescriptions. I knew the solutions suggested weren't the solutions for me. In my work with clients, I believe strongly in holistic health, and I wasn't ready to go the medication route just yet. I continued to look for answers on my own.
Finally, during another Saturday of fervent research, I stumbled across an article highlighting signs of hypothyroidism. I had every single one.
But my doctor had assured me hypothyroidism wasn't a possibility; my TSH levels were in the "normal" range. After more research, though, I learned that the TSH doesn't tell the whole story, so I requested T3- and T4-specific tests.
They returned with a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone. For the first time in years I felt validated in my health journey.
My naturopath prescribed me a compounded desiccated thyroid supplement, which differs from traditional thyroid supplements in that it contains both T3 and T4 (and is appropriate for people who have trouble converting T4 into T3, the body's usable thyroid hormone). Within days I felt like a new person. I had energy, actually fell asleep for more than three hours a night, could concentrate in sessions with clients, and saw a marked increase in my mood.
My hair stopped falling out, my joints stopped hurting constantly, my skin stopped flaking, my digestion resumed, and my blood tests six weeks later revealed encouraging hormone levels and normal blood sugar.
Honestly, though, I didn't need the blood tests to know I was healing. I finally felt normal again.
And guess what? I started getting regular periods. They're still not perfect — if I'm under a lot of stress or go on a yoga hiatus, I won't get one. But for the most part, I can trust that my body is no longer in chaos. I don't think about it anymore — and that's the best part.
I also feel encouraged knowing that, if I decide I want children, I now have a good chance of conceiving naturally. My most recent blood tests show normal hormonal levels for someone my age.
My story may not be a treatment plan for your own journey. But what I hope you get out of it is empowerment to advocate for your health. If you're experiencing symptoms, don't stop seeking answers because someone tells you your tests show that you're in the "normal range." There's nothing wrong with getting a second or third opinion, or taking an alternative treatment route if you feel uncomfortable with the "traditional" one. Don't let anyone shame you into staying silent or accepting one solution.
You are the expert about your body, and you deserve to enjoy inhabiting it.
Ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.