Jessica was packing the snacks into the basket which we would be picking from in about and hour: cookies, nuts, Cheez-its, junk. Packets of almonds. Her brown eyes brightened as she smiled at me. Handed me a packet of salted almonds.
We were standing at the back of the Delta flight to Calgary from Salt Lake City. People were boarding and I had sprinted to the back to pee before takeoff.
“I put on about sixty pounds in the last year or so,” she said, her face darkening. “It’s really frustrating.”
She’s perhaps a little less than half my age. Maybe right around thirty. Perfect, gorgeous smooth skin, shining black hair, lovely smile.
She feels fat. On her small frame, for her, this is very uncomfortable, because it’s out of control for her.
Boy, can I relate.
Since late last year, most particularly , I’ve put on twelve. That might not seem like a lot but it’s a steady rise. For anyone who has ever been obese, and I have, that’s a bright red flag. For anyone who has battled with eating disorders and I have, it’s the kind of trajectory that scares the hell out of someone who doesn’t plan to return to that life.
I sure as hell don’t want to get heavy again.
I am constantly hungry. Thirsty. I eat very healthy foods, just way too much of it, more than I need. And I have begun to add a KitKat to my gas purchases too often. Nothing satiates. So I’m grazing all day which isn’t good. As I learned recently, that causes the body to be constantly producing insulin. That leads down a dangerous road.
Jessica grazes too often, too. Too much of anything, including water, is still too much. People die from too much water.
“I just can’t get full,” she said. I nodded.
I asked her if she’d been experiencing a lot of stress lately.
“Yes, which is why I have this job now.” It can’t help to be looking at cookies all day, I thought. I’d have a hell of an issue with that. “I’ve been better since I started with the airline.”
A few days ago I was in the VA Infectious Diseases clinic, getting shots for my upcoming travel. I asked the nurse about the weight gain, which is most certainly not sixty pounds (I’ve been there, more like close to ninety, thirty years ago).
Mistake. She gave me the standard line about menopause (doesn’t fly, that was 15 years ago) age (doesn’t fly, not with my activity level) other standard pat answers that have been debunked for years.
As in calories in, calories out.
To that I said, not unkindly, “So if I have a croissant with cheese and butter in one hand and in the other, equal calories of lentils, you’re saying they’re the same? VA dietitians would give me the FDA Food Pyramid, which has been roundly, solidly debunked.”
Feds. God love ’em. Not all, but too many. And doctors in general. Not all, but too many.
I was struggling, as I do sometimes, to remember a word I’d heard my primary care provider use. Every so often a word goes walkies and I have to send out the bloodhounds to find the damned thing. That’s why I was asking. She couldn’t think of anything other than The Change, getting older, and calories.
That’s grotesquely simplistic. We put on weight for so many reasons, despite the medical community’s mindless addiction to calories in, calories out. Look in the mirror, doc. Clearly you’re doing too much of the former yourself.
By the time I got home, bingo.
Cortisol. My PCP had been concerned about my cortisol levels.
- weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
- weight gain and rounding of the face
- thinning skin
- easy bruising
- flushed face
- slowed healing
- muscle weakness
- severe fatigue
- difficulty concentrating
- high blood pressure
Other websites mention urinary frequency. My goodness is my hand up here.
I had enough of these symptoms to give my PCP pause. This time I looked into it enough to think that it made a lot of sense. I’ve never felt fatigue before- not just during the day. Usually I’m bouncing off the walls. Lately I’ve had to nap a lot. That’s completely out of character, and it has nothing to do with my age, as one person stated (with absolutely no basis in fact). We all could use a nap, especially if you’re up at 3 am every day like I am. By about 2 pm I need my 20 minutes for good reason. This was something different. Not at 9 am.
This past January, my BF, after being in my house for seven simply awful months of verbal abuse, isolation and emotional unpredictability, dumped me on my 66th birthday. There followed an equally awful spate of horrific urinary symptoms that nobody could sort out, everyone misdiagnosed, I got over-medicated and nothing changed. We’re still diagnosing. There’s no question that there is cause and effect.
Then I started a book called Unlearn Your Pain, thinking, not without good reason, that the symptoms were emotional.
That opened up a whole new can of worms, including long-buried (for good reason) and just plain butt-ugly memories.
I can’t stuff them back into Pandora’s box, and I also haven’t been able to do the personal work that each incident requires. There are some 45 of them. Each demands at least an hour of hard work.
I dunno about you, but I haven’t been able to find 45 hours plus in my schedule to go into my basement and scream. Which, although that sounds hugely entertaining, might be hard on the vocal chords.
Which would also cause my neighbor (known for a six-block area as That Asshole Jerry, which fits him so perfectly that people nearly call him that to his face. But I digress) to call the police. He would, too.
I am carrying around more than my share of monkeys.
They bite and scream and pull my hair while I write, workout, work, do my best to make fun of them, pack up my house, search for another town-state-home, put myself out on line, go out on stupid dates, and generally do my best to avoid the sources of my stress.
So I leak. And in leaking I have developed some symptoms. It’s not just the weight. I am much more irritable than normal. My skin has thinned, to the point that a shot or an IV hurts a lot more. My skin bruises very easily. These aren’t issues of aging. They are symptoms of high stress.
Steadily gaining weight- can I have a show of hands here?- is also stressful. I can’t wear any of my skirts. Most of my riding breeches, my chaps and one hell of a lot more are useless.. And while I have made use of those extra pounds, by having them make me work harder at the gym, I am not happy. Because we all have a perfect weight, and we know when this is not it.
I could guarantee weight loss by dumping all my lovely clothes and completely overhauling my wardrobe. That’s a gold-standard guarantee that I will drop twelve pounds. Because the Universe has one hell of a sense of humor.
No amount of encouraging BUT THAT LOOKS GREAT ON YOU makes you feel better, because if it’s accompanied by fatigue, irritation, bruising, and a host of other issues, you know you both look and feel like shit. It’s not just the weight, it’s your whole system.
High cortisol levels can damage us. From heart disease to obesity to depression, when we have too much fight or flight running through our veins, we are running ourselves ragged Just. Sitting. Still.
Memory is affected, blood sugar levels, our metabolism goes nuts (sixty pounds, for example) and inflammation. A major bad boy.
My friend on the Delta flight wrote cortisol down. She had never heard of it before. I knew of it, but was thinking that the stew of various symptoms might mean other problems. Which is what happens to us when doctors don’t ask about our lifestyle, and treat symptoms one by one.
I headed to Natural Grocers and bought adaptogen herbs. I’m already doing most of everything else from meditating to a (mostly) decent diet to exercise to no alcohol. I get into nature a lot. That may well have ameliorated the symptoms, but I want more progress.
Interestingly, over the last day or so my appetite has dropped signficantly. I feel full after half a banana. That’s normal for me. I’m not feeling this intense, overwhelming urge to seek out doughnuts and KitKat bars. That’s normal.
Jessica is going to look this up. I have no idea if this is the issue for her, but I am beginning to be totally convinced it’s the issue for me, or at least a piece of the puzzle. I have made fun of the last few pounds, did my best to live with them. But that along with other significant symptoms point not to just everyday garden-variety weight gain, but something more significant that needs a different kind of attention.
Mind you, and please, nowhere in this article did I say anything about anyone’s need to be thin. All I am saying here is that if you are seeing fluctuations that don’t fit the norm for your body, your lifestyle, it’s time to take a look.
All of us deal with anxiety. And we all have stress, stressful situations. However if we can’t find relief, not just two-weeks-a-year relief- the levels of cortisone we carry may well be a genuine issue. It’s worth having your levels tested. When I get back from my four-week-meditation-by-horseback in Canada (where I am heading right now via the Calgary Airport), my stress may well be much reduced. But I am still going to check.
If you’re noticing a cluster of these symptoms, and you can also identify significant sources of stress, it might be time to have your doctor conduct a blood test.
Weight gain isn’t always just weight gain. Unlike what we hear far too often from the medical community which knows far too little, weight gain could signal any number of other issues, many of them emotional. If you’re watching your weight suddenly or steadily shift skyward (or downward, which isn’t always good news either), check for other markers. Make sure there aren’t other factors at work. The body is beautifully eloquent, as my Medium peep and ER nurse Ann Litts can attest. She sees the end product all too often, when we’ve allowed it to operate on high alert for far too long.
Let’s not be that end product. Pay attention when your body changes. Don’t panic, but do your research. Ask good questions. If your doctor pooh-poohs your concern as “just The Change” or tells you it looks good, you should see his other patients, consider a second or third opinion.
I have no problem with a single doughnut on rare occasion. When I’ve ploughed through my third dozen, time to ask what’s bugging me.