Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Did 70-Hour Work Weeks a Decade Ago Lead to Adrenal Gland Fatigue Today?


Rat Race by Ethan Block via Flickr CC

A guest Post by Dawn Pier

In 2002 I quit my job, sold almost everything I owned and moved to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula to follow a dream to learn to surf.  Eight years later I had undergone a complete transformation from an unhappy, stressed out, overweight research scientist to a woman content, fit and fully ensconced in the Baja life.  My 70 hour work weeks and frequent travel were long behind me. Early in my tenure in Mexico, I founded a community conservation organization to protect the most important coral reef in the Sea of Cortez. Now I surfed almost daily, picked up odd jobs, and maintained a large estate to support myself. For all intents and purposes, I had an ideal and laidback lifestyle.

In 2011, however, I began having difficulty waking up in the morning. My morning tea didn’t seem to be doing the trick any more and gradually I turned to coffee – a beverage I normally avoid due to the severe effects it has on me – to help me get going in the morning. Despite being passionately obsessed with surfing, I found it increasingly difficult to rally the energy to get out the door and to the beach. Gradually, I began to crave salt like it was a drug and responded by eating potato chips by the oversized bag. I craved red meat and converted from a virtual vegan to a steak and hamburger obsessed junky. A year later, I had gained almost 20 pounds. I sought medical help, but the tests all came back normal. Frustratingly normal.

The downward spiral continued almost imperceptibly, but by May of that year, I was dragging my ass in a way I had never experienced before. Despite copious amounts of coffee, it took three hours for me to feel awake each morning and by afternoon my energy level crashed and my head spun. I couldn’t concentrate and my writing began to suffer. One afternoon when, overcome by dizziness, I had to take to my bed, I knew something was seriously wrong.

I happened to be on the island of Maui at the time and was fortunate to find a doctor who took a proper history. He asked me if I was under stress.  At first I laughed at the idea that I could be stressed out. From the outside looking in, I had it made: living surrounded by nature, the ocean at my front door, surfing, eating a diet full of organic whole foods. But when pressed, I had to admit I was still a total stress monkey. “Sounds like adrenal gland fatigue,” he said confidently.

I’d heard of the adrenal glands and knew that they had something to do with the fight or flight response and the release of adrenaline. Then he pointed out that adrenal gland fatigue often results from the accumulation of stress over years. “Did you have a high stress job or lifestyle before you moved to Mexico?” he asked. I laughed recalling the decade I spent in an unhappy marriage, masochistically chasing after scientific accolades and suffered from severe insomnia. He nodded and asserted that this disease was the overdue payment for my previously unsustainable lifestyle.

A blood test confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis. Fortunately, my adrenal gland activity was depressed, but not stopped and with low level hormone replacement, dietary changes including cutting all caffeine, limiting sugar and alcohol, practicing a simple diet called food combining, I began to feel better. Nevertheless, I still feel wiped out if I do too much, stay up too late or party too much. Like all things in life it’s a balancing act.

Looking back on those years of hard work I wonder if there was anyone who could have convinced me that it wasn’t worth the long-term damage I was doing to my health. In North America we’ve been hoodwinked into believing that this is the normal path of a well-adjusted productive member of society (emphasis on productive). The stigma attached to taking a non-traditional path and doing what we love, instead of what earns us a big paycheck – not that these things are mutually exclusive – is substantial.

I still struggle periodically with my decision to step off the work wheel and wonder if I will regret not dedicating myself to something “more significant.” But then I remember that had I not left the rat race to follow my dream of learning to surf, I never would have had the time and opportunity to start writing. In a classic example of cosmic reinforcement, one passion has led me to another.

But I know one thing for certain.  Be it as scientist or a writer, I will never again be a 70-hour-a-week workaholic. Life’s just too short and the waves too much fun!

Dawn Pier is a formerly landlocked Canadian who is a surfer, writer, environmental biologist, and universal truth seeker (not necessarily in that order). Currently, she divides her time between Baja Mexico and the SF Bay Area, writing her memoir filled with adventures in conservation, love, and life off the grid in a tiny Mexican village. She publishes a personal blog and is the East Cape amiga for a new website Baja.com.