Bellevue Club member Debbie Potts has always paid close attention to how her body is performing. Just a few years ago, the 15-time Ironman believed she had come close to perfecting her nutrition and training regimen. So when she started suffering from fatigue so extreme that she had to stop competing, she knew something was wrong. Couple the fatigue with an unexpected 30-pound weight gain and depression, and Potts had a full-blown health crisis on her hands. She desperately searched for answers. What she found was information about a condition called adrenal fatigue, a disease state that occurs when the body has been stressed out to the max. Potts says adrenal fatigue isn’t talked about much in the traditional medicine circles, and that inspired her to share her story with others.
Reflections magazine: Where did the idea for your book Life Is Not a Race . . . It Is a Journey come from?
Debbie Potts: The book is about my experience with adrenal fatigue. For many years, I had been a competitive athlete, doing triathlons and Ironmans, and I use myself as the example of what happens when you do too much in life. It’s about the way I lived and so many other people live. I wrote the story because it’s becoming an epidemic. People ignore the red flags of accumulated stress, and the reality is stressors of all kinds tear down the body systems from the inside out.
RM: Can you describe the lifestyle that led to your crash and caused those symptoms?
DP: It was in 2012, and I was at the peak of my competitive career and racing a lot. I did 15 Ironmans, starting in 2001. In 2012, I finished my fifth Ironman Hawaii in October and then did other events after that because I was in shape. The following March I thought I was in peak shape, fit and healthy, but I started to feel this weight creeping on, and I was starting to feel anxious and depressed. I also started to feel fatigued a lot. It got so bad that one time I was riding my bike and all of a sudden I had nothing. Nothing. I had to pull over and let people go. I had no energy to continue, and I was crying on the side of the road.
RM: This isn’t just something that pertains to endurance athletes. There are many stressors that can cause adrenal fatigue, right?
DP: Yes, my story is just an example. You can fill in the word triathlon with anything: owning your own business, being a single mother working full-time, just trying to do too much. Our philosophy so often is the more the better, fill your days up. We wake up with the alarm as the starting line and the bed is the finish line. Life is becoming a race instead of a journey. You really need to be present and focus on one thing at a time. When you’re distracted, you don’t always see the red flags.
RM: What were the red flags for you?
DP: I thought something was off when the fatigue showed up. I felt like I needed a nap in the afternoon. Workout-wise, I didn’t have energy, and my muscles started to atrophy. I felt more fat on my body, even though nothing had changed [in my lifestyle]. That was a big red flag. I was still eating healthy and exercising, but that wasn’t the problem. That’s a big point I want to stress with people: you can be exercising, eating real food, but that’s not why you’re gaining weight or feeling depressed or fatigued. There are reasons for it; it’s just not yet widely known. The term adrenal fatigue isn’t recognized by traditional medicine.
RM: What else made you stressed besides a demanding competition schedule?
DP: A big thing for me was rearranging my schedule. I used to get up at 3:30 in the morning. I got up super early so I could check e-mail before a meeting for work or training. Now, I rearranged my life to make sleep a priority because I was burning the candles at both ends. So I looked at my schedule and made sure my meetings and appointments weren’t so tight. Before, I’d make my meetings all back-to-back—I liked my whole day to be packed. I had to find ways to slow myself down.
RM: So figuring out all your stressors was the key to healing?
DP: Well, it’s been four years and I’m still not fully healthy, not 100 percent. I still have thyroid problems, and I still can’t run very fast—I just can’t get back to my normal. For example, my memory is affected. When you have adrenal fatigue, you actually damage your brain. I explain more about that in the book, but it’s all part of the cortisol production. It should be the right amount, because you still want the fight-or-flight response. But if it’s too high all the time from stress, eventually it will get too low and your body can’t respond to anything. So your cortisol has everything to do with dysfunction. Brain fog, memory and depression can all be related to adrenal fatigue.
RM: How did you educate yourself about what was happening?
DP: I was studying a lot about health and listening to podcasts like Underground Wellness and Ben Greenfield’s fitness podcast. They were discussing adrenal fatigue, so I was learning about it right before the crash really hit. I was interested because even then I was experiencing fatigue, a higher heart rate, working out was a struggle and I wasn’t sleeping. I’d wake up at two most nights.
RM: And what happened when you tried to treat the problem?
DP: I saw seven or eight people, all doctors. But the biggest reason to share this book is because most doctors will say they aren’t trained in it. They are more likely to say take a sleeping pill, take a depression pill. There’s nothing wrong with the doctors; they just don’t know. In functional medicine, we’re looking at the root of the problem. Most mainstream doctors are symptom-based. They want to give you a pill to help the symptom, not address why this is happening. Through the podcasts, I was learning about a whole new world. I listened to Dr. Kalish. I listened to a lot.
RM: What did the treatment look like?
DP: A lot of it is lifestyle change. The biggest thing I had to do was slow down and learn how to pace myself. Prioritizing sleep was a huge thing for me. I also started testing my heart rate variability, which will tell you how your body is handling stress. Everyone should do that, especially people who work out, and have a family, and pack their day full. It really teaches you how to listen to your body and what it needs. Now I can listen to what my body is telling me, not my schedule.
RM: Now your biggest mission is sharing your experience with others?
DP: I have the book and a podcast, The WHOLE Athlete podcast, but I want to start doing TED Talks and TV interviews. I see symptoms in other people all the time. I struggled for so long, and if I can teach people lifestyle changes that they can implement, they can catch the signals before it gets worse.
RM: Have you always been public about what you are going through?
DP: No, no one close to me really knew what was going on with me. I’d always been super lean and fit, but then in just a few months I was 30 pounds heavier. The really scary thing is kids are starting to get it because with technology they rarely relax. They go from school to activity to activity, and it just feeds that addiction to busyness.
RM: And parents might not realize their kids are stressed.
DP:Yes, because you can be fit and appear healthy, but at the same time your hormones are taxed and your systems stressed. You can think you’re so successful because you can be busy 12 hours a day, like the Energizer bunny. But it’s not smart. People in this business group I have used to call me Debbie Diesel. And it hit me: that’s not a compliment. My friends would invite me places only when there was a race. That was also not a compliment. Like, you have no life: all you do is race.
RM: Often adrenal fatigue can be caused by nutritional issues. Can you talk about your experience with dieting?
DP: I was really into a low carb/high fat diet, and I was doing a lot of intermittent fasting. So I would have bulletproof coffee (coffee with grass-fed butter or coconut oil) in the morning and not eat anything until one or two. Then I’d eat a huge lunch and then not again until the next day. I really thought what I was doing was right, eating primal or Paleo. But what I didn’t realize was I didn’t respond well to intermittent fasting. I was already stressed, and my body thought I was constantly starving so that was just another added stress. I was so strict about it, too serious.
RM: What’s your diet like now?
DP: I still do low carb with plenty of veggies, healthy fats and clean proteins. But I eat more and have learned to not take it so seriously. I also switched to herbal teas because coffee can raise cortisol. And for a long time, coffee made me feel sick.
RM: Are you still training?
DP: Yes, but I do more weight and strength training now. It builds your body up versus breaking it down. I’ve also learned it’s OK to walk instead of going for a run. My body just walks now when I go up a hill.
RM: What’s the difference in your running times?
DP: I used to train at an eight-minute mile, now I’m closer to a ten-minute mile. And to be honest, it’s not getting better. For a while, it was even one step forward, two steps back. I kept trying to return to racing, but my body wouldn’t do it. The running is so hard.
RM: What percentage of people would you estimate are having symptoms of adrenal fatigue?
DP: There are different stages. I think people are in and out of stage 1 all the time. If you’ve lost a job, have a sick or dying parent, or a busy job, every day these stressors affect the body. But for some people, they are always stressed, always worked up about something. There are so many possible stressors—it could be an environmental stress, or a poor diet—but it’s all the same when it funnels into your brain. People need to identify all their possible sources of stress [and find ways to relax instead].