From the Magazine

Tired? There Might Be a Hidden Chemical Sapping Your Energy

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Kristen Hovet saw doctor after doctor for relief from her tiredness, brain fog, and GI woes, but none of them could help her. Here, how she connected the dots and regained her vitality.

“Yikes — I must look like a zombie, Kristen thought as a woman stepped onto the elevator, put her hand on Kristen’s shoulder and asked, “Are you okay? Do you need a doctor?” 

“On most days I felt like a zombie, but it was tough realizing I was so tired and foggy that I could look so sickly to a stranger,” recalls Kristen. “Still, I pushed through my workday, then stepped into my mom role when I got home, all the time wondering and worrying, “What is wrong with me?”

Barely Making It

“For years I did my best to get by, despite constant fatigue, headaches, digestive issues and chronic infections. Just waking up and getting ready each morning took so much effort, and everyday problem-solving and planning felt insurmountable.This wasn’t how I expected life to be! I had so much to be thankful for: a happy, healthy son and a job I loved, but all I wanted to do was lie in bed.

“In fact, that’s where I’d collapse as soon as I came home from work. I had no energy to interact with my son, Jade, but was determined not to have my illness affect him. I wanted to be the good mom I knew I could be, so I’d force myself to get up and play with him.“I felt so much guilt that my fatigue kept me from taking walks, kicking a soccer ball or running around the park with Jade. Being a single mom meant I was always ‘on,’ and it was so frustrating to constantly feel exhausted.

“My work as an executive assistant suffered too. I’d always been an overachiever, but I had trouble concentrating on challenging tasks, so I worked more slowly and missed out on extra projects and presentations. I still managed to do what was expected and get good reviews, but I knew I was capable of so much more.

“While all of this was going on, I bounced between doctors, emergency rooms, and therapists’ offices looking for answers. I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, pre-diabetes and depression, yet no treatment prescribed brought relief. I did what the doctors told me and saw a therapist, but that didn’t help either. My body was ravaged by symptoms that flared and worsened with no identifiable cause or explanation except what so many doctors were telling me: ‘It’s all in your head.’ 

“I started avoiding doctors because I felt so disregarded. Instead, I kept food diaries to see whether a certain food could be causing my symptoms, and I tried to exercise to boost my energy. But I blamed myself for not trying hard enough when nothing brought relief. Snap out of it! I told myself as I tried to will more energy and health into my body. But I began to accept that exhaustion was now in control of my life.

A Zombie No More

“More than a year after that elevator encounter, I built up the courage to start seeking answers from doctors again. It took another year or so, but an immunologist finally gave me the answer I’d been seeking. After performing skin tests to rule out allergies, taking my history and really listening to my symptoms, including that they worsened after taking aspirin — my go-to for headaches —  he suggested I might be sensitive to salicylates, chemicals that occur naturally in some fruit and vegetables and many spices, plus are also found in aspirin, cosmetics, perfumes, and toiletry items.

“I was leery. I’d been given dietary restrictions and diagnoses before. But I was desperate to feel better, so I gave his suggestions a try. It’s tough to completely avoid salicylates because they’re in so many foods, but I stopped eating almonds, berries, apples and cucumbers, which have high levels. I also reduced my salicylate exposure by eliminating perfumes, colognes, and any products containing fragrances in my home, and my symptoms began to improve in just a few days.

The first time I woke up symptom-free, several weeks later, I was so excited. I felt like a new person! And just in case I’m exposed to salicylates, I also take a daily antihistamine, and I treat my now-rare headaches with acetaminophen. I’m no longer sidelined by fatigue! “I wish the first doctor I saw recognized what I was struggling with so I wouldn’t have lost those years with my family and friends. But now I not only have energy to spare, I’m no longer living with symptoms of depression. My son will be moving into college soon and I’m so excited to help him and enjoy this phase of his life!”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine. 

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