Why and how I include treats as part of a healthy diet

The last couple of weeks we have had lots of celebrations! Valentines’ day, pancake day, my birthday and my boyfriends’ mums’ birthday all within the space of ten days. Considering the three of us have been in lockdown together for nearly four months now we are making the most of every opportunity to be festive. And with everywhere closed that has pretty much meant one thing.. FOOD. Here’s a sample of the tasty treats we have been making. We have crepes, carrot cake, kourou (Greek feta pastries) and lemon drizzle cake curtesy of the one and only Mary Berry. Yum!

I think it’s such a gift to be able to enjoy tasty foods and share the experience with loved ones. Food can be such a sensual experience and a way for us to connect with ourselves and other beings. As humans we are designed to enjoy food as it is essential for our survival and preparing and eating delicious food can be a ritual that brings us a lot of pleasure. Of course we can survive on simple foods and that is great too but there is something about biting into a delicious homemade cake or warm pastry that gives us such satisfaction. Cooking for or with our friends and family is often a way that we show our love and memorable mealtimes are moments that we remember many years later. Passing on recipes down generations is a way to keep cultural traditions going and remember generations before.

It’s such a shame to reduce food to only fuel. Especially now the world is closed it is even more important to take enjoyment from our food. And by that I don’t mean we should be eating emotionally and using food to numb out. Or that we should be indulging in artificial junk foods that harm our bodies. I mean that we should take the time to buy and prepare delicious, nourishing food for our bodies and souls. And that includes sweet and savoury treats! There is a huge difference between baking some cookies at home and eating a few round the table with loved ones vs. buying a packet of cheap biscuits from the supermarket and eating ten in one sitting whilst watching TV alone. One bring genuine pleasure and enjoyment and the other is just a mindless habit. I think that part of including treats in a healthy diet is really to take the time to eat them mindfully and savour every bite.

I remember the days when I used to be afraid of celebrations because I was so anxious around food. If I was invited to a party I’d be worried about what food would be there and if I’d be tempted to eat foods that were unhealthy or off my diet. I’d be so focused on food that I’d forget to enjoy myself or I’d get really drunk to make the food anxiety go away for a few hours and then not remember the party the next day. If I went to a restaurant I’d have to triple check the menu beforehand to make sure there was something I could eat otherwise I’d freak out at the table and not be able to decide at all or I’d end up over eating to the point of feeling sick and spend the next week trying to burn it all off. It sounds so crazy now I look back but I know this is a reality for many others too. It’s so freeing now to be able to eat whatever I want and know that it all fits within a healthy diet. I am allowed to enjoy food without feeling guilty about it.

But I’m still a nutritionist and I still want to remain fit and healthy so how do I balance the two? The key is that I base my diet on whole plant foods. This means that most of what I eat is unprocessed and comes from the earth. I’m not vegetarian (I was vegan for nearly 3 years but that’s a story for another day) but lots of my meals are plant-based and this makes up the foundation of my diet. I don’t restrict the amount of these foods that I eat and try to “save calories for later”, I just eat until I am satisfied at each meal and move on. I follow “balanced plate method” which is something I teach to my health coaching clients, a way to create filling, satisfying meals every time. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds and on a day to day basis I try to keep processed foods to a minimum. When I want to eat a treat I just do it and because I’ve already met my needs for calories and nutrients I don’t have a need to go overboard.

I think an important thing to note here is that I also don’t allow myself to eat emotionally anymore. By that I mean that if I am feeling sad, stressed or angry, I focus on understanding and processing that emotion rather than stuffing it down with food. If I have a craving for a food I will ask myself first if it is because I am trying to avoid feeling a certain way. If it is then I will turn to other self-care tools rather than food which will help me to soothe myself and actually feel better rather than distracting myself and pushing the feeling down until later. But if the craving is not emotional but just a natural desire to eat something tasty for whatever reason then I’m ok with giving my body what it is asking for. I’ve learnt to trust my body around food and listen to it’s hunger and fullness cues and in return it has learnt to trust me and no longer sends out urges to eat insane amounts of food.

Something I realised is that the thing driving my fear of over eating was the fact that I was constantly hungry. I was always on a diet an maintaining a body weight that was below my body’s natural set point which meant that I was always fighting against my body’s hunger signals. When I did give in and eat what I was craving I wouldn’t be able to stop. I thought that this was just a normal part of being healthy and that giving in to it showed my lack of willpower. It was only after I went through a period of extreme binge eating, when I could no longer fight my hunger and decided to just surrender to it that I realised that this was genuinely my body telling me it needed more fuel. And once the hunger was satisfied and my body reached it’s set point weight the food obsession gradually went away.

Whatever we resist persists and I think that putting food into categories of good and bad only makes us go more crazy around the “bad” foods. As soon as I let myself eat whatever I wanted, the cravings went from mountains to molehills. After years of trying to figure out why my binge eating was happening, I was shocked! So now I am maintaining a healthy weight that my body likes, but not necessarily what my mind wants and I’ve learned to be ok with that. It’s so worth it to be a few lbs heavier and not have the constant fear of gaining weight. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be perfect to be healthy and that health is about way more than what you eat or how much exercise you do. Holistic health includes mental wellbeing and in my opinion, eating treats and not depriving myself means I feel so much better psychologically and emotionally. Living an overly controlled, restricted life is not fun and definitely does not lead to long term happiness. Balance is always the way!

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this post and it gives you the confidence to allow yourself treats as part of your healthy diet. Let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

  • If like this post, hit the like button and follow my blog for regular posts on health, nutrition and yoga. And please share with anyone you think might be interested.
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

Other posts you might like

Real health #30 Is obsessing over your health ruining your life?

We are nearly at the end of this Real Health January series and for this penultimate post I want to bring it back to where we started in post #1 What does it mean to be healthy?. Today’s topic might be another controversial one and also one that is close to my heart! I want to talk about how an obsession with health and wellness can ruin your life.

When it comes to health there are definitely two clear extremes. There of course are many people who could benefit from making lifestyle changes to improve their health and reduce their risk of disease. But there are also those on the opposite end of the spectrum who are so focused on being healthy that it actually starts to negatively impact their life. I am all about promoting balance and I really do think the meaning of true health is learning how to make healthy choices and look after your body without obsessing over it and letting it take over.

Be healthy to LIVE rather than live to be HEALTHY

When I was younger, I definitely fell into the trap of letting health take over my life. I was obsessed with clean eating and afraid to eat foods that were “bad for me” or would make me gain weight. I went to the gym religiously, sometimes exercising more than once a day and I was constantly thinking about how I could get in those extra active minutes. I would walk to the gym, do a zumba class followed by pilates and then walk home. All of this fuelled by soups, salads and low-fat ready meals. People thought I was crazy but in a good way and would praise me for my commitment and discipline. As I’ve shared before, all of this led to a lot of anxiety and totally messed up hormones.

Fast forward to my early twenties and the arrival of the wellness scene. At the time I was looking for a way to heal my body, get my period back and fix my relationship with food. I found the online vegan community where everyone seemed happy and healthy following a “whole foods plant-based” diet and I jumped right in. I was eating insane amounts of fruits and vegetables and all sorts of super food powers claiming to detoxify and cleanse my body. Thank god I let go of the crazy amounts of cardio I was doing but instead discovered weight lifting and still had this fixation on body control and fitness in the back of my mind. At the time I thought I was doing the right thing and it was almost like there was a moral value attached to this healthy lifestyle.

It alienated me from my friends and kept me focusing on health above all. I was probably pretty boring as that’s all I talked about for a while! And yes, I am aware this is a health blog and I am writing about wellness here every day. I really enjoy healthy living and sharing my knowledge and experience but the difference is it is no longer my life. My work, relationships and hobbies get much more of my attention these days. Yes I eat lots of fresh, nutritious food but I also eat cake and chocolate on the regular. I no longer buy superfoods just for the health benefits and focus on real, local foods instead. I like moving my body but I won’t push myself through HIIT routines that I hate and if I am tired or on my period I will take a break from exercise altogether without feeling guilty about it. And I feel so much healthier for it!

The one thing I am really happy about my venture into wellness obsession is that I also started practicing yoga and meditation at this time, habits that have stuck with me to this day and really changed my life. I think the question you have to ask yourself honestly when it comes to health choices is: “Will this thing make my life better or worse?”. If your diet consists mostly of pasta and takeaways, eating more fruit and vegetables will probably give you more energy and reduce your risk of disease. But if you are already eating salads and smoothies all day long, restricting yourself from having pizza with your friends once a week probably won’t do much for your health and might leave you feeling isolated and lonely. Are the benefits of a healthy diet worth it if all of your thoughts are consumed by what and when you will eat and you lose connection with your friends and family?

Same for exercise, there is no point following a strict workout regime if you hate it the whole time and feel exhausted and stressed. Chronic stress is terrible for your body and actually increases your risk of many diseases. If you find yourself saying no to social events just to go to the gym, all of your days revolve around your exercise schedule or if you find it hard to rest even when you are injured or tired, maybe it’s time to look at your relationship to exercise. No criticism here, I am saying this from experience. Like with everything it’s all about balance. We are sold this image of fitness as the ultimate ideal but is it really necessary to train like you’re going into the military or look like a fitness model in order to be healthy? I’d argue not.

You might be reading this and thinking it is unrealistic or extreme but orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating) and exercise addiction are real and genuinely impact the lives of many people. I want my contribution to the wellness industry to be a voice of reason and realism. I want to inspire you to make positive changes that help you to feel your best without all of the rules and rigidity. I want you to feel motivated and empowered by my posts and not like you have to go ahead and do all of these things otherwise you won’t be healthy. The most important thing is to stay aware of your body keep asking yourself how you feel. I recently posted a video on healing fatigue through yoga and self-awareness which is all about this if you’re interested. And stay tuned for the last post of the Real Health January series tomorrow!

Over to you…

I hope you found this article interesting and enjoyed the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and experiences with health and wellness obsession.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

Other posts you might like

hypothalamic amenorrhea

Real health #20 Why your period is so important for your health

It’s been a while since I talked about my favourite topic.. the menstrual cycle aka your period. Specifically why your period is important for your overall health and the problems associated with not having a regular menstrual cycle. Any guys out there, maybe this isn’t the article for you but feel free to read on and you could just learn something to help the ladies in your life!

We usually think of our menstrual cycle as two phases: bleeding and not bleeding. In reality it is a menstrual cycle with levels of several reproductive hormones shifting throughout the month. The amount of these hormones your body produces is sensitive to stress, including both physical stress from under-eating and over-exercising and mental and emotional stress. When you lose your period because something is off in your lifestyle is it called Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA). I wrote all about this in a previous post so you can check that out if you are interested in learning more. But here I want to focus on the problems that come with not having your period.

The problems with not having a period

The most obvious reason to have a regular, healthy period is of course your fertility. The whole point of your menstrual cycle is to prepare your body for pregnancy and allow you to have a baby. If you don’t have your period, it’s very unlikely you are going to be able to get pregnant. But what if you have decided you don’t want children or you’ve already had children? It’s still important for you to have your period too! I spent many years believing it was “fine” that I didn’t have my period and it was actually pretty convenient to be honest, not to have to buy tampons, worry about getting pregnant or have my period ruining my plans but once I found out what it means to not have a period and how unhealthy it is for your body I was shocked and I wished I’d been told sooner.

One of the key hormones that drives your menstrual cycle is estrogen. Apart from it’s role in your menstrual cycle, did you know that estrogen also helps to build your bones? When women enter the menopause and stop producing estrogen they start to lose bone mineral density and are at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis or brittle bones. Not having a regular period is a sign that your hormone balance is off and estrogen levels could be low. Girls who don’t have their period due to hypothalamic amenorrhea during their teenage years are at risk of developing early onset osteopenia which can lead to osteoporosis if not treated. This might not mean much when you are young but trust me, you want to make sure you are building strong bones while you can! And don’t forget that your if your bones are losing minerals then it’s highly likely that your teeth are suffering too putting you at increased risk of cavities and teeth sensitivity. Who thought that periods and teeth were related??

Another surprising link is between hypothalamic amenorrhea and heart disease. Estrogen has an anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory effect in the body and also acts as a vasodilator meaning it causes your blood vessels to expand and low levels of estrogen have been linked with an increased risk of developing heart disease. Even though most of the research is in post-menopausal women, there have also been studies linking low estrogen levels in younger women with build up of plaque in the arteries and increased risk of heart disease in later life. And yes this is even for those who exercise! You might think you are being super healthy and boosting your cardio-vascular system but if you are exercising excessively and you have lost your period then you are undoing all of that hard work. Another thing I wish I’d known about sooner..

Other problems with hypothalamic amenorrhea

Not only does hypothalamic amenorrhea put you at risk for issues later in life, it can also cause problems in the here and now. Low estrogen can also be the explanation for fatigue, headaches, low sex drive, vaginal dryness, anxiety, depression and insomnia just to name a few. And as well as your reproductive hormones, not having your period could be a sign that other things are off in your body. We often think of our body systems acting in isolation but in reality, all of these things are connected and if one falls down it can have a domino effect throughout your body.

Often women with hypothalamic amenorrhea have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol which also has been associated with bone loss as well as anxiety, insomnia and lower thyroid hormones. In hypothalamic amenorrhea, your metabolism is suppressed which could explain symptoms of hypo-thyroidism such as feeling cold all of the time, hair loss and low energy levels. Many women who develop hypothalamic amenorrhea due to restricting their food intake also experience digestive problems like bloating, stomach pain, constipation and food intolerances. If you don’t have your period and you feel like you are constantly struggling with digestive issues, then maybe the two could be related.

What should you do if you’ve lost your period?

So if you have made it to the end of this post, well done and I hope I didn’t scare you too much. If this is you, don’t worry, now you know you can do something about it! First you can read my blog posts about hypothalamic amenorrhea, how to recover and my recovery story. I’d also recommend buying the book No Period Now What by Nicola Rinaldi if you want an in depth explanation of all things hypothalamic amenorrhea related. If you need that final push to commit to getting your period back, definitely buy her book. If you think you have hypothalamic amenorrhea, visit your GP to get your hormone levels checked and Nicola also offers blood test results analysis through her website if you’re unsure. Three steps you can take right now:

  1. Eat more food and let go of any dietary rules and restrictions
  2. Take a break from intense exercise for at least a month
  3. Reduce the stress in your life and add more stress relieving activities

Easier said than done I know, but I believe in you! It’s never too late to recover your period and undo at least some of the damage to your body from hypothalamic amenorrhea. Recovery is challenging but so worth it.

References

Emma O’Donnell, Jack M. Goodman, Paula J. Harvey, Cardiovascular Consequences of Ovarian Disruption: A Focus on Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea in Physically Active Women, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 96, Issue 12, 1 December 2011, Pages 3638–3648, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2011-1223

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article on why it’s important to have your period and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and experiences, I’d love to hear from you.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

Other posts you might like

Shufelt, C. L., Torbati, T., & Dutra, E. (2017). Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and the Long-Term Health Consequences. Seminars in reproductive medicine35(3), 256–262. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0037-1603581

the problem with fitspo

Real health #16 The problem with fitspo and fitness influencers

I actually wrote this post about 5 years ago for my first ever blog site! This was before fitness influencers were a huge thing, or at least they weren’t really on my radar, but I think it is more relevant than ever today. I’ve updated it a little but the core message is still the same. Enjoy!

This morning a friend posted this image on Facebook..

fitspo

I know she had the best intentions behind the post but it really got me thinking about the “fitspo” trend, fitness influencers and their effects on viewers’ body image.  The Urban Dictionary definition of the word fitspo is:

“Images of active, strong, and fit women that promote proper exercise and diet. May also include images healthy foods. Much like thinspo (images of dangerously thin women used by people with eating disorders to motivate) but healthier.”

From the definition it sounds like a great thing. Replacing the horrible trend of “thinspo” and encouraging women to be healthy and active.. both of those things get a great big TICK from me. However, what can’t be escaped is the fact that images like this still encourage women to focus on their body shape and size. They still provide a body ideal, a goal for women to aim for. They still encourage women to base their self-worth on their appearance and attach morality to food and exercise. And this results in the same feelings of unworthiness and disappointment for those women who don’t follow the rules and don’t look like the picture-perfect Instagram fitness models.

The image above does an amazing job at showing us that the number on the scale is, well only that really. A number. The point here is that body weight and BMI are pretty meaningless and bodies of the same weight can have completely different body shape and composition. That’s all well and good, but what does the image imply? That we should be focusing on getting lean and toned instead of skinny? That it’s much better to be heavier and look like the photo on the right? Yes it may be successful in shifting the focus away from the scale and obsessing over how much you weigh but to what… the way your body looks in the mirror or a photo?

Lots of women (myself in the past included) have fallen into the trap of shifting their health and fitness goals from trying to weigh as little as possible to eating clean and looking lean and muscular. Maybe it’s getting abs or building a booty. But what the fitspo images like the one above don’t show is how the woman is feeling in each photo and what her life really looks like. What kind of behaviours is she engaging in to maintain her body? What is her overall health like? How are her relationships and social life? Is she following her passions or is she spending every waking minute obsessing over eating healthy food, exercising and comparing her body to others online?

There could be a whole range of things going on behind the scenes. We often assume that just because someone looks “normal” that they are not suffering and this is not always the case. Disordered eating can take on so many shapes and sizes. Bulimia and exercise bulimia, orthorexia, food fears, laxative abuse, binge eating, compulsive exercise. All of these can often go unnoticed as people can maintain a normal BMI and not end up looking like the skeletal eating disorder stereotype. I am not saying by any means that the girl in the photos is suffering from any of these issues but what I am trying to say is not to take photos like this at face value. Images mean nothing unless we know the full story behind them.

For me personally, looking extremely lean and fit came at a great cost. I did all of the healthy things. I worked out daily. I ate clean. I drank plenty of water. But I didn’t feel good and I didn’t know why. I wasn’t healthy. My periods were totally absent. I started to wake up in the early hours of the morning for no reason. I felt fatigued all of the time and had to rely on more and more caffeine to get through the day. I know not everybody will have the same experience but I am sure I am not the only one. It took a lot of effort to unlearn all of the so-called healthy habits I had developed and get back to focusing on feeling good. Finally after going back to university to study public health nutrition, diving into my yoga practice and becoming a qualified teacher I found a balance where I could feel good and maintain a slim, healthy body without taking it to the extreme or letting it take over my life.

For those of us in the health and fitness world, food and exercise and shaping our body can easily become the focus of our life. Yes it is fun to experiment with food and of course moving your body feels great. But it doesn’t have to be your sole purpose. It is very easy to get caught up in the social media bubble and forget that there is an outside world. Real life connections and meaningful relationships where you can be yourself can do so much more for your health and wellbeing than following some online fitness guru and feeling connected to others by the restraints of whatever lifestyle they preach. My point in this article is to let you know that you don’t need to idolize anyone and your body is perfect whether you feel more like the “before” photo or the “after”. Remember to focus on the things that keep you feeling happy and healthy above all!

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article from 5 years ago Amy. I would say my opinions haven’t changed much since then. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on fitspo and fitness influencers, do you find watching them uplifting and motivating or does it make you feel bad about yourself and like you need to change?

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on your health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

Other posts you might like

cycling exercise during period recovery

Can exercise stop your period coming back? 5 ways exercise can slow recovery

A common question from women trying to recover from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea is “can I exercise while trying to get my period back?”. I wrote about my tips for exercising during HA recovery but if you are thinking about taking a break and need some motivation, here are 5 ways exercise can work against your recovery.

1.Exercise burns calories which could otherwise be directed towards healing and repair of damage caused by dieting. The point of eating a lot more food during recovery is to flood the body with energy and nutrients to use for healing and repair. Exercise burns up some of these precious resources which will only prolong the healing process. Often women find it hard to meet the minimum recommended calorie intake for recovery and if you choose to exercise you should eat even more to compensate which can be a challenge.

2. Many women use exercise as a way to compensate for “over-eating” and it can be temping to start to move more when we allow ourselves to eat in abundance. We don’t want to exchange one control mechanism for another, we want to be completely free of all restrictions and compensations around food. We want to get to a place where we let go of any toxic beliefs around exercise and let go of guilt for resting. Exercising to make up for eating more is just another form of disordered eating behaviour.

3. Intense exercise is perceived as a stress by our hypothalamus, the brain master control centre. This means it can continue to feel it is unsafe to reproduce and not send the signal to restart our cycles. Although exercise is a good way to relieve mental stress, it is a physical stress on the body as it depletes glycogen reserves, increases the heart rate and damages muscle tissue. Exercise is healthy for a healthy body but if you don’t have your period you are not healthy right now and rest and recuperation will be your medicine.

4. For many women with HA, exercise has long been used as a way to manipulate their body and separating exercise from weight loss is difficult. We want to get to the point were we can exercise for fun and well being, regardless of the impact that it has on our physical appearance. If we continue to exercise during recovery, we might not do some of the mental work that is needed to fully break free of the weight loss mindset. It’s likely that you need to gain weight if you have lost your period and exercising could make this more difficult.

5. Exercise can be used as an appetite suppressant or a distraction from hunger. Exercise puts our nervous system in “fight or flight” mode when our body is stimulated and running on adrenaline which decreases hunger. You might find that you are more hungry on rest days because your body has calmed down and this is exactly what we want for healing. If you are hungry on a physical or mental level you should eat. Don’t fall into the trap of being “too busy to eat” as this will only delay your recovery.

Once you have recovered your period and have accepted your healed body, you might want to start exercising again from a much better headspace but at least it will be a conscious choice rather than because you feel you have to control your body in some way.

Over to you…

I hope this article gave you something to think about! It’s a personal choice whether you decide to stop exercising all together during your recovery. Women have recovered successfully from HA whilst still exercising but it is my opinion that we recover faster and more completely if we give our bodies chance to rest and fully repair.

  • Let me know in the comments, how do you feel about taking a break from exercise? Does it feel scary or a relief? For those in recovery, are you still exercising or taking a break?
  • If you are looking for support, guidance and accountability on your period recovery journey, please contact me for further information on the health coaching packages I offer. Together we will set you up with a plan to get your hormones balanced and you feeing your best mentally and physically.

Other posts you might like

exercise and hypothalamic amenorrhea

What is Hypothalamic Amenorrhea? Why have my periods stopped?

What is Hypothalamic Amenorrhea?

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA) or Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (FHA) is when a woman has no period for 6 months in a row or more, despite having no anatomical or disease-related reason for lack of menstruation. Functional means behaviour related and we will come to what those behaviours might be later in this post.

Primary vs. Secondary Amenorrhea

Amenorrhea is the medical term for missing periods or the absence of a menstrual cycle. HA and FHA are known as secondary amenorrhea, which is when a woman’s periods have stopped or she has missed several periods in a row. Primary amenorrhea is when a woman has reached reproductive age (usually considered to be 15 or 16) and her periods have not yet started. Primary amenorrhea can be due to genetic conditions affecting the ovaries, hormonal issues relating to the pituitary or hypothalamus glands or structural problems with the reproductive system. The most common causes of secondary amenorrhea are pregnancy, breast-feeding and menopause but it can also be due to birth control methods such as the contraceptive pill or implant as well as functional conditions such as Hypothalamic Amenorrhea.

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea symptoms

Aside from missing periods, there are many other symptoms which can occur with Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. I have listed some examples below although not all (or even any!) of these symptoms have to be present and every woman’s body is different.

  • Thinning hair or hair loss
  • Feeling cold, especially cold hands and feet
  • Excessive tiredness or low energy
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Low sex drive or no libido
  • Abnormal appetite
  • Low bone density or osteopenia

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea explained

**If you aren’t interested in the science-y part then feel free to skip to the next section!

Hypothalamic refers to the hypothalamus, an area of the brain sometimes called the “master controller”. The hypothalamus has many functions, the main ones being regulating hormone levels and maintaining stable conditions inside the body including temperature, blood pressure and appetite. It does this sending out correcting signals responding to changes in internal and external factors.

One of these signals relevant to HA is the release of Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) which causes another gland, the pituitary to release Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing hormone (LH) which are responsible for maturing a follicle in the ovaries and releasing it in ovulation which is the main event in the menstrual cycle. Watch the short video below if you want to learn more about how the hypothalamus and pituitary glands work together.

The ovaries are the reproductive organs which release the sex-hormones estrogen and testosterone which also play a role in regulating the menstrual cycle. The hypothalamus and the pituitary are connected to the ovaries along what is called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Ovarian (HPO) axis. In HA, there is disruption to the HPO axis due to some sort of stress on the body resulting in low levels of FSH, LH and estrogen. This means no ovulation and a missing period.

What causes Hypothalamic Amenorrhea?

There are several factors at play when it comes to missing periods:

  • Under eating, chronic or restrictive dieting or poor nutrition
  • Over-exercise, especially endurance sports
  • Low body weight or rapid/extreme weight loss
  • Stress and excessive worry

The typical woman suffering from HA is a type-A personality and over-achiever in all areas of life. Especially when this perfectionism extends to diet, exercise and body weight. Extreme examples are women who are constantly on a diet, restricting calories or types of foods and go running 7 days a week. Those who maintain a very low weight even though they are fighting against their body to stay there. Or women who work or study long hours expecting nothing but the best from themselves at all times.

But HA can also affect women in less extreme circumstances who might have lost weight in a “healthy” way or who have been accidently under-fueling over a long period of time (I’m talking to you busy working mums!). Or women who have gone through a stressful life transition. Basically our bodies are trying to keep us safe and alive by conserving calories during a stressful time.

Treatment for Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

There has been a steady increase in the number of searches for “how to get my period back” over the last 10 years. In the case of HA recovery the formula is pretty simple!

EAT REST RELAX REPEAT

  1. Eat plenty of food and I’m talking a surplus of calories
  2. Let go of any diet restrictions and consume all food groups
  3. Take a break from intense exercise
  4. Rest or focus on low intensity movement such as light yoga
  5. Remove as many stressors from your life as possible
  6. Take time to relax and de-stress every day
  7. Consider therapy to help with making the changes above if they feel challenging

Over to you…

I hope this article helped you to better understand HA and why your periods might have stopped. If you want to read more on how to get your period back and recover from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea, check out the posts linked below. Like this post and follow my blog for more like this!

  • Let me know in the comments, what is the most difficult part of the recovery formula for you?
  • If you are looking for support, guidance and accountability on your period recovery journey, please contact me for further information on the nutrition and health coaching packages I offer. Together we will set you up with a plan to get your hormones balanced and you feeing your best mentally and physically.

Other posts you might like


Information sources

Gibson S, Fleming N, Zuijdwijk C, Dumont T. Where Have the Periods Gone? The Evaluation and Management of Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. J Clin Res Pediatr Endocrinol. 2020;12(Suppl 1):18-27. doi:10.4274/jcrpe.galenos.2019.2019.S0178

How I got my period back after 8 years of Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

I shared a story a while ago about how I “lost” my period and got it back (see my posts here) but I finally decided to make a video about this topic as I realised just how important it is to spread this message. I don’t know whether it is just the online circles I hang around in but I feel like hormonal issues are becoming much more prevalent, especially in young women. Menstrual disorders such as Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA) which is the absence of menstrual cycles due to stress or negative energy balancing in the body, are affecting more and more women as we strive to achieve the perfect body through restrictive diets and punishing exercise regimes.

I don’t think social media is helping as we now are faced with images of attractive women and messages of how to eat and exercise to stay skinny, youthful and beautiful whenever we open up our phones or computers. Often this is packaged up as health but is this truly the message being sent? I don’t think so. More like we are being shown an ideal which is unhealthy for most and unattainable for many. I’m sure that a good proportion of the women in the fitness industry are suffering inside, over exercising and restricting their diet to the point of physical deprivation and mental anxiety. Of course there are the exceptions but on the whole I think the fitness industry these days is pretty toxic.

Getting my period back after not menstruating for 8 years (!!) was a huge turning point in my life and is what sparked my passion for nutrition and yoga that I love sharing to this day. I am still interested in health, including eating well and moving my body but nowadays this is from a much more relaxed, intuitive place. I’m not fighting my body at every turn I’m just going with the flow. I am able to maintain a healthy body without depriving myself or running myself into the ground and my mind is sooo much calmer and happier for it. If you know anyone who could benefit from this message please feel free to share this video. Or if you are interested in working with me to rebalance your hormones and get healthy in a holistic, intuitive way then send me a message through the Work With Me page.

walking exercise for period recovery

Tips for exercising during HA recovery

If you have read my last post on Why has my period stopped and how do I get it back?  you will know that I recommend to take a break from intense exercise when you are trying to balance your hormones and get your period back. This includes any form of intense cardio such as running or HIIT as well as heavy weight lifting. 

What types of exercise are ok during Hypothalamic Amenorrhea recovery?

Low intensity is always the way to go. Walking, easy cycling, yoga, stretching, swimming, dancing.. all of these can be great ways to move your body and feel good without increasing your heart rate too much. If you use a heart rate device I would suggest to stay below the “light” zone of 60-70% HR max which should be an easy pace and not too tiring on your body. You should be able to exercise without pushing yourself and afterwards you should feel energised and happy, otherwise you are likely overdoing it.

That said, if you are tired and you don’t feel like exercising. It is totally ok to rest and do nothing! Actually this is the fastest way to recover so don’t feel guilty if you want to relax on the sofa all day. It’s much better to take a complete break for a month or two than try to continue exercising and the process take much longer, right? Feeling tired is common once you start to eat more and your body goes into repair mode. It’s a good sign that inner healing is happening so don’t freak out and let your body guide you to when it’s time to start moving again.

How long and how often can I exercise during HA recovery?

I really think that the way to recover your period is to take a total break at least for a few months. In the beginning I took a break from all exercise except walking to work and back and gentle yoga for 4 months until I got my period back.

Although I had got my period back, I was still addicted to exercise and I missed the “stress relieving” effects of getting a good sweat on. So once I had 3 regular monthly periods I thought I was good to go and I joined a gym. I started going to exercise classes and lifting weights again.. bad idea! My next 3 periods were 50-60 days long and a lot of the healthy fertile signs I had vanished again. I thought because I wasn’t doing long runs or intense cardio sessions I would be fine but not the case. So I was back to zero exercise for another few months until my hormones balanced out.

Can I exercise again once I get my period back?

Once you have recovered your period, if you decide you want to exercise more, you can experiment until you find the sweet spot where you get the benefits of moving your body but without over-stressing your body. I experimented with exercise a lot throughout my hormone healing journey. In the first couple of years, I found that to maintain a regular cycle I could do moderate intensity exercise a few times a week but I had to keep my workouts to 30 minutes or less and I had to pay attention to my energy levels and stop if I started to feel fatigued. I could walk and practice yoga daily with no issues but I keep these activities to an hour or less.

Now I am 3 years into recovery, I am back to a much more active lifestyle again although nowhere  near the obsessive gym-rat I used to be. Now I can cycle, run or do at home circuits a few times a week and still get a regular period. I also walk a lot and go to dance classes like salsa and zumba. I recently tried a couple of times to go back to weight lifting because I genuinely enjoy it but I could feel that my body felt exhausted afterwards and my recovery was very slow. I got moody and irritable for no reason and eventually I realised it was my workouts that were depleting my energy reserves and I had to stop. This whole process has definitely given me a greater awareness of my how my body reacts to different things. This year I started “cycle-syncing” my exercise routine which I am finding really beneficial and I will share about this once I have a few more months of experience with it.

So if you are just starting out on this hormone healing journey, know that the decisions you make now are not forever but just a step on the road towards better health. Sometimes if you have taken things to the extreme (e.g. exercising like a fiend) then the pendulum has to swing right to the other side (e.g. sitting on the couch all day) for you to eventually find a healthy balance. Give yourself the gift of rest and learn to enjoy it. Chances are if you are over tired and stressed, you aren’t reaching your fitness goals anyway and taking a break may actually help you come back stronger than ever. Even competitive athletes take off seasons for recovery and repair and this is all part of their fitness journey.

Over to you…

I hope this article was useful and you feel more confident about how to exercise during your period recovery. Please like this post and follow my blog for more posts on healthy hormones, HA recovery and holistic health.

  • Let me know in the comments, if you are trying to recover your period, do you think exercise was part of why you lost your period and how do you feel about taking a break? If you have recovered your period, have you started exercising again? Are you doing the same types of exercise or have things changed?
  • If you are looking for support, guidance and accountability on your period recovery journey, please contact me for further information on the health coaching packages I offer. Together we will set you up with a plan to get your hormones balanced and you feeing your best mentally and physically.

Other posts you might like

diet and hypothalamic amenorrhea

How to eat to get your period back: The HA recovery diet

If you have read my posts in the period recovery series on Why has my period stopped and how do I get it back? and What is Hypothalamic Amenorrhea? you will know that chronic or restrictive dieting is one of the major reasons for missing periods.  So what is the perfect Hypothalamic Amenorrhea recovery diet? What should you eat to get your period back of it has gone awry? In those posts I stated that “good food and lots of it” is the way to go. In this article I want to give a few more tips on exactly how to eat to get your period back.

How much should I eat to recover my period?

It is recommended to eat 2500 calories or more to recover from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. Yes, even for those who aren’t exercising (and I don’t recommend that you do exercise if you are trying to recover your period). Your body needs to be in an energy surplus right now which means taking in more energy than you are burning through being alive and any activities you do. If you have been dieting for a long time, your body will have a whole list of things it wants to repair, not just your hormones, and this energy will go towards building healthy bones, teeth, hair and nails just to name a few!

I will stress though that this is a minimum and if you are hungry for more than this then you should listen to your body and eat. When I first started recovery I spent a good few months eating at least 3000-4000 calories a day because that was what my body needed. Sometimes way more than that. Did I gain weight? Yes! But again, that was what what my body needed. Over time my appetite settled down but even now I never eat below 2000 calories and I have maintained a healthy period for over 3 years. I don’t recommend counting calories long term but it can be a good idea in the beginning to get an idea of how much you need to eat. Especially if you have been under-eating for a long time, you will need to recalibrate your idea of a normal meal.

What should I eat to fix my period? What is the perfect HA recovery diet?

Especially in the beginning, it doesn’t matter too much where these calories are coming from, it is the energy that is most important. As a nutritionist of course I am all about eating well and getting plenty of micro-nutrients into your diet but this is something that should be done over the long term and what you do for a few months of recovery is less important. You can choose to re-feed with only “healthy foods” or you can choose to add in more “fun foods”. My recommendation is to get plenty of nutritious food into your body but don’t obsess over having a perfectly healthy diet. Make sure you eat foods that taste good and bring you pleasure. I mean, if you are going to eat lots of food and gain weight you might as well let go and enjoy it! 

Will eating more fats bring my period back? What about carbs? What is the best macro ratio for HA recovery?

The first question women often ask is do I need to eat more fats to get my period back. The answer here is maybe! Check what you are eating right now. Are you following a low-fat diet? Our bodies need  fats to function optimally and produce hormones so eating more fats could be exactly what you need. On the other hand, if you are following a high-fat low-carb paleo or keto style diet, adding more carbs may be the answer. Eating carbs produces an insulin response which helps our bodies feel safe that there is plenty of food around and come out of energy-saving mode.

I fully agree that these diets can be beneficial for overcoming certain diseases and provide benefits for otherwise healthy people, but if you have lost your period you are not a healthy person right now and something needs to change. So no, there is no specific diet or macro-nutrient ratio to follow, just make sure you are getting plenty of carbs, proteins and fats and listen to your cravings.  Trust that your body knows exactly what it needs and don’t be afraid to go with the flow.

What about liquids? How much water should I drink?

On that note, I want to talk about water consumption. Many of us fell for the myth that you need to drink lots of water to be healthy. We also listened to the same people who told us to eat less salt to be healthy. For many of us with a perfectionist, all or nothing mindset we took this too far and drank several litres of water per day and ate hardly any salt. This is a recipe for disaster! We need salt to maintain a healthy water balance in our body and drinking too much water can flush out electrolytes leaving us feeling cold, dizzy and “washed out”.

If you have been doing this, I recommend experimenting with reducing the amount of water you are drinking and increasing your salt consumption. This is something I only learned way after my period recovery journey but it has been extremely beneficial for my overall health. I learned this from reading book Eat for Heat, a book written by Matt Stone, an expert on raising metabolism. If you notice yourself feeling warmer, especially your fingers and toes, and sleeping better then you know you are on the right track to recovery. Especially at the beginning of recovery, or if you are feeling very cold, replace all zero calorie drinks including with water with things like milk, juice, smoothies or even sports drinks. Add a pinch of salt to every glass for bonus points.

Does it matter when I eat during recovery? Can I get my period back whilst intermittent fasting?

There is also is the question of when to eat? Again, there is no strict rule on this but consistency is key. You can eat 3 square meals or you can graze throughout the day. As long as you are getting in plenty of calories it doesn’t matter how you do it. What I will say is not to let yourself get too hungry as low blood sugar is perceived as a stress by the body. If you are getting cranky, anxious or panicky before your next meal you have probably left it too long and should think about adding an extra snack before you get to that point. Often 3 meals with 3 snacks is recommended as a good eating structure and if you have no clue then this can be a good place to start.

One thing I don’t recommend is intermittent fasting. Again, this has been shown to have lots of health benefits for “normal people” but it is really not a good idea in recovery. If you want to practice intermittent fasting I would suggest to do no more than 12 hours fasting e.g. 7am to 7pm eating window. This gives your digestive system a break to heal and repair but doesn’t leave you going for long periods during the day without food. Personally I got really hungry at night during my recovery and sometimes I would wake up during the night starving and need to eat. It really depends on where you are coming from, how long and how intensely you have been dieting. So, do what you need to and don’t set any rules as really anything goes!

Can I recover my period on a vegan or vegetarian diet? What about gluten-free?

Another question women ask is if it is possible to recover on specific diets such as vegan or vegetarian, gluten-free. The answer to this is yes it is possible! However, I would recommend to examine why you are following this diet and if it is a way for you to continue to restrict then maybe it is time to reconsider. I personally recovered my period on a vegan diet but later decided to incorporate animal products back into my diet when I realised that this was still a way for me to control my food intake and keep my eating disorder alive. If you are following a particular diet for ethical reasons or due to a health condition then this is fine, just make sure you are allowing yourself to eat plenty of food and find suitable alternatives for foods that are off-limits.

What if my diet is limited by digestive issues? Can I still get my period back on a restricted diet?

If the reason you are avoiding certain foods is due to digestive issues, it is for you to decide whether you want to add them back into your recovery diet. If you have allergies or intolerances then by all means stay clear of foods you are sensitive to. However I will say that many people on restrictive diets find that they develop food sensitivities over time and end up eliminating more and more foods from their diet. This is a sign of your digestive system shutting down and is a signal to increase the quantity and variety of foods in your diet not to continue to restrict further. I know that for me personally after following a high fruit vegan diet for over a year, I initially struggled with stomach pain, bloating and gas when adding grains and legumes back into my diet.

Unfortunately it takes time for our stomach acid, digestive enzymes and gut microbiome to re-establish after a period of “starvation” and it can take a while to settle out. Again, this is where eating processed foods comes in handy as they are much easier on our digestive systems. Things like crackers or rice cakes with nut butter, jam, molasses or hummus spread on top were so helpful in the early days of my recovery. I also ate a lot of cookies (dark chocolate hobnobs mmmm!), cereals and sandwiches and found they digested really well. Later on I drifted back towards a more whole foods diet but still ate plenty of these foods on a daily basis. The best thing is to listen to your cravings and experiment.

Do I have to eat processed food to get my period back?

What I will say is that processed foods are your friend and there is no need to be afraid of them. Foods such as bread, crackers, pasta, nut butters, milk, cereals and jams are easy to digest in large quantities and will help you to get the calories you need into your body without over-stressing your digestive system. Basically you want to increase the energy density of the food you are eating i.e. more calories per volume. The reason that a whole foods diet is so successful for weight loss is because your body can feel full on fewer calories due to the higher amounts of fibre and water in foods such as fruits and vegetables. This is great for people who need to lose weight and overcome conditions such as diabetes and heart disease but you are not one of those people. You need to give your body the energy it needs to repair and feel safe again and in this case processed foods are extremely helpful.

Something that helped me with adding “fear foods” back into my diet was realising that a healthy system is a robust one that can digest and thrive on a wide range of foods, not one that can only function on a very specific, limited list of foods. The aim of the recovery process is to rebuild a healthy metabolism so that your body can function optimally again. A person with a healthy metabolism can consume a lot of food and has energy to live an active fulfilling life. Visualise what you want from your recovery journey and focus on that every day to help you get through difficult choices ♥️

Over to you…

I hope you found this helpful and feel confident in how to eat to get your period back. Like this post and follow my blog for more period recovery content like this.

  • Let me know in the comments, what is the most difficult part of the “recovery diet” for you? And what is your favourite food that you added back in since starting recovery?
  • If you are looking for support, guidance and accountability on your period recovery journey, please contact me for further information on the nutrition and health coaching packages I offer. Together we will set you up with a plan to get your hormones balanced and you feeing your best mentally and physically.

Other posts you might like

Why have my periods stopped and how do fix it?

If you haven’t read my “Why am I so interested in hormones?” series (linked at the bottom of this post), see here for my story on how I lost my period and my journey to getting healthy again. Here I will share what  learned about why our periods can stop and how to get it back for those of you who want to know exactly what to do.

For those who don’t have PCOS or any physical or structural issue with their reproductive system, it is often a condition called Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA) that leads to absent menstrual cycles and missing periods. What I have found from working with and speaking to other women is that everybody’s situation is different but it is 99% of the time a combination of the points below. If you have already recovered your period and it has gone awry again, come back to these basics and I’m sure you will find somewhere you can realign.

Can diet cause missing periods?

Food and nutrition play a major role in our hormonal (and general) health. If we are not eating enough to fuel our bodies over a period of time, our brain registers that there isn’t enough energy coming in and decides to shut down some unnecessary functions in order to preserve energy.  This includes our menstrual cycle but can also lead to other symptoms which come along with HA such as feeling tired and cold all of the time, hair thinning, digestive issues and poor muscle recovery.

If you have been trying to lose weight for many months or years and notice any of the above symptoms it is a good idea for you to reconsider your diet. You are likely in “starvation mode” which is a state of reduced metabolism and limited bodily functions. If this is you, what should you do? EAT THE FOOD! Eat as much as your body is asking for with no restrictions. Eat carbs, fats and proteins. Eat both “healthy foods” and “fun foods”. I know this is easier said than done and I will go into the mental and emotional aspects of this in another post but for now I will just say that you need to nourish your body with good food and lots of it.

diet and hypothalamic amenorrhea

 Can exercise cause missing periods?

Simply put, yes too much exercise can stop periods. It is fairly common for female athletes or very active women to lose their period. This can be due to an energy deficit if she is not eating enough to fuel the exercise she is doing. Or it can be due to stress on the body from too high frequency or intensity of exercise. The fitness industry is huge these days and it is not unusual for women to be running or doing HIIT workouts on a daily basis. Social media these days is full of images of lean women with abs and defined muscles but this is far from the ideal fertile body for many women. Exercise supports our cardiovascular and muscular systems but like anything, too much can be unhelpful. As women, we need a certain amount of body fat to maintain our reproductive systems and therefore a healthy period.

If this sounds like you, what can you do? If you are serious about recovering your hormonal health I would strongly recommend taking a break from intense exercise for a few months. Keep movement to a minimum only light walking and stretching, yoga or any other gentle activity you enjoy. Not only will this help to balance your hormones but it will give your body a chance to repair any muscle and tissue damage caused by over-exercising and help you to come back stronger than ever.

walk

Can being under weight cause missing periods? Can weight loss cause skipped periods?

This one really goes with the above two points but I will say it as a separate point just to be clear. Our bodies have a “set point weight” at which they are happy and healthy. However many women today are pursuing an unhealthy ideal due to images in the media of skinny, sexy women. The truth is, we don’t know the full story and many of these women are harming their body to look this way, despite looking healthy on the outside. The majority of women need to be at the “fertile BMI” of 22-23 to have a healthy period but of course some women will menstruate at a lower weight than this and others will need to reach a BMI of 25+. This all depends on your genetic tendencies and history of dieting and over-exercising.

So if you don’t get a regular period and you are not already in the healthy BMI range of 20-25, considering gaining weight is an absolute must. Follow the above diet and exercise recommendations and allow your body to reach what it considers to be a healthy weight. It may be that your body needs to sit slightly above this range to feel safe and you will need to learn to be ok with that. Really start to reflect on your beliefs around body image and reprogram your brain to disassociate health and weight loss. Of course, this is easier said than done and may take some time but it will be totally worth it when you have a natural, regular cycle again.

low body weight and hypothalamic amenorrhea

Can stress cause missing periods?

Finally, but no less important, is stress! Some women are not dieting or over-exercising but lose their period anyway due to an extremely stressful event in their life or to a lifestyle which leads to chronic low level stress on a daily basis. This doesn’t have to be anything extreme but can be a typical busy lifestyle of having a full time job, active social life and looking after a family. Again, the hypothalamus, detects stress as a threat which can cause it to shut down our fertility system until it feels safe again. Unfortunately, many of us live our lives in this chronically stressed fight-or-flight state which means that our bodies never truly feel safe.

yoga

Of course it’s not always possible to drop everything and walk off into the sunset to recover our cycles! So what can you do to reduce stress? Start by reflecting on your lifestyle and eliminate any unnecessary sources of stress. This could include saying yes to things when you mean no, worrying excessively over things that are not important in the grand scheme of life or being perfectionistic or over-critical of yourself. It can also include over-use of stimulants such as caffeine which fire up your nervous system and can lead to to spending all day in a state of urgency. The second thing is to allow yourself to get into a calm state every day. Mindful breathing, meditation, baths, calming music can all help to drop out of “fight or flight” and into “rest and digest” mode allowing your body to enter a state of deep relaxation.

This is a huge topic so that’s all I will say for now. Spend some time reflecting on these four areas of your life and see if you can identify what may be preventing your hormones functioning as they should. I understand you completely if you feel like your body is broken and this can’t work for you but if I managed to recover my cycles after 8 years of Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and have maintained healthy cycles for over 3 years then anyone can do it!

Over to you…

I hope you found this article interesting and you now understand some of the factors which can cause your periods to go missing. Like this post and follow my blog for more on HA recovery, healthy hormones and holistic health. Please share your experience below I’d love to hear from you!

  • Let me know in the comments, which of the above factors do you think is the most important for you?
  • If you are looking for support, guidance and accountability on your period recovery journey, please contact me for further information on the nutrition and health coaching packages I offer. Together we will set you up with a plan to get your hormones balanced and you feeing your best mentally and physically.

Other posts you might like