Can you get your period back following a vegan diet?

One of the questions I am often asked by women who are trying to heal from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and recover their period is whether it’s possible to heal your hormones and regain a healthy menstrual cycle whilst still following a vegan diet. If you haven’t read my previous posts on the HA recovery diet and how I got my period back, I’d recommend to check those out first before going ahead with this one because I explain all about the factors that can cause your period to disappear or become irregular and the strategy to recover. This is a topic I have researched extensively over the years and I have personal experience with so I wanted to share my advice from a public health nutrition perspective.

So to return to the initial question: can you get your period back whilst following a vegan diet? The short answer is yes, it’s absolutely possible and I did it myself. After watching documentaries about the environmental impact of animal agriculture and the health benefits of a vegan diet I was committed and I chose to maintain my vegan diet whilst trying to recover my period. I did manage to get my period back after 4 months of going “all-in” with my diet and no exercise so it is definitely possible! However does this mean I recommend a vegan diet to my clients or that I believe a vegan diet is optimal when try to get your period back? Definitely not! In fact I am no longer vegan and although I have no regrets, if I could go back in time with the information I have now I would definitely choose differently. Here are a few reasons why…

1. Calories

One of the important factors for many women with Hypothalamic Amenorrhea is eating enough calories. When you lose your period due to an energy imbalance, i.e. not eating enough to support your activities, increasing your energy intake is very important. You can definitely do this on a vegan diet simply by eating more food but as many plant-based foods are more calorie dilute this can be a struggle! Especially if you eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, starchy carbs and legumes which all have a high amount of water and fiber, you might find that you get full before you consume the amount of calories that your body really needs. This makes a plant-based diet great for weight loss but not so much when boosting your energy intake is your goal.

Of course, you can add in more energy dense vegan foods such as nuts and seeds, nut butters, oil and processed foods which take up less space in your stomach and are easier on your digestive system, but in my experience, bloating and other digestive issues are likely even when consuming the minimum calorie intake for healing your hormones. Actually I had forgotten how it felt not to be bloated until I finally reduced the amount of fibre I was consuming from beans, vegetables and nut butters. If you are extremely committed to recovering your period on a vegan diet, you can opt for easy to digest foods such as bread or crackers with jam, processed cereals and plant-based milk. However, as I will come to in the next point, these are not the most nutritious foods and you might find that your body needs ALOT of them to satisfy your nutrient needs for healing.

2. Nutrients

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea is an issue primarily of energy imbalance, but as all foods contain both macro and micronutrients, not eating enough food can easily lead to nutritional deficiencies. Part of recovering your menstrual cycle is nutritional rehabilitation which means flooding the body with as many building blocks for repair as possible. Nutrients that can be difficult to obtain and absorb in a vegan diet include iron, calcium, vitamin A (retinol) and vitamin D. Under stress our bodies also use some nutrients at a much faster rate than usual. Yes, it is theoretically possible to eat a well planned vegan diet which meets all of the recommended daily amounts. However, we don’t have control of our internal processes and if digestion is compromised, which is often the case with hormonal imbalance, then we can’t be sure we are really absorbing and benefitting from all of these nutrients.

It’s important to reflect on your history with dieting and if your past experience with restricting your food intake or the types of foods you eat could put you at risk of nutrient deficiencies. Or if you are unsure and you have the budget you can also ask your doctor to run a blood test for the key nutrients. The problem with this is that, there may also be additional compounds present in animal products which we don’t yet fully understand and for that reason, I think it’s just not worth the risk. Personally, I would suggest that if you are determined to follow a vegan diet, it’s better to heal the body with a high nutrient, omnivorous diet then, once the body is healthy and functioning optimally, consider adopting a more plant-based diet.

3. Fat and cholesterol

In general, the vegan diet tends to be higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat compared to diets including animal-based products. In addition, the fats available in plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados are generally poly-unsaturated fats and there is some research to suggest that these fats are actually less supportive to metabolic health compared with saturated fats which are found in meat and dairy. Losing your period is commonly a sign of being in a lower metabolic state and so you really want to be eating a metabolism supporting diet to get your period back. I am by no means saying nuts and seeds are unhealthy and that we should avoid them, but when we want to send the body the signal that the famine is over and its safe to rev up the metabolism and reproductive system, we want to make sure we are consuming enough saturated fat.

Adding in more fat from coconut is a good step towards a more metabolically supportive vegan diet but getting more variety of fats and nutrients from animal based sources will take your diet to the next level. Animal fats also contain cholesterol which is another nutrient you want to be consuming when you are trying to get your period back. Often cholesterol is demonised and we are told to avoid high-cholesterol foods if we want to be healthy. But when it comes to hormone balancing and especially recovering from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea when hormone production is lower than it should be, having some cholesterol in your diet can actually be beneficial and speed up the healing process. Cholesterol is a building block for reproductive hormones such as estrogen and progesterone which are necessary for a healthy menstrual cycle and regular period. Cholesterol cannot be synthesised by plants and is only found in animal-based foods such as meat and eggs, therefore consuming even a small amount of these foods on a regular basis can support your hormone healing process.

4. Mental restriction

This is a tricky one because personally, adopting a vegan diet was what finally enabled me to let go of restrictive dieting and allow myself to eat an abundance of food. Because I was no longer focusing on choosing food to maintain a low body weight but rather on sourcing ethical food, it took the focus away from calories and allowed me to eat more. That said, once I finally decided to let go of veganism and re-introduce animal products, whilst still allowing myself to eat the amounts of food my body asked for, I experienced a whole new level of food freedom which I didn’t know I was missing, especially in social situations where I had always felt isolated being the only vegan. I think you have to be very honest with yourself about the reason you want to follow a vegan diet and whether there is a chance that a desire to restrict your food is influencing your decision.

Unfortunately, there are also many rabbit holes to fall down when it comes to the vegan diet which can lead to some pretty extreme dietary restriction: raw vegan, starch solution, high carb low fat, 80 10 10, vegan keto just to name a few! So while it is possible to regain your period on a vegan diet, I’d say that for a full mental recovery following a balanced diet that includes all foods is optimal. Coming back to the idea of safety, you want to create an environment of abundance to really allow your body to relax and heal and this means abundance both in terms of quantity and variety of foods. If you are 100% sure that you are choosing a vegan diet for ethical reasons only, you can support your body better by eating a varied and balanced vegan diet and not being seduced by the health claims of these more restricted diets.

Over to you…

So those are my thoughts on why a vegan diet is not optimal when trying to recover your period. I understand that for some, eating animal products is simply not an option so I hope the few tips for how you can modify your vegan diet to be more hormonally supportive were also helpful. Please like and share this post to support my channel and share with anyone who might benefit from this article.

If you are interested in this topic and would like me to talk more about my experience with getting my period back on a vegan diet or the process of reintroducing animal products back into your diet after long-term veganism, leave me a comment or drop me an email and I will do my best to help! 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.

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Why we should NOT use BMI to diagnose eating disorders

Today’s post is a bit different from my usual content but I saw a story on BBC news yesterday which really stirred up emotion in me and inspired me to write. It was a young woman sharing her experience with disordered eating and being told by doctors that her BMI “wasn’t low enough to be anorexic” when she went to seek help. Here is the short video clip:

For those of you who haven’t read my previous posts about my struggles with disordered eating, I had an undiagnosed eating disorder throughout my teens and early twenties and lost my period for nearly 10 years due to being underweight for my body type. During this time I too was told by doctors that I was healthy because my weight was within the normal range and was led down the road of more and more tests to figure out why I wasn’t menstruating. This definitely prevented me from getting the help I needed and delayed my recovery by several years as I was able to keep kidding myself that I was healthy and continue with my unhealthy behaviours around food and exercise.

I still have anger inside me towards the medical system for failing to help me and I think it’s so important to share stories like these in the hope that they can help someone else who might be going through something similar. Disordered eating is something that so many women go through at some point during their life and often it is brushed under the carpet because obsession over our bodies, chronic dieting and exercising to lose weight is seen as just part of being a woman in today’s world. Using the BMI scale as a measure of disordered eating is so outdated and only continues this issue. Women and girls, like me in the past, who do become aware that perhaps they have a problem around food are often made to believe we “aren’t sick enough” to seek or receive support.

The BMI scale was developed around 200 years ago by a mathematician as a quick way of determining whether an individual is at a healthy weight for their height. It is usually seen as a chart of height vs. weight like the one below with marked ranges for underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese. However, it was never intended to be used as a formal diagnosis of health. It wasn’t developed by doctors but for some reason it has been adopted by the medical system and is still used, often without question, to this day.

According to most doctors, a BMI within the range 18.5-25 is considered “normal” but there are several major problems with using the BMI scale. The main one I want to highlight is that it doesn’t take into account the percentage of lean mass which consists of bones, organs and muscle tissue. So someone with a larger bone structure or more muscle mass can quite easily be considered overweight or even obese. Think football players or figure skaters who are often lean but extremely athletic and muscular, according to the the BMI scale many would probably need to lose weight to be considered healthy.. really?! How can a basic mathematical formula know what it healthy for your body type. All it is is statistics. On average, humans have less than 2 arms but does that mean that the typical human has less than 2 arms? Of course not!

What is healthy for our bodies depends on so many factors, including our genetics, the environment we are currently living in and what stressors we have in our lives. At certain times it’s healthier for us to hold more fat and at others it might be more advantageous to be leaner. Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for. I look at photos of myself at my lowest weight when I was around a BMI of 18.5 and I wonder how any doctor could have thought I looked healthy. I was 20 years old but I looked like a child. There was nothing womanly or fertile about how my body looked at that time. I had hardly a scrap fat on my body, no breasts at all without a padded bra and my knees stood out a mile on my stick legs.

Of course, I didn’t look like the completely skeletal anorexic figures that you see, but I was clearly not at a healthy weight for my frame. It’s obvious to me now why I didn’t have my period. As women we need fat on our bodies to support a healthy pregnancy and to nourish a growing baby. I definitely was not eating enough to support my activity level and I was restricting food groups and specific “unhealthy” foods. I had a high level of cognitive dietary restraint meaning that I thought a lot about food and I was constantly controlling and denying my cravings. My body was sending me all the signals that it wanted to be at a higher weight, I would have crazy binge eating episodes because my body was starving for calories but I saw this as a lack of motivation or as emotional eating. I wasn’t underweight for my height so I didn’t see the problem.

This is the issue with the BMI scale, it lumps everyone in the same category and doesn’t account well enough for our bio-individuality or our bodies’ natural intelligence. Personally, I had to workout excessively and restrict my diet in order to maintain this weight which should have been a major red flag that it wasn’t my natural set point. Perhaps another woman could maintain this same weight naturally with little effort and could be healthy but that is not how my body was designed to be. But because I was so attached to the BMI scale and trusted doctors when they told me I was healthy, I carried on this delusion for too long. I’m sure there are so many other women (and men) stuck in this same false narrative, believing that their behaviours around food are healthy when in reality it is causing more harm than good.

When it comes to eating disorder diagnosis, I think using the BMI scale can be extremely dangerous. Especially today as the trend online is not just to be skinny but also to be fit and lean. There must be so many girls and women out there who are suffering in order to achieve a “perfect body” either by being overly rigid and restrictive around food or by over-exercising but they are at a normal BMI so they must be healthy, right? Wrong. Eating disorders are about so much more than physical appearance, they are mental disorders. Diagnosis should be based on thought patterns and behaviours and not on weight alone. If someone is focused on food to the point it is affecting their life, if they are afraid of certain foods or obsessed with losing weight, it doesn’t matter what BMI they are, they deserve help.

I understand that the NHS has limited resources and that they have to prioritise those who are at the highest risk. Being dangerously underweight can cause so much damage to the body and of course these people need to be under medical care, but for those who fall into the grey area of not being sick enough to receive support this can be a real problem. Disordered eating develops over time and generally the earlier it is diagnosed, the easier it is to recover. Eating disorder thoughts are like a fungus that enters your brain, sets down roots and spreads a network across your psyche. Rooting out all of the false beliefs, stories around food and your body and replacing them with healthy, helpful thoughts takes a lot of time and effort.

Putting off treatment because your weight isn’t low enough yet means falling further down a slippery slope and it can become harder if not impossible to achieve a full recovery. Eating disorders are already such a secretive disorder, drenched in shame and denial. Even when part of your mind realises there is a problem and wants to seek help, the disordered part wants things to stay as they are and will hold tightly onto any excuse to stay stuck. A healthy BMI is exactly that, a lifeline of denial for the eating disorder voice. I still have to deal with these thoughts today, even though I can recognise them and not act on them. I think this is partly because of my disordered eating being hidden and allowed free reign of my sub-conscious mind for so long.

I do believe that full physical and mental recovery is possible but it’s much more likely when these things are caught early and don’t go as deep. I definitely consider myself fully recovered now and have for many years but I don’t think that quiet voice will ever completely go away. As a nutritionist and yoga teacher, healthy and wellness is still a big part of my life but I am fully aware that I have to stay vigilant as it can be a fine line between looking after your health and obsessing over your health. It’s not like recovering from alcohol or drugs where you can completely abstain, you can’t recover from obsession with healthy eating by avoiding healthy foods.. that’s a recipe for disaster! However, my motto now is be healthy to live, don’t live to be healthy. Eat vegetables but also eat chocolate cake. Move your body but know when to rest. It might be cliche but balance is the way!

Over to you

Please like and share this post and help to spread awareness of this issue. Follow my blog for more posts on balanced health, yoga and nutrition for healthy hormones.

If you feel like you or someone you know is suffering with disordered eating, please please reach out for support. Don’t let having a healthy BMI get in the way of getting the help you need.

YOU DESERVE TO HAVE A HEALTHY, ACCEPTING RELATIONSHIP TO FOOD AND YOUR BODY NO MATTER WHAT!

BEAT: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services/helplines

NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/eating-disorders/

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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

caffeine and health

Real health #17 Is coffee healthy? Caffeine and health

Caffeine.. one addiction I just can’t seem to shake! I go through periods of giving it up and feeling great then after a bad night or two of sleep I am tempted to go back. I know it’s not good for me, now I am aware of the effects I can feel the stress hormones coursing through my veins even after just one cup of coffee and as someone who has struggled a lot with sleep it is really not a good idea to be drinking coffee. But the love affair continues…

One of the first things I recommend to my health coaching clients is to cut down on caffeine if they are drinking a lot. Ideally, I’d suggest anyone with hormonal imbalance or fatigue to go completely caffeine-free but I totally understand this isn’t always realistic. So I generally suggest sticking to 1 cup of coffee a day (and I don’t mean huge Starbucks size coffee, just a normal cup). Why? There are many ways that caffeine affects both our hormonal and overall health:

1. Caffeine and stress

Caffeine works by stimulating the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This can make us feel good in the moment as we feel energised, motivated and happier and it can also boost our physical and mental performance. But we’re not designed to live with our nervous system in this stressed state, even if we don’t feel stressed as such that “pumped up” feeling that we are addicted to is stressful for our bodies. Caffeine can also speed up our thoughts, making our minds race and can lead to anxiety and keep us stuck in a loop of worry and negative thoughts, especially if we are already in a stressful situation or have an over-active inner critic.

2. How caffeine affects your sleep

Whether we like it or not, caffeine does affect our quality of sleep.  For most people, stopping drinking coffee around midday is enough time for your body to process the caffeine before you go to bed. But for some people even drinking caffeine in the morning can impact their sleep many hours later. Depending on how sensitive you are, you might notice that caffeine causes you to go to bed later wake up during the night, or maybe your sleep feels less refreshing. If you have been consuming caffeine daily for many years, you might not even notice the effect it is having on your sleep. If you are struggling with insomnia or fatigue, try going caffeine free for a week or two, if this feels impossible it’s probably a sign that it could be just what you need!

3. Effects of caffeine on blood sugar

One of the effects of caffeine stimulating the adrenal glands is a spike in blood sugar as it causes stored glycogen from our muscles to be converted to glucose and pumped into the blood for us to use as energy. Coffee is known for it’s appetite suppressing effects and is often used by dieters to curb cravings. It works in the moment but often leads to increased hunger and cravings later in the day. Especially if we consume caffeine on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, this can cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a crash an hour or 2 later when we crave.. guess what.. more caffeine and/or sugar. This results in a blood sugar rollercoaster which can leave us feeling exhausted and wrecked by the end of the day.  Often when people try to quit drinking coffee they notice more cravings for sugary foods and this is why!

4. Caffeine affects digestion and absorption

As well as  affecting our cravings, coffee can also impact the way we absorb nutrients. For example, caffeine has been shown to reduce absorption of vitamin D and calcium which are both necessary for maintaining healthy bones and teeth. It is also not recommended to consume tea or coffee within an hour of taking an iron supplement as caffeine reduces absorption of this key mineral for energy and vitality. Women are more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia because we lose blood each month during our period and those who drink coffee regularly are even more at risk. And if that wasn’t enough, as caffeine is a diuretic (it causes you to pee more), it can lead to flushing out water soluble nutrients such as vitamins B and C as well as causing dehydration.

5. Caffeine and masculine energy

The balance of masculine and feminine energy is important for all humans but especially women who are trying to balance their hormones. I will write a whole post on this topic but for now I’ll summarise by saying that masculine energy is the “doing” associated with productivity, activity, busyness and logical thinking and feminine energy is the “being” associated with creativity, softness, surrender and going with the flow. In today’s Western world we so often focused on productivity and work is at the centre of our lives. It’s very normal for us to get up, get ready, have our coffee and start work. I think of caffeine as a way to get myself to do things I don’t feel like doing such as working when I’m tired and need to rest or doing a boring task when really I want to do something fun or creative. In this sense coffee and caffeine can be used as a way for us to suppress our bodies needs and remain in our masculine energy rather than taking the rest and relaxation we need.

How to consume caffeine in a healthy way

That being said, coffee and caffeine can also be a source of pleasure and a social activity. Right now I am living in Greece and the culture revolves around coffee. And I am British so I can help but love a good cup of tea and a chat. If you can’t imagine giving up coffee and tea, try to wait least 30 minutes after a meal rather than drinking it on an empty stomach or with food as this will help to minimise the impacts on stress hormones, blood sugar and nutrient absorption. But for those healing from insomnia, fatigue or hormonal imbalance I recommend choosing decaf, at least most of the time and not becoming reliant on that boost from caffeine to get through the day. As well as decaf coffee and and black tea, lower caffeine alternatives include:

  • Green tea (has some caffeine but also lots of anti-oxidants)
  • Cacao/cocoa (still stimulating but easier on the adrenals)
  • Herbal teas (mostly caffeine free)
  • Chicory coffee (caffeine free coffee alternative)

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article on caffeine and health. Let me know your thoughts below on whether coffee is healthy and how easy you would find to cut down or give it up.

  • 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

why diets don't work

Real health #7 Why calorie restricted diets don’t work long term

The fact that restrictive dieting works for weight loss is one of the most widespread myths of the western world. We are made to believe that to lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight, we need to restrict our calories to 1800, 1500 or even 1200 calories a day, cut out all treats and always choose low fat or low carb options. I remember being a young teenager and reading the pages on weight loss and celebrity diets in women’s magazines and thinking this is how I need to eat to be beautiful and successful.

Yes, dieting works in the short term but what happens a few months or years down the line? The fact is that most diets don’t work long term. It’s estimated that 95% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back within 5 years. So many women (and men!) are stuck in this constant cycle of calorie restriction and deprivation followed by rebound overeating and weight gain. Not only is this bad for your physical health but the dieting cycle is bad for your mental health too.

The problem is that we don’t see the yo-yo dieting as a cycle. We see it as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on our part in-between. We see the diets as being successful due to our initial weight loss and then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Then of course, we see the only solution as starting a new diet. What we don’t realise is that with every cycle our body builds it’s defenses against the perceived famine. Your body does this by:

  • Slowing down your digestive system in an attempt to squeeze every last calorie out of the food that you eat, leaving you feeling bloated and sluggish.
  • Turning down your metabolic rate so that you waste less energy as heat, resulting in a drop in your core body temperature and symptoms such as cold hands and feet and sensitivity to cold.
  • Growth of your nails and hair also slows down as your body tries to conserve energy by limiting unnecessary functions and women may experience disruption to their menstrual cycles.
  • Even you slow down as you start to feel the effects of being in a chronic energy deficit such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle aches and pains.

Basically, everything slows down when you are on a calorie restricted diet! Not only that, your body develops ways to persuade you to eat more when you diet, including decreasing the hormones which make you feel full and increasing your hunger signals. Your body is smart and it remembers where the the highest sources of calories are. Calorie restriction can lead to intense cravings for sweet and fatty foods making you feel like you just don’t have the willpower that you used to. Often, we feel like we have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often. We blame ourselves and try to diet harder but in reality it is the restrictive dieting that is causing the problem!

Even though our society views dieting as the healthy and often even the moral thing to do, chronic calorie restriction and yo-yo dieting are some of the most damaging habits for our bodies long term. Really, calorie restriction can go one of two ways:

  1. Sustained weight loss / chronic calorie restriction

Yes there is a small percentage of people who lose weight through dieting and successfully keep it off. However, it is important to realise that those who lose weight through dieting need to eat less and less over time in order to maintain their weight. Sometimes this is referred to as “metabolic damage” but in reality it is actually our bodies getting super efficient. Naturally our energy requirements decrease as we get older so it’s much better to keep our metabolic rate as high as we can while we are young.

Restrictive dieting doesn’t only mean you are eating less calories but you are also taking in fewer nutrients putting you at risk of deficiencies. Remember, weight loss doesn’t always equal health! Being in a calorie deficit is also a stressor for our bodies, causing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol to sky rocket. Short term, this has the effect of raising your blood sugar and increasing the breakdown of lean tissue for fuel. Long term, chronic stress affects all systems of the body causing digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease… and you thought going on a diet was healthy??

  1. Weight cycling / Yo-yo dieting

Cycling between extreme calorie restriction and rebound overeating is a trap that many dieters fall into. One of the issues with this is that we can still end up depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, we might be eating healthy food but as I said earlier, if we are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely we are getting the nutrients we need. In the rebound phase, our bodies are desperate for energy so we are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods that provide that quick surge of energy but still don’t provide enough of the essential nutrients for a healthy, thriving body.

Of course, this is another survival mechanism as if we were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a nutrient deficiency than to waste away from lack of energy. But when we are practicing this pattern of yo-yo dieting and calorie restriction again and again throughout our lives we can get into trouble. In addition, each weight loss cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat which can change our body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves us with a lower resting metabolic rate (i.e. the amount of energy we burn in a day with no activity), meaning that each time we fall of the wagon we seem to regain weight quicker and each time we diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight.

So if dieting is off the cards, what is the solution?

As I said in a previous post, you can definitely lose weight on restricted diets such as a paleo, keto or vegan diet if you need to. I don’t think these diets are doomed to failure but it’s important to make sure you are eating enough to keep your metabolism healthy and your body feeling safe. If you aren’t feeling full and satisfied after your meals and are constantly wanting more, it’s unlikely you are eating enough. That said, I think jumping off the diet wagon altogether and learning to eat intuitively is one of the healthiest things you can do for your long-term health. I really recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole as a guide to escaping the diet cycle and tuning into your body’s needs. It is definitely a journey rather than a quick fix as it take time to unpick old habits and form new ones but one that is so worth it!

Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been with food. I probably weigh 15-20lbs more than my old “goal weight” but in time I am realising how warped my view of ideal actually was. Now I am at a healthy weight for my body where my hormones are balanced, my hunger levels are in check and I feel fit and strong. Plus, I have maintained this weight for the last 4 years on probably twice as many calories than I used to eat which is so liberating. I eat food that I love and that I know is nourishing for my body and eat plenty of it. And when I want to treat myself I do. I go out to eat knowing that I can have whatever I want with no guilt and I eat until I am satisfied (sometimes more and that is ok too!).

If you are currently stuck in the dieting cycle, today’s challenge is to take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history and look at the patterns.

I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail – just how many times I had lost and gained the same 5lbs and just how many “fresh starts” I had had. Sit and really think about the emotions that you feel during each phase of the cycle and ask yourself whether it is worth it. And if not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on calorie restriction and whether it works long term.

  • 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

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.

How to reduce stress and balance your hormones

We all know by now that stress plays a major role in our overall health. Stress has been linked to diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and most definitely to hormone related conditions such as PCOS and hypothalamic amenorrhea. Managing stress and calming down your nervous system is so important for healing from any physical condition. Hopefully this post will offer you some tips on how to manage stress in your life and support your healing journey.

1. Reduce the external stressors

With the world we live it today it can feel impossible to reduce stress.. how can we be calm when we have so many demands on our time, high pressure jobs, children to look after, financial worries, family emergencies. The first thing I will say is that you will never be able to reduce all stresses in your life. Even if you disappear to a remote island you will find something to stress and worry about if this is the tendency you have. However, it’s still a good idea to take a good look at your life and see if there are any areas where you can reduce the load.

Practising minimalism can be a really good way to do this. I don’t mean to sell all of your possessions and go couch surfing but by focusing on things that really bring value to your life and forgetting the rest you can really reduce financial and time pressures and in turn reduce the stresses in your life. This can be material possessions.. maybe you have a lot of clothes, products or clutter in your house that could benefit from a good clear out. But it can also relate to non-material things such as activities or habits that don’t bring you joy, obligations that you stick to to keep others happy even if you don’t have the time or the resources, time wasted on social media or other technology. Simplify your life as much as possible and make sure that you are spending time doing things you love every day.

2. Reduce the internal stressors

Much of our worries actually come from beliefs and thoughts that we are constantly running through our minds. Around 95% of our thoughts each day are the same as the day before and too many of them are negative thought loops that we get trapped in without realising. Our brains cycle through all our various worries and it seems like there is no escape. Actually there is a way out and it starts with awareness. Are you conscious of the thoughts you are thinking on a daily basis or have they become so ingrained that you don’t even notice them? This is where a meditation practice an come in really handy.

Many people think that to meditate “properly” you have to be able to empty your mind of all thoughts and give up quickly when this seems like an impossible task. But when you approach meditation from the angle of observing your thoughts and watching where your mind goes when it isn’t distracted, it becomes a tool of self-discovery and you will likely start to see the same repetitive thoughts popping up. Much of it will be mundane stuff such as what you will have for dinner tonight, work tasks or chores that need doing etc. But some will be darker.. maybe some criticism of yourself, anger towards someone in your life, feelings of failure or regrets of decisions you have made in the past.

Get yourself a journal and start to write down thoughts that come up for you. Once you are aware of them you can start to question.. “Does this serve me?”, “Would I feel better without this thought?” This will create space for you to let go of some of your worries and start to ask yourself “What can I replace this thought with?” “What would a more helpful thing to say to myself right now?”. You won’t be able to change your thoughts over night as most of them are habitual and happen without us even realising, but you can make a start and over time things will get better

3. Get yourself into the relaxation state

This is a really important one. Many of us think we are relaxing because we do chilled out activities such as watching TV, reading or writing in a journal. These things might make us feel calm in the moment but if our brains are still active and we are just distracting ourselves, we are often not truly activating the “rest and relaxation” pathways of our nervous system. I really recommend for everyone, especially those on a healing journey, to focus on getting into a deep relaxation state on a daily basis. This means allowing your body and mind to sit back from the stresses of life and melt into pure bliss.

I find guided relaxation tapes really useful for this and relaxing music or delta brainwave frequencies can also work really well Get yourself some headphones, find a comfy space to lie down and block out the world for 20-30 minutes. Focus on letting go of any tension in your body and allow yourself to be held and supported. Notice if your brain feels too “switched on” and try to create some space for you to surrender your stresses for a while. There are hundreds of these available on Youtube but I have shared 3 of my favourites from The Mindful Movement channel below.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this post of how to reduce stress and balance your hormones.

  • Like this post and follow my blog for more posts on dealing with stress and hormone balancing
  • 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

Work with me!

After a lot of deliberation I’ve finally decided to put myself out there and offer 1-2-1 health and nutrition coaching. I’ve been studying and practicing what I preach for years now and it’s time for the next step!

You can check out my credentials on the home page and if you are interested in hearing more then contact me via the form on the Work with me page. I will be offering discounted rates on all services for the first 3-6 months so go ahead and take the leap if you are looking for support in developing a healthy lifestyle that allows you to reach your goals whilst being kind to your body and remaining sane in the process!

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