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 (and how) women should approach health and fitness differently to men

Ladies, ever wondered why it seems so much easier for your boyfriend or husband to stick to a diet or fitness plan and get results? Why some weeks you are full of energy and others you hardly want to drag yourself out of bed? How you can go 2 weeks eating healthily then all of sudden all you want is chocolate and ice cream? If you’ve found yourself questioning whether you just have less motivation or your body just doesn’t function as well then you’re not alone. The answer is simple and something that we live every single day, often without even being aware of it. Can you guess?

IT’S

OUR

MENSTRUAL

CYCLE!

As women we are simply not the same from week to week. Our hormone levels are continuously shifting which has a huge impact on our energy levels, mood, cravings, sleep and so much more. This can make it hard for us to stick to a routine and often feel like a failure for being inconsistent. We can think of men as being like the sun and women more like the moon. The sun shines consistently day by day, sometimes there might be some clouds in the sky or even a huge storm that affects how brightly we see its rays but behind all of that it keeps on shining just the same. The moon however moves through it’s lunar cycle from the new or dark moon where the sky appears empty to the full moon where it shines big and bright.

The lunar cycle is such a good metaphor for our menstrual cycle. The new moon represents menstruation, the time of the month when we are much less energetic and physically need to rest. The full moon represents ovulation when our energy levels are at their peak and we are overflowing with creativity and physical energy. Don’t get me wrong though, just because the moon appears dark at the new moon, it doesn’t mean there is no light, the light is just on the other side so we don’t see it. This is the time when lots of inner work is being carried out including physical and mental healing and the seeds of inspiration for creative projects are being birthed.

Because for men, the hormonal shifts are much more subtle and occur mostly on a 24hr basis, they can more easily stick to a daily routine that works for them week in week out whereas us women have both our daily and monthly rhythms to take into account. Our bodies are also more sensitive to stress from working out or not eating enough food as they are constantly trying to maintain hormonal balance and fertility. We can choose to see this as a weakness or we can see it as a super power that we can work with. There are times of the month when our strength and stamina can feel unlimited and we can surprise ourselves with what we can achieve and there are other times when we can push ourselves through a grueling workout and actually cause ourselves more harm than good because our bodies have to rely on stress hormones and adrenal reserves to make it through.

Of course we all know this on some level but we often think of it as something we have to work against rather than work with. Often we feel like we are “normal” for a couple of weeks and then BAM our hormones come along to ruin everything and we fall off the wagon. But what if we became more aware of how our bodies change throughout the month and actually build this into our health and fitness plan? What a game changer that would be! No more beating yourself up because you got so hungry before your period that you ate a large bar of chocolate every day. No more dragging yourself through intense workouts on your bleeding says when your body is crying out for rest. Instead using self-awareness and self-compassion to create a health plan that truly works for you.

What could this cyclical approach to health and fitness look like? When it comes to nutrition, this would be truly trusting your body and allowing yourself to eat intuitively. This doesn’t mean allowing yourself to eat a large bar of chocolate every day because, “PMS”, but it does mean loosening up on the diet rules, understanding why those cravings might be there and making sure that you are well fed and nourished during the day. The quantities and types of foods you crave will likely change throughout your cycle and this is ok, in fact it is essential. Your metabolic rate and nutrient requirements shift with your hormones and so the foods that will support your body also change week to week. The simple overall guideline for a healthy diet of eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods applies throughout the cycle but the amount of energy, macro-nutrients and the ratio of raw vs. cooked foods can definitely change. It’s much better to tune into your body to find what works for you, but if you’re struggling with getting started I did write a series of posts on how to eat for each of the phases of your menstrual cycle.

With fitness and exercise, again it is very individual. Some women need to fully rest during their period otherwise they will feel like they are dragging throughout the month ahead. Others, me included, need a bit of easy movement to help manage painful cramps. I’m sure there are some women who can exercise intensely during their period without any issues but I think this is the exception rather than the rule. If you do workout during your period, ask yourself whether you are doing it because you feel like you should or whether it is what your body is genuinely asking for. In general, during your period and the few days before it’s a good idea to at least slow down, decrease the intensity of your workouts and create space for some more restorative activities like yoga, stretching and gentle walking to help your body recover and restore energy.

On the other hand, the rising energy and stamina in the couple of weeks after your period (the follicular and ovulatory phases) are a great time to really get out there and move your body. This is a good time for more intense cardio workouts as you can get all of the benefits of getting your heart rate up and sweating without feeling totally drained. Movement can also be a great way to boost your mood and reduce PMS symptoms as you approach your period, but our energy levels tend to start to drop off towards the end of the pre-menstrual phase so it’s good to be aware of this and be prepared to take it easier without feeling guilty for not performing at your best. In general it’s about understanding and accepting that as women we are not the same everyday and we can’t expect ourselves to show up, robot-like, in the same way every day. That is a recipe for disappointment, hormonal imbalance and burn out as I’ve learned the hard way!

Over to you

I hope you found this post interesting and it gives you a new perspective and understanding of why a traditional approach to health and fitness might not work perfectly for you as a woman. If you have any questions or want to share your experiences, let me know in the comments below! If you’re interested in health and wellness for women, follow along with my blog and please share with anyone else who might be interested. I’ll be making a post soon on my top book recommendations for learning more about synching with your menstrual cycle so watch out for that too.

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Real health #27 Top 15 foods for healthy hormones and weight loss

A quick post for you today with some of my top foods to include in your diet to nourish your body, balance your hormones and reach your healthy, happy weight. If you haven’t already, check out yesterday’s post on how the calorie density of foods affects weight loss. Lots of the foods on the list below are “low calorie density” meaning that they will help you to feel full and satisfied when combined with other foods. At the end of the article I will give you some examples of how to put simple meals together including these foods.

  1. Potatoes (any variety, especially sweet potatoes)
    Potatoes have to be my top food on the list. Mainly because they are so demonised in the dieting world and I want to throw the idea that potatoes are bad for you out of the window! Potatoes are a super filling food which will give your body the energy to function at it’s best and also provide a good dose of vitamin C, vitamin B6 and also vitamin A for sweet potatoes. Eat them with the skin and you’ll get the added benefits of a fibre boost to aid digestion and keep you full for longer.

  2. Oats
    Oats are another great source of complex carbohydrates which will give you the fuel to lead a healthy, active life. Eat them raw in muesli, blended in a smoothie or cooked as porridge with whatever toppings you like. Oats are a good source of minerals such as manganese, zinc and biotin and also provide you with fibre and protein to keep you feeling full and satisfied for hours.

  3. Greek yoghurt
    I just loooove greek yoghurt! It makes such a tasty, satisfying breakfast or dessert and also provides plenty of protein to help with repair and growth and fats to support healthy hormone production and absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Yoghurt is also an excellent source of calcium to keep your bones and teeth strong and to maintain healthy thyroid function.

  4. Tahini (sesame seed butter)
    Another food I love from the Mediterranean culture is tahini. I was first introduced to this liquid gold when I started to make my own hummus but now I love it on toast, on porridge oats and in salad dressings. The bitter taste isn’t for everyone but it is a great mineral dense food providing calcium and iron as well as a dose of fat and protein to make your meals tasty and satisfying.

  5. Broccoli
    Now onto the veggies.. broccoli is definitely a winner. Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale all have a component called DIM which helps to detoxify excess estrogen from your system and improve your hormonal balance. Broccoli also has plenty of fibre to aid digestion and lots of vitamin C. Top tip – pair with iron rich foods to aid with absorption.

  6. Leafy greens
    Maybe I am cheating here by grouping them together but a healthy diet is not complete without those leafy greens. Whether it is soft baby lettuce in a salad or cooked dark greens such as collards or chard, getting those leafy greens into your body will do wonders for your hormonal and overall health. They provide a huge amount of vitamins and minerals as well as fibre to help sweep out excess hormones from your system.

  7. Courgette (zuccini)
    Courgette is another low calorie density food that can add bulk to your meals and help you feel satisfied. It’s not the most nutrient dense vegetable but it does offer vitamin C and B6 as well as smaller amounts of iron and calcium. But the mild taste of courgette makes it a vegetable that most people can include into their diet and it is less likely to cause bloating and gas like the cruciferous veggies can which makes it a winner for me.

  8. Berries
    How could I forget about the fruits?? It’s hard to limit myself to just a couple of fruits as I love them all but berries definitely make the top of the list. They are packed full of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals and water rich helping to hydrate your body so you can feel your best. They are delicious hot or cold and are usually available year round fresh or frozen. My favourites are raspberries and blackberries – yum!

  9. Bananas
    Another fruit that has to make the list is the humble banana, another fruit that people tend to be afraid of. Don’t be – I wouldn’t like to try and count the amount of bananas I have eaten over the last 5 years but trust me it’s a lot! Bananas are such a versatile fruit and can be enjoyed as a snack or used as a sweetener to your meals. They give you a good dose of carbs to boost your energy and mood and are a good source of potassium, vitamin C and B6.

  10. Hemp seeds
    Now these is a real nutrient power house. Hemp seeds are a great plant-based source of omega-3 fats, zinc, iron and magnesium so if you’re veggie or vegan definitely include these in your diet for hormonal balance and overall health. They are also a complete protein to support muscle growth as well as healthy skin, hair and nails. You can eat them sprinkled on porridge or salads or blend them into a smoothie for extra creaminess.

  11. Black and kidney beans
    Kidney beans and black beans are another great plant-based source of iron and calcium as well as magnesium and vitamin B6. These are great to eat before and during your period to support healthy blood iron levels. They also provide some calcium as well as protein and plenty of fibre. Top tip – if you are just starting to include beans in your diet, take it slow, add in small amounts and let your digestion adjust over time to avoid gas and bloating!

  12. Red lentils
    Red lentils are softer and generally easier on your digestion compared to beans but they too are a good plant-based source of iron and vitamin B6. Lentils also provide folate which is an essential vitamin for women who are trying to conceive. Lentil soups are a warming, filling meal especially for the cold months. You can mix it up by adding different veggies, herbs and spices to change the flavour.

  13. Chickpeas
    Last one of the legumes is chickpeas! They have a similar nutritional profile to kidney beans but with the added benefit that they can be blended with tahini and lemon to make humus. This is great for anyone who doesn’t like the texture of beans as it can be added to wraps and sandwiches or used as a dip for veggies or tortilla chips. Chickpeas are also great baked as a crisp snack or added to veggie curries as a protein source.

  14. Salmon
    Fish and seafood are an amazing source of zinc for healthy hormones as well as iodine. Salmon and other oily fish such as mackerel or sardines also provide those omega-3 fats to support your brain health and lower inflammation as well as being essential for healthy hormone production. The NHS recommend including one portion of oily fish in your diet every week for optimal health.

  15. Eggs
    Last but not least, we have eggs. I have included these because they are such a dense source of nutrients, especially vitamin A, B12 and selenium. Just adding one boiled egg to a salad can make it so much more satisfying but they also make a quick and easy meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Go for organic free-range eggs where possible to avoid hormone disrupting anti-biotics and chemicals.

Here are some simple meal ideas to give you inspiration.. enjoy!

Breakfasts

  • Porridge oats cooked with mashed banana and tahini
  • Greek yoghurt topped with oats, lots of berries and a sprinkle of hemp seeds
  • Oat and banana pancakes topped with berries and tahini

Lunch

  • Leafy green salad with salmon and boiled potatoes
  • Omelette with broccoli and courgette
  • Red lentil and sweet potato soup with side of wilted spinach and courgette

Dinner

  • Black and kidney bean chili with a side of grilled courgettes
  • Sweet potato and chickpea curry with a side of steamed broccoli
  • Roasted or baked potatoes with grilled salmon and veggies

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and your favourite healthy foods if I’ve missed them off the list!

  • 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 health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again!

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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

Learning from my mistakes

I’m on day 6 of my cycle and have just come out of a deep, challenging bleed. I had a lot going on last month. As well as my day job, I had a deadline to submit a nutrition article to a scientific journal which fell on day 23 of my cycle, so for the two weeks prior to that I was pushing myself and working hard. I was relying on a morning coffee to get me going for the day which was a habit that took me a long time to break and I think I am super sensitive to caffeine. I was also sat at my computer for 12 hours a day and some of my other self-care practices fell by the wayside because all my energy was being pumped into my project. I made all the mistakes and really paid the price for it.

On day 24, the morning after I submitted my article, I woke up at 4am feeling sooo crappy. It was the weekend but I was so exhausted and in a bad mood, I couldn’t motivate myself to do anything fun and just sat around feeling sorry for myself. By the time I went back to work on Monday I was feeling so tired and anxious, my whole body was aching and even short walks were leaving me feeling depleted. I ended up taking a few days off work because I just didn’t have the energy and was struggling to concentrate. As my bleed approached, my moods were all over the place too. I was crying over everything. My neighbours cat got hit by a car and I cried for a whole day. I also got angry a few times over tiny things which really isn’t like me.

 

I just felt so sensitive and irritable, I lost all motivation and started questioning everything in my life. I know this sounds extreme but anyone who has suffered severe PMS or PMD will understand this feeling. It’s as if this feeling of doom comes over you, something takes over your brain and you almost feel like you are losing your identity. My period came late too, on day 33, and I had nearly 10 days of PMS symptoms including headaches, insomnia, mood swings, sore breasts, aching muscles and joints. I’ve experienced all of these before but it’s not my “normal” so I know it was due to me not taking good care of myself this cycle. Even though I knew it already, this has really highlighted to me the importance of listening to my body and practising cycle syncing as best as I can.

A tip I learned from Alisa Vitti, the author of “In the Flo”, is to assess your to do list each day and reflect on whether this is in line with the phase of your cycle you are in. Any days that there is a clash (e.g. if you have to do a big presentation at work on day 1 of your cycle) then she recommends to make sure to fit an extra self-care practice into your day to support your body. I think this is a really good idea and I am going to try and put it into practice this month. My absolute favourite self-care ritual is to have an epsom salt bath with essential oils, listening to a feel-good podcast or music then give myself a full body massage with some yummy smelling body lotion. I also love spending time outside in nature although this is a bit tricky with the lockdown right now!

Another good idea is to really pay attention to the “cross-over days” of the cycle. These are the subtle shifts in energies as you transition from one phase to the next. In this case I totally blew past the shift from inner summer (ovulation) to autumn (pre-menstrual phase) which is one of the most important points of the cycle as it’s when the tide turns and we move from the outward facing, masculine, doing energy to the feminine, being energy. The other key one is the transition from inner winter (menstruation) to spring (follicular phase) when the opposite energy shift is happening. It’s key to bring awareness to these points in the cycle and register any signs from the body that its time to shift gears. Otherwise we can end up swimming upstream, living totally out of alignment with our natural rhythm.

It can be very hard to practice this when we have so many distractions and demands from the outer world. But even just observing these energy shifts and bringing awareness to the subtle changes we feel can have a huge impact. I know if I’d listened to my own advice and realised that my deadline was going to fall in the second part of my cycle, I could have taken better care of myself and maybe avoided the crash and burn that I experienced this month. Right now I am hyper-aware that I am in the winter-spring crossover. I have spent the last few days resting and recharging and my energy levels have started to improve, now I am taking care to move gently and not blow my fuse too quickly. It’s really tempting to rush to get out there and do things, catch up on work that  missed when I was off, but I’ve been taking it slowly and trying not to overdo it. 

Listening to our bodies can definitely feel frustrating at times, especially when our mind has its own agenda. But instead of seeing it as a betrayal when my body doesn’t feel like doing the things I had planned, I am trying to lean into my cycle and learn from it’s messages. I know this works as I’ve been in a really good place with cycle syncing before but I have kind of lost my way the last few months because life got in the way. I know that menstruality is a practice, an art even, and it takes a lot of patience and perseverance. But it’s teachings are sooo worth it and I am excited for the months ahead!

Why am I so interested in hormones? Part 3 – recovery, relapse, repeat

Continuing from my last post.. I started working with an online coach to heal my PCOS. Through working with her I started to uncover all sorts of ideas around my relationship to food and exercise and how it had impacted my body. Even though I was still very restrictive in my food choices I was eating a lot more and really cut down on my exercise routine. Over time, I started to doubt my diagnosis. I didn’t have any of the symptoms of high “male hormones” and just didn’t seem to fit the profile for PCOS. Eventually, I had the confidence to go and see another doctor and ask for further tests. I had some blood tests which confirmed my testosterone levels were normal and a second ultrasound scan which showed my ovaries were totally normal too. So I was “undiagnosed” from PCOS!

But I still didn’t have a period..

I continued researching trying to figure out what was going on and eventually I came across something called Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA). This is basically the loss of menstrual cycle due to physical or emotional stress. Finally something that seemed to make sense! It pointed at 4 basic causes:

  1. Under-eating
  2. Over- exercising
  3. Maintaining a low body weight
  4. Stress/anxiety

Over the next few months I found various people speaking about this online who I can’t thank enough for opening up this world to me. Especially Nicola Rinaldi and This Girl Audra whose books No Period Now What and Get Your Period Handbook really helped me to figure out a path out of this mess i’d got myself into. And this is where my relationship with my hormones started to shift from one of fear, panic and confusion to a softer, kinder understanding. I finally accepted that I needed a complete lifestyle overhaul if I wanted to heal and that my idea of healthy was totally warped and influenced by the diet and fitness industry.

I took an “all in” approach to healing my hormones where for a few months I did zero exercise, ate as much as I wanted (which was a lot!) and tried to reduce stress as much as possible. And in March 2016, at age 23, I finally got my period back. It wasn’t an easy journey, I had to gain weight which was something that terrified me and I had to totally rewire my brain and tackle disordered eating thoughts that had become so automatic that I didn’t even notice them anymore and just thought they were part of me. I had many fear foods and food rules to overcome and constantly doubted that what I was doing.

But I continued and since then I have been so aware of my cycle and grateful each month that I get my period. I was so amazed by the female body that I continued to read and learn about how to maintain balance and work with my hormonal cycle. I read Woman Code by Alicia Vritti and Wild Power by Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Wurlizter and these became my handbooks for life. I started to experiment with cycle tracking and cycle syncing and I have been doing this now for a couple of years. I am still learning but honestly I am completely fascinated and in awe by the magic of our hormones. I realised just how powerful they are in affecting the way we feel and show up in the world and the importance of working with our cyclic rhythm rather than against it.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, I have relapsed several times in the last 3 years. Stressful periods at work and in life have triggered my “eating disorder brain” and resulted in me restricting food groups, creating food rules, tracking my calories and falling back into obsessive exercise in an attempt to change my body. These things help me feel in control and give me something to focus on when life gets too much to handle. But now I have my period as my “fifth vital sign” and any time it goes awry I know I need to re-evaluate and get myself back on track. I think it is something that I will always have to be mindful of, like many others who have struggled with disordered eating. However, I will never go back to the destructive habits that used to be my life.

During this time cycle tracking and syncing has been a key spiritual practice for me, helping me to learn more about my self and get closer to nature. I am still working on putting things I am learning into practice, especially as cycle syncing is not easy in the world we live in. But I keep going and I am excited to share my experiences on this blog. I hope this answers the question of why I am so interested in hormones, after the last 10 years I feel like its impossible for me not to be!

Why am I so interested in hormones? Part 1 – my battle with disordered eating

My journey with my hormones has been up and down to say the least. I started my period at age 12 with no major celebration.. my mum explained what to expect and how to use pads and tampons and that was that for a few years. I don’t really remember much from that time but I think my cycles were pretty “normal” coming each month with some pain and emotional ups and downs but it was no big deal. I was a happy, active kid. I played hockey in school and had competed in judo competitions since I was 10 years old.

I don’t remember ever being a fussy eater as a child but once I got to my final years of high school, I became pretty self conscious (like many teenage girls do) and started to manipulate my diet in the quest of “the perfect body”. It started off pretty innocently with me trying to eat more healthy foods and cut down on snacks (especially the buttery doorstop toast we used to have daily in the school canteen- yum!). But over time things spiralled and I became obsessive with my eating habits, trying to eat as little calories as possible and joining a gym to burn off anything I did eat. This carried on for a couple of years, all through my final exams and the summer before college. I some weight but I was still in the normal BMI range so no one was too worried.

High school2   High school   sophs

Looking back there were a few personal issues that most likely played a big part in me falling into this black hole of anorexia. At the time I wouldn’t have even called it anorexia as I was eating, just not a lot. But the official definition of anorexia is “an emotional disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat” which is exactly what I was doing. I was so focused on dieting and weight loss and it never even crossed my mind that what I was doing could be impacting my hormones. Then at age 16 I decided to go on the birth control pill and that set off a cascade of events for the next decade.

I was having a regular period but I didn’t realise at the time but the periods you have on the birth control pill are not real, they are simply a reaction to the drop in synthetic hormones when you take a week break from the pill each month. I didn’t react well to the pill – like many women it made me anxious and emotional so after a year I decided to come off it.  And that’s when my periods went MIA. I saw a doctor after 6 months and was told that my body just needed to rebalance after the pill and that it would take a while for my body to settle out. But 12 months later.. still no period.

Back in the doctors’s office, after asking some questions and finding out that I was very active I was diagnosed with the “female athlete triad”.  I was told that losing your menstrual cycle  is common amongst women who exercise a lot and that it was nothing to worry about if I wasn’t trying to get pregnant. I felt something in my gut right there, my intuition telling me that is WAS something to worry about. I hadn’t been totally honest about my restrictive eating but I was in denial so I ignored the voice inside, accepted the doctor’s advice and carried on with my life. I tried to keep up my diet and exercise regime but after a while my body started to fight back with EXTREME HUNGER.

I still had my goal in mind though so I carried on working out and restricting my calories. But I would keep having these full on crazy binge eating episodes. I didn’t understand what was going on. Seriously I felt like something was invading my mind and forcing me to eat everything in sight! Then afterwards I would feel panicked and confused, guilty about everything I had eating and would vow to eat less and exercise more the next day. Always frustrated, angry at my body for not conforming to the size and shape I had decided it should be. Every time I binged I thought there was something wrong with me and I worked hard to make my body pay for its mistake. I spent hours researching how to stop binge eating, trying all sorts of tips to distracting myself from taking a shower or painting my nails to going for a walk or calling a friend but none of them could help me past the strong compulsion to eat when it came.

So my weight would fluctuate by up to 20lbs as I yo-yo dieted and the cycle continued until I was about 22..

Montpellier   bbq   Leaves   World challenge

croatia   cheer   euro   10616617_10154543788405654_85327801458386665_n

Don’t get me wrong I had some amazing times whilst all of this was going on. I made amazing friends, travelled Europe, volunteered in South America, got a job as a waitress, joined the university cheerleading team, had boyfriends, worked a year in industry and was on track to get a first in my engineering degree. But there was this underlying current of worry and anxiety and I was hiding the anorexia part of my brain leading me to go through periods of isolating myself from my friends and leaving me stuck in these mental patterns of criticising my body and myself, never believing I was good enough. I did seek help a couple of times with support from my mum but because I could go through periods of feeling ok again and because part of me was still in denial, I would discharge myself from therapy.

By my final year at university, my over-exercising and under-eating had spiralled into some pretty disordered eating patterns. I had been battling this whilst studying for my final exams and keeping up an active social life and eventually my body crashed hard. I was still in denial that I had a problem, believing that I “wasn’t sick enough” to need help (which I now know is a common symptom in disordered eating). So I carried on dieting and exercising until I was hit with chronic gastritis. This totally wiped me out and I wasn’t able to work out at all other than walking and some yoga. I put on some weight and funnily enough I got a period! It was only light and lasted a couple of days but after nothing for 5 years I was over the moon.

pub   chem eng ball  laos

I graduated from university and went travelling in South Eat Asia for 6 weeks before I started my new graduate job. Things were looking pretty good, I was exercising again but much more relaxed around food. I was maintaining a slightly higher weight that my body seemed happy with. But the story didn’t end there…

To be continued

 

How to start tracking your menstrual cycle

If there is one thing I would recommend for women to improve health, it is to start tracking your cycle. It sounds so simple but actually it will give you insights that allow you to start being your own health coach!

There are different levels to cycle tracking, depending on your goals:

Newbie tracker – if you just want to get a basic awareness of your hormonal pattern, track your cycle length each month by recording the first day of bleeding (excluding any spotting) as Day 1. Also record any noticeable symptoms or moods each day of the cycle. Becoming aware of these monthly fluctuations will mean you are less likely taken by surprise and have a better understanding of what is going on in your body.

Cycle syncer – if you want to start exploring cycle syncing, you can also start to identify which of the 4 phases you are in each day (see my post here for more information on this). Record your energy levels, sex drive, sleep quality and hunger levels and see if you spot any patterns after tracking for a few cycles. Once you have an idea of your pattern you can start to think about making lifestyle changes which will help you flow through each phase without feeling like you’re swimming upstream and fighting against your natural rhythms.

Menstrual guru – if you are trying to get pregnant or want to be more accurate with identifying which cycle phase you are in (specifically finding out when/if you ovulate), you can also record your Basal Body Temperature (BBT) each morning (see here for how to do this). You can also record any cervical discharge you notice as the amount and consistency will change depending on the level of hormones as shown on the chart below. If you have some period problems you want to troubleshoot, checking your flow during your period is also a good idea as the amount, colour and consistency can tell you a lot about your hormonal health!

CM cycle

This is just one “typical” example, there are variations which can be part of a normal cycle for you. It can be confusing at first but once you get used to it, this can be a really useful tool for troubleshooting your cycle and finding out if your lifestyle is helping you to achieve healthy. balanced hormones.

My favourite way to track my cycle is using the Maya app. But for those who prefer a paper version I have created a spreadsheet with templates for the 3 options above – feel free to use them online or print them out and edit to what suits you. Enjoy!

The 4 phases of your menstrual cycle

I love that menstrual cycle awareness is becoming a thing. There are so many resources on this topic but I wanted to make a note of it here for completeness and so I can refer to it in other posts. There are four phases of your hormonal cycle:

Cycle phase moon

The changing hormones in each phase lead to a different energy and physical state. The amount of time spent in each phase and the experience you have will depend on your genetics and lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, sleep and stress – no two women are the same.

Cycle phases

Above is a example of what a “typical cycle” might look like when in balance and when things might not be so good. However, I can’t stress enough the importance of tracking your cycle to see what your own patterns are. Watch out for my new post on how to track your cycle!