HA recovery diaries #8 Your body is made to heal

This weekend was a huuuuge milestone for me.. post-recovery period number three!

I never thought I could be so happy to be bleeding but I am ecstatic and so proud of myself.

Bleeding

I am also in awe at how quickly the body can heal and things fall into place when you treat it well. I was reminded of something Hannah Lipman from The Healing Woman always used to tell me – it is the bodies’ sole purpose to heal, we just have to get out of its’ way. On the surface this sounds like a pretty abstract concept, but it is such an important message. And when you think about it, it makes scientific sense. Well, maybe one of its sole purposes as continuation of the species is a pretty high priority too..

Our body is just a big ball of chemicals flying around, trying to maintain our internal environment in juuuust the right conditions to survive. We have hormones to regulate our blood temperature, pressure and pH within the narrow ranges required for proper functioning of our bodily systems. If we cut ourselves, our skin heals. If we break a bone, our body repairs the damage. When we shave, our hair grows back to its natural length (we wouldn’t all be walking around like Chewbacca if we didn’t shave for a few months!). Our bodies know our “set points” and are constantly working, making adjustments to maintain this balance.

I have spoken to so many women with HA who feel broken and think that they have done so much damage over the years that their body will never be able to recover. They get disheartened after a few months on the No Period Now What healing protocol and start to lose hope. I have to say, I had days where I felt like this too! But I am glad to say that it is simply not true. Our bodies are miracle workers. When we provide the resources and conditions for healing, it will happen.

The protocol is simple: eat, rest, sleep, repeat. It sounds so simple and almost too good to be true. I suppose this is why it can be so hard to trust in the process. It goes against everything we have been told about health – that we need to work hard to  eat the “right” foods and keep active. This is definitely important for maintaining the condition of an already healthy body, but it doesn’t mean it is going to heal us. Not when that was what caused things to go wrong in the first place. In order to recover from chronic energy deficit, we need energy! This means taking in more energy from food (and I am talking plain old calories here not specific micronutrients) and using up less energy through activity. The less we eat and the more we move, the slower the healing process will be.

It is natural to want to DO something. This journey is a difficult one in that we can’t always see the healing occurring. We don’t know if what we are doing is enough and we feel like we are waiting on the platform for a train that may never come. I have had lots of women ask about supplements which could speed up the healing process. My opinion is that supplements can be great, but they are no substitute for the healing fundamentals – food, rest and relaxation. I tried a few supplements on and off throughout recovery but there is no such thing as a magic bullet. There is no way round the truth that in order to restore health we need to reevaluate our opinions on what constitutes health.

I speak a lot about surrendering to the process. By this I mean, stop trying to control and allow things to progress at their natural pace. Stop resisting and fighting the healing protocol or trying to find a sneaky way around it. Accept that this is how things are, for now, and allow yourself to be healed. Listen to the guidance of the hundreds of other women who have walked this path before you and trust this this will happen for you too in time. We are all individuals but at our core we are so similar. We are all human and our bodies want to survive!

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Thoughts on Fitspo

This morning a friend posted this image on Facebook.

fitspo

I know she had the best intentions behind the post but it really got me thinking about the “Fitspo” trend and its affects on body image.  The Urban Dictionary definition of the word is:

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

From the definition it sounds like a great thing. Replacing the horrible trend of “thinspo” and encouraging women to be healthy and active.. both of those things get a great big TICK from me.

However, what can’t be escaped is the fact that images like this still encourage women to focus on their body shape and size. They still provide a body ideal, a goal for women to aim for. They still encourage women to base their self-worth on their appearance and attach morality to food and exercise. And this results in the same feelings of unworthiness and disappointment for those women who don’t follow the rules and don’t look like the picture-perfect instagram babes.

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

Lots of women (myself included) are falling into the trap of shifting goals from trying to weigh as little as possible to eating clean and looking lean. What the images above don’t show is how the woman is feeling in each photo and what her life really looks like. What kind of behaviours is she engaging in to maintain her body? What is her overall health like? How are her relationships and social life? Is she following her passions?

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

For me personally, looking lean came at a great cost. I did all of the right things. I worked out daily. I ate clean. I drank plenty of water. But I didn’t feel good and I didn’t know WHY. I wasn’t healthy. My periods were totally absent. I started to wake up in the early hours of the morning for no reason. I felt fatigued all of the time and had to rely on caffeine more and more. I know not everybody will have the same experience but I am sure I am not the only one. It took a lot of effort to unlearn all of the so-called healthy habits I had developed and get back to focusing on feeling good.

For those of us in the health and fitness world, food and exercise and shaping our body can easily become the focus of our life. Yes it is fun to experiment with food and of course moving our bodies feels great. But it doesn’t have to be our sole purpose. It is very easy to get caught up in the bubble and forget that there is an outside world. Real life social connections and meaningful relationships where you can be yourself can do so much more for your health and wellbeing than following some online fitness guru and feeling connected to others by the restraints of whatever lifestyle they preach.

We all want to be healthy and lead a long and happy life but there is more to life than health than working out and eating salads. Having a passion and following your dreams gives you vitality and a sparkle in your eyes that no workout can ever bring. Getting in touch with your true values and finding a purpose in life will make you feel amazing . You don’t have to eat a certain way or look like a fitness model to feel valuable and do good in the world. And chances are you will want to look after yourself in whatever way feels right for you in order to achieve what you want in life. If that means working out a few times a week and feeling strong, great. If that means eating chocolate every day, also great 🙂

Calling all health freaks on birth control

Are you taking the contraceptive pill?

Are you into “health and fitness”?

Do you exercise a lot?

Do you watch what you eat?

Are you underweight or at the lower end of an average BMI?

Are you under a lot of emotional stress?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then listen up.

Your hormonal health may be suffering and be masked by taking the pill.

In my HA Recovery Diaries series I wrote about my struggles with Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. This is when women stop having their natural menstrual cycle due to physical or emotional stress on the body, including over-exercise, under-eating and being at a low body weight (and by low body weight I mean below our bodies’ happy point, not what is defined by the media or fitness industry).

The hypothalamus is like the control centre of our brain. It sends out hormonal signals which regulate all our important bodily functions, including metabolism, body temperature and reproduction. When the hypothalamus detects a stressful situation, in particular an “energy crisis” which can arise from exercising too much and moving too little, it shuts down any unnecessary functions. This can result in symptoms such as feeling cold, brittle hair and nails and, of course, loss of our menstrual cycle.

For women who are on the pill, this huge sign that something is wrong can easily be missed. The pill introduces synthetic hormones into the body in order to trick the body into thinking it is pregnant, thereby preventing ovulation. In order to induce a monthly bleed, 7 days of sugar pills replace these hormones every 4 weeks. The “period” that we get when on the pill is in fact a withdrawal bleed from the sudden drop in hormones. This means that we assume everything is fine with our hormonal system when actually things could be going very wrong!

In today’s body conscious society, I think this is a much more common problem than we realise. It has become fashionable to hang out at the gym, living in leggings and sports bras, striving to achieve the perfect, toned body. We are told that exercise is important to maintain a healthy body, which is true to a certain extent, however it is not the full story. Moving our body is of course good for our health, however exercising too intensely or frequently is perceived by the body as a physical stress and can cause our metabolic and reproductive systems to shut down.

I was lucky that I came off birth control after only 12 months and after a few years of being fobbed off my doctors that my “post-pill amenorrhea” was normal I realised that something else was going on. However, it still took me another 6 years to actually get to the bottom of the issue and to regain my cycles. During my recovery process, I have met so many women who have come off birth control to try and get pregnant and found that their cycles just didn’t come back. I can only imagine the disappointment and frustration at wanting a child and your body simply not being ready.

And the recovery process is not always quick or easy. Depending on the extent of the damage done, not so much in terms of physical damage to your body but more in how ingrained the thought patterns have become, it can take months or even years to recover. For many who have built their life around nutrition and exercise and may be known by their friends and family as “the fit one” or “the skinny one”, habits can be extremely hard to break. Even once you start treating your body right, it may be months before it feels safe enough to grow a child. I am not saying all of this to scare you, I am just being honest.

You might think that because you are not trying to get pregnant, then it isn’t all that important to have a period. Certainly the whole point of the birth control pill is to shut it down. But like I said earlier, not having a period is a clear signal from your body that it is not happy and that things need to change. Think of it like your monthly report, indicating how well your body is functioning. Menstrual cycle disruptions, including PMS as well as amenorrhea, indicate the health of your bones, thyroid and metabolism. This beautiful, complex hormonal cycle also regulates our emotions, sex drive and even how much we enjoy sex. These days everyone is using fitbits and health and fitness apps, but we have our own built in tool to inform our health decisions and we are simply not using it!

467289-best-fitness-app-round-up

So to summarise, if you are on the contraceptive pill and there is a chance you fall into the category of “health freak”, “fitness fanatic” or “stress head” then I strongly advise you to do some research on Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. Read my HA Recovery Diaries series, check out this link and see what you think. If you think you are someone who could be affected by this then it may be a good idea to come off the pill for a while and see what happens. The first stage of solving any problem is awareness and you now have that after reading this post so you are already on the journey to recovery. Next comes acceptance and hopefully it won’t take you 6 years to get to this stage like it did for me.

Finally comes action! And if you get to this point you are in great company. I have met so many amazing women online going through this healing journey. I have discovered Intuitive Eating, Health at Every Size and Life Unrestricted communities which have helped to totally reprogram my brain. So for that I am thankful!

If you have any questions please contact me and I will be happy to help 🙂

 

HA Recovery Diaries #7 Progress Update

It has been two months since my last post so I thought it was time for an update on my recovery process.

I had my first period at the beginning of March and my next cycle came right on time after 28 days. I was amazed and thought it was too good to be true!

And it was.

On day 17 of my third cycle, just a few days past when I should have ovulated I had a random two day bleed.  And nothing since..

It was quite disappointing as it had felt like a miracle had occurred and things had just fallen back into place but looking back, it was actually a great thing. A big STOP sign which led me to pause and reflect on my life and recovery process. I felt like things hadn’t changed so I went back to the book (Nicola Rinaldi’s No Period Now What book that is for those who haven’t been following my posts) and reminded myself of what can send our cycles out of whack.

Cycle

The first point is a tough one. I definitely have not been eating as much lately as during my peak HA recovery efforts. This hasn’t been on purpose but more because my focus has shifted towards other things and I simply don’t feel like sitting around eating biscuits and chocolate in the evenings.  I have gravitated back towards a whole foods plant based diet simply because this is what makes me feel good! I am still eating a ton of food and I am definitely not in a calorie deficit but maybe I do need to think about introducing some more “fun foods” back into my life.

I am still keeping away from the gym and all cardio activity. Since the weather is getting warmer I am probably walking more than I was but nothing extreme. I am still focusing on yoga and trying to slowly build my strength back. I don’t feel like my current activity level is enough to stress out my body but if I am not seeing any positive signs in the next few weeks I may have to rethink things and give my body more time to rest and heal. This is pretty frustrating as I love cycling and I was hoping that I would be able to spend the summer exploring on my bike but maybe this is not a good idea for me right now.

My weight has stopped increasing and has remained pretty stable since my period returned. How do I know that you might ask? Well if I am honest, I have got back into the habit of weighing myself every once in a while “just to check up on things”. This is something that absolutely needs to stop. I am so past the point of feeling that my weight defines my health, happiness or value as a human being but old habits die hard. So from now on, I am enforcing a scale ban for a minimum of 30 days.

Now to the big one: stress! I have had a lot of stress in my life this month. I have decided to leave the safety of my job and venture into the unknown. I will write more about this in another post but to summarise, my anxiety levels sky-rocketed when I had to make that decision and again when I had to actually make it happen and tell people at work that I am leaving. Now that stress is over I have the dull, underlying worry of wondering what I am going to do next, when I will find another job and whether I will be able to pursue my passions and find a new career that I love.

So really, looking at the bigger picture, it is no surprise that my cycle went a bit wonky this month. Recovery is not a linear path and I expect the future to be full of ups and downs in the road. But this is ok. Even being aware of this is all amazing progress. My advice for those who are still working towards recovery is to be patient  with yourself. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion and celebrate the small victories. Don’t dwell on the setbacks, learn from them and move on. Never stay stuck in your comfort zone, keep trying, keep challenging yourself and facing your fears. I promise it will be worth it!