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!

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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!