Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, hormonal or fertility specialist. I am just a personal trainer and fitness instructor who healed my hormones naturally and recovered from hypothalamic amenorrhea. For more detailed information and an awesome resource on HA check out No Period Now What.
Over the last few years, my body and mind have been through a lot of changes. I went from living my crazy fit life, to discovering my Hypothalamic Amenorrhea diagnosis, to changing my whole world to recover, regaining my period, finally getting pregnant, and now a few months postpartum as a mom to a beautiful baby boy. What a whirl wind! (you can read more of that journey here)
While going through this journey, most of my focus was on the end goal of having a baby. I did it! And I can honestly say it’s brought more joy and peace (in a crazy roller coaster kind of way) to my life than I have ever felt. It was worth every heart ache and tear shed along the way. But now what lies ahead is the unknown. Now what? What does life look like moving forward? There’s a lot of unknowns, but what I do know is that I want to keep my fertility that I’ve worked so hard to restore. I’ve learned the importance of keeping a regular menstrual cycle and the impact that it can have on your over all health. I don't want to return to my HA lifestyle, but I’m ready to move forward from recovery, pregnancy, and postpartum mode. What does life look like with fertility and fitness for me?
I’ve reflected back on the things I believe impacted my fertility the most; Mistakes I made, mindset shifts that had to happen, and things I just had no idea were effecting me in this way. I’ve compiled these into my game plan for keeping my fertility and living my healthiest, most balanced life. Hopefully these tips can be helpful for those of you going through your own recovery process.
Learn to say NO and set boundaries. Stress is a huge contributor to HA. Your body shifts into a constant state of cortisol production, taking away from your bodies sex hormone production. Over the years I’ve discovered I’m a chronic “yesser” and a goal setter. Any others out there? Not saying that setting goals and saying yes to things is always a bad thing. However, I would often feel this overwhelming pressure to please everyone around me, making sure I never let them down. Somehow I made the connection in my head that saying no to an offer or task would make me a failure in someones eyes. It was the same with not having a constant goal I was working towards. I associated this with laziness and failure as well. These are common traits among women diagnosed with HA. Go getters with a lot on our plate.
NOW: Learning to simplify my To-Do list and be ok with not having big goals at times has been huge with my recovery. This New Years was the first New Years I can remember that I didn’t write down a few pages of goals in several categories of my life. It was liberating! This hasn’t made me a failure or lazy. It’s helped me relax and even love myself more.
Carbs are my friend. Looking back on what I was eating when I wasn’t having a period, I realized there was very little carbohydrates involved. Not a good combo with the amount of activity I was doing. Looking into research about HA and healthy hormones in women, I found that carbohydrates are crucial for women and our hormones! I was working out and staying active multiple hours of the day and trying to follow a low carb diet that consisted of maybe a piece of toast in the morning and 1 piece of fruit a day, then mostly veggies and protein for lunch and dinner. I was doing all the “healthy swaps” such as cauliflower rice instead of actual rice, lettuce wraps instead of any sort of bread or bun, zucchini instead of actual pasta, etc. Not saying that these are bad swaps, however if you have a sensitive hormone system and are experiencing a missing period, you’re body NEEDS healthy carbohydrates. And I would argue that women in general need carbohydrates to function their best. Yes, fruit and vegetables are carbohydrates, but my body was not getting enough.
NOW: I make sure I have a serving of carbohydrates at every meal and snack. My favorites are Oatmeal or steel cut oats for breakfast, toast topped with avocado and eggs, peanut butter and banana toast, Loaded sweet potatoes, Rice or quinoa bowls with a veggie and protein, fresh sour dough bread with goat cheese, and I love all fruits throughout the day for a little pick me up snack or treat.
Never workout fasted. If you’re following any sort of body builder’s guide to getting lean, then you’ve heard about fasted cardio. I’ve always been a first-thing-in-the-morning kind of exerciser, and I’ve always wanted to “get lean”, so this seemed like the right plan for me. For the most part I felt good working out on an empty stomach in the mornings, however my hormones did not. You see, with HA you want to avoid being in a caloric deficit for too long because that sends your body into starvation, stress, survival mode (more cortisol, less healthy hormone balance). Our bodies only have a finite amount of energy, and when we are in an energy deficit, our reproductive system is the first thing to shut down. When we sleep, we are in a fasted state, so upon waking we are typically in a neutral or negative calorie zone. When we workout first thing in the morning on an empty tank, we go deeper into that caloric deficit. Our body has to work all day just to get back to a caloric surplus where are reproductive system can work. The cycle continues and you can see how this can mess with our hormones over time.
I would also add to this that any sort of intermittent fasting in general for women of child baring years is a bad idea. I don’t care if it’s the latest weight loss fad. If you want to have healthy hormones and fertility, fuel your body regularly!
NOW: I’ve changed up my routine so that I can have a nice and big nutritious breakfast within the first hour I wake up (usually toast with 1/2 avocado and 2 eggs or a hardy bowl of steel cut oats with nuts, seeds, and fruit). Then after I’ve given myself 30-60 minutes to digest my food I get my workout in. Somedays it doesn’t happen until after lunch and I’m fine with it. I actually LOVE not feeling like I’m starving during my workouts. I feel more powerful and energized! It feels good to know I’m fueling my body with what it needs.
Learn to turn down the intensity. I was the type that hated yoga, barre, pilates, and walking because I felt it wasn’t intense enough for a workout. I wanted to sweat hard and breath hard. I always gave myself one rest day a week, but the other 6 days I was working my butt off. A missed workout felt like a wasted day to me. During HA recovery it’s advised you take out all intense workouts and stick to slower paced walking and yoga. This was SO HARD at first, but it taught me so many valuable lessons. First, I realized I didn’t lose strength and progress as quickly as I thought I would with not working out. Second, I learned to appreciate movement. Any kind of movement just made me feel so good no matter how intense it was. Third, my body needs rest. Simple as that. My body was craving the rest I wasn't giving it. This contributed big time to the hormonal imbalance.
NOW: Instead of doing HIIT and Metcon (metabolic conditioning) type workouts 6 days a week, I’ve scaled back to 1 HIIT workout, 2 strength workouts that are much slower paced, 1 steady state cardio (under and hour), and 1 Metcon type workout each week. This leaves me 2 rest days a week. None of my workouts are longer than an hour, most are 30 minutes. I add a slow paced walk every day that is more therapeutic than anything, and it’s very leisurely, usually pushing the stroller. This schedule shifts around a bit week to week, but so far I’m loving it! I still like to push myself hard, but the variety has been so good for me.
Listening to my body: “Be stronger than your excuses”, ”rain or shine - rise and grind”, “no off days”, just a few of the Pinterest quotes you may seem floating around to motivate your fitness game. This is the type of mentality I had. No matter how tired I was, or if I was feeling a bit under the weather, on vacation, Christmas morning, wherever I was and however I was feeling I never missed a workout. Dedication for sure, but also sort of missing the point. I wasn’t listening to my body. I wasn’t taking into consideration that my body maybe, just maybe, needed a break or some flexibility in my routine.
NOW: I have my tentative workout schedule as I mentioned above, however, I wake up each morning and decide which modality of movement my body is feeling for that day. Some days I feel amazingly energized after a good amount of sleep and the right fuel and I’m up for going all out beast mode strength training. Some days I wake up and feel a little achey and I know thats the perfect day for some rejuvenating yoga or slower paced pilates. Somedays I just want to go on a beach walk with some friends. As I mentioned in my instagram, it doesn’t have to be All or Nothing, but Always SOMETHING.
Avoid hormonal birth control (and be my own advocate): Birth control is a very personal subject, and there is absolutely no judgement here on what anyone chooses to do in this department. I’m simply sharing my experience to shed some light on how birth control relates to hypothalamic amenorrhea. The pill was suggested by my OB, and I didn’t know enough to say anything against it, so I followed her advice. Little did I know this was masking the fact that my body wasn’t naturally cycling! Yes, you have a withdrawal bleed while on the pill, but this has nothing to do with our body’s hormones and natural ability to do so on its own. No body told me this! There is so much misinformation and guidance out there, especially to young girls that are put on the pill for pretty much everything!
NOW: If I want to stay in control of my fertility moving forward I need to monitor my hormones and how they’re naturally operating. At one of my last OB appointments before the baby came they were already asking me about birth control. It felt good to stand up for myself this time and let her know that I was taking care of it and wanted to avoid synthetic hormones.
Disconnect my worth from my body: Throughout this process, I’ve reflected a lot on myself and my mindset trying to figure out what my motivation was for living the way I was. How did I get to the state I was in? I narrowed it down to two main driving forces. First, I truly do love exercising. I love feeling strong and fit in my body. I love sweating and working hard. It’s never been a chore for me, I genuinely love it and still do! Second, and harder to admit, but I thought my worth as a woman, wife, trainer, my whole identity, was wrapped up in this image I felt I had to keep up with. I was known and applauded for being the fit girl, and I didn’t really know myself outside of that roll. This process has taught me a lot (can read more here), but this is probably the most valuable lesson of all. I have value outside of what my body looks like, my body fat percentage, and my fitness level! I discovered all my loved ones still loved me, and even more than they did before. I could still be a great coach, and an even better Mom. This was a huge self discovery!
NOW: I’m less critical of myself and less critical of others. This has sweetened my relationships. I remind myself each day of great qualities I have that are completely separate from anything physical. I express gratitude and positive affirmations each morning to help my mindset stay in that space. This takes constant work and some days I still struggle, but the progress I’ve made has changed my life.
If you are approaching HA recovery, whether you want to get pregnant or just get your period back, know that there is life after HA. Not just an ordinary life, but a great life! I remember feeling so depressed about changing my lifestyle, thinking I would never be the same again and everything I loved to do had to be removed from my life. While there was a time of change and removing exercise, I now get to enjoy all the things I love to do again, but with a much more balanced approach. I fuel my body better, I take care of my muscles and weaknesses better, I move solely for the sake of feeling good and health, I have more quality time with the people in my life, and I absolutely LOVE being a mom.
This is still a big learning process for me. I’m still breast feeding so I’m not sure when my cycle will return. To be honest I’m still nervous about it coming back at all, but I feel much more empowered now that I know what to do. My body needs rest and relaxation. My body needs fuel, and a lot of it. It’s possible to be fit and fertile. Here’s to the next chapter of life!