This post about hypothalamic amenorrhea has been a long-time coming. Because even though you see me now as a happy and healthy mom of a sweet little baby boy, I never want to forget what I had to go through and learn in order to be the mom I am standing here today. And while I realize that this may not apply to so many of you, I do think that some of the takeaways that I’ve implemented into my life since healing my body and recovering from hypothalamic amenorrhea are beneficial for everyone.
That’s why today, we’re going to talk all about hypothalamic amenorrhea. What it is. How I got it. And what my life has been like since recovering from it two years ago, and how I plan to make sure I never get it again. Ready, set, go …
What is hypothalamic amenorrhea?
Had you ever heard of hypothalamic amenorrhea before reading A Lady Goes West? I’m guessing 50 percent of you had not. In fact, you may have only first heard of it when I said it on the blog in combination with announcing my pregnancy and my ebook about fertility — I kept quiet about it while I struggled, and it’s not a widely known condition, it’s hard to pronounce, and it’s a little embarrassing to discuss. But, sadly, there are a lot of women out there who are also dealing with it, particularly in the fitness industry and the wellness world. Go figure.
Hypothalamic amenorrhea, or “HA” as it is called for short, is the loss of a menstrual cycle. The loss of the cycle happens when a woman is either exercising too much, has too much stress in her life or is not eating enough food to sustain her activity level — or all three. Basically, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the reproductive organs via the pituitary gland to tell the reproductive organs to stop working because there is a stressful environment in the body not right for reproduction. It’s a very smart reaction, in which the body tries to conserve energy and stop procreation — thus, a woman’s monthly cycle stops happening naturally.
And here’s the tricky part: There are countless women out there who are not getting a regular cycle and may not even know that they have hypothalamic amenorrhea, because if they take a hormonal birth control pill, they will have a forced period every month. But that forced period is not a sign of health in the body. Not at all. It’s just a mask for deeper issues.
Why should you care about hypothalamic amenorrhea?
When a woman stops getting a natural menstrual cycle because she is working out too much, not eating enough or has too much stress in her life, it means that many other things in the body can be off.
And while some women may think it would be no cause for concern, certainly if they aren’t even ready or sure if they ever want to have children, it’s a much bigger deal than just the cycle. She may experience irritability, fatigue, headaches, higher risk of endometrial cancer and a host of other things — in fact, she probably doesn’t feel all that great most of the time and can’t quite put her finger on why. Basically, because a woman’s natural hormones need to be mostly balanced to conceive a child, having a regular cycle is a good marker of overall health. And when it’s missing, it needs to be addressed.
My path to recovering from hypothalamic amenorrhea
It took me quite a while to actually uncover that I had hypothalamic amenorrhea, because a lot of Western doctors still don’t properly diagnosis it — it’s rare, and they often just tell you to go back on birth control if you’re not getting a regular cycle — which is clearly NOT the answer, and is not what I chose to do.
How did I get hypothalamic amenorrhea? I talk a bit more about it in this post — (as well as give the entire backstory in my ebook, of course). But suffice to say it was exercise related. When I was working as a trainer and group fitness instructor in San Francisco, I taught and completed multiple hours of workouts a day and walked no less than five miles a day to get where I needed to go (carrying a huge backpack), and my body couldn’t handle that physical stress, day in and day out, with minimal recovery. And yet, I had no idea anything was wrong with my life or me, because I was so “healthy.”
After several months of various doctor appointments and testing and lots of blood-work, I realized I had HA. And from there, it took me several more months to recover from it. I reduced my workouts by about half, I increased my healthy fat and overall caloric intake, I changed my diet to feature more warm foods, I tried to de-stress as much as possible, I improved my sleep, I gained quite a bit of weight (oh what, you didn’t notice the transformation over the years?), and I began going to acupuncture once a week — which I believe was the true game-changer, because with my acupuncturist’s help, I took multiple herbal concoctions each day and started to truly understand how to heal my body. It worked.
After finally getting my cycle back naturally, it took me another full 13 months to get pregnant, and that’s because I don’t think my first few cycles were actually ones that were viable for reproduction, because my body was still healing and regulating — from many years of stress. It was quite the process, and that’s where I want to offer some tips, because every step I took was a lesson learned and has made me so much healthier.
How I am staying balanced after recovering from hypothalamic amenorrhea
If you are someone who lives in a body that is prone to or has ever experienced hormonal imbalances and hypothalamic amenorrhea, you have to be particularly careful to watch out for yourself, all the time. While I could be mad that there are plenty of women in my life who are able to do multiple workouts a day and have no issues with their cycles, that’s not me. I know this, and I will always have to act accordingly. I cannot go super hard in workouts every day of the week, even though I’d like to, and intense exercise just happens to be my favorite.
After I got my period back and was trying to get pregnant, I kept my activity levels the same as they were when I was recovering, in fact, I even lowered them a little more. At that point, I was taking two full rest days (no activity on these days outside of general life and maybe a dog walk), I also did at least one gentle mind/body yoga session each week, avoided HIIT and running almost entirely and never did more than one workout a day. I also never let my workouts go longer than an hour. This proved to be just enough of a routine to keep me mostly fit, (although my fitness level was definitely NOT what it was before this), and yet be healthy. (And I still taught a couple of group fitness classes a week — Bootybarre and BODYPUMP.)
I also continued to take herbal supplements, track my cycle religiously with an app, get quality sleep each night, focus on reducing my stress and go to acupuncture twice a month. After I got my cycle back, and because of my work schedule at the time, I was only able to go to acupuncture every other week while trying to get pregnant, and I think that was just enough to keep me balanced and feeling good. My insurance didn’t cover acupuncture, and it was certainly an expense, but to me, it was worth every penny. I can’t go any more, because of the whole child-care issue with baby Brady and my acupuncturist’s availability, but if I could, I’d be a regular acupuncture attendee for the rest of my life. It’s not scary. It’s awesome. And here’s more information why you made need it too. Honestly, I think everyone can benefit from Traditional Chinese Medicine in some form. I’m a total convert and do plan to return when I can.
These lifestyle changes were so good! In fact, during the time that I was trying to get pregnant, I truly believe that I reached the most optimum level of health that I’ve ever had. My skin was absolutely clear and glowing every single day. My hair was long and thick. I slept amazing every single night and woke up rested and full of energy. My digestion was amazing. I was mobile, flexible and functional, even if I was not ripped with a visible six-pack of ab muscles like I used to be. I ate a lot of food, which was mostly clean and unprocessed, but I also never skipped dessert, wine or pizza on the weekends. I had many SO many changes to my lifestyle, and they were clearly working for me. I felt great — although, let’s not forget that I was totally yearning to conceive.
After I got my period back, I did return to eating some colder food here and there, but that was still a rare occurrence. And even though you see me eating a lot of salads right now, I actually took almost two years off of eating salads, as the cold and raw vegetables are not warming for the reproductive system, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Overall, I didn’t go back to how things were, I actually continued to build on my path to more balance. And because of what I’ve learned, many of the changes that I made will remain, so that I never let my hormones get imbalanced again. Granted, being that I’m just about five months into the postpartum phase, my hormones are still all over place, but for an entirely different reason.
My personal lifestyle rules for staying hormonally healthy
So let’s get to my new personal rules, if you will, which are working for me — and these certainly keep me as balanced as I can be. And granted, I will always be extra cautious, and every body and everybody is different, so you’ll have to figure out what works for you. My story is just that, my story, but because I love to share …
- Rest: Always take at least one full rest day a week, usually two off from exercise. Here’s how and why you should take a rest day, just like me!
- Workout duration: Never work out for more than one hour a day and do no more than one workout a day. Why? It’s taxing on the body, and exercise is a form of stress. Sometimes beneficial, but too much of a good thing is not a good thing.
- Eat more fat: Eat at least one avocado, a helping of nut butter and a helping of healthy oil a day and always choose full-fat products over low-fat. Fat. Fat. And more fat. Fat at every meal.
- Sleep: Try to get as much quality sleep as possible. (Totally a work in progress with Brady around, but I have my plan in place and will always strive for as much quality sleep as I can.)
- Go light: Find and do a lighter workout at least once a week, like yoga, Pilates or gentle barre, to have low-impact sessions you enjoy, with a mind-body element. Because I tend to gravitate to tougher workouts, I decided to get certified in barre and now love to do barre workouts each week. They are low-impact and super body friendly and have a lot of stretching too.
- Limit the HIIT: Be mindful of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and running, and do it no more than twice a week. While I stayed away from HIIT and running while recovering and even while trying to get pregnant (outside of teaching BODYPUMP, by the way), I have and will return to doing HIIT and even running, but will make sure it doesn’t happen more than twice a week, just to be on the safe side.
- No fake stuff: I avoid soy, and I avoid synthetic hormones — like birth control pills. Hands down. Just natural and real stuff going into my body these days.
- Hot foods: Whenever I eat something cold, I like to have something hot and cooked along with it to stay true to my Traditional Chinese Medicine healing method of warming the reproductive system with warm foods. That’s why I get cooked salmon on my salads and have miso soup with sushi, etc. And while I don’t go crazy about this rule, in general, I just try to be mindful of consuming too much cold stuff at once. Except for ice cream. Because ice cream.
- Relax: Even though I can’t go to acupuncture right now, I try to find time for self-care and relaxing to recharge, because it truly helps me to feel balanced and happy, and it’s important for everyone. Whether that’s a manicure, a nice bath with a book or even just a solo walk — I like to have plenty of down-time and not always be go-go-go.
And that’s about it!
Moral of the story: Even though I recovered from hypothalamic amenorrhea and successfully got pregnant, I know I will never be able to return to my excessive exercising — even as much as I love to work out and love to sweat, it’s clear to me that I have to do less and work smarter, in order to keep my hormones in check.
While I’m not exactly happy that I had to go through what I did over the course of two quite painful and emotional years, I know that it was meant to happen to me, so that I could learn from it and talk about it too. Every experience makes you a better person, and my fertility journey and recovering from hypothalamic amenorrhea did JUST that for me. And speaking of sharing …
The most amazing Fit & Fertile testimonials
Other than getting pregnant and having Brady last year, the next best thing I did was write and release my first ebook, “Fit & Fertile.” While I was super nervous about putting so much personal information out there (WAY more than makes it onto the blog, believe me), the second I got an email from a woman who was able to get her cycle back just weeks after reading my ebook and following my tips, I felt good. And then I got an email from a woman who got pregnant while following my tips. And then I got another. And another. And another. And all of a sudden, I knew that opening up and walking people through how I uncovered what was wrong with me and healed my body and got pregnant — sometimes going against the advice of my Western medicine doctor — it was meant to be shared.
I don’t know exactly how many women have healed their bodies thanks to my ebook, because I’m sure a lot of them don’t reach out. But I do know, that I’m soooooo proud to have helped even just one woman feel like she had someone else out there who understood this very confusing, emotional and strange condition.
If you’re currently struggling with hypothalamic amenorrhea — whether that be from too much exercise, too little food or too much stress, I encourage you to find a support system. You can hopefully get great insight from my ebook (use the code BLOGFRIEND for a discount at check-out), and I’m here for you. There are also Facebook support groups too, which you can find by searching “hypothalamic amenorrhea” in Facebook and engage in some great discussions with other women. Also, this is an excellent book about all things fertility and woman-hood to buy as well.
In conclusion, be kind to your body. Listen to your body. Know that pulling back from things you love (like exercising), is not the worst thing in the world and can be done. I’m still a fitness lover, fitness instructor and fitness professional, in spite of the fact that I now have to be conscious of my personal limits. It’s for my own good, and my health is WORTH it!
Thank you for reading, my friends!Hypothalamic amenorrhea. Heard of it? Trainer @apstyle tells you how she recovered from it and lives a balanced life now ... Click To Tweet
Questions of the day
Can you think of a time in your life when you were your most healthy?
What’s something you’re currently struggling with in your life?