Nutritional Therapy, Wellness

September 18, 2017

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea: When A Journey to Health Becomes Unhealthy

Nutritional Therapy, Wellness

Nutritional Therapy, Wellness

jaime morocco

[Update: My menstrual cycle was restored on January 12th, 2018! Full blog post to come on recovery]

As a health and wellness professional, this is one of the hardest pieces of content to write.

I’ve never been one to hold back on personal matters and consider my life an open book. But this is definitely one of the more personal aspects of my life that I don’t share with everyone – until now.

It is my hope that through my candidness and desire to start a conversation that I can help more people out there achieve optimal wellness and health. If you want to get right into the “what this is” part – then scroll down past the “my story” section. I hope you find this somewhat helpful/inspiring in your health journey.

My Story

It all started at my doctor’s office when I was 8 years old. My doctor told my mom that I was at risk for becoming “overweight” and that I needed to see a nutritionist.

As a young kid I had terrible asthma. I was in and out of the hospital and always seemed to be allergic to something. I was always pretty petite as a young child, both of my parents are on the slender side (especially my mom), and in the early stages of my life it seemed that I would be built the same way.

The allergy medication that I was on gave me boundless energy, I was always bouncing off the walls not to mention it sped up my metabolism like crazy. To put it simply, as a young kid I burned through tons of food and always stayed pretty slender.

When I was 8 years old, I seemed to be doing much better with my asthma and was able to go off of the medication.

When I went off the meds, I gained a little bit of weight. Nothing too crazy, just healthy “little kid chub”, and before my body had a chance to recalibrate my doctor told my mom that I was at risk of becoming overweight and had to see a nutritionist.

This was the first time I ever thought that something could be “wrong” with me and this was the first time I ever had any realization that I could be “fat”.

That moment, in that doctor’s office was the moment where every challenge regarding weight, confidence and self love in my life stemmed from.

Can you imagine, an 8 year old child who was just a few lb heavier than “normal” was being told to see a nutritionist?

Absolutely awful, I still cringe to think about it. In all honesty, whenever I drive by that doctor’s office – I’m sometimes tempted to in there and tell her how her one decision impacted me so greatly – but then again everything happens for a reason 🙂 and I do love the way my life has unfolded – wouldn’t change it for a moment even though there are times when I want to give that doctor a piece of my mind 🙂

My mom is amazing – and of course being the wonderful mom that she is – she listened to the doctor. So off to the nutritionist I went.

I was a child of the late 80s and 90s – a time where we were being told to fear fat because it could “kill us”.

So of course, the nutritionist put me on a high carb, low/no fat diet and I was miserable. I didn’t understand why I kept gaining weight and why I felt so icky.

Instead of butter, my mom started to buy margarine and instead of cookies from the local bakery that were made with fresh ingredients, we ate Snackwells cookies and chips made with olestra (YUCK!).

It seemed that in every packaged food item during this time, fat was removed and sugar/additives were added instead.

The truth us, fat is an amazing nutrient, it does so much for our body (it is the precursor to our hormones!) – and it also is an incredible satiator. Because of this, since I was hardly eating any fat, I would find myself hungry all the time despite eating lots of food.

No dietary fat = little to no satiety.

Depriving kids of fat when they are growing up is absolutely NOT ideal for optimal health, let alone for healthy body composition.

So I kept gaining weight. And I felt really insecure in my body, especially in middle school and high school. I was never terribly overweight, always on the cusp of the upper end of weight for my height and borderline overweight.

But, I was teased, I felt insecure around my group of friends (who were three skinny blondes!), and I would never ever be caught dead in a tank top let alone bathing suit in front of anyone except my family and closest friends.

After high school I went off to college in Boston and I started to learn more about diet/exercise and how it all worked. I started counting my calories and running every single day. Over the course of 3 years I lost close to 50 lb and reached my lowest weight of 101 lb.

 

Fast forward to post college. I had developed sciatica in my left leg, which meant no more running for me (funny how life works like that!). At first I was scared I would balloon up and re-gain all the weight back – but I realized that this was my body’s way of telling me I needed a break.

I began working as a personal trainer and fitness instructor and started getting more into lifting weights and stretching. I learned more about nutrition and wellness and put on about 15-20 lb – I felt better and looked healthier, but I had no idea that there were more things going on inside my body.

I had been on birth control pills since I was younger, like many girls I had irregular periods and was told by my doctor to “go on the pill”. So I went on the pill around 13 years old, and then at age 24 I decided to go off the pill to give my body a break. The pill gives you a “fake” period every month and therefore it can mask any problems that your body might truly have with menstruation.

So at 24, I went off the pill…

But then my period didn’t come.

So my doctor told me to go back on the pill to “protect my bones” – so I went on the pill again until age 27 – and then went off it again to see what would happen – still no period.

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

In the beginning of my journey, my OB-GYN had concluded that I had what is known as hypothalamic amenorrhea. Basically, you have a gland in your brain known as your hypothalamus. I like to think of the hypothalamus as the “queen bee” of how our body protects us and seeks balance. The hypothalamus controls lots of things like hormones, hunger, thirst, sleep and circadian rhythms.

In other words, if the hypothalamus senses danger or an “unsafe” environment, the hypothalamus sends signals to shut down non essential body functions, and guess what a non essential body function is? Reproduction.

Truth is, hypothalamic amenorrhea is more common than you might think. It’s often linked to women who are very active/perhaps undernourished and/or stressed. The more I started researching, the more I noticed how common HA is among women who are avid runners/cross fitters or had gone through a period of significant weight loss. Thank gosh for the internet – I didn’t know too many people in my circle of friends who were struggling with something similar – but as soon as I went to google – I quickly found communities of other women who were experiencing the EXACT same thing.

I have had hypothalamic amenorrhea for years, and as I moved from doctor to doctor – none of them seemed overall concerned about it and told me to come back to them when I was ready to get pregnant.

But I knew better – not having a period is NOT normal.

I have worked with doctors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, homeopathic doctors – you name it… only to realize that when it comes down to it – we have to heal ourselves.

Last October, after much consideration I knew I had to do something. I read EVERYTHING I could get my hands on and while many had different opinions, there seemed to be one overarching theme

“Reduce stress. Eat More. Sleep. Stop/reduce exercise”.

Oyyyyyyyyy.

Basically, to overcome Hypothalamic Amenorrhea, you have to do whatever you can to assure your body that it is totally and completely safe and able to bear a child.

So October of 2016, I did just that – sort of.

I made sure to eat plenty of food, I reduced (but didn’t stop) exercise, and (I thought I reduced stress (or so I thought). However, looking back – I was COMPLETELY stressed out and anxious over the whole situation – not to mention I wasn’t going “all in” on the protocol.

Over the course of 5 months I gained about 20 lb, and I am not going to sit here and lie to you – it felt SO UNCOMFORTABLE.

For so long I had identified so much with being the “fit” girl that I suddenly felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore.

In March of 2017 I started working with a Functional Medicine Doctor who told me I could slowly start to lose some of the weight I had gained and go back to exercise. So I did, but I had a hard time discerning what was enough exercise vs. too much for my body at the time. I was used to 4-5 days a week of lifting weights with 1-2 HIIT sessions – a workout load that didn’t seem to crazy to me.. but for my body at that time – it was.

I lost about ½ the weight I had gained before my body rebelled and started hanging on to everything I ate.

I knew I had to really take the time to figure this out. My body was telling me something and I had to listen.

For some women with hypothalamic amenorrhea, they are able to recover their periods without gaining weight or reducing exercise – for others it means gaining a good amount of weight and really committing to rest. Guess which category I fall into?

HEALTH over Aesthetics & Fitness

The last several months I have gone “all in” on my journey to recover my period and my fertility. I eat plenty of food, I have reduced stress big time, I get plenty of sleep and go for restorative walks.. Not to mention I’ve gained back all the weight I lost, plus a little more!

I’m not going to lie, it is REALLY REALLY REALLY hard. Especially for a fitness/wellness professional who coaches other people on their journeys. That little voice inside my head says “What will other people think? What if they think you can’t control yourself and you’ve gained all this weight?”, but I remind myself that I am doing this for my health, and if anyone judges me, that is not my concern. The truth is, I would advise any other woman in my situation to do the same thing.

Sometimes, all I want to do is hit the weight room and get back to feeling comfortable in my clothes. I love working out, and I miss it. But I also know that there are sacrifices that have to be made in order to bring things back into balance.

This experience in it’s entirety has taught me so much about the female body and what our bodies needs to maintain balance. My journey has allowed me to thoughtfully create WHOLE BODY women’s health and fitness programs. I so often feel like we are being bombarded with messages to train harder, faster and longer – but what if those are the very things that keep us stuck?

I always tell my clients that we cannot pursue aesthetic goals over health – because in the long term it just won’t work. In a competition between us vs. our body guess who always loses?

It also prompted me to go on for extending education degrees in Functional Diagnostic Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy so that I can really help people get to the root causes behind why they don’t feel as awesome as they should.

Truth is, our body is always trying to protect us. When our body feels safe, and balanced, we CAN achieve our body composition & health goals and have them last long term, BUT we have to work with our bodies, not against them. And yes, it’s true that this is the longer road – there are no quick fixes – but the reward is sweet, I’m sure of it.

I look forward to writing an update to this post when I have recovered my period. For now calories, rest and stress reduction are the name of the game. Thank you for reading 🙂

Update: My menstrual cycle was restored on January 12th, 2018! Full blog post to come on that!!

Image source: http://sharonschoolmumbai.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/myth.jpg

For more information on Hypothalamic Amenorrhea I highly recommend these resources:

No Period Now What
Paleo For Women
The Holistic Nutritionist

 

  1. Jamie King

    September 18th, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    You’re such a strong, inspiring and beautiful woman, thanks for sharing Jaime!

  2. Jaime

    September 19th, 2017 at 4:31 am

    thank you so much Jamie 🙂

  3. Erin

    October 27th, 2017 at 7:18 pm

    Hi Jamie, I have a similar experience as you. I have stopped exercising for 10 months now and have regain 6.5 kg (15 pounds)..more or less everything I lost during my 2 year journey to get fitter where I started calorie counting and exercising 3 to 4 times a week- started with cycling and moved on to walking/jogging. Nothing very intensive compared to most but for some reason my regular periods slowed to once every 3 months and then I had my last one in February 2016. Now after all the weight gain and sedentary lifestyle for the whole of 2017, my period still isn’t back. Half yearly blood test has shown that my LH, FSH and etc are no longer low.

  4. Jaime

    November 7th, 2017 at 8:39 am

    hi erin – thanks for your notes ad for sharing your story. have you read the book No Period Now What? It’s a wealth of information on this topic. It sounds like things are going in the right direction for you – low LH is a classic sign of HA. I highly recommend reading the book and then joining the HA facebook group – if you share your story there many other women can chime in for knowledge and support. <3

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