Avery's face in this photo sums up my health for the last two years (okay, a lot longer than two years, but ESPECIALLY the last two years). Since Avery's birth, my body has been flooded with cortisol from stress... okay, terror, on a daily basis. From the second she was born, I didn't have a moment of downtime for at least a year. My postpartum recovery was spent racing to and from the hospital every day and I didn't sleep for more than 3-4 hours a night for that entire season. (I still struggle to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time, but I've made it a priority to get 7-8 hours every night even if it is broken up!) I was pumping breast milk for 14 months, so I accepted hormonal imbalance as simply the price of producing milk. I never fully lost all of the 19 lbs I gained during that pregnancy and, while never overweight, remained puffy. And my periods, oooooh my periods, were out.of.control. (Google "menorrhagia" and TRIPLE the amounts you find - that's what I mean by "out of control".)
Whenever I mentioned these concerns to my primary care provider (who changes monthly in the revolving doors of a military clinic), I was told that I needed to be on birth control to manage my symptoms and handed a pill as I walked out the door.
The problem is that I don't believe in taking artificial hormones, slapping bandaids on hormone imbalances and quite frankly, birth control does not work for me.
At the beginning of this year, I switched from traditional feminine products to the Diva Cup, so I could better track my cycle. I was astounded by the amounts I was charting each month. (The Diva Cup can be found online - or in select stores. I purchased mine from Target.)
By May, I was struggling every day. I was having intense bone pain, especially in a single vertabrae in the middle of my back, which made me stop all of my HIIT workouts cold turkey (not that I was losing weight at all, even when combined with religious macro counting). I switched to yoga, even though I could not tolerate lying on my back - the vertebrae felt bruised or cracked and any pressure, even touching the bone with my finger, felt excruciating.
I felt as though I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn't walk and talk at the same time, because I'd be gasping after thirty seconds. My POTS symptoms, which had never been officially diagnosed, were flaring badly and I would often have to stand up so slowly or sit down immediately after standing to avoiding blacking out. I finally made an appointment with a primary caregiver - I was feeling poorly enough to be desperate for answers and finally convinced that what I was feeling could not be normal.
I sat on the exam table and cried... "I'm too young and too healthy to feel THIS BADLY."
I showed her what I had been charting for my period each month and she told me that I needed birth control. I said under no circumstances, except MAYBE under the careful care of a endocrinologist, would I ever accept artificial hormones again. I told her I only wanted bloodwork, specifically to check my iron levels. I casually mentioned my POTS symptoms as something not new, but annoying, and she performed a tilt testing, finally giving me the POTS diagnosis that I'd always suspected. (Turns out, it's not normal to repeatedly pass out and shake as though you're having convulsions when you stand up. Haha!)
The next day she called with the preliminary findings - I was severely anemic and low in Vitamin D. I was asked to return the next week for more tests. A blood test for the markers of celiac disease (POTS + anemia + low vitamin D + overall malabsorption + plus chronic, itchy inflammation of my right hand for 2+ years = needed to test for celiac), echo with a cardiologist, ultrasound and hormones level testing. I don't have any of those answers back, since I won't follow-up until after our vacation in July, but I'll know a lot more before the summer is over.
Serendipitously, the same day that I met with the PA, a book that I had ordered arrived in the mail.
It had been recommended by a health-conscious blogger with her masters in nutrition and I was excited to dig in. I was finished 48 hours later and inspired/equipped to make the lifestyle changes that could naturally balance my runaway hormones.
I highly, highly recommend this book.
I immediately gave up coffee, which had been raising my already soaring cortisol levels.
I had already stopped any intense workouts since my body couldn't handle them, but was even more committed to yoga as my daily exercise after reading. I didn't realize that HIIT training and strenuous cardio were actually raising my cortisol, reinforcing my imbalance. I couldn't understand why I would gain weight whenever I exercised heavily, even though my diet was not changing. I had seen so many posts about "screw the scale!" that I had convinced myself that it was fine to gain 3 lbs in a week after starting to exercise again. It wasn't weight gain from muscle growth... It was the result of an over-taxed, sensitive system desperately trying to protect itself and survive. (This is why it's so important to listen to and learn your own unique body and it's biological chemistry which may be dramatically opposed to the lifestyle of your favorite fitness blogger! Some bodies crave, thrive and don't do well WITHOUT high intensity training. Some bodies feel stronger with fewer carbs. Some bodies thrive in veganism. Most bodies do fine with gluten. Some bodies are healthier and stronger with yoga and light walking! Be okay with your unique needs. Learn them. Make better choices consistently as a result.)
I had already mostly cut gluten from my diet (still haven't totally committed to this one full-time because I don't know the results of the blood test), but felt even more assured to do so.
I added supplements that were detailed in the book.
I've been taking these supplements for a month and noticed a HUGE decrease in PMS and a less heavy period (supplements + lifestyle changes to help naturally raise my progesterone which has been chronically crushed by my cortisol all this time - progesterone regulates the build up of uterine lining - when estrogen is left unchecked by progesterone, the lining can become excessive - thus, heavy periods).
I added the prescribed Vitamin D supplement and Vitamin C.
I added prescribed prenatal vitamins for iron (my ferratin level was 5 at my last check! The normal range is 15-30, with 15 being low. 5 is just ridiculous.) I also added Omega 3's.
I had been taking ashwaganda for a while for adrenal support - I just changed the dose since the HUM nutrition Energy support contains ashwaganda as well.
My daily supplement haul looks like this. (I also take a melatonin supplement at bedtime, which is not pictured here.)
Because of the iron supplement, I've been religious about adding fiber to my diet (since iron can slow digestion). I've found making a smoothie for breakfast works really well to pack a strong nutritional punch and help me start my day intentionally.
I begin with blueberries, spinach, coconut milk or kefir milk and ice and add my supplements on top. Maca! It tastes disgusting to me, but is great for hormone support, so I use a tbs. of Maca and mask it with TWO tbs. of cacao.
Then ground flax for fiber and more Omega 3's.
And a scoop of greens for spiralina and a bunch of other nasty flavors that mix well. (I usually drink the greens separately - mixed with 8 oz. of water).
Within two weeks, I had lost all of the extra puffy weight (over 5 lbs - my frame is very slight and it naturally more willowy than I have been the last 2 years). I was sleeping better. I was not experiencing raging PMS. My period was still imbalanced, but half as heavy as it had been.
Currently, my bones still hurt (vertebrae, both wrists and the knuckle on one big toe - so weird), but will meet with a specialist on Wednesday to start accessing the problem. Vitamin D may help with that over time.
My skin is clearer. My hair is shinier. I feel more like myself. My POTS still sucks - there's really no treatment for that. You can only look for the underlying cause if there is one. I have some ideas that we'll get into later, but no concrete answers.
I sincerely hope this post has been helpful! If you get anything out of it (besides more information than you wanted to know about my body - sorry, not sorry, periods are completely natural part of life - haha!), please HEAR that your health is important. Your body is precious! Your "home" for the span of your life is WORTH INVESTING IN and caring for! If something doesn't feel normal, it probably isn't. It's okay to talk about periods, even with a male medical professional. It's okay to say NO to artificial hormones and demand a better way. It's important to know about what artificial hormones may cost your body in the future. It's important to hear about the long-term effects of what you're putting inside your body and what artificial hormones may be doing to your future fertility. AND it's okay to say that they work for you and you're committed to The Pill life!
I'm making progress, but I still have a long ways to go toward my ideal health. My iron and D are still low, my energy is still low and I'm still a little short of oxygen sometimes. But, I'm committed to finding answers and making my body my ally, instead of something I'm fighting against.
Up next... a self-care post about unashamed vanity, aka, TEETH WHITENING and a post about the changes I've made to my skin-care routine, including natural deoderants, oils/lotions and other lifestyle changes to improve your skin.
Until then, much love!
P.S. Please consult your doctor before beginning any diet, exercise or supplement regimen.