For those of us who we are on our journey to recover from hypothalamic amenorrhea, there are moments when it may be hard to believe that it’s all worth it.
When all these questions arise, learning about other women’s success stories is so inspiring and important. I hope the following story from my friend Lindsay is helping you to keep your eyes on the prize (period!) and keep putting in the work (and possibly on the pounds).
Before we jump in, here are some facts about Lindsay’s recovery:
- She had hypohtalamic amenorrhea approximately 8–10 years. It’s hard to tell exactly, because she was on the pill for a long time.
- Her BMI before and after the recovery: Went from 17.8 (before) to 20 (after).
- Time it took to recover: Once she went all in, her period back in about 4 weeks. Before that, she had made incremental changes for about 2 years.
- She’s currently on her 7th cycle post recovery.
Here goes her story…
Lindsay, tell us, when did you realise that you had hypothalamic amenorrhea?
I knew that I wasn’t getting a natural period in my early 20s, but I didn’t know how big of a problem this was, and had never heard of the term “hypothalamic amenorrhea” until my late 20s.
I knew it probably wasn’t the best thing health-wise, but I figured all it meant was that I had a slightly higher risk of stress fractures and osteoporosis when I was an old lady, and that if I wanted to get pregnant I would need to make some changes (in my early 20s that still felt like a long way off).
I had been on the birth control pill since I was 16, with a few breaks where my period never came. But I definitely knew that I wouldn’t be getting a period without the pill.
Were you always active? What did your workouts look like?
College and the few years after were when my training was at its peak. I was the president of my college running club, and my running friends formed a tight knit group that comprised a huge part of my social life. We ran together every day, cooked dinner together, woke up early for weekend long runs, and drove to out of town races together.
I loved it! But I was also totally addicted to exercise. I was exercising at least an hour per day, sometimes more. I would lift weights in the morning and then run 6 miles with my club in the evening. Or go for a swim right after a run. Or run 12 miles.
In the years after college, I slowly withdrew from my all-consuming relationship with exercise, but I never fully recovered. I needed to have some a certain baseline level of activity to feel like a normal person.
Once I got a 9-5 job, I didn’t have as much free time as I did in college to exercise many hours per day, and my life became more balanced. But that balance was very tenuous; if I didn’t get my exercise in before work, I would be antsy all day until I could exercise after work. And if something came up that prevented me from exercising at all, it was really, really stressful in a way that feels pretty ridiculous to me now but was very challenging at the time.
Did you ever restrict calories and / or lost a lot of weight?
In my senior year of high school, I went through a tough break up during which I had a very brief period of actively restricting calories. I lost about 20 pounds and I’m only 4’10” so that’s a very significant percentage of my overall body weight!
A lot of people in my life stepped in to tell me they were worried about me. I realized that what I was doing was not sustainable and stopped doing it.
But just like the exercise, I never fully recovered, and spent pretty much the entire next decade being slightly weird about food.
I was a bit orthorexic (obsessed with “healthy” food), and I had some strange issues with the timing of my meals. It sounds strange, but I liked to exercise enough to make myself really hungry, and then eat a big meal after. This is fine, but I was so obsessive about not wanting to “ruin” my appetite that if, for example, I was on a long bike ride, I wouldn’t have a snack because I wanted to make sure I was still hungry for lunch at the end of the ride.
Also, since I was exercising so much, I could really put away a LOT of food, to the point where most people around me would say I had a huge appetite and ate plenty. But they probably didn’t realize how many calories I was burning.
I could eat a wide variety of foods with abandon as long as I had recently exercised. But I became a lot more restrictive when I couldn’t exercise, especially around carbs.
What was your main reason to start recovery?
A combination of wanting to have kids and realizing that hypothalamic amenorrhea has a variety scary health impacts.
I was NOT expecting that I would like my life better without exercise and super healthy eating, but that’s exactly what happened.
Besides fertility and health, the best reason for recovery by far is the sense of freedom I now have in my life.
Once you realized that you’ll need to stop exercise and eat more, what was your first reaction?
I spent a very long time trying to avoid giving up exercise. When I first heard what going “all in” meant, I thought, there is no way in hell that I’m doing that. I’ll be one of the lucky few who can recover without giving up exercise, I thought. Ha, ha!
I thought I can recover from hypothalamic amenorrhea without giving up exercise. Ha ha!Click to tweet
Giving up exercise was so much harder for me than increasing calories. In fact, at first I actually increased my exercise, because I figured it would help me have a bigger appetite and eat more.
But it doesn’t really work that way. You can’t really “make up” for exercise with increased calories, because the endorphins from exercise create stress that shuts down the hypothalamus.
Learning that was one of the first things that helped me see that my body really just needed rest.
Did you cut out all exercise or kept doing some?
Well, I made half-hearted attempts to recover for about two years before I truly recovered. In those two years, I reduced exercise and tried to eat more. I did get my period a few times in those two years, but it was like once every 4 or 5 months.
I really wanted to avoid cutting out exercise completely, so I kept doing less and less. At one point, I was doing 20 minutes of easy weights and one 20 minute run per week.
I took a step back and I realized that what I was doing was ridiculous.
If this paltry amount of exercise was holding me back from getting my period, then I could be stuck in limbo for years, whereas if I just bit the bullet and focused 100% on recovery, I could probably go back to my normal active lifestyle sooner.
I realized that if I focused 100% on recovery, I could go back to my normal active lifestyle sooner.Click to tweet
So after that realization, I cut out all exercise except for biking to work and very easy slow yoga. For the first three weeks, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life and I thought I would go crazy. Then, I woke up one morning and realized I wasn’t addicted to exercise anymore. It got a lot easier after that!
How have your eating habits changed?
As an athlete, I always had a pretty healthy appetite. There weren’t really any foods I avoided, and if I was eating a meal after a long run or bike ride, I would happily eat pasta, ice cream, donuts, whatever.
But if it wasn’t right after exercise, I was a lot more careful about my diet. I wouldn’t say I was exactly restrictive, but I ate like someone who was watching her weight.
I was vigilant about always having vegetables at every meal, and not overdoing it on carbs. During and post recovery, I eat the way I did after a hard workout, but all the time. The biggest change for me is probably that I eat carbs liberally throughout the day, not just after working out.
I also snack more. I used to have a weird thing about wanting to make sure I was still hungry for meals, so I would avoid snacking. Now I have a big snack whenever I’m hungry, and I’m still sometimes surprised to find that it doesn’t ruin my appetite, and even after a big afternoon cookie I’m still hungry for dinner a couple hours later.
What was your biggest fear about gaining weight?
I was scared of losing my identity as an athlete.
Even though I was addicted to exercise, it wasn’t only a bad thing in my life. I had so many wonderful happy relationships built around enjoying the outdoors while being active. My husband and I fell in love while going on long overnight bike trips! I’ve always had a lot of pride and pleasure in being strong and getting to use my body outside in nature.
Of course, I didn’t lose that. I still move my body in nature, I just took a short break from it, and now I still do that all the time. But I’m not neurotic or obsessive about it, and I don’t freak out if a bike ride turns out to be easy and chill when I was in the mood to go hard up hills.
Did anyone notice your changed body and did you ever get curious comments or questions about it?
Any comments I got were good ones. People complimented me on my bigger boobs, on the way I just looked healthier and more vibrant. I was always happy to hear these compliments and found them very affirming.
One thing I was worried about was how my husband felt about my weight gain. I know that some women’s husbands compliment them on their new curves, but my husband avoided making comments about my body. In many ways, I think this is really good—my body isn’t something that needs to be scrutinized and commented on all the time, and it’s okay for it to change, and he loves me no matter what.
However, I was insecure at first and wondered if he preferred my skinnier body, since that’s how I looked when we fell in love. In the end, I realized that I thought about this way more than he did.
It also forced me to confront some difficult and important messages about love. For example, what if he did have a slight aesthetic preference for my old body? So what? I would still expect him to love me just as much in the body that’s healthier for me.
I eventually came to a place where I could confidently say, hey, this is the body that’s healthier for me, and no one who loves me would expect me to stay in a body that’s unhealthy for me, and that’s that!
Was there anything else you did to speed up your recovery: supplements, acupuncture, anything else?
In the beginning of recovery, I was obsessed with looking for alternative treatments to help me get my period back.
But seriously, nothing even compares to the profound impact of gaining weight and giving up exercise.
Once I recovered my period, I did add in a few supplements to help with lengthening my luteal phase, but these were never a replacement for eating and resting.
What other changes did you notice during the recovery?
Lots of physical changes, but the biggest change was emotional. I realized that I had been using exercise as an emotional outlet. I never would have seen this until I had drastically changed my lifestyle, but getting that endorphin rush from exercise every day was a way to blunt the impact of all my other feelings. I always said that everything felt better and easier after a good hard run, but that’s a little too true.
Actually, one of the first things I noticed during recovery was that my mood went up and down a lot more. I got frustrated and sad more often—not only because recovery was hard, but because sometimes my normal, every day life involved things that were challenging, and struggling with those is a normal, healthy response.
Over time, I think I started seeing that this is how life is supposed to be. It’s good to have coping mechanisms, but not to use them as an escape.
Now as you’re recovered, do you feel like your personality has changed? Do you see food and exercise differently?
I’m much more free and willing to go with the flow because I don’t have all these internal rules that I’m stressed about following. I can have a lazy Sunday with my husband and see how the day unfolds and not worry about getting my exercise in.
Without intense exercise every day I feel less “shielded” from the normal emotional ups and downs of every day life. Sometimes I feel more sad, but happiness and sadness are closely linked, and I think this is exactly why I’m also able to feel more happy. I wouldn’t ever trade my life now for how I was before.
Lastly, what is the biggest lesson you learned from this journey?
It was absolutely shocking for me to learn that you don’t have to exercise to be healthy and feel good. I do think people need movement and activity. But it used to give me major anxiety if I didn’t work out for one day. Not only is it emotionally healthier to not rely on exercise to feel okay about life, it’s also physically healthier.
Thank you Lindsay!
PS: If you too are suffering from hypothalamic amenorrhea and want to beat it (you should!), the 5-Step Overtraining Rehab Program can help you.