One of my biggest regrets in life is being blissfully unaware of the havoc I was wreaking on my hormones because I was on the contraceptive pill from the age of 16 to 33. Sure, I came off of it a few times and when my period didn’t return I wondered if I should be worried, but when I went to my doctor and voiced my concerns over not having a period for over a year, I was told I had polycystic ovaries and I should go back on the pill to manage it.
For years I thought, "I'll deal with this problem later."
What I now know is that long-term pill usage can cause as well as mask a whole host of hormonal disruptions. I came off the pill the final time when I got engaged, as I knew then that I wanted children with my future husband. No surprises, my cycle didn’t return naturally and for the next four years I battled what is known as Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA), quite possibly the most frustrating and infuriating condition for a woman in her mid 30’s desperate to start a family.
Hypothalamic Amenorrhea is the absence of your menstrual cycle caused by your Hypothalamus not doing its job. The Hypothalamus is the part of our brain that instructs your pituitary gland, and subsequently your ovaries, to produce the hormones that control reproductive function. When you are on the pill for many years, the hypothalamus doesn’t need to do anything because the pill is delivering the (artificial) hormones, so it goes to sleep.
It’s incredibly common for woman to come off the pill and have the hypothalamus take a few months to wake up and start functioning, but if you don’t get a period for more than 12 months there are most probably some other factors at play. In my case it wasn’t Polycystic Ovaries.
The other major cause of HA is when the super sensitive hypothalamus senses that there is too much danger/stress in your life and it decides reproduction is not a good idea, so it shuts down. The most common factors are physical stress from high intensity exercise, not fuelling properly, lack of body fat and psychological stress.
When I came off the pill, not only was I training to run the New York marathon, I was restricting my food with the plan in mind to look AMAZING in my wedding dress. You can imagine my horror when I was told by an endocrinologist that my super healthy lifestyle was making me infertile, and the course of treatment was to stop all exercise and EAT.
To most people, being told that you should stop exercising and eat more dessert would sound like a dream come true, but for many women who have conditioned themselves to exercise and diet religiously, it can be terrifying. Of course I wasn’t going to purposefully change my body shape six months out from my wedding, so I put it out of my mind and once again thought – "I’ll deal with it later."
After the wedding I made a real effort to cut down on my running and eat more, and I put on weight. I hated it, but my husband and I wanted kids and we wanted them NOW. Our impatience got the better of us and three months after the wedding with my period still MIA we saw a fertility doctor.
For some reason, doing fertility treatments made me think that I no longer needed to get my natural cycle back. The drugs I stuck into my belly every day were doing it for me – too easy! So I stopped focusing on overcoming HA and when round after round of IVF didn’t work I fell back into running as a form of therapy. It was the one thing that got me out of my head when I was devastated at our failures. In hindsight, running was also a subconscious way of proving to myself that my body was strong and able, because when it came to fertility I felt like it was defective.
As time passed and our attempts at IVF didn’t work, I began to realise that having HA can hold you back reproductively even when you’re under the care of the best fertility doctors delivering the tried and tested treatment. It was time to slay this beast!
After we completed our final IVF embryo transfer, a perfect grade A+ embryo that resulted in our sixth negative pregnancy test, and I began the long overdue job of getting my natural cycle back. I’d been 3.5 years with no cycle after coming off the pill and I’d had enough.
This is what worked for me:
No high intensity exercise. I walked for 30 mins, three times a week and did yoga for 30 mins most days (not hot yoga!).
Increase calories to (at least) 2,500 a day. This was tough because I was trying to still eat healthy most of the time. After a couple of months I let go completely and ate ALL THE JUNK; pizza, pies, cake, ice cream - on a daily basis. It was a complete mind shift for me and I won’t lie, I felt awful. I was bloated, constipated and my face broke out BUT my closely monitored hormone levels were starting to increase, so I kept at it. I’m not advocating an unhealthy diet for everyone that is trying to get pregnant, but if you are at your wits end with HA then it’s worth a shot.
A positive and stress fee outlook. This wasn’t easy either, I was 37 and terrified I was never going to be a Mum. I used hypnotherapy to help ease my anxiety and deep breathing exercises helped calm me when work got stressful. I confided in my friends with total honesty and this helped to reduce the pressure I was feeling. I also joined an incredibly supportive Facebook group of women from all around the world on the same journey. The insight, knowledge and support gained from this group kept me going at the toughest times.
Four months after going ‘all in’ to overcome HA I went for my routine blood tests to check my hormone levels. I was absolutely floored when the nurse called back told me that not only were my levels were off the charts, but I should take a home pregnancy test.
And she was right, I was pregnant.
I had (unknowingly) ovulated naturally for the first time since I was 16, and this ovulation resulted in what I’d spent two years and thousands of dollars trying to create with fertility treatment.
Yes, my body shape is a lot different to what it used to be (and this is only going to continue!) but every kilo is worth its weight in gold to be able to overcome HA, regain fertility and start our family!
Kristy Kong is an IIN-certified health coach specializing in fertility and our consultant fertility coach at Tangram Wellness, providing invaluable guidance to some of our friends and clients. You can reach out to Kristy directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Was this information valuable to you, or could someone else use it? If so, share! As always, leave your comments below- we love hearing from you.