For years, I’ve always been “the healthy friend.” The one who went to bed early, only to wake at 6 a.m. to run 10 miles, who chose salad over fries, who mostly abstained from alcohol.
When the running bug bit me in my mid-20s, it bit hard. I devoured stories about how to become a faster runner and how to maintain my lean body. Running and eating well gave me a body I loved, helped me relieve stress and feel strong, and increased my confidence.
I was proud of my muscular frame and was sure that my healthy lifestyle would keep me steady no matter what life threw at me. That was what magazines, books, blogs, and even my doctor seemed to promise.
So when, in October 2014, I decided to stop taking my birth control pills in the hopes of getting pregnant, I figured I was way ahead of the game. I was 30, my husband and I had been married for three years, owned a home, and had strong careers. With all that in place, we were eager to add a little one to our family.
And with my healthy lifestyle of diet and solid exercise routine, I imagined getting pregnant easily, running and eating lots of greens throughout my pregnancy, and then having a beautiful birth and baby.
That was until my period never returned. At first I thought maybe I was pregnant. But dozens of negative pregnancy tests later, I could firmly say that I wasn’t. After several months of no cycle, I began to get worried.
I spoke to my doctor about my missing period, and explained my eating habits and exercise routine. She ran some blood tests but wasn’t really all that concerned. At one point, she even told me “don’t gain 20 pounds” — despite the fact that with a BMI under 19, I was almost clinically underweight.
My doctor’s only guidance was to add more healthy fats to my diet (but not too many). I left her office feeling more lost than when I’d entered it.
Yet I was still deeply alarmed by not getting my period. I knew that I had no chance of conceiving a baby when I wasn’t ovulating or menstruating. Plus, your menstrual cycle is an indicator of overall health — and not having one clearly told me that something was very wrong. Prior to going on the pill at age 18, I had very regular cycles, so I assumed they’d start right up again when I got off of it 12 years later.
But by May 2015, I still had no sign of a period. So I did some research and went to see a reproductive endocrinologist for some answers. There, I was diagnosed with hypothalamic amenorrhea. That’s what happens when your body stops cycling because of low body weight, low body fat, not eating enough calories, emotional stress, or strenuous exercise.
While I had read about hypothalamic amenorrhea online before and figured it was probably what I was dealing with, I didn’t want to admit it. I told myself it was something that only affected professional athletes and that with all my dedication to a healthy lifestyle, this couldn’t be me.
The diagnosis brought home my perfectionist, Type-A tendencies. The sky-high standards I was holding myself to weren’t doing me any favors.
What I’m Doing to Regain My Health and Fertility
After the diagnosis, I finally had to accept that I had hypothalamic amenorrhea. That meant giving up strenuous exercise in favor of gentle yoga and walking, giving up many of my “healthy” eating habits like eating low-fat dairy (switching to more full-fat yogurt and ice cream), and surrendering control.
It also meant accepting that I wouldn’t be getting pregnant anytime soon. You don’t develop hypothalamic amenorrhea in a day, and you can’t recover from it that quickly either. It takes time, patience, and trust. Some people regain their cycles quickly after making changes, but others never do.
But even harder than giving up exercise and changing my eating habits was the emotional aspect of being diagnosed with hypothalamic amenorrhea. It made me feel ashamed, embarrassed, alone, out of control, and like I had failed myself and my husband.
The diagnosis also brought home my perfectionist, Type-A tendencies in all areas of my life, including work. The sky-high standards I was holding myself to weren’t doing me any favors, so it was time to let go.
The last several months since being diagnosed haven’t been easy, and I’m still working on it. But with the help of a mind-body program in which I learned to meditate and practice mindfulness, I’ve been able to make the lifestyle changes I need to recover. I’m no longer doing strenuous exercise, I’m eating what my body needs to be nourished, I reduced volunteer and high-stress job obligations, and I’m making time to truly take care of myself.
With the guidance of my doctor, my BMI has gone up to 22/23, which my doctor thinks will help me regain my period and get pregnant.
Since making these changes I now have a lot more energy, I’m no longer cold all the time (one of the side effects of not having enough body fat), and I sleep much better. And despite now dealing with infertility, I’m actually much less anxious because I have the tools — meditation and mindfulness — to deal with stress when it arises.
In some ways, I feel like a completely different person, but really, I just feel more like the real me.
I wouldn’t wish hypothalamic amenorrhea or infertility on my worst enemy. But I know the journey I’m on is going to make me a better mother — because it’s already made me a better daughter, sister, wife, and friend to others, as well as to myself. I haven’t regained my cycle yet, but I know I’m on my way.
And when I do, that’s when I’ll truly know what a healthy lifestyle looks and feels like for me.
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