Part 2: Stress + Intense Exercise + Not Enough Food = Slow Decline
Have you ever woke up one morning and wonder “how did I get here?”.
That happened to me more than once recently – I was frequently exhausted and in pain, my relationships with my spouse and kids were degrading, and I had a million “super important” things to do.
Denial or ignoring what our bodies are telling us usually doesn’t make problems go away, although that’s what I did for a while. My body kept reminding me that it needed attention and then started to shut down.
In this post, I’m outlining the sequence of health and life events over the past two years, along with my approximate weight (I weighed myself maybe once every few months) perceived stress level, and menstrual cycle (present or not). This is so that I can remember, record, and reflect on some key factors in my amenorrhea and decline in health (and happiness). Maybe some of the things I experienced sound familiar to you, or perhaps you’ve watched loved ones go through something similar.
You may read the following timeline and think, “That doesn’t sound too awful. What’s wrong with her?” I’ve often asked myself the same question, and I don’t know the exact answer, but I did learn that I do have physical and emotional limits.
Relationships Among Stress, Exercise, Weight
- Began looking for a second career position after finishing a BS in computer science.
Stress: Medium-high (feeling excited about possible opportunities; yet self-conscious and anxious about interviewing, getting rejections)
Weight: 120 (all weights in lbs)
Menstrual cycles: present, regular
- Started a new and exciting job at a well-respected company
Stress: Medium (relieved and excited to start working; felt pressure to perform well)
Cycle: present, regular
- I was diagnosed with ovarian cysts and had an MRI, which confirmed that they were benign.
- My young cousin passed away.
- My grandpa passed away about a week later.
- Chris had a very busy period at work, and our family schedules were packed.
- Ran my fastest 10k ever – ~42:40
- I was diagnosed with shingles.
- My grandma passed away.
- After having shingles and traveling to funerals three funerals in two months, I felt like I was not keeping up at work.
Stress: Super high
July – August 2018:
- Summer travel and kids not being in school made keeping up with work stressful. I worried about not learning fast enough and being less available.
- I started to suffer from severe sciatica and lower back pain.
Stress: Super high
Sept – Dec 2018:
- I continued to feel inadequate at work, although I loved the projects and my co-workers are amazing.
- I volunteered to coach my daughter’s Lego Robotics team, which was a bigger commitment than I expected, thus adding to stress.
- In November, I was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis and started physical therapy to address the sciatica and back pain.
- At my yearly physical, I told my doctor that I hadn’t had a menstrual cycle since March. I did a blood test, and my hormone levels were all normal, so no further follow up was suggested.
- In December, I got adult braces (yes, on my teeth) to address chronic teeth grinding/clenching/chipping.
Stress: Super high
Jan – Mar 2019:
- Work was busy but I felt more comfortable and confident.
- Husband and son were increasingly combative with each other (pre-teen angst).
- With braces on my teeth, I had to get used to new eating habits (eg, no nuts, sandwiches, jerky, etc.) and consequently, ate less.
Apr – Jun 2019:
- My job was going well, and I had the opportunity to travel to Spain for work.
- Chris and I hosted several family visitors, in addition to going to Spain, and traveled for a family reunion in June.
July – Aug 2019: In some ways, the summer from hell.
- Chris decided that we would split working from home, so that we didn’t have to schedule (and pay for) summer camps for the kids. This resulted in neither Chris nor I feeling very productive or having good relationships with the kids.
- Our son specifically was very angry and depressed to the point that we sought outside counseling.
- We traveled extensively: Colorado (for a conference that both Chris and I attended, with the kids in tow – stressful!!), British Columbia (fun), Washington (work for me), Ohio and Indiana (work for Chris), Oregon Coast (fun).
- I ended up taking the last three weeks of the kids’ summer vacation off of work to recover and do damage control on our family.
Stress: Super High
Sept – Nov 2019:
- The kids went back to school and we hired an after-school nanny to cover the kids so I could work a full day. Having her was super helpful, but, as a family, we did not communicate often or well.
- I got tendonitis in my Achilles and couldn’t run for a couple of months.
- Like an idiot, I volunteered again to coach Lego Robotics.
- Due to perceived and real stress, the kids acted out in negative ways (eg, refusing to attend practices, crying for no reason).
- Together, Chris and I decided that, in order to protect the integrity of our family (and because we could afford it) that I would stop working. I resigned at the end of October.
- In November, when I went for my yearly physical (and told my doctor that I hadn’t had a period in 20 months), I got more bloodwork done and an ultrasound, which led to a diagnosis of polycystic ovaries. My doctor suggested that I may have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), but I doubt that – I don’t fit the criteria for that disorder.
Stress: Super High
Reclaiming My Health
Dec 2019 – now:
- I started tracking my food intake on myFitnessPal and realized that I was regularly eating 1600 – 2100 calories/day. This sounds like a healthy amount of food, but it wasn’t enough. Based on my activity level, I should have been eating well over 2000 calories/day. The reality is, I’ve been in a nutritionally deprived state for around two years.
- I’m fairly certain, based on the events of the past two years, the reason I’m not having menstrual cycles is due to hypothalamic amenorrhea. I have an appointment with an OBGYN next week, where I hope to get more extensive hormonal testing done and also a bone scan (chronic amenorrhea/low estrogen can lead to serious bone loss).
- I’m also trying to gain weight by eating more (goal: >2500 calories/day) and exercising less. Both of these are difficult for me.
Keep in mind, that during this time, I was exercising a lot and religiously. My normal weekly routine would be: ~30 miles running, three 1-hour crossfit workouts, stretching/rolling/pilates (because I was regularly injured) before bed. This includes a 10 – 15-mile run every Saturday. When injury (back injury, Achilles tendonitis) prevented me from running, I would crosstrain with cycling and elliptical.
Hindsight on 2 Years of Stress, Over-exercising, Under-eating
This quote from Lauren Fleshman to her younger self really resonates with me:
If you get to the dips and valleys and fight your body, starve your body, attempt to outsmart it, you will suffer. You will lose your period. You will get faster at first. And then you will get injured. And injured. And injured.Lauren Fleshman
In hindsight, the past two years are full of red flags for my health. I chose to ignore them or prioritize work, physical appearance, and perceived productivity over caring for myself. Finally, the fatigue, injuries, illness, and suffering relationships caught up to me. Now, my priority is my health, and I’m learning to love myself and honor my body.
Up next – Healthy Not Healthy 3 – Diagnosis.
Kuzma, Cindy, and Cindy. “What Runners Should Know About Missing Their Periods.” Runner’s World, 21 Oct. 2019, www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20855296/what-runners-need-to-know-about-missing-their-periods/.
Rinaldi, Nicola J., et al. No Period. Now What?: a Guide to Regaining Your Cycles and Improving Your Fertility. Antica Press, 2016.