Sometimes bloggers try to find catchy titles for our posts hoping that in the big ocean of the internet they will stand out and will make you stop and take a few minutes to read what we have to say. Sometimes those titles can be a bit over the top, along the lines of "The one app you need in your life", "The 5 things that will bring you happiness", "The holy grail foundation/eye cream/mascara"... You get the gist. The title for this post today was the most honest I could think of, because I truly think that every woman should read the book I am going to talk about today.
But first, let me tell you why, and let me warn you that there might be a bit of over-sharing here, so if hearing about women's health, period pain, PMS and conditions like endometriosis or fibroids makes you uncomfortable, you are more than welcome to close this window, but I would encourage you to grit your teeth and keep reading, because it is your health after all (if you are a woman, that is!). Here it goes.
For the past few years I had been experiencing a steady increase of period pain. The changes were so subtle that it was hard to notice it until one day I was in tears, bending over with pain on the sofa and my strongest dose of ibuprofen wouldn't do anything. Since then the pain would wake me up in the middle of the night every month and it would make me feel sick. I have missed whole days out with friends, slept with my legs up the wall to reduce the pain and spent weekends curled up in a ball feeling lame for turning down the offer to go to the pub or having had to cancel a drink with a friend at the last minute. Last summer I was at a festival with friends and at one point I had to step outside, sit on a bench and breathe deeply for half an hour to get through it. It took me months to go to see my GP, and when I did she didn't even take a look at me, because period pain is normal, after all. She offered me very strong painkillers or going on the contraceptive pill. I took the painkillers and as soon as I got home I decided to go back for a second opinion because something didn't feel right. The second doctor I saw actually examined me, talked and listened to me and referred me to have an ultrasound scan, where the cause of my pain was identified: two very large fibroids. When I say large, I mean 15cm and 5cm in diameter. They weighed 2kg! From that point on every consultant, surgeon and nurse I have talked to can't believe how I lived with them and the pain they must've caused for so long. So, not that normal after all. To cut a long story short, I was advised to have surgery to remove them, which I did last September. It was a very invasive and fairly long procedure with a really tough recovery.
THE QUEST FOR ANSWERS
Naturally, I wanted to understand what causes fibroids and more importantly, I want to avoid having them again in the future. I asked my surgeon, the nurses, the doctors I saw while I was in hospital, and the answers I got were simply to be vigilant of any symptoms and that they feed off estrogen. Thank you very much, that will be very helpful! I felt very lost and also very scared because my op was so traumatic that I definitely didn't want to go through it again.
I started trying to do my own research but it is so difficult to establish what is and isn't a reliable source. Then during Christmas I listened to an episode of The Lively Show with the top 10 episodes of 2015, and right at the top was one titled "Optimising your hormones to improve every aspect of your life", an interview with Alisa Vitti, a woman who was diagnosed with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and who made it her mission to research hormonal balance and how to manage her condition. She has a book called Womancode, which I downloaded straight away and which I now also own a paper version of with plenty of post its and notes all over.
WOMANCODE: WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?
This book is a guide to understand your hormones and your cycle, as well as how to live with it and not against it. It is especially beneficial if you have or have had hormone related problems like endometriosis, PCOS, PMS, fibroids, but even if you haven't or you don't know if you have, I genuinely think it is worth getting to know your body better.
This book is not a crazy faddy thing that will tell you to meditate for 5 hours a day and eat algae. I guess what each person takes from it is very personal and what I will do is share with you my experience, the main messages I took away and what I have done. Hopefully you can see it is not hard and it might entice you to investigate further for your own benefit.
So the central idea is that women have a cycle and our hormones and our body function according to that cycle. I know it is not groundbreaking, but sometimes recognising the obvious is the most powerful. Despite of our natural make up, if you like, we are surrounded by things that are blockers, like lack of or misinformation about our own bodies, the cultural conditioning that it is normal to have a painful period or for our hormones to work against us and make us moody, and a lifestyle that is full of processed foods and chemicals around us that play havoc with our bodies.
In order to address this Alisa Vitti created a 4 step protocol to work towards that balance. All this is in the podcast episode in more detail, but below is my experience and the changes I have made.
Step 1. Regulate your blood sugar levels
The two easiest things you can do to help with this are to not have coffee before eating breakfast and to eat throughout the day in a steady way without skipping meals. This is what my day looks like:
7:30AM Have a glass of water
8:15AM Have breakfast
10:30AM Cappuccino time!
12:00PM Lunch, which is the largest meal I have every day
3:00PM Snack, usually a smoothie
Step 2. Nurture your adrenals
Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing vital hormones, including cortisol, which helps us deal with stress. If they are not functional they can produce too much or not enough hormones. So they're kind of important.
An easy way to nurture them, as Alisa says is to incorporate a variety of exercise, which doesn't have to be loads and loads. If you know me or have read this blog before you will know I love yoga so I am trying to practice a little bit more and I am still doing a brisk one hour walk (about 5km) 5 times a week. I want to build up to 3 runs and 2 walks a week, but that is the next step.
Step 3. Support your organs of elimination
This was a biggie for me, because my body wasn't eliminating estrogen at the end of the cycle and the build up could've caused or contributed to my fibroids getting so huge. I've done a couple of things to help my body get rid of what it doesn't need: dry brushing and having a bath with epsom salts once a week. I got an inexpensive brush from Amazon at the beginning of the year and before I get into the shower I brush in circular motions on my legs and arms. At the beginning it was very unpleasant and scratchy but I am slowly getting used to it.
Step 4. Sync with your cycle
In the book you will find the four phases of your cycle, what happens in your body and how it affects you. For example, during the first couple of weeks we have a lot of energy and there is a point where we get more reflective. There is also a guide of activities and foods that are good for each phase.
So far I have only been noting what happens and becoming more aware of it, maybe introducing some food and activity at different points but I still haven't been able to recognise all the phases in myself fully.
In addition to these I have cut down on gluten and dairy. I say this with a heavy heart, because I LOVE bread and cheese, and so I can't see myself cutting them out altogether. However, goats and sheep milk cheese are better (are less loaded with hormones than cow's milk) and when I have bread I make sure it is the nicest tastiest bread. I have noticed that when I do eat them more I feel much more bloated straight away.
As you can see, they're not huge changes and I haven't done it overnight either. It is a gradual process. I still have pizza, cake and my beloved cheese, but the basis of my diet and lifestyle is much more solid and healthy than before.
I guess this is what you may be waiting for. Does it actually work? Can I see a difference? YES! In big capital letters and with an exclamation mark. I no longer feel bloated (well, most of the time), my cycle is beginning to be much more regular and not a bit late as it usually was and I am also very regular (I am sure you wanted to know that... I did say there was some oversharing, so don't say I didn't warn you).
I know I am a person who usually buys into health and wellbeing improvements and I can notice the subtle benefits of different things. I think sometimes I can even tell myself I feel better and as a consequence feel better, which I guess isn't such a bad thing if that is the result. But, when I see clear physical results like what I mentioned above, never mind the fact that my weight is the most stable it has been since I was 17 years old, I know this is something that can benefit not just me, but lots of other people, regardless of their predisposition.
I am a big sharer in the sense that when I find something I love or something that helps me I talk about it to everyone I know until I go blue in the face (check my Best of 2015 post for all of those!), but this one is really important to me because of my personal experience. If any of my ramblings have struck a chord with you, I'd love you to have a chat about it with others.
When I piece my story back together I think I was suffering since 2007, which is 8 years before I went to see a doctor, purely because I thought it was normal and I was so misinformed that I didn't even think it may be a problem. I often wonder what would have happened if I had known before, if my body could have healed before they grew so much, if I could have avoided a major surgery.
It is very hard to find statistics about women's health but I read that 176 million women worldwide suffer from endometriosis alone, and I didn't even know it existed until last year. When I spoke about my health with friends I discovered so many of them had dealt with issues in the past, some of them had been treated by doctors as if they were weak and unable to deal with a bit of pain. This bit of pain that doctors had referred to often involved passing out at a public toilet or collapsing on the floor at home.
After my diagnosis I spoke to some friends about the fact that I had to have an operation and I was surprised at how many people didn't know what fibroids were. When I told them they were benign tumours I could see the dread and worry in their eyes and in more than one occasion I had to be the one reassuring them that they were very common (around 40% women will have them at some point in their lives). And let me tell you, at that point I was super scared myself, so imagine trying to comfort someone else about your own health problem!
Given all this and the little focus there is on prevention, I think it is incredibly important that we start talking freely, that we stop feeling embarrassed to talk about women's health and that we are as informed as possible so that we realise that it is in our power to look after our health and prevent these conditions.
You may think that your PMS is normal, that you are ok, and that is great. But even if you if you don't think you have a problem, I would still urge you to at least listen to the podcast and if it resonates with you, the book is a great tool.
Today I would really love to hear your stories and your opinions on the subject. Have you ever thought about this? Have you had a condition associated with a hormonal imbalance? These issues are often taboo but you're safe here. I'd love you to share your story.