Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Ditching Hormonal Birth Control: Month One

It's so crazy how much my thoughts & knowledge have changed regarding female hormones in the recent months. I'm almost ... protective of them now - motherly, maternal even. They're a part of me and I want to celebrate them. I want my female hormones to work for me, not against me. Understanding how your hormones can work for you AND against you is so empowering. It feels good to embrace what makes us female. Not fight against it. Women, we need to stop being at war with our bodies.

For years, I was lead to believe that being a woman sucked. Women complain about PMS and use this as a hall pass to be a total bitch. They call-in from work because their bloating and cramping is so severe. They eat whatever they want because CRAVINGS, yo. They invest hundreds of dollars in makeup and skin care regimens because acne flare ups are terrible.

It seemed to me like women became almost possessed by this alien life-form for a week or two - this alien life form being hormones. These hormones literally running amok inside of women like a pissed-off two year old after mom stopped playing Baby Shark.

So of course, as soon as I got my period and I was old enough to make my own decision - the ripe age of 16, I went on hormonal birth control - the pill. I didn't want to deal with ANY of that stuff, so before I even really had a chance to see my what hormones were like - I simply turned them off. Instead, I took synthetic hormones that were worse, but I didn't know it. I could straight-cycle my pills (there's no need to bleed when taking the pill) so I could go months without a period. To me that meant I was "escaping" the woes of being a woman.

I thought I was happy.

Flash forward almost 10 years later. I've since tried several different types of pill. I stick to the pill because I want something easy to take and inexpensive. I take it because I don't want to deal with a period, and because my dermatologist told me it would help with my acne. (I used to have terrible, cystic acne).

While still taking the pill - I get blood work done and food-sensitivity testing done. Turns out my body is highly-reactive to A LOT of foods that I was eating A LOT OF. Gluten, wheat, all cows milk products, yeast, malt, etc. On top of that, I'm moderately reactive to even more foods that I eat a lot of - eggs, coffee, etc. I cut out most of these foods and eat a few in moderation. My gut feels so much better. In turn, I think cutting out a lot of this systemic inflammation internally helped me recover faster, sleep better, and aided in less acne. For the first time since I could remember, I didn't need to go to bed with a heating pad on my belly.

I'd been suffering from pretty bad social anxiety though, and eliminating these foods didn't seem to help. I just assumed it was how I was wired. My sister complained of it, too, so I assumed it was genetic. I didn't even think to assume I was actually peri-menopausal thanks to these freaking birth control pills. It's not normal to have debiltiating heat flashes at 30, guys.

I also suffered from a super low-libido. I told myself this was because I was training really hard the last several years to make it to Regionals, that I ran several businesses, because I wasn't 20 anymore, etc. I made a lot of excuses. I was tired a lot. Uninterested.

When Travis and I began talking about starting a family - I imagined coming off of the pill. Initially, I was terrified. Oh no! I'd have to have a period. And my acne would be terrible. I figured the best time to come off of it and learn how to deal with it, would be as soon as he went overseas. A 9 month deployment is a good time to figure shit out.

I started doing a ton of research on hormonal birth control, women's hormones, and it turns out, I was in the absolute dark prior to this. I didn't know how important and beneficial production of my own progesterone was, the negative side affects of taking the pill, and that not all women have terrible PMS, in fact, your period should be pretty easy to navigate ... if you're healthy.

Did you know that women over the age of 30 who have been on the pill for 10+ years are at a much greater risk for developing breast cancer?

When I read that, I pretty much knew I needed to get off the pill ASAP. Before coming off of the pill though, there were things I needed to do to ensure a smooth transition to encourage regular ovulation - aka healthy, normal periods.

1. Eliminate stress. Under stress, your hypothalamus reduces signals to your pituitary, which in turn, reduces production of FSH and LH - the two hormones that promote ovulation. Stress also increases cortisol - and long-term cortisol is not beneficial. When it's high day to day, it steals protein from your muscles and reduces your sensitivity to insulin. It also impedes your immune system and impedes ovulation + ovarian steroid production. This is what we call HPA-Axis Dysfunction or Adrenal Fatigue.

To prevent things like fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, low-blood pressure, brain fog, PMS, and irregular periods, you want to manage your stress.

I learned that synthetic progestins in birth control worsen adrenal fatigue. This is where my anxiety was coming from!

To manage my stress, I ensure I have ample time in my day to relax, I have plenty of systems in place to be productive at work without overworking, and that I enjoy my time in the gym. I also include regular yoga, massage and started to incorporate meditation. I also started eating more regular, balanced meals to regulate my blood sugar.

2. Supplement:

+ Magnesium: calms the nervous system
+ Zinc: improves hippocampus health
+ B-Vitamins: reduce stress, calm anxiety
+ Rhodiola: increases energy, decreases stress, improved depression
+ Vitamin D: regulator of hormone and immune function
+ NAC: restores regular ovulation and reduces anxiety
+ DIM: phytonutrient made from broccoli and cauliflower
+ Reishi Mushroom: blocks androgen receptors

I added these supplements to my daily routine 3 months before I was to come off of birth control and have continued with them since.

3. Get 8 hours of sleep a night. I talk about this all the time! But it's important to hormone and period health, too. I used to suffer from insomnia, so regulating my blue-light, dimming bright lights, supplementing with the above supplements, and sleeping in a cold, dark room, really helped. Sleep is more important than exercise for overall health. 

4. Exercise Regularly. Notice how this is below sleeping. Always prioritize sleep! Exercise is important to period health because it reduces cortisol and moderates your stress response, improves insulin sensitivity and reduces chronic inflammation.

5. Reduce inflammation. Chronic inflammation is more than just pain and redness or swelling. If you're inflamed - you have cytokines in your body. Cytokines are part of the inflammatory response, they're helpful because they help fight infection. But they also mess up the communication between your hormones and your hormone-sensitive tissues - they butt into the conversation and make a mess of it. They block receptors for good hormones - like progesterone and thyroid hormones and can over-stimulate bad hormones like estrogen and testosterone.

I reduced inflammation greatly by changing my diet and cutting out those foods my body did NOT like. Reducing alcohol intake and paying more attention to environmental toxins all help eliminate inflammation.

6. Incorporate more phytoestrogens. These bad boys bind to estrogen receptors acting as an anti-estrogen, which can be beneficial for symptoms of estrogen-dominance, like heavy periods. DIM is a supplement you can take for more phytoestrogens. I started taking this once daily.

I came off the pill and had no idea what to expect. I let most of you guys know on Instagram and got a ton of positive encouragement. I believe 100% the mind dictates our physical outcomes, so I stayed very positive and excited. Here's what happened:

Within 3 days, I noticed WAY less anxiety and almost zero heat flashes.
Within 5 days, I noticed this immense sex-drive that literally came WHOOSING back into my life.
At the 3 week mark, I got one pimple that was a little cystic. This could be period related, but could also have been due to a weekend of travel and poor eating choices (I let some gluten, wheat and dairy slip in).
At the 27 day mark, I got my period. I've never been so excited! I bled for exactly 5 days, it was normal to light the entire time and I only experienced bloating and cramping for the first 2-3 days.

It should also be noted, the week before my period, I was having a hard time recovering per my Whoop. I spent a lot of days in the 34-66% recovery range, which is abnormal for me. I'm learning more about how my hormones affect my training.

*A few days after coming off of the pill, I started supplementing with Vitex. This supplement helps restore natural periods.

I'm using the period app Flo to help me monitor my menstrual cycle. I paid for the premium version. Based on the tracker, I should be ovulating on the 15th! Let's hope I can get my body into a routine of regular periods, soon.

A lot of people have asked what I'll be using for birth control now with my husband. We're going to give FAM (fertility awareness method) a try. I've just ordered a DAYSY tracker to increase the FAM efficacy. This gives me several months to get into a routine of tracking on my own before we play between the sheets. We DO want to get on the baby-making train soon.

There have been a few women and a few books that have been paramount in my journey to period health! I can't recommend The Period Repair Manual enough. I also love following Lara Briden on Instagram.

So, here we are, one month in! And lots of really good things to report! BUT, we are only one month in. And, I know at this point, that it really takes the body 3-6 months to express it's hormone health. There's still a lot that needs to be navigated.

But, I must say, taking my female health into my own hands and discovering the power of hormones has been incredibly liberating. Rather than masking my health conditions with synthetic hormones - I'm facing these battles head on, with education and preparation, and I want to share my journey to help inspire and encourage other women to do the same.

Cheers to being a woman. <3

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