Fertility: An Underrated Health Marker

Today  we’re visited by Maggie of M=1, who is a member of the Paleo Parents TeamMaggie is not a medical practitioner, but after struggling with and recovering from hypothalamic amenorrhea, she has developed a passion for fertility as a marker of overall health in women.  

We here at Paleo Parents also feel strongly that health is closely tied to hormones, as we so often discuss. When hormones are disregulated in women, then often her female hormones are also disrupted. We are often asked to provide a follow-up post for the female version of Your Non-Cooperative Spouse – I would argue this is that post. Women can be healthy, happy and pain-free during “that time of the month”, shocking as it might sound. Stacy wrote about her success here, and hopefully today’s post by Maggie provides more insight from a different perspective.

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There is no dearth of health markers in today’s increasingly health-conscious world. We’ve got weight, BMI and body fat percentage. Fasting insulin levels, blood pressure and heart rate variability. Total cholesterol, not to mention the breakdown of LDL/HDL, ratio of triglycerides to HDL, and LDL particle size. There’s truly no limit on how nit-picky we can get in our efforts to evaluate our health, fitness and possible risks.

But there’s one aspect of women’s health that tends to get brushed under the rug: fertility.

In my (completely un-medically trained) opinion, there is no more underrated health marker for women of child-bearing age. Fertility usually comes up as an issue only if and when a woman decides she wants to have a baby; often, it’s not a topic of conversation unless a woman finds she cannot have a baby.

But let me ask you:

  • Are your periods regular?
  • Are they painful?
  • Do you even still get your period?

If this line of questioning strikes you as odd, more power to you! Your experience with regular, uneventful periods might be “normal,” but, in my anecdotal experience, it’s not terribly common.

For many women I know, menstruation is an inconvenience at best. Cramps, migraines, cravings, bloating, and other symptoms normally associated as PMS are dismissed as “normal.”

Then there are the women who simply stop having their periods. Some may choose to purposefully control and limit the frequency of their periods through hormone replacement such as birth control. Others may be pregnant, breast-feeding or going through menopause.

For others, a cessation of periods for three or more cycles — known as secondary amenorrhea — may catch them by surprise.

Amenorrhea can be attributed to a wide variety of factors, such as restrictive dieting, stress, over-exercising, illness, sudden weight gain or loss, impaired thyroid function, PCOS, and others.

And lest you think amenorrhea is a blessing or respite for those suffering from painful periods, let me note that it is not risk-free: the condition has been associated with an increased risk for bone thinning and fractures.

As you can see, irregular cycles can be an identifiable signal for non-female related underlying health problems or deficiencies, and losing your period altogether could lead to possible health issues in the future.

In other words, a period is more than a biological inconvenience. Reproductive health and fertility are important beyond a woman’s ability to get pregnant.

I’m not here to offer advice, tips and tricks, or prescriptions for beating PMS, getting pregnant or regulating hormones. (There are many experts — see below — who are already doing that.)

And even though this is a paleo blog, this is not a post singing the praises of paleo (or any other diet) for its ability to cure PMS, restore periods or optimize fertility.

Everyone’s health journey is unique and it takes a certain amount of n=1 self-experimentation to find what combination of diet, exercise, meditation, supplementation and medical intervention works.

I simply hope to get women thinking and talking freely about a key aspect of our health.

If you are having issues with your cycle, here is what I would suggest:

1) Find and talk to a trusted professional.

I, personally, started with my primary care physician and gynecologist, but had little luck working with them. I sensed that their diagnosis was incorrect and pushed for a referral to a reproductive endocrinologist, who over the course of several months helped me figure out the problem. I then worked with a nutritional therapy consultant to develop a recovery plan. (Just as your health journey won’t be the same as mine, your support team likely won’t look the same either.)

2) Do your own research.

As terrifying as WebMD searches can be, the internet can also be a wonderful tool for accessing information and finding people going through similar experiences. It never hurts to be armed with knowledge about your own body, and going into a doctor’s appointment with information can be very helpful. I’m not talking about charging into your gyno’s office ready for a fight. I’m talking about being able to have a conversation with your doc, to be able to ask thoughtful questions and then understand the answer. For example, if I didn’t have a basic understanding of the role that the hypothalamus and pituitary glands play in a woman’s cycle, my endocrinologist’s tests and diagnosis would have gone over my head.

3) Don’t feel guilty.

Given that you’re a reader of a paleo blog, I sense that you are open (and possibly prefer) alternative therapies. Food, lifestyle, natural supplements and the like can be therapeutic. Yet you may find that you want or need to go the conventional medical route for a solution — that is okay! As tempting as it may be to strive for a level of primal, optimal health without any outside intervention, that isn’t always possible. Likewise, don’t feel guilty for second-guessing your doctor or other medical practitioner. (If I hadn’t asked for a second and then a third opinion, I never would have received an accurate diagnosis.)

4) Be patient.

As basic and primal as reproduction may be, the biological processes involved are quite complex. Women’s hormones exist in a delicate balance. This is not the time to bulldoze through trouble-shooting techniques. Whatever you do, give it time.

To wrap up, I’d like to share some alternative resources that I’ve found useful in my own recovery but that may not come up as a top hit in a Google search for “fertility.”

I hope you find these helpful — and please feel free to link up to other resources you know and love in the comments below!

Paleo for Women:

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Stress and Female Hormones: A Recipe for Fertility Disaster

Paleo and Menstrual Cramps

Overcoming Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

All about PCOS 

PCOS Unlocked

Dr. Sara Gottfried:

Podcast: “The Hormone Cure” with Dr. Sara Gottfried (via Balanced Bites)

Book: “The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep, Sex Drive and Vitality” 

Chris Kresser:

Q&A on Fertility and Nutrition (via PaleoPlan) 

5 Dangerous Myths about Nutrition for Fertility and Pregnancy

Podcast: Nutrition for fertility, pregnancy and breasfeeding

Podcast: Healthy birth control, irregular periods and UTIs

Mark’s Daily Apple:

Primal Nutrition and Fertility

Other:

Book: “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” 

Podcast: The Paleo View: “Fertility, PCOS and Female Hormones”

Paleo Parents: Aunt Flow’s Gone Au Naturale

Maggie is an avid self-experimenter who blogs about her adventures in food, fitness and mindset at M=1. She found the Paleo lifestyle through CrossFit in 2011 and met the PaleoParents soon after through our meat-up. Despite having an odd number of things not in common, we just hit it off! Must be her intoxicating smile and exuberant love of life. Maggie has a number of future guest posts scheduled, to include her unique perspective as a single girl living the lifestyle. You can connect with her via her blog and on Instagram.  

 

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