Wow I can't believe I am finally writing this article. I drafted this article a couple years ago and was never able to publish it since I never healed completely. Today I am going to give you my story with secondary amenorrhea and how I finally solved it. Feel free to email me for personal questions or ask in the comments, but remember that I am not a doctor and you should always consult one first before making a major change to your health regimen.
There are many reasons why my body gave me secondary amenorrhea, the absence of menses due to loss of weight, excessive exercise, an eating disorder, and/or stress.
When I first started menstruation I was 12 years old and overweight. It was also in the middle of a very stressful time- my parents had just announced that they were getting divorced. I was emotionally distraught and unhappy with myself. This was over the summer before 7th grade. I was addicted to unhealthy foods (I had to eat dessert at least once a day) and I couldn't exercise because my endurance levels were so low.
At the beginning of 7th grade my father took me to see an Ayurvedic specialist. Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga. It is supposed to help you detoxify through the application of oils with a special type of massage and the use of a sweat chamber. Well, it worked for me. I lost almost 25 pounds within a couple months, which is a lot of weight for someone my height (I was 5' back then, about 5'2" now!). I had no desire or craving to eat sweets and I still don't. I also started gymnastics at this time although only for fun not competition. It was 2 times a week, but gymnastics is known for causing amenorrhea. And my parents were still going through the divorce so I was angry and fearful and I felt neglected. I neglected my body because I didn't know how to deal with my emotions and I didn't properly nourish myself. Since I didn't have cravings it was easy to not eat a lot of food or only eat certain food groups. My parents didn't even notice when I had, for example, only cauliflower with tomato sauce for dinner. And so we had 4 classic things going on here- stress, weight loss, improper nourishment, and exercise (not excessive though) which caused a temporary amenorrhea for me. It wasn't long though, maybe about 9 months before my body adjusted to my new weight and I began menstruating again. I menstruated all the way through freshman year, but I dealt with horrible cramps that made me cry and be bed-ridden for a whole day. I am allergic to ibuprofen (aspirin) so I could only take Tylenol which didn't even help! I found no relief and tried to force myself not to overdose on Tylenol. (BTW the only relief I have ever found for cramps is a hot water bottle on your stomach or back and taking these natural pills for relief; some people also swear by exercise such as running-- good luck!)
By the end of my Freshman year around March I noticed that I had gained some weight again. It wasn't because I was eating sweets, it was because I still didn't have an idea of how to properly nourish myself. So, although I wasn't eating a lot of foods I was eating unhealthy ones, especially at school and this caused major fat gain. I would eat Frito's and gummy bears for snacks (because it said 0% fat on the label so that was OK, right?) and Nature Valley bars (which are not natural at all!) and bagels for breakfast every Friday. All those artificial carbs added up. I noticed it in my arms one day when I was standing in the mirror getting ready for school. And it was the first time I ever looked at my body with a critical eye. When I was younger and overweight I was always self-conscious of my body and saddened that I didn't look like the other thin girls, but I never criticized myself. I never took responsibility. I just prayed that I could be skinny. But now, in high school, it was a different story. I knew that it was completely my fault and I wanted to do something about it because I wanted to feel good in a bikini. My Dad started taking me to personal training lessons so that I could learn how to properly exercise and eat. I didn't lose weight, but that fat did turn into muscle and my body looked toned. I could fit into all my clothes comfortably and I felt confident. My personal trainer also had me download MyFitnessPal (a great app if you need to keep track of your daily intake) and I learned how to meet my dietary requirements for the day and not eat so much sugar. I still was eating carbs, usually I had yogurt with berries for breakfast and then a protein, vegetable, and small slice of whole wheat bread for both lunch and dinner so I felt satiated. I was eating enough calories and I felt great. I was going to personal training sessions throughout the summer, biking with my brother, and swimming at the beach. I felt energized and fit. And it would have been fine if I had just gone on like this forever because I still was menstruating, but then sophomore year started and the biggest mistake of my life was about to occur.
About a month into school my teacher who knew I was interested in health/nutrition showed me a book titled "The Paleo Diet" by Robb Wolf. I just shrugged my shoulders. I had never heard of it or the diet for that matter. He encouraged me to try it, a diet that touted not eating wheat, grains, dairy, legumes, soy, most fruit, not even really nuts, no highly refined oils, no sugar of any kind, eggs, and I am sure I am forgetting something else, but that's fine you get how crazy this diet is! Wolf emphasized to cut out all of the above for at least a month and then reintroduce foods like eggs, fruit, nuts, and nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant) to see how your body reacts and determine if those should become permanent staples in your diet. The rest of the list should never ever be eaten and this diet should be combined with HIIT- high interval intermittent training (basically Crossfit) which I still believe is a good way to exercise, but Wolf's advice was horrible for a teenager my age already working out with certain carbohydrate needs. My teacher really encouraged me to try the diet. I didn't really read the book so I didn't realize you were supposed to replace the carbs with fat to become a fat-burner. I cut out the bread which was fine, but still ate my yogurt in the mornings. My teacher criticized me: "It's not paleo, if you don't go all the way," and so I continued cutting out my favorite food groups. I was limited to a diet of protein and vegetables and some fat once I realized that's what I should be consuming instead of carbs. And for the first few months, I really did feel much better. I slept better, felt lighter after dinner, and could sustain myself longer in a workout since I was burning unlimited fat stores instead of carbs. But, my instant energy to do sprints was low because I had no carbs in my glycogen stores to fuel me.
I just kept getting more and more extreme with the Paleo diet. My teacher sent me articles about the benefits of intermittent fasting so then I started fasting through the winter of my sophomore year. I would fast for 16, sometimes 18, hours and then only eat in a 6-8 hour time window. I was cold all the time and my hair was getting thinner. I also wasn't sleeping the whole night through. I would wake up really early in the morning after only 7 hours of sleep and feel very energized. But then I would be exhausted by the end of the day. Instead of stopping this nonsense, I continued, subbing olive oil for coconut oil and even taking a spoonful each morning.
In December, over winter break, I got my last period for the next three and a half years. It wasn't even a period, just spotting, and then my cycle was gone. I had screwed up my body, but no one knew or seemed to notice since I took food to school I just didn't eat it until 1 p.m. and then I ate dinner with the family every day. I was starving, though, and thinking about food nonstop. It was all I could ever think about. And even though I was eating more calories than ever now (because of all the fat) I was never ever satiated because I had no carbs in my body. My stomach was messed up and I felt nauseous quite often. When I would eat carbs such as sweet potato or white rice my veins would swell because my blood was so depleted of sugar. And since my body had not had carbs in such a long time I would get huge cravings for them and I would only want to eat more and more carbs. But I thought I had to add fat to make myself full so I would be eating a lot of carbs with the fat and it just added to more and more calories and still-hungry Stephanie. Since I wasn't eating any whole grain carbohydrates I wasn't getting any of the fiber that keeps you full and my satiation signals were messed up. My body could never tell me I was full.
By the end of the year I was dealing with constipation, depression, a cold body- feet and hands mostly, and fatigue. But my teacher kept sending me nutrition articles and I kept trying new things, getting more stringent with my paleo diet than ever. I became obsessed with never touching a grain of gluten or dairy. If someone even passed a bread basket over my plate I would go ballistic. If my mom cooked a meal with bread in a pan and didn't wash it, I wouldn't use the pan. Also because I was eating so much fat as I stated before I actually wasn't even in good shape so my confidence was low. I was thick from the fat and all my clothes were tight. My Mom noticed: "God you are really gaining weight Stephanie, you should watch what you eat." But I didn't know what was wrong and why I wasn't thin if I was eating such a healthy diet. Even my cholesterol was high-- a total of 220, although my HDL was 95 which is a good indicator of heart healthiness, but my LDL (bad cholesterol) was also too high.
By the time summer rolled around I made a promise to myself that I would lose this weight I had gained from eating all the fat. We were going on a trip to China for two weeks so I saw it as the perfect opportunity to eat less since the food wasn't going to be that optimal anyways. Well I don't know what exactly happened, whether I was constipated the whole trip or just grossed out by the pollution and weird foods, but I really couldn't eat much at all. I became nauseous just looking at food. I couldn't go to the bathroom either and I was just really suffering from stomach distress. I lost a lot of muscle and fat and got to a really thin weight. When I returned everything was loose on me.
And then I headed to Greece. One day my Grandma made meatballs. She made fried ones for my brothers with flour and then started to make mine in the pan without washing it. I could see that there were still particles of flour in the pan. So I freaked out and said I wasn't going to eat it. I was a bitch. And looking back on it, I feel really really bad. I was in such a bad place mentally, hormones lower than ever and weak from the loss of muscle mass. On the second half of the Greece trip, being the health obsessor I was, I looked for healthy diets to cure constipation and I found a book titled "The Raw Food Detox". I vowed to start it when I returned home. It wasn't all bad, but I definitely wasn't eating enough protein and got to the thinnest weight since when I lost all my weight for the first time in 7th grade. Being 5'2" now that was very very thin and people noticed. But no one was concerned-- they complimented me! This is the worse thing to do to someone struggling with Orthorexia, but how did they know? It was just fuel for me to keep being more extreme.
But on the bright side, the raw food detox did make me get my steamer which I absolutely love and cherish to this day!! I went on like this, obsessing, for an entire year. I was moody, mean, angry and resentful. I didn't take responsibility for myself and I combined severe eating with hard HIIT exercise.
The summer before my senior year I went to a program at Stanford and this changed a lot of my severe eating habits for the better. For one, I was sick of eating meat and vegetables. At Stanford, they had plenty of vegetarian options at lunch like lentils and brown rice. I stuck with those foods and my stomach felt much better and my satiation signals kicked in because of the fiber in the foods! I was still obsessed about not touching gluten or dairy or soy, but opening up my eating habits in this way was the first step to healing.
By the end of the summer in August as I was starting my CommonApp and applying for schools, my Mom asked me when the last time I had gotten my period was. I said I couldn't remember. She was very upset because having Amenorrhea is unhealthy for bone health. So she took me to the OBGYN. They took my blood and said my hormone levels were way too low and that I should start a birth control pill. I argued with my Mother. I knew how bad the birth control pill was for me. It created an artificial period and it had sooo many side effects. But my Mom kept pressuring me and my situation wasn't getting any better (and my acne was horrible) so I acquiesced.
Well starting the birth control pill could not have come at a worse time in my life. I was stressed out from applying to schools, working my a** off to get good grades for first semester in my four AP classes, and not sleeping enough at all. At least my eating habits were better because I was eating more whole grains now (oatmeal, quinoa, beans, lentils, brown rice) and my satiation signals were working, but my mental state was declining. I was moody and irritable to my family and friends. I burst out in tears a lot. And my acne didn't get any better. At my follow-up appointment I asked if I could get my BC pill changed, but my doctor said it was the lowest dose there was. I was unhappy, but she really gave me no other option. I was getting an artificial period, but it wasn't really my body so I don't count it. I was still in amenorrhea. And I also gained weight even though I was eating healthy, balanced meals and exercising an adequate amount. I gained it a lot around the hips and it was embarrassing because I could no longer fit into any of my pants. By winter break of my senior year I was done applying to my schools, but still super stressed out. I decided I was going to stop all exercise and just devote myself to yoga at least four times a week.
To this day I am still reaching that goal happily and I must say that yoga transformed my life. I had always dabbled in some vinyasa and bikram, but this pledge to do it at least four times a week was what really changed me. It gave me a purpose outside of school and a passion to dedicate myself to, one that I truly enjoyed. It helped me regain my strength and flexibility, but more importantly my soundness of mind. By March I was extremely unhappy with the birth control pill and my yoga practice had brought me to the conclusion that I needed to stop taking it. I could solve this naturally. And I would.
I searched around and my Dad recommended I see an East Asian Medicine doctor. The one I chose specializes in acupuncture and customized herbal formulas to help balance out the bodies energy centers, "fire", and for me, it balanced out my hormones. I must admit I was a bit skeptical especially when I saw the price tag on her services, but my Dad encouraged me to keep going every few weeks. Every time I would get an acupuncture treatment I would fall asleep during the treatment, which was so restful. Then she would give me an herbal formula to take home and decoct. The herbal formula had many different herbs from all over the world, mostly China and India, from the spicy Fu Zi to ginger for digestion.
The year was wrapping down as well. I had committed to Emory, I was done with my AP exams and felt confident, and I just had to graduate and enjoy my friends, family, and my summer-- which is exactly what I did. I followed the doc's strict orders-- making sure I got enough sleep, eating three balanced meals a day, and drinking my decoction. I've felt more rested this summer than ever before. I feel strong inside and out. My hair is thick. My body is toned, I am not thin, but I am at a weight that is healthy for me and that I feel confident in. I make healthy eating choices and feel good about the food I eat. I do not obsess about food, nor do I think about it constantly. Once in awhile I will enter in a day of eating to MyFitnessPal to make sure I am staying on track and meeting my goals, but I really listen to my body now and what it needs. My satiation signals are working perfectly especially now that I am eating plenty of whole grains. I still eat a very healthy diet full of whole foods and I still stay away from gluten because I believe I have an allergy, but I eat everything else from dairy to soy to nuts and plenty of fruit. All in moderation. It's amazing to me how the body heals. I have nourished it and loved it for the past 9 months since I started my yoga practice. I have stayed away from all intense exercise and only done yoga as my physical and mental exercise (and meditation here and there).
Most importantly, I feel content. I am at a good place with my family and friends. And it is amazing to me that in a place of such transitions this summer between traveling to getting ready for college and finally moving to a new destination, that my body has still healed. Because I have loved it and promised to feed it wholesome foods that it wants. Not to deprive it ever. Never to follow a diet, but to commit to a lifetime of wellbeing practices-- my yoga, meditation, cooking, laughing, travel, and alone time (Oh, and east asian medicine too).
I feel such an amazing bliss in the sun, after a yoga practice, and relaxing with friends and family. I enjoy my time with others and sitting alone and reading a good book. I am so happy my body has recovered and I am ready to nourish it properly for the rest of my life. I have such gratitude for my body inside and out. My yoga practice has cultivated this. I am filled with wonder when I do an asana I never thought I could perform or find my breath totally aligned without even trying. We are so fortunate to have these wonderful bodies that carry us and endure so much internally and externally.
I just want to finish with a thank you to the Universe and God for healing me at such a perfect time, right as I head off to college and away from the help of my medicine doctor and my family. Of course my yoga practice will always be by my side now and healthy eating will always be there. I may never have a thigh gap and I may always have big hips and small breasts, but that's okay with me because I love my body and myself. I'm perfect and it is all perfect. The universe designed us all for perfection and for this I offer my utmost appreciation.
On that note, I am going to go eat my amazing breakfast muesli, finish packing for school, and spend time today with my family. Even if your situation is completely different from mine and you never struggled with a problem like amenorrhea I hope you find your solution for happiness and fulfillment in life-- whether it be a yoga practice, running marathons, or opening that business you've always dreamt of.
Find it and do it. I promise you won't regret it because this life is all we have to do what we love, feel love, and send love everywhere. Namaste.