Represent the Run: Let's Keep Talking About Periods
When Steph Bruce posted her blog, Let’s Talk About Periods, I felt compelled to continue to share my story. I have shared about this before but now coming off National Girls and Women in Sports Day, it is time to share more. If there is anything I can do to encourage women and girls in sport, it is to do so in a way that promotes health and longevity. It is time to #RepresentTheRun for our future generations.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been to a doctor and when the question came up, “What was the date of your last period”, my “I don’t know” response was followed up by nothing. An acknowledgement but not a concern. That question, being treated like a check box on an anonymous survey. It’s not okay. I have been to a doctor that said, “that’s just what happens to runners.” I went to another doctor who told me a lot of women don’t get their period when they work out and I could quit but that’s the tough part when you chose a profession like running. His attitude was, it’s not that big of deal and you can deal with it when and if you decide to have kids. I have been told to take birth control just to have a period but that is just a mask. It doesn’t fix the underlying problems. It doesn’t address the issue of bone density loss. I went to an endocrine doctor who put me on hormones but had no plan to solve what was causing my problem in the first place. By the time I saw her I was already eating more and had gained weight but her only suggestion was to keep gaining weight. I have been to a gyno who said it wasn’t a problem as long as I could get a period so he put me on high dose estrogen to test it. I went to a sports medicine doctor who as soon as I told him I didn’t have a period he without question told me I wasn’t eating enough and my body fat was too low. We had no discussion of diet prior. We didn’t test my body fat. It was all assumptions. All generalizations. He was right that I needed to eat more but telling someone to simply eat more isn’t effective. To someone who feels like they can’t lose weight and gain easily, it feels like you aren’t being listened to. For years I did nothing because I trusted that maybe it was normal. But it’s not. The way we talk about it needs to change. The conversations surrounding it need to become more frequent. If you have struggled keep sharing!
Before I was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2009 I weighed as much as 124 lbs. At that time I had an irregular period and felt awful. I was anemic and tired all the time. My stomach always hurt. I had 2 stress fractures. I had gained weight and felt awful. When I finally cut gluten out of my diet I saw improvement all around. My anemia improved. I felt better and my performance improved. I also lost about 8-10 lbs in just about 2 weeks and with it, my period.
Dealing with the weight gain and stomach issues I found myself counting how many goldfish I would eat to try to control it. When things improved I became hyper aware of everything I was eating. I was paranoid of reverting back to how things were before. I was always scared I would accidentally eat gluten. This was when my under-eating problem began. Part of it was how hard it was to eat gluten free in 2009 but it was mostly due to the change in my performance. As humans we are creatures of our own experiences. With the weight change I saw my performance improve. The fact that I wasn’t eating gluten was probably the biggest reason but my mind was fixated on the change in weight. I began associating faster running with lower weight. But that’s not me. I didn’t need to be any thinner. There is no perfect body type for running. The focus needs to stay on how we feel. Are you improving? Are you fueling properly? Recovering well? Is your body functioning in the way it should be? Great, your life span as a runner will be long. I didn’t and it hurt me.
My weight from 2009-2013 ranged from 113-101. My body fat was always in the normal range. By all measures I didn’t have an eating disorder, but I wasn’t doing myself any favors either. You don’t have to fit the stereotype to have a problem. I thought I was an exception to the rule because I didn’t fit the stereotype, but I wasn’t. The issue is that body fat and weight aren’t necessarily the only variables affecting your period and everybody is different. I got my period once when I was at my lowest weight but my body fat was also almost it’s highest at it’s lowest weight. I remember not really understanding how that was possible but it makes sense to me now. When you are under-eating your body converts more of what you eat to stored fat to use in case of emergency. Basically your body doesn’t trust you so it creates mechanisms to protect you in case you starve it. Then, when you run or workout, your body breaks down more lean muscle to keep you moving.
Hormonally, when you aren’t eating enough, your body is operating at a deficit in terms of energy coming in and going out. Your body perceives this as a threat, ensuing stress, and thus begins pumping out cortisol which is your stress hormone. The high cortisol production suppresses other hormone function and the combination of the hard work you are doing running and working out and then not refueling properly keeps your cortisol running high. Your body diverts resources away from non essential functions, aka baby making because if you can’t put your own mask on you have no business helping anyone else put one on. Estrogen and progesterone are suppressed and the longer you go operating in this state, the harder it is to get back to normal. Not to mention, there will be an end. You won’t continue to perform at the same high level and you will be sacrificing your long term health.
The real struggle came when I graduated from college and made beneficial changes to my diet and still never got a period. I was doing things right. I was listening to my body. I was running PR’s. I looked for answers then, but every doctor I saw in that time period didn’t seemed concerned. That was were the system broke down. I often wonder where I would be if I had been able to fix this problem sooner. My problem became compounded when I overtrained for the Trials in 2016. As I learned this year working with Dr. Clyde, your body can get stuck in a period of overtraining for years if you don’t take on the necessary interventions. I was also having some issues with my thyroid and had 3 parasites last year that were adding stress to my body. I had to address those 2 things before I could move forward at all. Then in October of last year I met with Dr. Clyde. He listened to me, understood my goals and my concerns. He asked for a detailed breakdown of my diet and gave me beneficial feedback.
As of last month I have gotten my period back. I started working with Dr. Clyde in October. Spotted in December and got my period in January. The main changes I had to make were related to timing and eating more animal fats. I had made progress in my diet over the last 4 years but wasn’t eating enough of the carbs I had labeled as unhealthy. I added more protein to my pre-run meal and started eating carbs within 5-10 min of finishing a run. My friends make think I am crazy with my obsession with getting this in but when you have been operating with chronically high cortisol for so long, timing matters to break the trend. After long runs or hard workouts I eat a muffin, bagel, or UCAN within 5-10 min and after easy runs I eat a banana. Then within the hour I normally eat something with protein and more carbs. This helped to improve my recovery and prevent a cortisol spike from my blood sugar dropping. The other thing I needed was grass-fed butter and cheese. I was eating a lot of healthy fats but avoided cheese because of my lactose intolerance. There is a fat in cheese and butter that I wasn’t getting from other sources and my body needed it. My functional medicine doctor mentioned I needed to raise my triglycerides to help hormone function and I think this did that.
Moral of the story, I lost my period in 2009 and now 10 years later I have finally gotten it back naturally. Over the last 10 years I got it a few times and within the last two years I was getting it but not entirely on my own. I am at a place where my weight is higher than it was when I was running my fastest but I am running times in workouts similar to what I was doing in college. As I mentioned earlier, we can’t just tell ourselves to believe things we only have contradicting experiences in. We have to prove it to ourselves. Last year I was caught up in blaming my higher weight for not being able to run as fast as I had in the past. For the first time since making changes, I am finally rewriting that narrative in my head. I haven’t been excited to race in a while but today I am. Today is my first race in 2019 and it’s time to keep moving forward. Be your most powerful self, whatever that may.