Posts tagged nutrition
PCOS & FHA Update: Regression, Stress, and Next Steps

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, dietitian, or medical professional. I’m simply sharing my experience with PCOS and FHA and the strategies that have and have not worked for me. Always consult with your health care professional and remember that what works for me may not work for you.

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It’s been a minute since I’ve written or talked about my PCOS and FHA. In case you missed it or want to catch up, I was diagnosed with PCOS and functional hypothalamic amenorrhea in the winter for 2016 and have since been on a journey to find ways to keep my body happy. You can read more about that here:

Dealing with PCOS & FHA: My Experience

Dealing with PCOS & FHA Part 2: Carbs, Stress, & Weight Gain

PCOS & FHA: 1 Year Update


Since my last update, quite a lot has happened. I started dieting and it was going quite well – I was making decent body composition changes, my lifting was going well, and the scale was even moving down. At my last endocrinologist appointment in late December/early January, my testosterone levels were a smidge elevated but nothing that was extremely out of the ordinary for what was going on in my life at the time. For me, my testosterone levels will get elevated during times of high stress, low sleep, and when I’m doing training that is focused on higher intensity (i.e. heavier lifting) rather than high volume. I had not been experiencing any negative symptoms that tend to occur when my levels are high, so I took note to chill out a bit more and went on about my life.

Stress and Regression

Stress is my number one “trigger” for my hormones getting out of whack. Stress comes in many forms ranging from stress because of positive things, stress from acute traumatic incidents, and daily life stressors. I like to think of the stress response as a light switch on a dimmer. When we incur stress like the physical stress of training, daily life stressors, and a fight with a friend or significant other, our dimmer switch gets turned up and our room is brightly lit. We recover, eat well, hydrate, calm the fuck down, and then the dimmer switch gets turned down. Sometimes though, there are stressors that turn that switch all the way up and keep it up. Things like traumatic events, large life changes, and jarring incidents would certainly qualify here.

In January, my switch got turned ALL the way up. My brother had a very extreme health episode and was in the hospital on life support for several days. (Sidenote: thank you to everyone who reached out with kind words – it meant A LOT to me and my family <3 ) He is physically fine now but sustained an anoxic (lack of oxygen) brain injury and suffice it say, life has not and will not be the same. His recovery has been nothing short of incredible and his prognosis is the best that it could possibly be. The body is freaking incredible and my levels of gratitude for his health, my family, and life in general are astronomically high, but the trauma of that event left a serious mark on my body. Add to that the ever present stress of trying to build and run a business by myself, general life shit, and a very busy schedule…and well, my stress levels were lit the fuck up.  

I continued on with my life, adjusting to this new normal, and tried to give myself some compassion. Training changed to accommodate a hectic schedule and stress levels, however, I was already committed to a powerlifting meet in early February. I decided against pulling out of the meet because I just wanted to do something that was normal. Things continued to go well in training and I was so ready to have a great meet.

When I went to go weigh in…I was told that I was FIVE pounds over. I had cut weight (mind you, not extremely hard) and according to my apparently very defunct home scale, I was at weight the night before. Not being at weight isn’t a big deal for powerlifting and quite honestly, I didn’t care all that much – I knew I wasn’t going to sweat out 5lbs in the next few hours and I just lifted in the higher weight class. But, it DID throw me off my game enough to shake my confidence somewhat. And more than that, it was a big glaring sign that things were not quite right on the hormone front.

I felt defeated – my competition plan for the year had already fallen apart but I promptly made a new plan because that is the human that I am. I felt very out of control of my body and was honestly pissed off. I DID THE THINGS DAMMIT. I did my time! I’m ready, SO ready, to just push forward and do what I want to do.  I just felt like someone had pulled the reigns back, just as I was prepared to sprint ahead. My meet went sort of okay but it was abundantly clear that my body was not happy. My anxiety was outrageous, my recovery was shit, my weight was one big guessing game, and I felt off. That light switch had been pushed to the brink and in that glaring light, I was forced to see what was in front of me. Hormonally, things were not okay. 

Next Steps

So what now?

Now,  I’m in a space that feels familiar yet very different – clearly, my hormones are a little whacky and my body has detected that things are not quite normal. I’ve been here. I’ve done this. I know HOW to do this. But also, I don’t. The stressors aren’t the same, the process isn’t the same, and my body isn’t the same. This narrative is certainly one that is not unique to anyone who has experienced PCOS or hypothalamic amenorrhea. So, what is game plan now? Quite honestly, it isn’t much different than what I have done in the past. 

The biggest factor, for me, is stress management and reduction. This includes several things:

- more food and lots of it

-  trying new recovery methods

- blocking out time in my schedule to not work/check email/train/etc.

- saying no a whole lot more often

- more quality sleep

 

Training & Nutrition

As far as diet and training go, I was starting to prep for an April strongman show however, given my current weight situation, I decided to withdraw and hold off to aim for a summer show. Switching gears into strongman training means that my volume is quite high and intensity is relatively low. For me, that tends to push my testosterone levels back into the normal range and serves as a good mental relief for me. Training is one of the few times when I am doing something that is solely focused on myself and I can have some time to not interact with a ton of people all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE what I do, but I do need specific times to not be talking, educating, coaching, etc.

On the diet front, after a couple weeks of dieting and being stalled out, my coach upped my calories substantially to help bring stress down and get hormones in a better place. I need to lose a decent amount of weight to make the LW class for my strongman show and honestly, it was not a fun decision to decide to pull out of the April show BUT, there are other shows and that is totally okay. Now it is time to focus on eating more, recovering, and turning that dimmer switch back down. Is it frustrating? Yup. But, I know that it is worth it. I also know that I’ve learned when I’m starting to dig a hole that is too deep and can catch it early, so hopefully, it doesn’t take quite as long to climb out of.

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And that’s the current update! I’m also reading a TON about hypothalamic amenorrhea and female hormonal issues to compile a list of resources that would be helpful. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below!

PCOS & FHA: 1 Year Update

*Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor. What has worked for me won't necessarily work for you and you should always, ALWAYS take the advice and recommendations of your medical professional.*

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Well, it's been just about a year since I was diagnosed with PCOS and FHA (functional hypothalamic amenorrhea). You can read much, much more detail about my initial diagnostic progress, actions taken, and my progress thus far in these two posts:

Dealing with PCOS & FHA: My Experience 

Dealing with PCOS & FHA Part 2: Carbs, Stress, and Weight Gain

I've hesitated on writing a new update because, well...things are pretty great! At my last endocrinologist appointment all of my bloodwork was normal (including my testosterone), my periods have been mostly regular, and everything has felt surprisingly normal. 

Since July, there have been a few tweaks made to my training and my nutrition that have been a sort of litmus test to see how things have come along. The past year has been one giant experiment: how would my body react? would my hormone levels stay normal? what works for me? what doesn't work for me? My coaches, Anthony and Annie at Complete Human Performance, have been absolutely incredible with helping me through this entire process and providing amazing guidance. It truly has been a big collaborative process and I can't thank them enough for helping me through this tough year. With that being said, let's play catch up. 

Training:

Training has involved a lot of playing with different types and styles of programming, working around some nagging things that are really a result of old injuries, my hypermobility, and the fun stuff that comes along with having autoimmunity issues. I've spent the majority of the year training submaximally and building up a lot of volume. A LOT. OF. VOLUME. Particularly for things like my squats (sets of 20, anyone?) I've also spent a lot of time working various sticking points in all of my lifts and  just steadily building over time. I haven't really competed since my meet in March, minus a literally last minute decision to help fill a weight class at a strongman show which I treated as a training day. 

I have most of my competition plans for 2018 laid out and am currently starting a 3 month powerlifting meet prep and starting to push the intensity of training. A large component of being able to do this is learning how to work around my cycle. Since my period has started coming back with regularity, it has decided that I now have a 17-21 day cycle (why, tho?!) so I really only get about one to one and half weeks of normal non PMS/non cycle hormonal levels. The biggest implication of this with my training is that I get very extreme joint laxity before and on my cycle, which means I have to be extremely mindful of positioning, technique, and various other factors when I'm training. I don't tend to experience any extreme variations in strength or abilities around my cycle, but I do monitor it closely to make sure I train accordingly.

Nutrition:

This has been the area that has experienced the greatest change over the past year. Last year, I dieted very hard and made some really great progress physique-wise and then once my body had enough, it really had enough. As I have alluded to in previous posts, I put on a decent bit of weight (around 15lbs or so), which is a bit more than I typically try to put on in an off-season.  It has been incredibly difficult, both mentally and physically, to watch this unfold but it has also been incredibly rewarding.

The most beneficial thing I have done for my body, my sanity, and managing these issues has been: not losing weight. Seriously. I spent almost the entire year not dieting and in fact, spent most of the year bringing my calories way up and keeping them there. If you're dealing with FHA, the one piece of advice I would give is: STOP DIETING. Stop. Stahp. Stop it. There are exceptions to this, of course (and your doctor knows better than I do), but bringing food up and maintaining it there has worked absolute wonders for me and several other women I know. 

After implementing the carb cycling I discussed in part 2, my period returned to normal, as did my hormones, and my physique began to normalize out a bit after a few months. I still carb cycle between my rest days and training days but I've gradually added in a little more carbs on rest days and that seems to be working quite well.

I've been able to begin actually dieting for my season next year with a very slow and steady approach and I'm eating about 600 calories more than I did when I was dieting last year. My coach has only lowered my calories once or twice throughout the past 2 months and I'm continuing to see progress. I'm steadily losing weight in a way that doesn't feel brutally hard, isn't impacting my cycle, and isn't impacting my performance. Honestly, it's been...easy. THAT is what spending a year of not dieting and really trusting the process will do. It wasn't easy, especially mentally, but it was absolutely worth it. 

Mindset:

Stress management still continues to be the most difficult thing for me to implement. It's easy for me to get overwhelmed, spread myself too thin, and get caught up in all of the things I am doing. The difference now is that I am more aware of when this is starting to occur and I do my best to mitigate it. I've made some really big decisions to help with this and while they are scary, they're more than necessary. I've also really thrown myself into things aside from just training and competing. This year has been an incredibly year of growth and quite honestly, I don't think it would have gone that way if I hadn't had really great people in my corner to support me directing my efforts to other things. Managing my expectations regarding my body and training continues to be a huge component of making this entire process manageable. 

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And that's where I am at! I have another follow up in January to make sure my hormone levels stay normal while I'm dieting and training hard. I'll continue to make updates as things change as well. 

Onward and upwards. Always. 

Consistency Series: Mental Fatigue, Willpower, & Motivation

If you missed the Part 1 post on time and effort and how it relates to consistency in nutrition and exercise efforts, check it out here!

 

 

Outside of time and effort, the second most common issues surrounding consistency with nutrition (and exercise) have to do with mindset and mental fatigue.

“I wish I had more willpower.”

“I’m just not motivated.”

“I can’t resist.”

These are not uncommon statements. In fact, I'd venture to say that one or all of these statements has been said by nearly every individual at some point in their health and fitness journey. I know that I've said them more than a few times.  Here’s the thing: they’re all bullshit.

Before we move on to discuss why they’re bullshit and what we can do about them, there is one big caveat that needs to be addressed when it comes to the realm of nutrition and mental fatigue. If you have been dieting (in a caloric deficit or on an ultra restrictive plan for non-medical purposes) for over 3 months with no reprieve, you don’t even need to read any further. Dieting is not a lifestyle. IT IS NOT. For your health and your sanity, you should not be spending 6+ months in an extreme dieting phase. You can not continue to cut and cut from an already low spot - it’s like trying to continue to remove pebbles from an already empty glass. If you feel burnt out and at the end of your rope because you’ve been dieting for an entire year, you may want to stop dieting and try maintaining for a bit. I realize that sounds scary and there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the issue of gaining weight back and such, but maintaining a new body weight and building up your metabolism are critical endeavors for long term health. If you’re a little freaked out, it’s okay. I recommend seeking out the assistance of a coach to help guide you through the process.

Beyond the constant diet cycle, there are several other factor that come into play when we look at consistency and compliance to a protocol (of exercise or diet). So let’s dive right in.

 

 

“I wish I had more willpower”

Willpower is a fascinating topic that has been investigated extensively. There are several different theories about how willpower works when it comes to things like delayed vs. instant gratification, if we have a set amount of willpower, and self control. One popular theory has to do with something called ego-depletion. Ego depletion states that willpower is a finite resource and that exercising self control requires us to draw from this limited pool. Once we’re out of willpower or have drained that pool, our ability to exercise self-control is impaired. There is some debate on whether ego depletion is real thing and what things impact it, which is beyond the scope of this post (see this meta-analysis for a good review). Why even bring up ego depletion? Because it hits on an important concept, which is that willpower is not rigid. Regardless of whether we only have a set amount of “willpower reserves” or infinite willpower, we can and should utilize willpower more efficiently. 

I like to conceptualize willpower as a muscle (because meathead things) that can be worked over time. To illustrate this, let’s walk through a scenario about squats:

Trainee A is a brand new lifter. They’re really excited and enthusiastic to get started and today is their squat day. It is also the day they graduate to a barbell after spending some time learning good squat mechanics with other mechanisms. After some instruction, they put the bar on their back and proceed to squat. Since this is a new skill, they're likely trying to focus on a whole lot of stuff: sitting down and back, keeping their chest, gripping the bar, keeping their weight in their feet, etc. It’s a mentally exhausting endeavor.

Trainee B is an advanced lifter who has been training consistently for 5-7 years. They’ve been squatting 2-3 times a week for several years now.  It is also their squat day. They warm up with a few sets and then put 315# on to do their working sets. They are focusing on a few specific items but they’ve also squatted thousands of times and have ingrained certain aspects of the movement. Their set may not feel mas mentally overwhelming (or rather, it may not be mentally taxing in the same way) as the new trainee’s set.

Both of these trainees have the same muscles that have the capacity to work in a similar fashion. Both trainees have the potential to build and express their strength and proficiency at the skill being addressed (squatting). The difference? The amount of time and practice the second trainee has had to build up their skill proficiency, muscle, etc. Willpower is no different! You have to practice and develop the skill in order for it to become “easier”. The more you practice, the more routine some aspects of the skill become and the less mentally taxing the skill becomes. Are there times when it is mentally taxing? Absolutely. However, by practicing -instead of throwing in the towel the second you have to exercise some self control - you build a stronger foundation to stand on.

 

 

“I’m just not motivated”

This is probably one of my favorite statements to hear because it speaks volumes about how we view motivation and attainment of goals. Now, I’m sorry to tell you that the way motivation is conceptualized and presented in the fitness industry is a lie. And here’s what I mean by that. Motivation, or the reason for behaving in a particular way, is usually extremely high when we start something. We are so stoked to clean up our diets, hit the gym, drink all of our water, and so on. This spark of motivation may carry us for a week or month but eventually, that spark fades and we are left feeling one of two things: 1) like there is something “wrong” with us for not leaping out of bed with motivation everyday or 2) like we should just give up. That is when motivation, as it is traditionally presented, is problematic. 

Motivation is just that, a spark. It can ignite a fire in us and propel us towards action but it is not a sustainable source of everyday drive. If motivation is the spark, then discipline is the fuel source for the fire. No one, no one, wakes up every single day and leaps out of bed like an overly caffeinated Mary Poppins who is ready to eat chicken and rice, go lift, and do some cardio. And that’s perfectly okay. What is not okay is deciding to skip the gym or say “fuck it” on your nutrition plan because you’re not feeling like a Disney princess who gets dressed with the assistance of small woodland creatures (sidenote: where can I find some of those to do my dishes everyday?)

Instead of relying on motivation, we have to start to relying on discipline.  Discipline is what carries you through. Discipline is doing the things you should do to reach your goals (those things that motivate you!) when you don’t feel like doing them. Does that mean doing stuff you hate? NOPE. You should be making goals and plans that are centered around the things that do set you on fire. You should try to have to the discipline to be compassionate with yourself when things don’t go according to plan (and that will happen). Make peace with the fact that, at some point, it is going to be hard but you’re capable of doing hard things. So do them.

 

“I can’t resist”

Is someone throwing cookies down your throat? If so, that’s pretty impressive. If not, then you absolutely can “resist”. Truth be told, I don’t love the term “resist” when it comes to discussing choices about food. You are an adult who has free will and the power to make choices about what you put in your mouth. There are certainly situations when it may not be socially appropriate to whip out some tupperware and there are definitely times when you should eat something different because life and stuff. However, it is important to own that choice. No one is making you eat or not eat anything. You have the power to make the decision of what you do and do not eat. 

Beyond the fact that you can absolutely decide what you eat, I think this line of thinking is particularly damaging because it creates a negative self-narrative that can lead to some self-fulling prophecy. If you constantly tell yourself that you are going to fail at something, you are much more likely to fail because you have already set the expectation of failure. Telling yourself that dieting is going to suck and that you suck at dieting makes dieting extremely difficult. You would never tell a friend “Hey, I know you really want to do this thing but you’re going to suck at it and probably fail.”, so why tell yourself that?

It is also worth noting that sometimes having a small "taste" of something to "quiet the temptation" can do more harm than good. For a good portion of people, having juuuust enough of something the historically lack control around turns into a slippery slope of eating, guilt, and over restriction. It's okay to not have a "cheat day" or "cheat meal" if it doesn't work for you. Often times, life will provide little diet reprieves in the form of special occasions and no one should be dieting so often that they are going without for half of the year. 

Bottom line: the story that you tell yourself about yourself can influence your thoughts and actions. If you tell yourself you have no willpower and are powerless to the influence of baked goods, you’re gonna have a bad time.


All of these topics can be an entire article or articles on their own (and they probably will be) but I hope this provides a brief snapshot of some of the more relevant points when it comes to consistency in dieting and exercise.

Part 3 will be coming next week!