As a fitness instructor and health and wellness enthusiast I consider myself to be an “in shape” person. I eat healthy, consistently exercise with the purpose to constantly challenge my body, cross-train, respect recovery, meditate regularly and sleep moderately well. Like many others in the fitness industry who can describe themselves as the same, I still look at myself and think about times I was in “better shape”. I can look back and say, “I was in my best shape when….” and have a million “insert here” excuses for why I am not that way now. For me, I constantly judge my current physique against a specific time I felt that I looked the best physically. But when I do judge myself, I have to look back and also remind myself that even though I was physically at leanest, mentally I felt the equally lean. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
I’m sure you are reading this and saying, “What do you mean and what does this have to do with your period?” I’ll explain. The time I consider my best physical shape was when I was training for my first (and only) body building competition. There were many things as a fitness professional I wanted to cross off my list of athletic achievements. I completed an Olympic distance triathlon, ran and biked numerous races and certified in as many modalities of exercise as I could find. Naturally, this lead me consider to what else could I do with my body… physique competitions? So, I entered and trained for the bikini level of a local body building competition. I hired professionals to coach me, worked out multiple times a day, stuck to the most regimented diet I personally have ever endured, and took pills to shed water at the end to look the leanest I possible could for my 60 seconds on stage.
Not at all! I felt the exact opposite. I felt broken and alone. My body was a machine that had been putting in the time. My brain was foggy, and I was both mentally and physically worn out and tired from not eating or refueling properly. I was short with everyone around me. Crabby and a little hostile at times. And the worst was I was lonely. I had spent so much time in the gym alone, home alone and eating alone in order not to be tempted off my strict diet. My friends and family were distant. They didn’t dare ask it I wanted to go to dinner or out for a drink. They knew I was on a training mission!
I tried to maintain the body builder lifestyle for T-Minus four weeks after the competition. Even though I looked the leanest I had ever been, I also felt the most depleted. Not so much my body, as stopped the water shedding and dropped back to only working out once a day. But more so mentally and emotionally. My thoughts about myself and my life were raw and for the most part sad. I had achieved many things in my life already, but it didn’t seem like enough. I had never felt like this before. I asked myself daily, “Am I going crazy?” “What’s wrong with me?”
My tipping point was when one of the “carrots” I used as a reward technique to stay on track completely backfired. I planned a trip to Miami just a month post competition. I thought, I’ll look my absolute best, rock a bikini, hit some clubs, and take an exercise training while I’m in town… “Have some FUN!”
Well, that went entirely wrong. Not having experienced Miami before, I didn’t know that virtually EVERYONE looked like me there. Gorgeous bodies, little bikini’s and lots of let’s just say… enhancements! My husband, ex-husband now, was enamored by the beautiful women and made no effort to curve his observations. The beach, the pool– everyone was partying and having fun. But, I just felt withdrawn. Out of place. So, what did I do? I hit the gyms! Looking for a place I would feel good. I took classes that I had never heard of and even got an 8 hour certification in some new aerobic dance modality. Too tired from exercise, I never once made it out to a club or experience the nightlife of Miami. In fact, my ex-husband went out without me and we actually had such bad animosity for each other on the trip we through around the big “D” conversation freely.
Clearly, I was miserable. What was wrong with me?
At my annual gynecology appointment my doctor asked me about my weight loss. With a concerned look on her face she mentioned that too low of a BMI or too low of body fat percentage in a woman’s will cause estrogen levels to lower and lead to loss of menstrual cycles, hair loss, brittle or broken bones (osteoporosis) and possibly depression. “Wait, What?!?” Enter Athletic Amenorrhoea. Amenorr–What?!?
Amenorrhoea is the absence of menstrual periods. Women who are athletes or who exercise a lot on a regular basis are at risk for developing athletic amenorrhoea. Low levels of body fat and exercise-related hormones such as beta endorphins and catecholamines are though to affect how the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone work within the body.
Symptoms of Athletic Amenorrhoea
- No periods for at least three months
- Irregular and heavy periods that only happen four times or less each year
Fat cells contribute to nearly 1/3 of estrogen levels in your body. Because of this, low body fat may contribute to low estrogen secretion and subsequent menstrual dysfunction. Several studies have shown that endurance athletes and people who work out for extended durations tend to be more susceptible to this dysfunction. Up to 40% of this population can be affected. However, there has been no real determination on what exact percent of body fat is the indicator for concern. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the essential body fat range — the lowest the body can tolerate without potential widespread adverse effects — is 8 to 12 percent in females.
Low levels of estrogen are also thought to cause depression because of its affect on cortisol, the “stress” hormone. Normally, estrogen helps to keep cortisol levels low, but when estrogen levels drop during menopause or when a woman’s body fat is too low, women have higher levels of cortisol that ever before.
More notable, most studies also show that more so than excessive exercise, low-calorie diets and inadequate nutrition, or worse, eating disorders that causes energy deficits are thought to be the primary cause of menstrual dysfunction rather than simple low body fat, according to Dr. Anne Loucks of Ohio University.
In the article, “Estrogen and Women’s Emotions” from Web MD, says a sudden drop of estrogen like after having a baby or fluctuating high then low levels of estrogen similar to the build up and release of a woman’s menstrual cycle, although never been proven to be linked to estrogen levels, have been thought to cause depression and mood swings. In the months or years before menopause (perimenopause), estrogen levels are erratic. Studies have show that roughly 10% of women will experience depression as a result of unsustainable estrogen levels. So, can it be thought that if ones body fat to too low and resulting estrogen levels are also low, this can cause the feelings I was having?
A light bulb went off in my brain. I had an “ah-ha” moment. I was causing the feeling of depression and anxiety through my obsession to stay in what I deemed to be “best shape of my life”. Even though mentally, I would say I was in the “worst shape of my life”. But I wasn’t ready to let it all go. I had great fear that if I backed off even a little, the disappointment I would feel from not looking the way I wanted to would be even worse. I had the perception that people around me who saw and strived to look like I did would no longer look up to me or think I was a good trainer. I thought they would say, “she just let it go.”
So, I decided to reach out to a fellow body building friend that I felt comfortable sharing my concerns with. Surprisingly, she said she had fought through the same battle. She had recently also given birth to a child and as a result, the fluctuation in her body was even more severe. Why hadn’t I heard about this? Would I have changed my mind about the competition and training? I could not answer that. All I knew is I didn’t want to feel that way any longer.
So, I sought out a nutritionist to help me safely, or better stated, sanely, get my body back in the right “flow”– pun intended!
Fast forward 6 months, although I still had erratic menstrual cycles (like 1 day light flow every other month), at least I was experiencing a cycle. I was feeling so much better. And really didn’t think I looked any less fit than I did before. Contrary to what I thought, many of my friends and peers came up to me and complimented how GOOD I looked. Some even said they were worried about me for a while! Goes to show how deeply my own perception was askew from my hormone imbalance.
The future damage to the body alone is enough to cause concern if you are experiencing Athletic Amenorrhea. If you are suffering from lack of menstrual cycles and depression and have associated low body fat due to exercise or diet, please consult your doctor. You do not have to suffer. There are many ways to help including counseling both nutritionally and psychologically. From one athlete to another, mental fitness is equally, if not more important, than extreme physical fitness. Get back in Your Flow!