Imagine feeling sick three weeks out of every month. At age 35, I had been held hostage by my menstrual cycle for three-quarters of my life.
The backaches accompanying my periods were so severe that I’d been prescribed oxycodone. And I’d been alternating 800 mg of ibuprofen daily with 1,000 mg of Midol for breakthrough pain as needed. My periods were so heavy, painful, and exhausting that my whole life would stop when they came. I couldn’t work, let alone work out. Parenting was extremely difficult. I was a mess.
According to a trusted OB/GYN, my blood vessels were not contracting properly. Six years after giving birth to my second child, my uterus was still enlarged and comparable to that of a woman who was three months pregnant.
I was at risk for severe anemia and even some types of cancer, he told me, and I needed a hysterectomy immediately.
My doctor said he could leave my ovaries, which would help me live longer. Longer than what? I wondered. I was only 35 and I was terrified.
An Education in Health
Once I absorbed my doctor’s diagnosis, I decided to put off the surgery for a while — even though he warned that some women were eventually hospitalized for excessive bleeding if they waited too long.
I didn’t want the surgery. I didn’t want to suffer anymore. And yet I didn’t see any options. I was in limbo.
A coworker who knew I was struggling with my menstrual cycles told me she recovered quickly from her hysterectomy thanks to her Pilates practice. So I signed up for a Pilates class with personal trainer Mitra Callaghan at Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn.
After I missed a class due to period pain, Mitra asked me about my absence. When I explained my issue and what I was facing, she wondered whether I might be dealing with a hormone imbalance. She suggested that a female-sex-hormone blood test might reveal more information. The test was available at my Life Time club. What did I have to lose?
My New Food Rules
As it turned out, those blood-test results changed my life.
The hormone panel revealed that I was producing an abnormally high level of estrogen. This was leading to my excessive bleeding and also putting me at risk for cancer.
While my doctor had told me about those same risks, he never mentioned that my problem could be estrogen related — and certainly never suggested it could be controlled through nutrition.
So in January 2013, I met with Paul Kriegler, RD, who gave me some powerful information regarding my hormone levels and the quality of food I regularly consumed.
At 5-foot-9, I usually weighed 216 pounds. I was eating mostly fresh veggies, fruits, and lean protein, with space for the occasional treat.
He explained to me that if a woman’s body produces more estrogen than the body can use and excrete, it will store the estrogen in fat cells, typically around the arms, hips, and thighs. To get rid of extra estrogen, the body has to make the estrogen water soluble. I could help my body do this by eating certain foods and avoiding others.
I was furious with my doctor for not assessing my diet and lifestyle. While I knew food could be powerful medicine, I had no idea it might make such an impact — and perhaps could have saved years of suffering.
At the same time, I felt so empowered by Paul’s information that it brought on a whole new sense of peace and relief.
Paul recommended a supplement called indole-3 carbinol, which is used for preventing certain types of cancer, as well as for balancing hormone levels. It is found in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, turnips, and rutabagas. So he suggested I load up on these veggies as often as I could.
I ordered the supplements and began making changes to my diet.
Two weeks later, my next period arrived — the first one after I started taking supplements and changing my diet — and it was as awful as usual. But I stuck to the program.
I waited somewhat impatiently for the next cycle. When it arrived, it was light, and the usual headaches, backaches, and exhaustion I had felt before were absent. Still, I was afraid to leave the house, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It never did. Three days of light bleeding and I was done. And it has been that way ever since.
Lighter in Body and Spirit
Improved periods weren’t the only surprise result of my new nutritional regimen. Although I didn’t change much else about my lifestyle — I kept doing my usual workouts two or three times a week and made no other changes to my diet — my weight started dropping.
After nine months on the program, I realized I had lost 10 pounds without trying. I don’t know any woman who accidentally loses 10 pounds.
Then off came another 15 pounds. And another 5.
Eventually, it dawned on me: The hormone imbalances within my body, not just an imbalance of calories, were making it harder to shed unnecessary fat.
Today, I’ve lost about 63 pounds, going from 216 to 153. I feel strong and solid. I have a lot more energy. I sleep better, too, because where I used to roll around like a gas-station hot dog at night, I now am free of much of the back pain that had caused me to toss and turn. And I have more confidence. I’m wearing shorts!
One thing this experience taught me is that there’s so much to learn about our bodies. I never knew that a blood panel could tell me so much, or that my gym would offer it. But taking that test helped me solve my original problem — a hormone imbalance. And it helped me drop 60 pounds and increase my self-confidence, energy, and general well-being.
Best of all, I didn’t need a hysterectomy — and I don’t think I ever will.