To kick off my series on holistic approaches to hormone balance, I would like to relate a personal story that will probably seem very familiar to many women. I was in seventh grade, and my girlfriends and I were spending every day in the locker room before gym class excitedly discussing whether or not we had gotten our periods yet (a concept that surely seems very strange to my male readership.) Menstruation, and all the pain, inconvenience, and embarrassment that frequently goes with it hardly seems like something anyone would WANT. However, for my pre-teenaged self and young women everywhere, getting our first period marks a significant right of passage. To us, it was the transition from childhood to womanhood.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, my first period didn't give me cause for celebration. Actually, it turned out to be nothing short of a catastrophe. Despite having been forewarned about what to expect (some bleeding, "normal women's pains") I was shocked to find that in fact, periods seemed to involve a LOT of bleeding and an unbearable amount of pain. I remember wondering why no one had warned me about this. I missed several days of school, unable to move off the couch, trying not to throw up. This pattern continued on a monthly basis until I had my first trip to the OBGYN. I will never forget being matter-of-factly informed that such symptoms associated with menstruation were normal and to be expected. Luckily, the doctor had a "solution" for my "irregularity." Birth control pills. At the age of 12, I was placed on synthetic hormones that I would continue to take, month after month, for the next 13 years of my life.
"What's the big deal" you might ask. "Lots of women take birth control pills with no ill effects!" That is absolutely true. In fact, I quickly learned after talking to several girlfriends at my middle school that they, too, have been put on birth control for their menstrual symptoms. Several girls even stated that they had been put on the pill despite having no symptoms as a "precaution." We all just accepted it, and I continued to accept it into my early 20s. It certainly came as a surprise to me when several years after starting the pill, my old symptoms started coming back. Not only that, but new, mainly mental symptoms like severe anxiety, mood swings, and an unidentifiable tendency to anger started to surface. I switched brands, hormone combinations, and hormone levels to no avail-the symptoms just continued to worsen until I no longer felt like myself at all. At 24, after describing my issues to a doctor who practiced functional medicine, I was surprised to hear him suggest that I go off the pill entirely, because there was a possibility that the pill was causing my symptoms. This was an option I had never considered-if I went off the pill, wouldn't I just get worse? No, he told me, those symptoms can be addressed naturally through supplementation and diet. He said no one ever found the root cause of WHY those symptoms manifested in you IN THE FIRST PLACE. Wow, what a concept! With my eyes wide open, I embarked on my journey toward health without the use of synthetic hormones and with the outlook that such issues weren't "just a woman's lot in life."
Several important chances took place after I quit the pill-unfortunately, not all of them were beneficial. The good news is that my mental-emotional symptoms ceased almost immediately. My change in personality, anger at the world, short temper, tendency toward anxiety and depression...all were more or less resolved in the space of 3-4 weeks. The bad news was that due to years and years of taking exogenous hormones (meaning hormones my body hadn't produced itself) my natural hormonal "assembly line" (hypothalamus-pituitary-ovary) had closed up shop and I stopped getting periods altogether. This is a condition called "amenorrhea." Over the next several months, using lifestyle interventions like diet, nutritional supplementation, and botanical medicine, I was able to "jump start" my body into cycling normally again-this time, WITHOUT the dreaded symptoms. This amazing transformation, combined with the alleviation of many of my other long-term "unsolvable" symptoms through holistic interventions was a huge component of why I decided to forgo my dreams of becoming a veterinarian and go to Naturopathic medical school instead.
How does my story apply to your health journey? There are two major take-home messages that I would like women everywhere to take to heart. The first is that female health issues like dysmenorrhea (painful periods), amenorrhea, PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, symptoms associated with menopause, and PMS/PMDD are NOT to be shrugged off and taken lightly as "women's problems." Doctors everywhere owe it to their patients to not make flippant comments like "well, this is normal for women," because it is NOT. Someone near and dear to me, who was later discovered to have extensive stage IV endometriosis, was told by her OBGYN that her symptoms were "probably just IBS." This type of attitude is negligent and harmful to women everywhere. You deserve to be listened to, taken seriously, and empowered to take control of your health.
The second message is that synthetic hormones are not the answer for EVERY female health condition. Certainly, there are times when they are called for, and circumstances in which they are very effective. Every intervention, natural or synthetic, has a place based on the specific needs of the individual and it is the responsibility of the practitioner to take the time to discover what those needs are. The answer to broken physiology is not ALWAYS to simply replace it, but to discover what has caused the underlying imbalance in the first place and correct it. That is the foundation of Naturopathic medicine.
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