A month following my honeymoon, my OB GYN drew blood during a routine visit, where I soon learned that my newlywed stage of intimacy would quickly turn into 4 years of timing and scheduling my entire life. However, aside from my son, one good thing came out of my fertility journey – my full-on health transformation that continues through today.
What happened and what takeaways may help you become a healthier version of yourself?
During the first three years of my journey, the health-related suggestions were fairly basic:
· Take a prenatal
· Limit caffeine intake
· Limit alcohol consumption
· Eat full-fat foods
· Limit intense exercise
On top of this were the various protocols across the eventual 10 REIs I visited over the course of that time. One suggested taking DHEA was the way to go. Another suggested it was all about the thyroid, until I went to another specialist who validated that my thyroid function was fine. The last REI suggested that I had endometriosis and underlying immune conditions and as a result, I must stop eating food products with gluten and dairy.
Given I have been part of the pharmaceutical industry for 20 years, all of this seemed normal outside of the frustration that it felt as though each clinic had its own protocol.
Medications help, right? They do, but if we don’t solve for the underlying triggers of a given health condition medications may only do so much.
Back to my health transformation.
I was floored by what I thought was normal versus how my body was performing relative to an actual normal.
Unfortunately, no one sat with me to review my entire diet, list of supplements, or lifestyle. Each member of my “practitioner team” focused on the element of their specialty. I had to do all the legwork, resulting in experimentation. Like many, I tested anything I learned through support groups, the women I spoke with who were going through the same thing, online content, books, Functional Medicine specialists, and Acupuncturists – within reason and while ensuring it did not negatively interact with anything on my existing list.
Through this diet experimentation, I was floored by what I thought was normal versus how my body was performing relative to an actual normal. As Dr. Ben Lynch writes in Dirty Genes, “My son Mathew gets a runny nose, irritability, and earaches from cow’s milk dairy, while Theo responds to the same thing with frequent eye blinking and constant clearing of his throat. Tasman, meanwhile, can eat cow’s milk dairy with no symptoms.” He suggests we tune in to our emotions and symptoms such as headaches, brain fog, inability to sleep, energy levels, stress, and feeling heavy or tired.
I’ve found what works for me is eliminating gluten and dairy, monitoring my sugar intake (yes, even fruit – especially grapes, watermelon and Asian pears), and acknowledging that alcohol and a lack of sleep are huge triggers for my anxiety. Am I perfect? No. However, if I go to bed late or eat something that will trigger a reaction, I make a conscious decision to do so and enjoy the heck out of that late night or bite of food.
Admittedly, through this health transformation, my social activities have also changed. While initially sad, I realized I’m much closer to my true self than I ever was before because I listen better to my mind and body. I simply learned over the course of this fertility journey and resulting health transformation what counts – for me.
A Word of Caution
While this story is about my journey toward a healthier self, I want to be cognizant of the fact that we, as fertility patients, in particular, often overextend ourselves. We overload our lives with all the possible “perfect” things we can do to get pregnant.
I admit it. I was there.
However, consider these wise words from Dr. Marcelle Cedars, Director, UCSF Center for Reproductive Health. “Patients turn their lives into pretzels by not eating cold foods, etc. This only adds to the stress. Some say, “I can’t get pleasure from my morning coffee.” Instead, I try to help patients keep their lives as normal as they can and not have it built around their fertility.” In fact, she says, “Stress does not cause infertility. Instead, data shows the reverse is true. It is ineffective to tell someone with infertility not to be stressed. This never works and only adds to the stress.”
5 Steps toward a Healthier You
1. Acknowledge there is no one size fits all approach.
Patients struggling with infertility or even an undiagnosed chronic condition would like nothing more than to find “someone like them” in hopes the next “thing” would lead to success. The challenge is fertility, women’s health research, and learnings about the intricacies of the human body continue to evolve. Additionally, each person’s family history and underlying conditions vary. As a result, it is important to monitor oneself closely and partner with a good clinician to determine what is right for you, the individual.
2. Consider an elimination diet.
Do you think it is time to evaluate your diet? The consistent theme across all those who write about food and its impact on your body and health is to do an elimination for two weeks and re-incorporate one food at a time, monitoring how you feel. As you know, there are a variety of available diets and cleanses. Consult with a nutritionist to determine the right plan for your body.
3. Consult a cross-functional care team for overall well-being.
Western Medicine doctors, Functional Medicine Practitioners, Acupuncturists, Nutritionists, Social Workers, Psychologists and Psychiatrists are each trained in their own way and for different purposes. Do your homework and do what’s right for you. Fertility clinics realize this and are increasingly either hiring or at least recommending practitioners in these other areas of focus. Certainly, financial means, insurance coverage, and required time commitment could prohibit working with a cross-functional team, but at the very least, one can research each perspective and validate an action plan with your clinician.
4. Read your food labels.
Have you ever compared food labels of low-fat vs. full-fat foods? One thing is common – low-fat foods have more sugar. It’s not just the low-fat foods that are the culprit. Be cognizant of the marketing! Clean, healthy-looking packaging does not necessarily equate to healthy! I still remember buying organic gummy bears for my son and just before purchase saw wheat as the first ingredient, yet he does not tolerate gluten. While it may seem cumbersome in the beginning, you will get the hang of what types of foods to buy versus avoid.
5. Listen to your body.
In some cases, you don’t realize a symptom is a symptom (i.e., the need to constantly clear your throat or sniffling after eating dairy), but in many cases you do. You know your body better than anyone. Be mindful of various triggers and inform your practitioners so they can better serve you.
Cleveland Clinic Medical Symptoms Questionnaire: This questionnaire can get you started on understanding your symptoms and has a scoring system so you can track these symptoms over time should you choose to begin monitoring your diet and activities against how you feel.
Dirty Genes Laundry List: Dr. Ben Lynch developed Laundry List 1 and Laundry List 2 as a tool to track symptoms leading to your understanding of potential "dirty genes" you may have. Smartly, someone created a tool where you can enter your symptoms and receive a personal summary.
Always consult a certified professional before taking action.