Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Black Dog

I haven't posted anything about depression in a long time, mostly because when you're recovering from it you don't feel the need to talk about it quite as much!

Isn't that a wonderful, beautiful thing though...

You can carry this darkness around you for years without even knowing, letting it grow and grow until it overshadows everything you do. You can't even escape it at night because of insomnia and nightmares. It's constantly there, tapping at the inside of your head. It's the thing you come back to every time you stop for a moment, every time you try to relax, every time you think a negative thought about anything.

And then, later, if you work with it and through it, you get to that point where you know that if it is there, it's so small and so quiet and so manageable that you don't need to think about it any more. There's room in your head, in you heart and in your life; for MORE. You don't just have the space in your head to contemplate these new things in your life, you magically have the energy and motivation to follow through with them!

Since I started this (long) process myself I have wished I could pass the magic on to other people, but I've never felt able or even believed I had the right to try, because it's presumptuous to assume what works for you will work for everyone, and I'd hate to sound like I was being self righteous or gloating when that's not my intention.

And then today someone posted this video on Facebook and it made me cry because it sums up in just a few seconds what I have been trying to blog about for two years! In fact, the answer is so simple, though doing it is far from easy. But it gets easier with every step forwards and I'm here to say that it's totally true. You can get rid of the darkness. You won't believe me now if you're in the middle of it- I didn't believe it, I just lost hope in everything, and getting help was a last resort. I suppose I just couldn't do it on my own any more so I chose to see a professional and give them the power to change me. That takes some trust in the person you choose to talk to, and also a strange mixture of self abandon and willpower!

But then, if you find the right person, you will discover that they don't want to change you. They will (they should... and if they don't then you're not talking to the right person) only ask you what you want, and keep on asking until you can see a way to get it. They'll never push you, only guide you. And what you want is to be happy, right?

And you can be.

Anyway, watch the video...

The Black Dog

Friday, 22 November 2013

It's OK to be ill (in reaction to being called a hypercondriac)

I’m a bit scared of this post. I imagine some people will read what I’m about to write and think ‘yes I know how that feels’. But I think others will say ‘we all get ill, get over it’. As always, I am writing an honest account of my experience. What is the point of everybody pretending everything is OK when sometimes it isn't? Maybe what we really need is someone just to tell us it’s fine and we’ve done nothing wrong.

So, I am not trying to compete with anyone. I am not trying to get sympathy. I am simply writing this to say to the world: this is what it’s like for me and if you feel the same then I for one don’t have a problem with that.

So far in my life, touching wood as I write, I have been very lucky: I’ve never had any serious health issues- nothing that could threaten my life. I’ve never broken a bone, never even had to go to A&E!

Having said this, like many people I suffer from hereditary back and skin problems, and have a hormonal imbalance that is managable but sometimes causes a wave of issues ranging from lethargy to severe cramps and migranes.

Like I said, no sympathy needed, this is just how it is and I deal with it as we all do. But the thing is, when your baseline level of health is not exactly tip top, and you fall ill, it can seem like your body is fighting you and you are loosing the battle! I imagine most people understand what this feels like. However, what’s not easy is explaining this to others when you’re in the middle of it.

I’ve written previously about my long-term illness recently. I’ve never experienced anything like that before- being so ill for so long. I’ve had colds and flu and stomach upsets, but nothing that’s lasted more than a week or two. Anyone else who has also been ill for a long time will understand how frustrating and frightening it can be, particularly when it’s not obvious what’s actually causing it.

The worst thing about it is that you start to doubt yourself. When I first got ill I spent a week trying to work and ending up in tears because I couldn’t understand why I didn’t have the energy to do
anything, being so angry at  myself for letting everybody down, and hating myself for letting people see me in that state. I frequently told myself I needed to sort myself out and just get on with it… I do wonder now that if I’d just accepted I was ill and rested right at the start, maybe I wouldn’t have been ill for as long as I was.

The tricky thing is, how do you approach this with others? Having to admit illness (to yourself as well as to others) can become demoralising, especially if it's long term, or on a regular basis, because it makes you feel weak.

Like anything in life, there is a spectrum here. There are people who are generally very healthy. Some of these people work hard to stay healthy and good on them! I’ll happily admit I could do more to stay healthy- get more exercise and drink less wine- but there are people in the world who just had the luck to have a family history of good health, who don’t have to try too hard to stay slim and fit. Then there are people further down the spectrum, people more like me who are sometimes ill and sometimes well. And then there are people who suffer from a list of illnesses as long as you arm. And further down- the really upsetting stories- the children who die so young of killer illnesses, people taken before their time, people who suffer- truly suffer not just like my chronic back pain- for years until it takes them. Like I said at the start- I am not competing. When I use the word ‘suffer’ to describe the pains in my back, the problems I have because of my hormonal issues, and the cracked skin on my hands, I using it in a different sense to how you would describe the suffering of someone with crippling arthritis or cancer. But at the end of the day, suffering is suffering and when I say I’m in pain it is because I am.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Case of the Vicious Cycle

Sometimes I read back through my blogs and I hate them. Honestly, it’s true: at the time I write what I feel in my heart, I write whatever’s on my mind and in doing it, I get it off my chest. There’s always the hope that I will reach out to somebody who needs help in some way, and they’ll read my words and relate to them and feel better, even just a little bit better… or at the very least- I won’t offend anyone!

But sometimes I read back and I think ‘oh god, how self righteous’ or ‘pure cheese’. Saying that, I’ve never, so far, deleted a post because of it, and this is why: it is important to be able to look back on your past with a mixture of pride and shame. If either of those are missing from memories of your life, something’s not quite right. This is how we learn; it’s what stops us from repeating the same hurtful processes over and over.

It’s OK to change your mind about things. It’s OK to think one thing all your life, and then suddenly one day decide that you don’t believe that any more. Personally, as much as I like to think I’m right, I also enjoy being proven wrong! I love to learn, and nobody ever learnt anything by thinking they knew everything already!

Anyway… with that in mind, today I am contemplating the connections between our pasts, presents and futures, focussing on what happens when we get things wrong.

I want to start out by saying this in an almost pleading way, to everyone but I suppose in particular people under the age of about twenty: please don’t let self destructive thoughts and behaviour take control; because it’s not just you NOW that suffers from it- these things have a seriously long-lasting effect and it will take you years to right the wrongs you are doing to yourself.

So, by self destructive I mean anything that focuses on ourselves in a negative way. So that could be, for example: believing we should look different to how we do, believing we should be able to just do things that we find difficult, feeling humiliation because we aren’t socially confident, letting others boss us around and control us in a way that makes us feel worthless, feeling that the world is against us and we are just unlucky, giving up or overreacting when things go wrong, or constantly comparing ourselves to others.

 One thing I love about going back over memories is that you can view your life as a journey with a number of interesting stop-offs. It’s almost like you could draw it out on a map, as if you were marking out a route using string, putting pins in at certain points: here’s where I broke up with my boyfriend, here’s where I moved house, here’s where I met someone who changed my life… Starting where you are now, you can trace your journey back and think about how it relates to who you are in the present.

I always believed that only BIG things would have a lasting affect on our psychological health: that mental scars came from dramatic things like beatings, conflict, terrible fear, terrible sadness and loss… but it’s not the case. I used to feel guilty that I got upset about small things, thinking I had no right to be affected by them when other people went through so much more than me. But the truth is, if something affects you, it affects you. The deeper I’ve looked into my past, the more I have realised there was no big hidden event that caused my troubles, there was no trauma or loss that sparked it all off. It was, instead, a snowballing of small things: behaviours taken on when I was young, that led to sadness, that led to more of the same behaviour, that led to more sadness. Somewhere down the line you have to put a stop to that cycle, or you just keep repeating it forever.

So, to take one example from my own life: as I very young child I was taught an important lesson: you don't always get what you want from life, and you're not allowed to be upset about that. Life's just not fair.

Because of this, I began to feel pride and guilt based on this lesson: when I was able to quietly accepted less than what I actually wanted I felt proud of myself. When I was able to act in a gracious and undemanding way, I felt proud. If I felt jealous when other friends did get what they wanted I felt guilty. If I felt a sense of loss because I wanted something and didn't get it, I felt guilty and most acutely- if I betrayed myself by showing I was upset and crying when things didn’t go my way, I felt self-hatred.

When I was young, this behaviour related to simple things like presents, but as I got older and started taking responsibility for my own life, this lesson, these learnt behaviours, started creeping into more and more of it. And this is what I mean by self destructive behaviour. In my childhood I may have been praised for being such a mature, accepting, lenient person, but as and adult I was bottling up my actual feelings of sadness, frustration, lust and loss. It wasn’t that they weren’t there, I had just learnt to hold them inside rather than react to them.

The trouble is, even things that are done with selfless grace and goodness can turn around and bite you on the bum! ‘You don’t get what you want’ can relate to a shit load of social situations and life-choices. I stayed quiet while people took what they wanted, leaving me with less. I accepted situations where I was unhappy, not believing I could do anything to change them because I had got so used to thinking that way: accepting the sadness and frustration. I have very vivid memories of having to smile through tears and act happy even though inside I was feeling nothing but hurt.

This is where what I said at the start of the blog comes into play. Self destructive behaviour only leads to MORE self destructive behaviour. It was horrible at the time, but it didn’t stop there. Now I had horrible memories of horrible feelings to add to the conflict I was already in.

If you have ever overreacted to something you will know what this is like. It can be the tiniest issue: a broken possession, or perhaps an innocent comment that you hear as something completely different. Before you can do anything about it, emotions flood to the surface and you find yourself shouting or throwing something in a rage, or crying uncontrollably. Have you ever stopped to wonder where this comes from?

I believe it’s probably something from your past, or a number of things from your past that have snowballed as I was saying earlier. This is how patterns of behaviour seem to work: you learn a lesson, you use it, it makes you feel a certain way, so the next time the situation comes up you instantly relate how you felt last time, before anything has even happened. Then the next time something similar comes up you now have two memories mashed together, the third it’s three… and so on, until they’re all jumbled together in one big ball of thoughts, memories and emotions. And if you’ve lived your whole life repeating a self destructive behaviour where you are left feeling crappy about yourself, this is how you will instantly react to anything that seems similar.

The tricky part is the blame. We all want to do it- to find the route of our troubles: the one thing we can take up triumphantly and say ‘YOU! IT WAS YOU ALL ALONG!’ and then we can smash it to pieces and feel better. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work like this in practice. For one thing, the lifetime of learnt behaviours and every subsequent memory is still there. As far as I can see, the only thing left to do is forgive ourselves for it and try to do something different next time. This can be tough. It’s like going against every instinct you have ever had! But if the only other option is to carry on living the same mistakes and feeling the same crap every time, it’s not much of a choice really.

It’s much easier to look back into our past with hindsight than it is to imagine a future. But I would suggest you try it. Try taking one issue- like myself and the reluctance to believe I’m allowed to get the things I want- and trace it back, contemplate where in your life this might have left you in a worse situation than you could have been if you had reacted differently. And then follow it forwards- imagine new situations where similar things could occur. What would you like to do? Maybe you could try doing something different next time? Where could that lead you?

See this is what I’m getting at: it’s easy, at the time, to believe we are doing the right thing by being self effacing, putting ourselves down, putting others first, thinking we’re not good enough; or perhaps by doing the opposite- acting purely on selfish thoughts… but if we could trace our lives forwards rather than backwards, and see that we are setting ourselves off on a path to more and more negative behaviour, would we act differently?

I would.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

I Want What She's Got

If you get onto the subject of body-confidence, it's inevitable you're going to end up talking about the media and it's projection of the 'perfect' body somewhere down the line.

As I've said in a previous blog, I instinctually rebel against 'rules' set down by anyone else when it comes to things like this. Not one person on this earth has the right to label anything as right, wrong, perfect, imperfect, beautiful or ugly. We are all capable of having our own perceptions and opinions and we should have the confidence to believe in them, and the dignity to respect everyone else's.

But I cannot, hand on heart, say that I fully love my body. I can't look at myself in the mirror without hearing a little negative voice in my mind pointing out faults. I can't look at a photograph of a so-called 'perfect' body without feeling, somewhere inside, a mixture of jealousy and inadequacy.

Now, I'm not saying I don't have body confidence! I mean, what can I say, I'm a 5ft10 leggy blonde with long hair and blue eyes. I am well aware that there are probably other women who look at me with the same envy I feel.

And I have put work into getting to this place! I would be letting myself down hugely if I allowed the negative voice to take control again. Go back fifteen years and I had a two page spread listing, in detail, every part of my body and what I hated about it. I cut out photographs of women I saw as 'perfect' and stuck them in my diary just so I could hate myself that little bit more. I didn't, in fact, look much different then to how I do now. I've lost a stone or two in weight maybe, but you know what...I lost a stone and a half recently and nobody could tell the difference! I'm a firm believer that a little bit of extra weight means much more to ourselves than it does to anyone else!

I had to learn to listen to and believe in the other voice- the positive one. I had to learn to trust people when they told me I looked nice; to realise that guys were hitting on me because they found me attractive, not simply because I was female and they thought only with their pants- as I truly believed when I was a teenager. They actually just thought I was hot! Now how about that!

Now, to my point.

Everyone has their own opinion of what a perfect body is, but most of us would probably pick the same ones from a line-up: the slim yet curvy women and the toned and athletically muscled men. And this may well have something to do with the media's projection of these images. I could probably write an essay discussing fashions and debating the amount of control the media has over our opinions, but I'm not going to do that because you know
what: I think it's irrelevant. It is what it is. We have the media, we all see the photographs, we all watch the movies. It's there so why bellyache over it. Maybe the media gives us the image and we believe it. Or maybe the media just takes hold of the most popular image in people's minds, and projects it back to us... I couldn't say.

What I am interested in, though, is the psycology behind our reactions to those images.

Ok, so to look at it from a different angle: an interesting thing happened to me recently. I moved away from the city to the quiet seclusion of a tiny village in the countryside. I was convinced I was going to miss my city lifestyle: the nightlife, the drinking, the partying, the shopping... and was quite shocked to find that I didn't miss it at all! Apart from the first month or so while I was adjusting to the change, I didn't even think about it! I was so far away from it that I wasn't reminded of what I was missing.

Similarly, in the city I had lived with a friend who, about a year ago, found a guy who made her happy- really happy. I was so glad for her, but at the same time, so envious. It made me want it even more, seeing her there. Now, living in the countryside, my current housemate and I are both single. And just a few days ago I realised that I haven't been feeling sorry for myself about it any more. And that got me wondering... was it just on my mind so much before because I was seeing it in front of me every day? Being reminded of what I could have but didn't?

Now, I have agreed to take part in a project a friend-of-a-friend is doing. She's a burlesque performer and photographer who is putting together a book provisionally titled 'my friends in their pants'... so you get the idea what my involvement is going to entail.

In the hope of gaining some confidence in myself to take with me to the photoshoot, I made the stupid decision to google 'small boobs' thinking I might find some nice photographs of women posing sexily, who didn't have the usual large but perky breasts shown in nude photographs. What I discovered instead was a hive of before-and-after (and even during) breast augmentation surgery photographs, and a number of websites quoting surgeons and doctors describing 'breast types' and even 'deformities'. One of these is named tubular breasts. As far as I can tell, this 'deformity' has various stages- at it's worst, these poor women have very oddly shaped boobs, usually totally different sizes to each other. But for the most part, THEY ARE JUST SMALL BREASTS. This is the only thing I can see that you might say was 'wrong' with them, and they're being labelled a deformity and being treated by surgery?! And these photographs are put side by side with a collection of silicone-enhanced 'perfect' breasts. Just to show you what you could have!

But the worst thing for me was that- looking through these photographs, despite being horrified that the simple differences in natural body shapes were being attacked in this way, I still looked at the women who did have large, perky boobs with envy! Iwas taken right back to the school PE changing rooms: memories of desperately trying to keep my own small boobs covered, while I sneeked stolen glances at the other girls- the ones with the really pretty boobs- wishing mine were like theirs.

You see, I will never... NEVER have breasts that look better than the breasts I have right now. I am NOT putting myself through surgery (the photographs and videos I found on google made me feel sick!) And yet I still have that same feeling I had as a teenager in the changing rooms: like I've missed out on something other women have. I will never know what it feels like to be proud of a pair of seriously beautiful boobs!

But here's the deal. I am not alone! I wonder what percentage of women do have the body-type we tend to label as 'perfect'? 20%? 30% maybe? Perhaps even less... Women do not come in two shapes- perfect and imperfect. We are small and delicate. We are round and soft. We are long and elegant. We are small on top and curvy down below. We are voluptuous on top and thin down below. We are big all over. And small all over. We are wobbly. We are solid. We are tall. We are short... But where do we see the beautiful photographs of the other 70-80%?

We tend to finger-wag at the media: blaming them for our own lack of self worth. We say that they are giving us an image we can never achieve; that they are instructing us to have the perfect body and this is why so many people hate their own bodies. But the idea that is currently forming in my mind is that what we are all experiencing here is pure and simple jealousy. It's like me in the changing rooms: I wasn't happy with my own- I wanted what she had. It's the same psycology as not missing the city lifestyle because I'm not there, or not wishing I had a boyfriend because I couldn't see how happy my friend was with hers. When we are presented with a comparison, we look at what we have, and what we could have, and we judge ourselves on it.

Now, I'm not making any judgements or conclusions on this subject, it's merely an observation. It clearly isn't healthy to be constantly subjeted to a body image very few of us will ever experience. But with such intrusive media in our culture, it is impossible to escape. And I can't tell anyone not to get jealous! There's nothing wrong with a bit of jealousy- we all get it!

But what I do strongly believe is that, while we may feel jealous of what other people have- we all need to accept what we have. It is ours after all.

Check out my burlesque dancer/model/photographer friend's collection here: https://www.facebook.com/lenalenmanphotography/photos
Yes, I'm in there :)

Friday, 16 August 2013

Just try this and tell me you don't feel better, I dare you!

As with each of the posts in this series, I would suggest you start by scrolling down to my post 'This is where it all starts' and reading up from there, in the order I wrote them. That way you'll understand the context a little better!

I'll start by making this clear: I do not believe in miracle cures. I am not trying to suggest that we should live without the medicines that scientists have spent hundreds of years developing. I would hate to think that anyone would want to shun western medicine on the basis that 'nature knows best.' You only have to look at mortality figures 100 years ago compared to today to see that the medicines available to us DO help.

Saying this, I don't believe anyone should reach for the medicine bottle as soon as they feel unwell, without first considering what other factors might be contributing to it. Most of us, if we are entirely honest with ourselves, could do a bit more to keep our bodies fit and healthy. I'm talking prevention here rather than cure.

Speaking for myself, I have always prided myself on eating a fairly healthy diet. I know I could get a bit more excersize, but I did at least believe I ate well. Which is why the subject of this post was such a slap-in-the-face-wake-up-call for me!

So, having done a bit of research into what goes on inside a woman's body, and researching my own hormonal imbalance to get a bit of a grip on what might be out-of-sync, I then moved on to looking into what nutritionalists and health experts had to say about a healthy lifestyle when it comes to the reproductive system.

As soon as I got onto the subject of fertility, the information came streaming in! Since so many couples have difficulty having babies, there are endless websites on the subject! I looked into herbal medicines, lifestyle changes and diet, each of which I will write about soon. But in this post, I want to concentrate on diet.

How many times have you heard the same advice, or said it to yourself: 'You are what you eat!' If you eat sweet, fatty, carbohydrate-rich foods all the time, your body will suffer. Avoid fizzy drinks, avoid sweeties and chocolate, avoid cake, avoid white sugar, white flour, white bread, white rice, don't eat pizza, don't eat take-aways, don't eat too much fat- avoid butter, avoid cream... etc, etc, etc.

But we never want to hear it- of course we don't! All those things are so damn TASTY! Where is the
fun in life if we have to constantly stop ourselves from eating things we love?

I'm saying this because I want you to know: I GET IT. I'm not one of those holier-than-thou quinoa-loving self-sacraficing wholefood eaters! I would list coffee, wine and chocolate as three of my favourite things in the world!

Unfortunately however, it seems there is some truth in the old sayings. And this is how I found out:

For two weeks I obeyed the following rules:

*  no caffine
*  no extra sugar or foods containing high levels of sugar
*  no alcohol
*  no saturated fat (butter, cream, cheese)
*  no gluten (anything containing wheat- so this means flour, pasta, bread, cake)
*  no processed foods (ready meals, packaged cereals, sauces from jars or packets)
*  every day, eat 1 portion (small handful) of crucifers, such as cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, broccoli sprouts
*  every day, eat 1 portion of green leafy vegetables and herbs, like parsley, kale, watercress, chard, cilantro, beetroot greens, dandelion greens and mustard greens
*  every day, eat 1 portion of citrus, like oranges, lemons and limes (avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice)
*  every day, eat 1 portion of sulfur-rich foods, like garlic, onions, eggs
*  every day, eat 1 portion of a liver healer, such as artichoke, asparagus, beets, celery, dandelion-root tea, whey and nutritional yeast flakes
*  every day, add a tablespoon of ground linseed to your food
*  every day, eat 1 portion of colon-caring foods: carrots, apple, pear or berries.
*  every day, drink 2 litres of filtered water
*  every day, eat 2 portions (palm-sized) of protein in the form of lean beef, lamb, skinless chicken, turkey or fish
*  every day, eat 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil

The reasoning behind this came from numerous websites, books and knowledgable people I spoke to while I was doing my research, and it comes down to one body part: the liver. Apparently most herbal therepists, no matter what your ailment, will begin by focussing on the liver. This is particularly important when it comes to hormonal problems, because if your liver is in tip-top condition, it will process any excess hormones in your system.

You'll want to avoid foods that give the liver a lot of work to do- hence avoiding processed foods and gluten. 

As for caffine and alcohol... this is the heartbreaking truth: they are just bad for you. Plain and simple. It's the one thing I heard over and over and over. 

Having got that out of the way, this is what I found after two weeks of following this 'diet':

- My diet before was not the healthy diet I previously thought! When I had to stop myself from reaching for something sweet, or an energy-boosting drink or snack, or a lump of cheese, I realised just how often I do it!

- I wasn't hungry. This isn't like a diet-diet! The fridge was packed full and I was eating three decent-sized meals a day, plus snacks. There is no guilt in eating as much as you want, because the aim isn't to loose weight, it's just to fill your body full of the kinds of food that will do you good!

- It was really hard to eat enough to cover everything in the list! This was what really got me- just how much you actually have to eat to fulfill your body's needs! I was so full from eating the foods on the list, that there was no room for the kinds of foods I would usually have reached for when I got hungry.

- I lost weight! Despite eating loads, and drizzling olive oil over my steak, I lost almost half a stone in two weeks.

-  I have only ever felt this healthy once before, and that was when I was doing an hour of yoga every day and swimming twice a week, as well as eating a fat-free diet... and this was MUCH easier! I can't even explain how it felt- just that my body felt good

-  I had loads of energy: I didn't get the usual dips, which I would usually combat with sugar or coffee: I didn't feel like I needed the extra sugar or caffine because I didn't feel like I needed a pick-me-up

-  My period came on time and I suffered less PMT

Having said all of this, I couldn't live like that. I was craving cheese and bread by the end of the two weeks. Strangely though, not caffine or alcohol! 

I have, unsurprisingly, eaten a much less strict diet since following this for two weeks. But for the time I was on the diet, I felt fantastic and I can't deny that it worked!

So, what's the conclusion? Well, if you follow the 'rules', you WILL be healthier! So it's your choice: give yourself a strict diet where you fill your body with all the things it needs, don't allow yourself the usual vices, ignore your cravings but feel super healthy; OR carry on eating everything you fancy, but remember your health will suffer for it. 

I have chosen a third option: a little from column A, a little from column B! I figure I don't need to be super-healthy! Just healthy-er will do! I have more-or-less given up caffine, except when I really fancy it. I have more-or-less given up cakes and sweets... though I still indulge if I have a strong craving or feel a bit blue. I stop before I pour a glass of wine and think to myself 'is it worth it?' and if the answer is no then I put it back in the cupboard and feel good about my decision. If the answer is yes... then I pour a large one! And I have printed off a list of liver-loving foods to stick to my cupboard door, so I can try to eat as many every day as possible. I've also borrowed a friend's juicer- because I can throw in anything from the list and it's a fun way to eat a shed-load of healthy fruit and veg in one go!

And in a few months time, I will write again to let you know if there is any change to my hormonal problems.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Some Lesser-Known Facts about Hormones

As with each of the posts in this series, I would suggest you start by scrolling down to my post 'This is where it all starts' and reading up from there, in the order I wrote them. That way you'll understand the context a little better!

It's amazing the troubles a small hormonal imbalance can cause! So, as far as I and my doctors can tell, the route of all my various pains, irregular periods, missed periods, exhaustion, nausea, dizziness, grumpyness, tears, hairs and swellings, is a small hormonal imbalance and the occasional ovarian cyst. It sounds so trivial on paper, but I can assure you when I'm in the middle of it, it doesn't feel trivial (and I'm certain anyone else suffering similar symptoms will agree)!

But as soon as you start looking into the job hormones play in controlling the functions our bodies perform, you can understand a little more about why an imbalance can have such a profound effect.

Please be aware that I am not a physician, and the following information is cobbled together from books and websites I have discovered. It's fascinating for me to learn about these things and I would like to pass my limited knowledge on- but it is just that- limited knowledge!


When my doctor told me I had an elevated level of prolactin, I was baffled, and if I'm honest, a little bit grossed-out. All I could think was 'but that's the one that produces breast milk! I'm not producing breast milk!' Why would my body be doing that? Producing too much of a hormone that women only use to feed a baby they'd just given birth to; when babies were so far from my reality at the time?

But here's the thing- there's more to it than that!

Some interesting facts about prolactin:

-  its best known role is in lactation, but it also has other jobs, for example, it was helping to control water and salt balance in fish millions of years before humans even arrived on the planet!

-  it comes primarily from the pituitary gland in the brain, which is in turn controlled by the hypothalamus. A chemical called 'thyrotropin-releasing hormone' stimulates its production, while dopamine inhibits it *see below*

-  it is also produced in the uterus, breasts, white blood cells, and (in men) the prostate

-  prolactin is an important regulator of the immune system

-  it affects a person's metabolism

-  it is important for controlling cell growth and death, and helps to keep blood healthy, form new blood vessels, and regulate blood clotting

-  prolactin has been found to have effects on a person's brain and behaviour

-  high prolactin levels have been linked to mental health issues

-  it is responisble for feelings of sexual gratification, but increased levels are also linked with impotence and loss of libido

-  stimulation of prolactin in turn inhibits production of another hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone. This is the hormone responsible for the release of FSH and LH, which you might remember from my post titled The Monthly Cycle. These hormones play a key role in the cycle of fertility: telling the ovaries to produce and release the egg. So if they are being inhibited, the cycle will obviously be affected and ovulation may not take place.

-  elevated levels of prolactin can have serious effects on estrogen levels- both by elevating and decreasing them

-  levels of prolactin vary over the course of a day, as well as over the course of the menstrual cycle. It even varies depending on the seasons! Levels peak during REM sleep and in the early morning, and can also rise after food, excercise and sex.

-  while the hormone estrogen stimulates prolactin during pregnancy, the combination of estrogen and progesterone also stop it from telling the body to produce breast milk. It is only when estrogen and progesterone suddenly drop while prolactin remains high, that milk is produced.

-  a very high level of prolactin is one of the most common results of a tumor on the pituitary gland

-  prolactin is a peptide hormone *see below*: a type of protein which is formed from amino acids and released into the bloodstream once the correct signals are given

-  prolactin secretion is regulated by something called vasoactive intestinal peptide *see below*, which also keeps the digestive system funcioning smoothly, and inhibits gastric acid. Interestingly this is produced in the hypothalamus, as well as many other area of the body (spine, gut and pancreas)


This is the only other hormone I was tested for that was above the average level for a woman my age. Firstly- yes, women DO have testosterone in their bodies- it is not just a male hormone. The difference is that while women have a higher level of estrogen, men have a higher level of testosterone: hence estrogen being seen as the 'woman's' hormone and testosterone as the 'man's.'

Some interesting facts about testosterone:

-  there is no 'cure' for an increased level of testosterone

-  a high level of testosterone in a woman's body is often linked with polycystic ovary syndrome (where, instead of eggs forming and being released, the follicles form cysts)

- excess testosterone is often the cause of hirtuitism (excess body hair) in women. Some women can grow dark hairs on their faces, arms and armpits, back, chest, stomach and legs.

-  other symptoms of a high level of testosterone are: acne, an enlarged clitoris, increased muscle mass, weight gain, thinning hair, irregular periods and deepening of voice

-  testosterone is produced in the ovaries and in the adrenal glands (which are controlled by our old friend the pituitary gland)

-  it is a steroid hormone, made from cholesterol

-  it helps to build muscle and burn fat, and contributes to bone strength

-  testosterone increases sex drive. Women with excess testosterone often have a higher than average sex drive

-  testosterone is a growth hormone, and is partly responsible for the growth, maintainance and repair of reproductive tissues

-  women are more sensitive to the hormone than men, and require less to be affected by it

-  interestingly, when a man and a woman enter into a loving relationship, the man's testosterone levels fall while the woman's rise! Apparently this only lasts as long at the 'honeymoon' phase, and has been theorised to be linked with the fact that couples tend to mimic each other's behaviour in the early days of a relationship. Testosterone levels in men also fall when they become fathers. Research has also suggested (sorry guys you might not like this one...) that men with higher levels of testosterone are less likely to get married or enter into committed relationships. They are also more likely to divorce, and more likely to have affairs

-  testosterone can affect behaviour: higher levels of testosterone lead to more aggressive, assertive and spontaneous/risk taking behaviour. It has also been linked to depression, moodiness and irritability

-  apparently elevated levels of testosterone are more common in city-dwelling women with hectic work schedules, and it can also be triggered by: a high sugar and carbohydrate diet, poor liver function, low sex hormone binding globulin, insulin resistance and poor thyroid function


*Extra notes*


Interestingly, decreased levels of dopamine have been linked to 'restless legs sydrome'. This is a condition where the sufferer feels the irresistable urge to move body parts (usually the legs) to relieve an uncomfortable feeling. Moving or stretching offers temporary relief but the feeling returns. I often suffer from this, but would never have guessed it could be linked to a hormone imbalance until now!

Decreased dopamine levels are also connected with ADHD.

Dopamine has important functions throughout the body: blood, digestion, processing toxins, motor control, motivation, arousal, feelings of reward/satisfaction/happiness, sexual gratification and nausea

Thyrotropin-releasing hormone

 If you have too much of this hormone, it will inhibit the production of dopamine. So, you can see how this has a knock-on effect on the production of prolactin, since TRH stimulates its production, and dopamine decreases it.

Vasoactive intestinal peptide

 In the brain, VIP helps to control the body's daily timekeeping. I find this particularly interesting, since my body clock so oftens seems to behave strangely- keeping me awake all night, or causing me to feel sleepy at three in the afternoon. Of course, this may simply be caused by other factors such as stress and exhaustion... but since there is a link here, I think it may likely be a combination of many factors.


An interesting link between two apparently separate body systems is that both VIP and prolactin are peptide hormones. Peptides are produced in the digestive system when an enzyme called pepsin is released in the stomach. Pepsin degrades food into proteins, amino acids and peptides, all of which are essential components in the production of hormones in the brain. Healthy digestion = healthy brain = healthy reproductive system!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Brain and Menstruation

Before reading this post, I would suggest you start with my previous entry 'This is where it all starts' and work up, to undertand the context.

The key word here is ‘hypothalamus.’

This is the part of the brain that regulates the production of hormones, so I guess you could call it the control centre for your menstrual cycle. Now, the interesting thing to note here is that you CAN influence the hypothalamus consciously and unconsciously, as it responds to factors like stress/relaxation, anxiety/rest, nutrition, depression/pleasure. It basically tells the pituitary gland what to do, and also regulates the adrenal gland, which produces stress hormones. And these are just two of its functions.

I think it’s easy to think of this as one-direction-only transaction: your brain controls your body, your hypothalamus controls your hormones and your hormones control your menstrual cycle. But what Dr Tray Gaudet and other doctors, scientist and therepists are suggesting is that the system flows in a more circular motion than this: if you take care of your body, your brain will react positively. And what I am suggesting is that since we can view our brain and our body as the same thing, by taking care of our body we are taking care of our brain and if we take care of our brain we are taking care of our body! And using this theory, you can understand why we often get ill when we’re stressed, over-worked and unhappy; why we tend to feel healthy when we’re happy; and happy when we’re healthy!

The Monthly Cycle

Before reading this post, I would suggest you start with my previous entry 'This is where it all starts' and work up, to undertand the context.

This is basically a general sketch of what takes place in a woman's body every month. The first thing to know is that everybody is different, and a ‘normal’ cycle can be anything from 21 to 35 days. They also tend to be more regular when we are younger.

The first day of the cycle is the day we start bleeding. It will last 3 to 5 days, but again, this varies from woman to woman. During bleeding, our estrogen levels are just a tenth of what they will be at their peak. The ‘blood’ is not actually blood- it is the lining of the womb (built up over the previous weeks) coming away, discarded because we’re not pregnant and therefore don’t need it. Sometimes it might seem like a lot of blood to loose, but it’s actually only around an egg-cup full on average.

As bleeding ends, the pituitary gland in our brain secretes a hormone called FSH (follicle stimulating hormone). The purpose of this is to tell our ovaries to prepare a few follicles, ready to produce an egg. As these grow, they produce more and more estrogen- which in turn, tells the lining of the womb to thicken again. This stage is called the follicular stage, and can last anywhere from 5 to 20 days, depending on the length of our cycle.
Usually only one egg will mature inside one follicle. As it reaches maturity it begins to secrete another hormone called progesterone. Next, the FSH is joined by another chemical produced in the pituitary gland- LH (luteinizing hormone), telling the follicle to release the egg. This is ovulation, and will usually occur midway through the cycle (so that would be day 10/11 in a short cycle, up to day 17/18 in a long cycle). It will take around seven days to journey from the ovary to the uterus… and it is during these days that we are most likely to get pregnant. Some women are able to tell when ovulation happens: they may be more horny than usual, or feel a slight cramping sensation in their lower stomach.

Now it’s all go for the uterus! Our bodies basically WANT to get pregnant at this point in our cycle (whether we consciously want to or not!) and so the uterus is preparing itself for a fertilised egg. This is the bit I find really interesting: while the womb lines itself with a soft, thick layer of cells, the ovarian follicle which housed the egg turns into something called a ‘corpus luteum’ and now has the job of producing the hormones needed to make the uterus ready for a baby to grow inside it. Progesterone is the main one, and is forty times it’s lowest level at this time! Estrogen, LH and FSH dip while progesterone rises sharply.

If the egg is fertilised (there is a window of around fourteen days after ovulation for this to take place), the body will continue to produce estrogen and progesteone. The egg itself will also produce another hormone called HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) which is what home pregnancy tests pick up.

If the egg isn’t fertilised, estrogen continues to drop, and progesterone also drops. The corpus luteum shrinks and is reabsorbed, and we return to day one of the cycle when the lining of the womb begins to break down again.

Now you can probably understand why women tend to be labelled as ‘hormonal’! After puberty, men’s hormones settle and level off. Women, on the other hand, live with a constant shifting of hormones as our bodies prepare for pregnancy, and then ‘tidy up’ after themselves, ready to start all over again!

The menstrual cycle is powered by hormones. Every day the levels of each hormone will be different, and yet so predictable that a scientist could tell you exactly what day of your cycle you were on just by taking a biopsy. For example, LH is released in pulses by your brain every sixty to seventy minutes before ovulation, and only once every 200 minutes by the time your period is starting.

With a system so complex and intricate, it’s unsurprising to me that we often have problems with it!

And all of this is going on, every single day, without us even being aware of it!