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Health, Hormones, and (not) Working Out pt. 3

Part 3: Lifestyle and Fitness

Part three is dedicated to the very challenging lifestyle changes I’ve made to improve my gut health and in turn, my overall physical and mental health. Lifestyles are everything. From what we do daily, to what we eat, to how we connect with others, to our sleep and stress. For many of us, it’s how we’ve lived for years. And this post is about how I’ve taken patterns and routines I’ve had for years, and flipped them inside out.

Here we are. Several weeks later from when I initially put part 1 of this hormone and health journey out there. In a way, it’s fitting. That this is so late. It speaks to the areas I’m going to talk about today like stress and daily routines. Part 1 was all about the timeline, part 2 was about the specific treatments and protocols I’ve been undergoing, and finally, part 3 is about the lifestyle changes I’ve made and attempted to make over the last year to try to heal my body.

Buckle up kids because we’re going to talk stress, working out, diet, and all of the behaviors we do on a daily basis that make us who we are, for better or worse.

Thanks to things like Facebook and Snapchat, I was reminded of where I was this time last year and even four years ago recently. Let’s start with four years ago. 2017. I was in ridiculous shape, personal training, coaching, dog watching, meal prepping, and moving nonstop 24/7. And, I was spiraling.

I was hyper-focused on anything that kept me moving and gave me a sense of achieving something, anything. When really all I was doing was moving in really fast circles without going anywhere. On the outside I was everything a fitness chick should be. High energy, disciplined, living in a gym, meticulously prepping perfectly portioned meals, and not once allowing myself to stray from the put-head-down-and-work path. But funny that it’s during the times you “look” the best that you are at your absolute worst. I put this in here because I believe it was during times like this, when I was not myself, that I was laying the foundation for the issues I’d be facing years later.

Fast forward to a memory from this time last year, October of 2020. My gut was huge (in the painful bloat way), my energy was low, my anxiety was through the roof, and I didn’t know where to turn.

I decided that the month of December 2020 would be my time to get my head back on straight before starting my new and current position. And ya know what? It worked. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth mentioning again, that I got my miracle period last December. Yes it left again and things got worse in 2021, but in December, I was good. I was working. So what was going on?

Well. You could say my lifestyle had been adjusted.

I was focusing on living a consistent, healthy routine. Waking up at the same time most days, working out at the same time (just once), eating on the same schedule. And what I focused on more than anything was my friends, family, and doing the little things that made me feel good.

At this point, I also had greater peace of mind knowing my new job was going to be starting in January. This help put my mind at ease after the chaos and instability of 2020 and the several years prior.

Then January came.

And we know what happened.

Left side: December 2020

Right side: February 2021

Things took a turn for the worst. I won’t go into it again because we all know by now that I hit many breaking points last winter into Spring of this year. Leading me to find my OBGYN and reach out to a health coach that works with her. I was looking for any and all answers and willing to try anything. Because trying to do it on my own was not working. Maybe it was working for a little bit (like in December), but it hadn’t worked months before December and it wasn’t working in the new year of 2021.

Deep down, I knew I was the cause of my problems. The years of change, instability, and not dealing with the variety of stressors in my life. But at this point, and even today, I felt like I had gotten myself in such a hole that my actions and attitude alone weren’t enough anymore. I’d take the supplements, I’d try the hormone replacement therapy, I’d adjust my lifestyle. Whatever I had to do.

So I called Caitlin.

I knew how this was going to go. I knew we’d get to my workouts and dependence on working out and not eating properly for so many years coupled with the stressors that existed in my professional and personal life. And I knew I’d be told to pump the breaks and start actually taking care of myself.

Which to me made this whole thing more infuriating because I feel like that’s all I’ve been trying to do. But clearly my body was telling me otherwise.

So what did Caitlin ask me about? Well she wanted to know about my sleep, energy levels, workout routine, diet, and yes, my stress. She did encourage me to get the GI Map test (which you need a doctor to order for you), to see what else we could do to help mitigate the physical symptoms, but I knew at the end of the day, my mind and lifestyle were both the cause and the cure for my problems.

When she asked me about my workouts I told her how terrible they had been feeling for a long time. And when asked if I had ever taken a week off, I didn’t have an answer for her.

We talked about cortisol, the stress hormone, and how in females especially, too much cortisol without the body’s natural return to rest and balance can wreak havoc on our hormones.

Stress, as I’ve said before, is a good thing. It is a necessary thing. It gets a bad rep, but only because we live in a world that celebrates too much stress. We applaud 80 hour work weeks, managing a career and a family, and working out harder and longer than those around you. But adequate amounts of stress are good and necessary for you. It’s when we find ourselves in a constant state of fight or flight, with elevated level of cortisol always that things go badly.

Take me for example.

When my body really started to change, I was doing all the jobs mentioned above, training multiple hours a day, and never resting unless it was earned. I like to workout in the mornings and I still like to workout in the mornings, but did you know our cortisol levels are high when we wake up because we’ve been in a fasted state all night? Then, if you’re like me, you pump yourself with black coffee first thing, raising your cortisol even higher, then you go to the gym with only black coffee in your system to do a high intensity workout, bumping it up even more, and then you don’t eat much if anything after the workout because at this point you’re running late for the next job.

Then you get to that job where you spend every minute subconsciously on edge hoping your past and personal relationships don’t make themselves known. And when they do, you dip into the bathroom to breathe away the anxiety attack before heading back out.

These last two paragraphs sum up the last 4-5 years.

And on top of that, I allowed this “busy” life to get in the way of friendships, family, and a lot of moments and memories I’ll never have.

As all of these thoughts spun around my brain, I made the decision to finally take a break from working out. I didn’t have a timeline on it. I was going to stop exercise, go on walks, and see what happened. Would it be a couple weeks? A month? Longer?

It was longer.

I realize how ridiculous this must all sound. Poor Em having to give up something that most people hate doing. But for me, working out has been my safe space. It’s been my thing. My hobby. My life. My stress release. And on top of that, it’s my job. And has become a big part of my identity. In fact the reason I have my job today was because of the fitness world I had created for myself. So to take that away? I felt like a fraud. I couldn’t be Coach Lasko and I’ll tell ya what, what was left was not fun. She was lost. And in a body that was fighting back.

Lifestyle change 1: Stop working out. Instead, let your body sleep without forcing it to wake up to an alarm clock every day. Go on a lot of walks, do some light lifting, a little yoga, and see what happens.

Here we are in May of 2021. Taking hormones, a lot of supplements, my stomach is worse than ever, and now I’m not working out how I like to work out.

It sucked. But we did it.

Here I am, back in May. In a new job that although I’m extremely grateful for, I wasn’t really doing anything in yet and feeling very uneasy. And now I wasn’t even working out, nor did I really want to. My body hurt, the hormones I was taking were making me very uncomfortable and gain weight, I had no appetite, and I was ashamed of everything about me.

Let’s talk about work for a moment. For some people work is just work. Go, do your job, leave, and repeat. For others it’s their entire life, identity, and purpose. A big reason I was writing on this blog daily during quarantine was because it gave me some sort of purpose. A reason to not be a piece of shit laying on the couch like a sloth being unemployed and ‘nonessential’.

I realized I had very little outside of work. Nothing, really. No other “thing” to make me feel useful and of value. I needed something, anything to make me feel like I had any value in this world. Humans need that. Structure. Some sort of order in an otherwise chaotic world. And even though I was seeing how stressed out others were trying to work from home or balance work and kids, I envied what they had. I envied the fact that they had an actual reason to get up every day and knew what had to be done, whether they liked it or not. And I feel for the ones that don’t like it. That feel stuck. I’ve been there. But having felt a lot of extremes now, from working nonstop everyday and being the on call person 24/7, to being on the hamster wheel and hating what you do, to being unemployed and alone and having nothing, to now finding myself in a new job in a world that was foreign to me and didn’t have actual work for me yet. And ya know what? I’d take those crazy 24/7 manager days back in a heartbeat. Because at least I felt like I was earning my keep.

But. I did what we all do and that’s put one foot in front of the other. Because it’s all I could do. Knowing things had to get better. Work had to get better, my body had to get better. I was doing all the right things. Something had to give.

A few weeks after giving up exercise, Katie came down and we went skydiving. And aside from it being the craziest and possibly the best thing I’ve ever done, I remember feeling so damn good. Like really good. I remember being amazed that my stomach didn’t hurt. And my anxiety was low.

So what was it?

Well. It was Katie. It was connecting with someone who knows and loves me for me. It was doing one of the craziest things a person can do like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. It was being forced while free falling through the air to focus on the present and only the present and not worry about anything else in life. Falling through the sky has a way of doing that to you.

I felt alive. And I didn’t want to lose that. For about two days, I felt like me.

I had to bring this up because I’ve been so hyper focused on all the habits and behaviors I had to adjust daily and forgetting to just live and be present. It took Katie being here and me jumping out of a plane for my body to relax. How messed up is that?

The question now is how can I harness that feeling of letting go without having to, ya know, ask Katie to come back every weekend and jump out of plane?

Answer: Call home. Visit friends. Go see Mal in Chicago. Reconnect with people you love and that love you. Stop being so hard and strict on yourself. For the hyper independent like myself with walls so high only Jerry can break through, this is a daily practice. Even a random text to a friend can make all the difference.

Lifestyle change 2: Reach out to your people. Take yourself out. Do something new, even if it’s going into an Asian grocery store and leaving with bok choy and the cutest little soy sauce saucer (I did this last weekend on a whim and it was delightful).

It’s time to talk about food. And the d word.

Diet.

Screw that word.

But it must be talked about.

Like my workouts, food has been and still is my happy place, but I can take it to extremes. I call it self experimentation when in reality, it’s restricting and then being annoyed when I eat something outside of my normal “allowed” foods that makes my stomach bloat.

Before I go any further, remember that this is my own experience and what I eat or don’t eat is based on a lot of time and a lot of trial and error. But the one rule that has helped me more than anything is this:

Nothing. And I mean nothing, is off limits.

In my experience, the problem with telling yourself things like “I can’t have that” or “I shouldn’t have that” or “that’s going to hurt me” is that it most likely will. Because you’re priming your mind and body already to reject something that had you just chilled out and enjoyed it, you’d probably be fine.

Now, my stomach has been particularly bad, like last year, and last summer, and even right now as I write this (it’s fine, we all have bad days and some flare ups), I do make it a point to stay away from certain foods. But my mindset has shifted from “you can’t have that” to “you can have that later.” So, yes, ff you’ve suffered from IBS or SIBO or anything related to that, then yes things like a low FODMAP diet and cutting out diary and gluten for a little bit will help.

But it can’t be forever. Where I’ve found myself in trouble is not knowing how or when to stop. It’s fear. It’s fear of bringing foods back in only to find myself wanting to restrict again. So I’d encourage anyone who has a bad gut or thinks they might have food sensitivities not to do anything alone, especially if you’re prone to disordered eating habits. It is completely possible to follow a protocol for a certain amount of time and properly reintroduce different food groups. But I know me. And I know my all or nothing behavior patterns. From vegetarian to paleo to low FODMAP to gluten free to counting macros, I’ve done nearly everything. Obsessively. And it has kept me in this cycle I’m currently in and working to get out of.

Therefore, nothing is off limits. Maybe it’s just waiting on the sidelines.

Our bodies like consistency. And our gut loves diversity. Meaning those small meals I’d eat during the day made of the same 5-7 ingredients and then the cereals and nut butters I’d binge at night were making my stomach a disaster.

This, dear friends, had to be (and is still being) corrected. When we aren’t ourselves, and we’re feeling particularly anxious or depressed, we stop taking care of ourselves. Like not eating. Or eating too much. Or binging at night. Or thinking what does it matter anyway. It’s a vicious cycle.

We’ve learned some messed up habits around food.

If it’s not the right time we won’t eat, even if we’re hungry.

If we feel hungry we ignore it, telling ourselves it’s discipline and willpower.

If we indulge in something, we hate ourselves and feel like we have to “make up for it” the next day or several days.

We’ve all had these thoughts.

Now, because I want to make this actionable. here are some of the things I did that has helped my tummy:

  1. I eat something, anything, at the same time each day to get my body used to the consistency
  2. I gave up my ‘mixing bowl salads’ because all those raw veggies were a lot for my inflamed stomach to handle
  3. I eat different types of vegetables, but not too many. And I eat them separately. Greens, broccoli, peppers, not all at the same time and not all cooked together.
  4. I don’t do a ton of smoothies anymore, or if I do, it’s very simple and maybe 3-4 ingredients – Banana, protein powder, flax seeds, non dairy milk.
  5. I incorporate more things like good lentil pasta or edamame for more fiber
  6. I eat mostly easier to digest vegetables. Typically all things green and leafy. I still eat the tougher ones like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts because I love them, but I keep my portion size in check instead of eating the entire sheet pan.
  7. I always cook my veggies. Boil, saute, roast, steam. Whatever you need to do, just cook it down.
  8. I’ve been doing a lot more white rice. It’s delicious and very easy on the stomach.
  9. I don’t eat a ton of yogurt anymore but when I do I normally get Kite Hill Blissful because there are no added gums
  10. This is a big one: I stopped binging spoonfuls of nut butters and I cut out all “healthy” cereals. I love that Catalina Crunch among others, but I can’t be trusted around it and at the end of the day, even though the ingredients aren’t terrible, it’s still a processed food. I can’t go outside and find cereal growing on a tree.
  11. I gave myself a no phone rule while eating. No mindless scrolling. Weird, but it seems to help.

Overall, the goal is to eat more mindfully. Eat well rounded meals with a carb (potatoes, rice, sourdough bread, lentil pasta), a protein (chicken, fish, tofu, beef), and something green (I like all green leafy things, zuchinni, and peppers). And to never see something as “off limits” unless you have a true allergy towards it. Pay attention to how fast you’re eating, how your body is feeling, and how satisfied you are. And enjoy it. It’s food. It’s delicious. And it’s keeping you alive.

And for the love of God if you’re hungry, eat something.

Lifestyle change 3: Eat real food, stop restricting then binging, eat well and with no distractions, and cut out the stupid cereals. 

So what about all the supplements and hormones I was taking?

Yeah I stopped those. By July I was beyond fed up with trying all these different pills and supplements to “heal and seal” my gut. Sure they might have helped. But you know what wasn’t helping? Thinking about all this crap I had to take and stressing if I forgot to take something or didn’t time things perfectly. I lost myself and I lost my trust in myself. And I wanted that back. So I stopped taking everything aside from the vitamins I knew were beneficial regardless of hormone or gut issues – like magnesium, essential fatty acids, zinc, and vitamin d – and I decided to do what felt good and right to me. I wanted my intuition back.

Caitlin you are great. And important. And anyone who is at a loss and desperate for help, I recommend finding help, but I also recommend knowing when to stop searching and get back to trusting yourself. Don’t stick to the diet for too long, don’t take the pills for too long, and don’t believe the answers to your problems are in other people, supplements, or pills. Those things are protocols and meant to assist the answers, not be the answers. The answers are in you.

I’ve already talked about the wonders of connecting with friends, but I can’t emphasize enough how much this has helped me. I love my alone time, and I always will. But I’ve really started to pay attention to who I’m around when I feel my best. And who brings that out in me. And I’m lucky to say I have a lot of those people. Two weeks ago was the wedding of one of the best guys I’ve ever known. And being with Ty, and watching him marry Rachel, then partying the night away with friends I’ve known for going on 15 years, reminded me how lucky I am to have those people. The ones who knew me before life got confusing. And know me as me.

Who brings out the best in you? Who do you feel safe around? Who’s there when you have felt your best? Or when you’ve felt your best, who do you want to tell about it?

Connect with people. Even if it’s one person. Even if it’s a therapist (I’ve got one of those too). Whoever it is. Stick to those people that make you feel safe and seen. And tell them that.

As of late, I’ve been feeling better overall. I can attribute it to a lot of the reasons above. I can also attribute it to my job getting busy and me finally feeling the pressure and satisfaction of having a long hard work day again. Not that that’s necessarily a healthy thing… we’re learning. But having the busy days and the pressure to find the answers and figure things out has given me that purpose again. I’m not just showing up and going through the motions, but really reframing what it is I need this job to be and how I can be successful in it. And I feel my confidence grow daily because of this.

I’ve been working out again. I’ve re-discovered my love of lifting. I’m doing semi-intense exercise 1-2x per week, but I’ve been really loving the feeling of putting my headphones in and working my way around a weight room again. Especially a weight room that is simply a gym, not my place of work. That’s been big for me.

I’m not going to finish this by saying I’m healed and good to go. I won’t lie. Because I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way.

Healing is not linear. In the last couple weeks I’ve felt better, but I still have good and bad days. I still have bloated days. But constantly working on reframing my mindset around all areas of my life, from my fitness routine to my food to my work and relationships, has helped me positively adjust my behaviors. It’s that mental game. And I haven’t been able to do it alone. I’ve done it alongside every person and protocol listed in this post and the previous two.

Dictating what it is I need my life to be rather that letting my circumstances, gut, or work dictate it for me has helped me regain control.

I hope you found something in this post, and in the previous parts that might help you if you’ve ever dealt with any of this. I wish I had easier answers for you. But the hard truth is that what helps the most cannot be found in a doctors office. They aren’t it. They aren’t all of it. You are it. You are all of it.

Write down what it is you want to feel and achieve in life. And write down the actions and behaviors that will get you closer to achieving that. And who can help you do it. And then do it. Follow through.

Bet on yourself yourself. Reframe your mind.

And tell someone you love about it.

 

 

 

 

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