This is a very personal post from me (Baanu) but I decided to write about it, not only to help me process the challenges I’m facing and the dilemmas better, but also to start a conversation around this issue, which I believe is really important and one that a lot of people are dealing with in isolation.
It’s important to say that what I have written here is my personal experience; I’m not an expert in any fertility treatments nor am I a Dr with a specialisation in female hormones. First and foremost I’m a woman, a woman who has gone through fertility treatment, I manage a service within the local authority working full time in an office environment and I also co-direct The Movement Clinic with my dear husband Lee. I used to train several times a week and I like being physically strong. I am a psychotherapist who understands the impact of emotional regulation on overall wellbeing and I’m a mum to a beautiful and very energetic dog called Poppy.
Since the beginning of 2015 my husband and I have been going through different fertility treatments. Over the last two years I ended up injecting myself with numerous different drugs during several rounds of IVF. Every step and every drug had a different impact on me physically and emotionally and the outcome after every cycle had a tremendous impact on both of us emotionally. I want to acknowledge that this post is about my journey, not Lee’s, and by not mentioning him I do not want to minimise or ignore the impact of this journey on him.
Overall during all the stages of the treatments I felt extremely emotional, lethargic, absolutely shattered and the stress of the whole situation affected me physically. I have put on a lot of weight, I am not sure exactly how much as I don’t weigh myself, but I have probably gone up at least two dress sizes, which then had an impact on my self esteem, how I felt and how I saw myself. It’s one vicious cycle really…
Being hormotional (hormonal and emotional) had an impact on my whole being and what I started understanding was that hormonal imbalances are caused by several different factors, here are some of these:
- Taking synthetic hormones – taking full-blown lots of different drugs, my belly looked like a multi coloured pincushion for the good part of two years (very attractive!). The side effects for me ranged from extreme mood swings to having a “moon face” caused by water retention, which also affected my whole body.
- Higher than average levels of stress - being able to manage our stress levels day to day without having any major changes in our lives is challenging, so when going through a life changing event, or just something that is important to us and needs lots of time and attention, the stress levels can quickly and sharply rise. Going through the fertility treatments, dealing with the side effects, working full time and opening a new business all at the same time was extremely stressful. Unfortunately for us, the outcome of the treatments was never a positive one (not for too long anyway) and with the last two attempts it had severe physical health implications on me which meant that I had to be in and out of hospital for days and days and undergo emergency surgery. One of these happened at the same time as we were doing building work on the Clinic. Stressful much..? I guess my point is that life is never straightforward; there will always be something that challenges us and pushes us that much more in directions we would rather not go and being able to acknowledge this and be mindful is crucial to managing and regulating emotions.
- Inadequate sleep – goes hand in hand with stress levels of course. Melatonin (sleep hormone) levels increase as we go to bed and begin to decrease as we wake up. Cortisol (stress hormone) decrease just before bed and increase as we wake up. So when stress levels are higher than normal, the two hormones become misaligned, which in turn has a sever impact on our sleep patterns as well as the quality of our sleep. Taking this into consideration, what are the chances of getting adequate sleep when under stress? Lack of good quality and quantity of sleep has, in turn, a massive impact on how we do and manage our day-to-day life.
- Poor food choices – now this is a biggie, extremely complex and somewhat controversial. But putting it simplistically, are we having a balanced diet when it comes to calorie intake and the macronutrients our bodies need? For me eating homemade balanced fresh food comes naturally so it’s not difficult for me to eat too much “healthy” foods. There is a big difference between being healthy and being skinny and when the calorie intake is higher than calorie expenditure this has an impact on body composition, this then can have an impact on self-esteem and the way we look at ourselves, which can heighten cortisol levels – aka stress!!
- Sedentary lifestyle (lack of movement or exercise) again with higher stress levels, inadequate sleep and a potential lean towards making poor food choices / higher calorie intake, levels of consistent training might fall by the wayside and this has an impact on our mood/emotions, it all goes around and around… For me, or anyone who is going through fertility or hormone treatment, exercise is somewhat more challenging as, due to the extra hormones, ovaries can be super ovulated which means they are large and bulky so even walking is painful, and after the embryo transfer you are advised to have limited movement for weeks. Funny story….. When I asked my Dr as to what that meant he said, “just continue what you were doing, just don’t start a new exercise regime” and in the same sentence he said “just don’t run for the bus or lift anything heavier than 5 pounds” ???! Now, I don’t know what most people do in the gym, but if you’re not allowed to do fast pace exercises or weight training then what is there to do…?
So I learned that hormones are chemical messengers that affect our brain, heart, bones, muscles, and reproductive organs. Hormones don’t work individually; they work as a complicated interwoven system. When one hormone changes, it affects the production of other hormones. As we age, changes naturally occur in the way the body systems are controlled, i.e. transition to puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, menopause, etc. the natural changes in our sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) affect other hormones like insulin - in turn, that disrupts the way our body stores and utilizes calories, which causes weight gain. The more weight we gain, the worse the system functions, causing more weight gain. It’s another vicious cycle.
Usually hormones work best when balanced and, as women we know that most of us suffer from hormonal imbalances every month due to Mother Nature aka the menstrual cycle and, even when you take synthetic hormones out of the above list, we suffer from most points I mentioned (poor sleep, poor food choices, lack of movement…) and, as hormone balance restoration is key to our overall health, it feels like a lost game as it is…. But, is it??!
For me, just finding out and knowing the function of my hormones is a step towards managing and (re)creating as balanced hormonal levels as possible.
Guilt and shame also play a big part in the whole picture of the process of dealing with the unsuccessful outcome of the fertility treatments and being able to explore these subjects with others and with my loving husband Lee (who has been extremely supportive and with me every step of the way) has helped me enormously.
Acknowledgment, acceptance and self-compassion is a vital step towards reducing stress, which in part has had an impact on sleeping better and making more informed food choices. Getting back to exercising more has helped me to maintain and start rebuilding muscle, combined with eating better for what I want to achieve has helped improve my mood and I have slowly started reducing body fat too.
Lastly, I want to address something that is often talked about in different forums and that is what we experience when people offer their advice. We know that it comes from a good place and people feel that they need to say something positive or that they can somehow help or fix things, but you never know why the couple are seeking treatment. There are so many different reasons why couples need fertility treatment, it’s not always the woman’s problem, and it’s not always the man’s problem, and sometimes it is just unexplained. The most important thing that anyone can do is to just be there or just listen for when they are ready to talk.
I would love to hear your opinion and views about this, it’s always good to share and talk….