Hypothalamic amenorrhea #1

This post is not intended as medical advice and I am not an expert. I write this with lived experience, the intention of raising awareness and promoting self advocacy.

Have you lost your period?

Losing your period is never something that should be taken lightly, it can be a serious indicator that your body is functioning suboptimally.

What is Hypothalamic Amenorrhea?

The absence of a period for 3 or more months related to an problem with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is situated in the brain it connects our endocrine system to our central nervous system. It has many roles- it basically acts as a regulator for many of our bodies systems. It is the main regulator of the pituitary gland which is the where central regulating hormones are released. Some of those hormones include reproductive hormones, needed for menstruation.

Hypothalamic amenorrhea- When the control centre of the brain that regulates hormone secretion– is turned off.

Why does this happen?

There are several factors that can lead to disruption to the hypothalamic signalling. This post is focusing on the reproductive aspects- hypothalamic amenorrhea. My intention is to give a brief outline to help you understand 1.why it happens, 2. Why doctors don’t necessarily consider it when they see someone in front of them.

Factors that lead to HA:

Energy deficit, this is the biggest factor and can occur due to a plethora of reasons. One of those is dieting. Whether this is through intermittent fasting- where the regular signals are not being maintained, caloric deficit, or excluding specific food groups such as cutting carbs/ fats, they all disrupt the signalling from the hypothalamus.

◦ If your hypothalamus perceives energy deficit it shuts down non vital functions of the body. It keeps you alive, it’s like a book balancer. What you don’t “need” it cuts. Menstruation is a function of reproductive health. Therefore, it is not a vital component to staying alive. Therefore it shuts off this non vital function, in order to preserve other functions including keeping your heart beating. This is another reason why we tend to feel COLD ALL the time when we are in energy deficit or have HA- the generator shuts off the heater to conserve other functions.

Weight loss regardless of your size. You can have HA at any BMI. Firstly, If you lose weight it’s likely related to energy deficit, however when you lose weight you lose important regulating hormones (leptin) which are in fat cells and this is part of the feedback system to the hypothalamus.

Stress. Something that puts stress on your body can disrupt periods. This may be through emotional or physical stress. Cortisol turns off the hypothalamus. Therefore it can cause you to lose your period.

◦ For similar reasons to above- exercise especially high intensity exercise can raise your cortisol by placing stress on your body. Additionally it can lead to energy deficit and weight loss and so it’s continues the issue. This is part of “female athlete triad”

Unfortunately HA is a common issue, however it’s not always recognized. Partly because it’s not understood and there are many misconceptions around HA. For instance people inhabiting in larger bodies are often rewarded for their weight loss efforts and exercising, but we know that HA can occur at any size. But often we are not as open with healthcare professionals about our lifestyle and they often don’t enquire.

When women lose their periods they are sometimes then commenced on the contraceptive pill to “restart” their cycle, or in some instances diagnosed with Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Unfortunately this is a problem because the management of PCOS- is often the complete opposite of HA. The contraceptive pill does not address the underlying issue, energy deficit. A bleed induced by the oral contraceptive pill is not a real period. If you took the pill away likely the person would not bleed.

I lost my period for a long time, thankfully I have healed from HA personally.

When in the depths of my eating disorder I did not advocate for myself or share my situation with healthcare professionals. I was advised at times to take hormones, I was not advised to stop/ reduce my exercise or eat more for instance. Getting a diagnosis is challenging because one, we don’t share and two it’s not always on the healthcare professionals radar.

However sharing knowledge with health professionals can help raise awareness.

I am no expert, I write this purely from personal experience and getting to know people within the recovery community.

I encourage anyone who has lost their period to seek medical advice, there are many reasons for this not just HA. But if you are someone who could be at risk of this you may need to advocate for yourself here.

I’ll write a separate post about some of the myths and issues associated to HA.

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