AIP Balance Week | Day 2: Infertility & Autoimmunity

A major part of my healing journey has focused on the restoration of my fertility, which was the first thing to go after my acute Hashimoto’s attack in 2008 and the last thing to be restored after following the AIP in 2014. At 20 years old, I didn’t mind skipping the hassle of a period. After all, mine had always been fairly painful and disruptive. Ten pounds of water retention, cramps that required loads of Tylenol, headaches, and constipation used to be my reality for 7 days out of the month (uh that’s 25% of the year!!)  I saw my lack of period as a blessing and spent 3 years not being too concerned about it. During this time, my body fat percentage became lower and lower each year, dropping to 14% (that is NOT to be admired, ladies) and my weight to a measly 87 pounds. This was greatly in part from my severe leaky gut; I wasn’t absorbing the nutrients or energy from my food, and I remember that my body would shed 8 lbs in just a few days during a really bad flare. Again, back then this didn’t bother me. I was in my early 20’s and enjoying this new found size 0 and XXS wardrobe. Another factor was my lifelong dedication to exercise, which I will be speaking about in another post this week. I had discovered high intensity interval training around this time, increased my running distance, and became fairly obsessive about controlling my weight and composition via exercise. My poor system was getting it from all angles – I became severely anemic and vitamin-deficient. Half my hair fell out, my skin was dry, and I had no breasts or booty anymore, which is not my  inherent body type. I am Lebanese and generally quite curvy in that mini Kim Kardashian way a lot of us Middle Eastern women are… and that’s something to be proud of dang it! The things you learn as you age and cancel your cable subscription. 

                So why does body image fit into this picture? My vanity, interest in fitness, and media exposure to “beautiful women” superseded my determination to fix my hormonal health when I was a single, shall I say dumb, college girl. Post-college, my gut was literally telling me “You are not skinny because you are healthy. You are skinny because you are NOT healthy.” I knew this was true and deep down I knew it needed to be fixed but I really was in a deep hole of over-exercising and getting way too much positive reinforcement from other females with my leaky gut induced weight loss. After dozens of doctor’s appointments, it was clear that my reproductive system wasn’t inherently broken like I thought. I didn’t have PCOS, I wasn’t in early menopause, and I didn’t have ovarian failure – all of these things frightened the crap out of me but explained my symptoms so I started to go through the grieving process of a life without children at age 21. Now I know that simply my body didn’t have the nutrients or energy stores to withstand bearing a child. My autoimmunity and leaky gut were wreaking absolute havoc on my intestines and immune system, which was really the oxygen to the fire. I never starved myself into thinness (I LOVE food if you haven’t noticed and my nickname growing up was Alaena “Hungry” Haber), my disease and exercise habits took me there, but I didn’t do anything about it until my body started aching for the possibility of children.

                Once I met my now husband, I became embarrassed of my amenorrhea. He is 11 years older than me and althoug not the most mature 37 year old, I knew he would be ready for children sooner than men my age. I didn’t feel at all womanly, and although he was still very attracted to me, I always had an inkling that he wished I had my period. I had lost my “It” that I felt I had prior to Hashimoto’s – the sexual attractiveness that you can practically smell on an ovulating woman. I think you all know what I’m talking about. Once we got married, friends and family members who didn’t know about my infertility would ask, “Now, do you want children?” I didn’t know how to answer that. “Yes, if I can have them” would have been terribly awkward and inappropriate. Usually I would cover up my defensiveness and hurt feelings with a, “We have so much more we want to do before we even think about children.” Which is true, but a sinking feeling in my stomach started to develop whenever I would see kids playing at the park or mothers walking their babies in strollers. I started to feel very guilty about my lack of menstruation and felt bad that my husband married into a life without the joy of children. He would of course be outraged by these thoughts of mine, and he was always very supportive saying that all he needed was me. But his words weren’t enough and I quickly went into a daily cycle of anxiety and depression over it. My body was healing in so many ways on AIP – the pain and fatigue had completely subsided, I began gaining weight, my digestion normalized, and I could successfully reintroduce a lot of non-AIP foods back into my diet! I was incredibly grateful for the healing I had achieved all on my own, but I woke in the morning and went to bed at night wishing for my period to come back. In order for this to happen, I decided I had to accept the weight gain, cellulite, and increase in body fat percentage that was needed for this to occur in my body. I had to accept my genetics and get the hell over being a size 0. This was fairly easy to do because how could I ever argue anything feels greater than being able to facilitate life of another human? I have a feeling that for me nothing will be as satisfying on a primal level as motherhood. 

                I credit my naturopath and Dr. Sarah Ballantyne to giving me the tools to make this happen. My naturopath wrote me this prescription for exercise: “No running. Do things you enjoy each day that are gentle on your body like walking and yoga.” My 11-year running habit went Kaput! That in itself was difficult to cope with… I had used running as an anxiety reducer and as a measure of my health since I was 15 years old. I instead went for long walks when I had time and many days I simply didn’t do anything but walk to the train station or the grocery store for activity. I began biking everywhere – school, social events, the beach. Walking and biking made me feel like I was still getting the health benefits of exercise without compromising my attmpt to gain weight. This restored my confidence in a lot of ways and helped me not be THE obstacle to my own goals. I consulted with family members that were doctors, with Sarah and a couple other leaders of the AIP community that I trusted. They all told me to give it time, to keep eating a high nutrient diet, and to give myself a break damn it. My mindset began to change… instead of feeling like I should just accept a future without children and be done with trying to “fix”  myself, I began imagining myself and my husband chasing after our little boy and girl. I imagined teaching my daughter how to cook, how I would make their baby food from scratch, and what their personalities would be like. I started letting myself have AIP treats like these chocolate chip cookies, and enjoyed big bowls of meaty soup, seafood, and veggies and stopped thinking about calories and food composition being the end-all-be-all of my  health. I doubled my daily carbohydrates and allowed myself the freedom to enjoy my food with no emotions attached to it except pleasure and pride. My overall healthy but light on calories salads, juices, lean ground beef, chicken thighs and steamed vegetables took a back seat for several months, and I really have enjoyed sitting down to 2 large meals each day whereas a big meal used to be a source of anxiety and guilt. What freedom I now have from the sickness that is disordered eating (I may be being too loose with that term as I have always been very dedicated to high quality foods, but I have historically put too much emphasis on sticking to a certain caloric range). Again, thanks to the AIP. Pattern?

                Prior to these changes in my diet & exercise, the emotional strain of my infertility hit a high point (or a very, very low point, depending on how you look at it) about 3 months after my wedding, and I vowed to stop letting it bother me so much. I allowed myself to let go of the guilt, worry, and fear that I experienced the majority of each day. And the envy I had for young mothers I saw out and about. I focused on how incredibly healthy my digestion had become, how blessed I was to be able to tolerate bone broth, avocados, and chocolate again, foods I used to be intolerant). How lucky I am that I found a group of fellow AIP gals who truly get one another… I finally had the social support I needed to be successful. I continued to gain weight fairly rapidly and part of me was scared. The louder and smarter part of me began having flutters of excitement because I knew that my gut was finally healed enough to absorb all those beautiful foods I was putting in it! What an odd dichotomy of emotions I have been through the past year… but boy has it made a stronger, more empathetic, and confident woman.

                I am incredibly proud and overjoyed to announce to the community that we plan on having children in the next couple years, and that it is now a possibility instead of an unattainable dream! I recognize that this is a VERY personal story to tell on the Internet and that it will forever be permanent in Google history. I am okay with that for several reasons. 1) I am not ashamed of my body, my autoimmunity, or the rollercoaster of emotions I went through for the past 6 years and neither should you, 2) I started G & E to share my story and provide support through food and laughter to women all over the world who have been through the loneliness and fear that accompanies an autoimmune diagnosis, and I am going to stay true to that mission and 3) I consider myself an AIP success story, and I want anyone who is thinking about doing the AIP or who is currently on it to KNOW that success is a viable possibility and that quitting should not be an option you give yourself. Good things take time, and getting over my “fat fears” (both dietary and body) was likely the numero uno reason I have found success. 

                Infertility is a terrifying effect of autoimmune disease in many women, and it is very rarely talked about. I think this is because females feel ashamed or embarrassed of their infertility and  there’s a lack of evidence-based research on the subject, but this anxiety-fueled idea that we must be the perfect woman and wife must go. I wrote an article for Autoimmune-Paleo a while back about AI and fertility that you can read. My sadness but steadfastness comes through in my words, and this blog post today is such a joyous turn of events in my personal life. I had many women e-mail me after reading that article for support, and I want you each to know that you can do the same. It was important for me to update readers on the status of my fertility given that when I wrote that blog post, I still was struggling with hormonal balance and my gut had not healed enough yet to gain the weight I needed to restore my period. I wish that I had heard other women’s stories and struggles with infertility during the past few years, so I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my solo seeking of a solution. Again, please email me if you need advice or just someone to vent your frustrations to…, and I will respond to you shortly. 

Tomorrow’s AIP Balance Week post will be on Social Isolation on AIP

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