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How i bet my hormone problem

MagazineJuly 2013 (Vol. 24 Issue 4)How i bet my hormone problem

Doctors told Alisa Vitti that herovarian cysts were incurable and she'd have to live on pills, but she found herown healing path-through food

Doctors told Alisa Vitti that her ovarian cysts were incurable and she'd have to live on pills, but she found her own healing path-through food

All my friends developed 'normally' during puberty, but I was having a much less appealing experience: I was an androgynous, chubby, acne-spotted child with thick, untamable hair. A young AudreyHepburn I wasn't.

Once I finally got my first period, it came only two to four times a year. I had my first visit to a gynaecologist at age 16 and at every one that followed, I always felt eager to discuss my feelings about my health-from weight gain and pimples to irregular periods and sleep issues-because I always suspected that I wasn't 100 per cent 'right'.

Yet the response from my doctors was always the same. I'd say over and over again that something was 'off' with me, and whichever doctor I was seeing at the time would repeatedly insist that I go on birth-control pills. I'd press her on how the pills would help me and she'd just tell me to take the meds, appreciate the artificial cycle and accept that "it will be better than nothing".

I come from a family that taught me to be wary of meds with no clear benefit and never to accept when people were condescending to me because I was a child or woman. Besides, even to a teenager's ears it didn't sound scientifically or medically sound to prescribe a course of treatment when the cause or condition hadn't been identified.

So I'd defer taking the drug course and continue to spiral into poor health with no answers. Then I'd see new doctors who'd tell me that I had an endocrine problem or maybe a slow thyroid. But all of their tests would come back inconclusive and I'd be back where I started.

Eventually my weight hit a high of two hundred pounds, I was covered in painful cystic acne on my face, chest and back, and I still got my period only twice a year. In college at Johns Hopkins I spiralled into such a deep depression that, during one semester, I slept most of the day and looked for ways to escape my physical pain at night.

My Italian teacher gave me my first and only F because I didn't go to class-but the only reason I was a no-show was because my body literally couldn't function at 9 a.m. Around the age of 20, when I was still a college student, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went to the library and researched a bunch of medical journals to find out if I could help myself.

Late one night I ran across a brief article in an obstetrics journal about Stein-Leventhal syndrome-or what's now called 'polycystic ovarian syndrome' (PCOS). As I read through the report, I was amazed at how perfectly I fit the classic presentation of the condition! I had chills. It was a bell-ringer of a moment.

The next morning I marched myself into my latest gynaecologist's office at Johns Hopkins, placed the article in front of her and demanded that she give me what I learned was the only conclusive test for the condition-a transvaginal ultrasound.

This painless procedure, where a probe is used to look at a woman's reproductive organs, would be able to show if my ovaries were dotted with the cysts that give the condition its name. The doc was thrown off-guard by my bluntness, but most graciously did the procedure then and there.

Sure enough, my instincts were dead-on correct: there the cysts were, visible on the sonogram machine. Both ovaries were covered in multiple cysts.

I was incredulous that despite having access to Harvard-trained gynaecologists as a teen growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, and now as a student seeing a Johns-Hopkins-trained gynaecologist, no one had even considered this diagnosis-or performed the very simple ultrasound to rule it out-when one out of eight women suffers with this condition.

But then I was hit with an even worse verdict: PCOS is considered incurable by Western medicine.

When no is the only option

That grim verdict was given to me in pieces right after the ultrasound when I asked my doctor what the prognosis was for PCOS. In a detached voice she rattled off words that included diabetes, obesity, infertility, heart disease and cancer. I breathed deeply-and as I did, I felt a resounding energy of No! rise up from the base of my spine and pour out of my every cell. For me this No! was a sign that I needed to fight for my body.

I asked what the recommended course of therapy might be, and the doctor advised hormone replacement therapy in the form of birth-control pills. She said I could go on Clomid when it came time to conceive or have in-vitro fertilization (IVF) if necessary. She added that I should probably consider other meds to control symptoms like glucophage for insulin issues, spironolactone for hirsutism issues, isotretinoin for skin issues and eventually blood pressure medication.

Very calmly I asked her a final question: Are there any other known ways to treat this? My doctor's response was short and uninterested. Not to her knowledge, she said.

That's when my foundation really began to crack-not only because I was thrown by my diagnosis, but also because I'd been planning to become an ob-gyn, and I'd assumed that when it came to healing the human body, medicine was the ultimate vehicle. Yet sitting in that office I saw my doctor for the first time not just as a healer, but also as a person. And this person hadn't been trained to correctly examine my symptoms. Frankly, she didn't appear to know much more than what I'd garnered from my reading the night before.

In that moment not only was I clear that I would have to rely on myself to find a solution, but I also recognized that pursuing a medical degree no longer felt like the right fit for me.

I politely told my doctor that instead of taking her advice, I'd dedicate myself to researching other options for my healing and care. Over the next few years as I struggled to understand what was wrong with me, I became much more interested in what I would later understand was functional medicine-a holistic approach to addressing the underlying causes of disease instead of treating the symptoms.

My talented aesthetician, who gave me facials to calm my horrible skin, led me to the next clue when she offered to connect me with a colleague, a naturopathic doctor based nearby.

This naturopath was convinced that my issues stemmed from an overgrowth of Candida and proceeded to create a food and supplement regimen to address this.

For the next three years I apprenticed with this doctor and others, experimenting with their techniques. In addition to the naturopath, I tracked down and began working with herbalists, acupuncturists, acupressure specialists, homeopaths-anyone that I felt had some perspective to offer.

Although I learned a lot during this time, I was no closer to finding a solution than I'd been before.

Other fields had a great deal to teach me too. These included traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), functional nutrition and chronobiology.

TCM provided a framework for understanding the interconnectedness of glands and organs in the body in ways endocrinology could not. If there's a deficiency in one gland or organ, I learned, another will step in and often overcompensate.

This perspective allowed me to see the domino effect that can happen in the body: consistently poor diet or lifestyle choices can set off a chain reaction and if you don't correct those choices, your endocrine system is forced to work in ways it shouldn't. This inevitably leads to hormonal breakdown and results in the variety of symptoms characteristic of PCOS.

But the question remained: how best to fix it? That's where the functional-nutrition piece came in. In my research I came to see just how powerfully impactful food could be not only in resolving symptoms in the short term, but in helping the body stay symptom-free in the long term too. If poor food choices could lead to a state of hormonal collapse, then well-chosen foods contained the nutrients necessary to support hormonal health. Through my research and personalexperimentation, it became clear that food would be the key 'medicine' to be used in my protocol.

My desire to learn even more about the endocrine system eventually led me to study chronobiology, which teaches that every system of the body has its own routine according to a predictable timetable. Look no further than the menstrual cycle to see how beautifully the body works on a set schedule. Under ideal circumstances there's a predictable ratio of hormones that happens four times per month, creating four distinct phases of the cycle. Similarly, each of our organs functions according to a chronobiological rhythm. The fact that blood pressure is higher in the morning and lower in the evening is a great example of chronobiology.

Given these physiological routines, I couldn't help but think how wonderful it would be if we could support each of the phases of the menstrual cycle with diet and lifestyle behaviours.

In time, my protocol grew from meshing these four fields. From endocrinology and TCM, I came to see that if you're not aware of certain choices you're making every single day, you may be moving yourself in a direction of hormonal breakdown more rapidly than you can imagine.

Meanwhile, chronobiology teaches that there's a rhythm and routine to how your body, including your hormones, works. And from functional nutrition I learned that certain foods affect the health of specific organs, and that micronutrients influence the release and elimination of certain hormones.

The five-step protocol that I designed for myself and now for other women addresses the underlying causes of hormonal problems and supports the essential functions of the endocrine system so your hormones can work in a healthy, balanced way to:

o stabilize your blood sugar

o nurture your adrenal glands

o support your organs of elimination

o get in synch with your menstrual cycle

o engage your feminine energy.

After nine months of implementing my protocol, over 60 pounds had melted away, my skin had cleared so exquisitely that strangers commented on its radiance, my depression had lifted, my moods had stabilized, and I had begun to ovulate and menstruate monthly.

Medicinal foods for hormonal symptoms

As you eat healthy, natural foods that support hormonal balance and learn to honour and respect the needs of your cycle, you may still continue to experience certain symptoms. These are messages from your body letting you know that your organ system needs tuning. When this happens, I've found that the dietary adjustments below are particularly healing for each of the symptoms listed.

Acne/pimples/blackheads

Increase water

Increase leafy greens

Reduce processed foods

Reduce sugar

Reduce animal protein

Anovulation

Increase warm water

Increase root vegetables

Increase beans/tofu

Increase sea vegetables

Reduce sugar

Reduce dairy

Heavy bleeding

Increase water with lemon

Increase leafy greens

Reduce animal protein

Reduce spicy food

Light/stagnant bleeding

Increase warm water

Increase root vegetables

Increase beans

Increase sea vegetables

Increase healthy oils

Reduce animal protein

Bloating

Increase water

Increase fennel

Increase leafy greens

Reduce salt

Reduce processed foods

Breast pain or tenderness

Increase fennel

Increase leafy greens

Increase water

Reduce dairy

Reduce caffeine

Constipation

Increase water

Increase fruit

Increase sweet potatoes

Increase leafy greens

Reduce processed foods

Fatigue

Increase water

Increase sea vegetables

Increase healthy protein

Reduce sugar

Reduce caffeine

Irritability

Increase leafy greens

Increase whole grains

Increase chocolate

Reduce animal protein

Reduce dairy

Reduce caffeine

Low libido

Increase sea vegetables

Increase beans

Increase root vegetables

Increase water

Increase spicy foods

Increase chocolate

Reduce alcohol

Mood swings and sugar lows

Increase sweet veggies

Increase whole grains

Increase green drinks*

Increase water

Increase healthy protein

Reduce sugar

Reduce caffeine

Pelvic pain/cramps

Increase water

Reduce protein

Reduce caffeine

Reduce alcohol

Urinary tract infections

Increase water

Increase cranberry drinks

Increase greens

Increase beans/tofu

Increase sea vegetables

Reduce animal protein

Yeast infections

Increase garlic and onion

Increase millet

Increase spicy foods

Reduce cold and raw foods

Reduce soy products

Reduce foods containing yeast

*made from green vegetables and other green plants

Alisa's medicine cabinet

For blood sugar stability

Cinnamon

Chromium picolinate

Tea with rooibos (redbush), cinnamon, anise and/or peppermint (drink after a meal)

For adrenal health

To support mental focus: Ginkgo biloba, Rhodiola rosea (rose root)

To increase energy: ashwagandha, vitamin B12, vitamin B5

To reduce stress: holy basil (use in tea)

To avoid caffeine but still feel like you're drinking black tea/coffee: kukicha (twig tea, made of the roasted stems from which green tea leaves have been plucked)

For improved elimination

Large intestine: fibre such as organic ground flaxseed, oat bran, acacia; probiotics like Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Store flaxseed in the fridge or freezer in a resealable bag, squeezing all air out each time to prevent oxidation, which can decrease the fibre and omega-3 fatty acid contents. Rotate the above-named fibres, using one source of fibre daily for two weeks at a time.

Liver: B-100 complex, inositol, artichoke leaf (supports the thyroid too), burdock tea, tea containg milk thistle seed and dandelion root

For cycle support

Vitex capsules (containing Vitex agnus castus or chaste berry tree extract)

Magnesium-calcium blend (in ionic powdered form)

Tea with dong quai for the first half of the cycle (Yogi Tea's Women's Energy)

Tea containing raspberry leaf, nettle and parsley leaf (to help with bloating and with flushing away built-up fluids) for the second half of the cycle

To increase energy: ashwagandha, vitamin B12, vitamin B5

To reduce stress: holy basil (use in tea)

For immune-strengthening and anti-inflammatory effects

l-Glutamine, N-acetyl-l-glucosamine, quercetin

Green superfood powder (any type containing organic veggies, berries, wheatgrass and Spirulina)

Chlorella tablets: these green algae bind with heavy metals in the body and pull them out through the bowels

Turmeric supplements with active curcumin

Omega-3 purified fish-oil capsules

Ester-C vitamin C tablets with citrus-based bioflavonoids

Zinc tablets

Black elderberry extract: great for when you're down with a cold or flu

Apple cider vinegar

Alisa Vitti


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