After the success of the first AHSNZ conference in Christchurch we had many people who were unable to make it contact us hungry for more information. In response we have requested that our speakers write a post on their presentation. Reading it on your computer screen pales in comparison to hearing it in person, in a room full of like-minded passionate people, but we felt that these talks were too important. So, without further ado, allow us to present the AHSNZ Conference series of posts. Let us know what you think, which presentations sparked your interest, and what topics you would like to see addressed at our next conference in Wanaka on October 25.
The Ancestral Woman in a Modern World
A few years ago, I had a body fat percentage of around 13%. I also had an 8-pack. Whenever I would meet someone new, my friends would say “This is Kate – feel her abs”. Seriously.
My outward appearance reflected a strong, healthy, fit female in her prime. Unfortunately, my inner state suggested otherwise. My menstrual cycle had stopped, as had my ovulation, and my bone density was less than ideal. My strength was declining, even though I was training for hours each week. I was neither strong, sexy nor fertile, despite eating a healthy, nutrient-dense Paleo diet with plenty of healthy fats, a moderate amount of protein, and lots of colourful veggies.
So where was I going wrong?
- I was under-eating, in total calories and, especially, in carbohydrates
- I was over-exercising, and most of it was ‘chronic cardio‘, with minimal recovery
- I was chronically stressed – studying full time, working part time and planning a wedding
My diagnosis was “hypothalamic amenorrhoea” where, due to under-eating, over-exercising and allowing my stress bucket to overflow, my brain received the message that the environment was not ripe for reproduction and so flow to that region (pun intended) was shut off.
Sadly, I am not alone. Since speaking about this publicly, I have been inundated with emails and comments from other females in the same situation – desperate as they realise that in their quest for the “ideal” body, they may have destroyed their ability to carry a child.
Now this issue is not just about fertility. It is not just about the ability to reproduce. It is not limited to pre-menopausal, lean women in their 20s and 30s. This relates to all females and can probably be applied to males, too. It all comes back to hormonal balance.
In our brain, we have 2 major control glands – the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus signals to the pituitary to release hormones, which then stimulate other endocrine glands, such as the thyroid, adrenals and ovaries to release their own hormones, which have effects on the target tissues. There are 3 axes, which are relevant to this topic – the first is called the hypothalamic – pituitary – thyroid (HPT) axis, the second is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and the third is the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis (referring to the ovaries). All of these connections are interrelated. For example, if there are problems with the HPA axis (as is the case with chronic stress), chances are the other 2 systems will be thrown off kilter.
The most directly relevant axis to fertility is the HPG axis. If all is going well, the hypothalamus will release something called gonadotrophin releasing hormone, which signals to the pituitary to release gonadotrophins FSH and LH, which then stimulate the ovaries to produce oestrogen and progesterone in a cyclic manner throughout the month. If there is a disruption along the way in the HPG system (for example there is a lack of energy availability), or if the hypothalamus never receives the initial message (if your body fat is too low and leptin is deficient), then hormonal imbalance results, which can lead to problems with fertility, skin, mood, osteoporosis and even increased risk of heart disease.
So what can we learn from the ancestral woman about hormonal balance?
First, she is a little softer around the edges than what we have tried to emulate…she is neither ripped like a body builder, nor overweight or obese. She is sexy. We need a little padding around our body to produce the hormone “leptin”, which is responsible for signalling to the brain that energy is abundant for reproduction. Without it, your sex hormones, and all of the juicy benefits that come with them (think sex drive), will plummet.
The ancestral woman did not restrict calories. If she was fasting, it would most likely be due to a lack of available food, and it would not be by choice. It also would not be day in, day out. This kind of lowered food intake on a consistent basis was what was known as a famine, and, during these times, it was clear that fertility rates were suboptimal. When we restrict calories, our hypothalamus receives the signal that there is insufficient energy coming into the body and that only vital functions should be performed. Reproduction is not one of those functions.
The ancestral woman would eat when she was hungry. She would not deny herself, and she would eat the most nutritious foods she could find, such as wild-caught animals, organ meats, bones, eggs and sea vegetables. These are true superfoods, abundant in vitamins and minerals. The ancestral woman would not make food choices based on their calorie content. Nor would she be able to go to the 7/11 and purchase a Mars Bar and bottle of diet coke.
The ancestral woman would not do chronic cardio or CrossFit 5 times a week, which promote cortisol and deplete sex hormone production. Don’t be fooled – she was strong. Go and see the Masai in Africa today for proof of this. Lifting heavy things is important for building strong, resilient bones and muscles. Just do it every now and then, not every day.
What about confidence? Ask any male what he finds sexy in a woman and I bet confidence is highly rated. A woman who is comfortable in her own skin is sexy. There is nothing that I have seen diminish confidence more than the bathroom scales. You could be feeling amazing and sexy one minute, then depressed and fat the next just because of a little number that doesn’t even tell you much at all! The ancestral woman definitely would not have based her happiness and confidence on an inaccurate number. Do yourself a favour, if nothing else, throw away you scales RIGHT NOW!
The ancestral woman would not compete with other females for who had the best body, the best outfit, the best hair do or the best job. The ancestral woman spent time with, supported, and empowered other women. Social and emotional support is hugely important in helping to reduce stress levels. And let’s be honest, there is nothing sexy about bitchiness, right?
Finally, the ancestral woman respected her menstrual cycle, rather than trying to cover it up or “fix” it with medication. She would menstruate with the new moon and ovulate with the full moon. Menopause would be a smooth transition, rather than a disease, as it is so labelled today.
So please, ladies, remember – your menstrual cycle is a luxury, not a right, or an inconvenience. If your cycle is out of whack, see it as the canary in the coal mine and do something about it before it’s too late.
And remember these tips to be strong, sexy and fertile:
- Eat well and eat enough
- Embrace your feminine curves
- Exercise smarter, not harder – keep cardio-exercise short and intense, lift heavy things, walk more, run less
- Don’t weigh yourself – be confident!
- Spend time with girlfriends and empower each other
- Take time out
- Respect your body’s natural cycles
Kate is a holistic nutritionist and personal trainer with over 13 years of experience in the health and fitness industry. She is passionate about helping others achieve optimal wellness through nutrient-dense traditional whole-foods, adopting mindful and sustainable life practices, and moving in ways which rejuvenate rather than deteriorate the body. Kate’s goal is to educate, inspire and empower others to live life to the fullest each and every day.