Saturday, 17 August 2013

I Want What She's Got

If you get onto the subject of body-confidence, it's inevitable you're going to end up talking about the media and it's projection of the 'perfect' body somewhere down the line.

As I've said in a previous blog, I instinctually rebel against 'rules' set down by anyone else when it comes to things like this. Not one person on this earth has the right to label anything as right, wrong, perfect, imperfect, beautiful or ugly. We are all capable of having our own perceptions and opinions and we should have the confidence to believe in them, and the dignity to respect everyone else's.

But I cannot, hand on heart, say that I fully love my body. I can't look at myself in the mirror without hearing a little negative voice in my mind pointing out faults. I can't look at a photograph of a so-called 'perfect' body without feeling, somewhere inside, a mixture of jealousy and inadequacy.

Now, I'm not saying I don't have body confidence! I mean, what can I say, I'm a 5ft10 leggy blonde with long hair and blue eyes. I am well aware that there are probably other women who look at me with the same envy I feel.

And I have put work into getting to this place! I would be letting myself down hugely if I allowed the negative voice to take control again. Go back fifteen years and I had a two page spread listing, in detail, every part of my body and what I hated about it. I cut out photographs of women I saw as 'perfect' and stuck them in my diary just so I could hate myself that little bit more. I didn't, in fact, look much different then to how I do now. I've lost a stone or two in weight maybe, but you know what...I lost a stone and a half recently and nobody could tell the difference! I'm a firm believer that a little bit of extra weight means much more to ourselves than it does to anyone else!

I had to learn to listen to and believe in the other voice- the positive one. I had to learn to trust people when they told me I looked nice; to realise that guys were hitting on me because they found me attractive, not simply because I was female and they thought only with their pants- as I truly believed when I was a teenager. They actually just thought I was hot! Now how about that!

Now, to my point.

Everyone has their own opinion of what a perfect body is, but most of us would probably pick the same ones from a line-up: the slim yet curvy women and the toned and athletically muscled men. And this may well have something to do with the media's projection of these images. I could probably write an essay discussing fashions and debating the amount of control the media has over our opinions, but I'm not going to do that because you know
what: I think it's irrelevant. It is what it is. We have the media, we all see the photographs, we all watch the movies. It's there so why bellyache over it. Maybe the media gives us the image and we believe it. Or maybe the media just takes hold of the most popular image in people's minds, and projects it back to us... I couldn't say.

What I am interested in, though, is the psycology behind our reactions to those images.

Ok, so to look at it from a different angle: an interesting thing happened to me recently. I moved away from the city to the quiet seclusion of a tiny village in the countryside. I was convinced I was going to miss my city lifestyle: the nightlife, the drinking, the partying, the shopping... and was quite shocked to find that I didn't miss it at all! Apart from the first month or so while I was adjusting to the change, I didn't even think about it! I was so far away from it that I wasn't reminded of what I was missing.

Similarly, in the city I had lived with a friend who, about a year ago, found a guy who made her happy- really happy. I was so glad for her, but at the same time, so envious. It made me want it even more, seeing her there. Now, living in the countryside, my current housemate and I are both single. And just a few days ago I realised that I haven't been feeling sorry for myself about it any more. And that got me wondering... was it just on my mind so much before because I was seeing it in front of me every day? Being reminded of what I could have but didn't?

Now, I have agreed to take part in a project a friend-of-a-friend is doing. She's a burlesque performer and photographer who is putting together a book provisionally titled 'my friends in their pants'... so you get the idea what my involvement is going to entail.

In the hope of gaining some confidence in myself to take with me to the photoshoot, I made the stupid decision to google 'small boobs' thinking I might find some nice photographs of women posing sexily, who didn't have the usual large but perky breasts shown in nude photographs. What I discovered instead was a hive of before-and-after (and even during) breast augmentation surgery photographs, and a number of websites quoting surgeons and doctors describing 'breast types' and even 'deformities'. One of these is named tubular breasts. As far as I can tell, this 'deformity' has various stages- at it's worst, these poor women have very oddly shaped boobs, usually totally different sizes to each other. But for the most part, THEY ARE JUST SMALL BREASTS. This is the only thing I can see that you might say was 'wrong' with them, and they're being labelled a deformity and being treated by surgery?! And these photographs are put side by side with a collection of silicone-enhanced 'perfect' breasts. Just to show you what you could have!

But the worst thing for me was that- looking through these photographs, despite being horrified that the simple differences in natural body shapes were being attacked in this way, I still looked at the women who did have large, perky boobs with envy! Iwas taken right back to the school PE changing rooms: memories of desperately trying to keep my own small boobs covered, while I sneeked stolen glances at the other girls- the ones with the really pretty boobs- wishing mine were like theirs.

You see, I will never... NEVER have breasts that look better than the breasts I have right now. I am NOT putting myself through surgery (the photographs and videos I found on google made me feel sick!) And yet I still have that same feeling I had as a teenager in the changing rooms: like I've missed out on something other women have. I will never know what it feels like to be proud of a pair of seriously beautiful boobs!

But here's the deal. I am not alone! I wonder what percentage of women do have the body-type we tend to label as 'perfect'? 20%? 30% maybe? Perhaps even less... Women do not come in two shapes- perfect and imperfect. We are small and delicate. We are round and soft. We are long and elegant. We are small on top and curvy down below. We are voluptuous on top and thin down below. We are big all over. And small all over. We are wobbly. We are solid. We are tall. We are short... But where do we see the beautiful photographs of the other 70-80%?

We tend to finger-wag at the media: blaming them for our own lack of self worth. We say that they are giving us an image we can never achieve; that they are instructing us to have the perfect body and this is why so many people hate their own bodies. But the idea that is currently forming in my mind is that what we are all experiencing here is pure and simple jealousy. It's like me in the changing rooms: I wasn't happy with my own- I wanted what she had. It's the same psycology as not missing the city lifestyle because I'm not there, or not wishing I had a boyfriend because I couldn't see how happy my friend was with hers. When we are presented with a comparison, we look at what we have, and what we could have, and we judge ourselves on it.

Now, I'm not making any judgements or conclusions on this subject, it's merely an observation. It clearly isn't healthy to be constantly subjeted to a body image very few of us will ever experience. But with such intrusive media in our culture, it is impossible to escape. And I can't tell anyone not to get jealous! There's nothing wrong with a bit of jealousy- we all get it!

But what I do strongly believe is that, while we may feel jealous of what other people have- we all need to accept what we have. It is ours after all.

Check out my burlesque dancer/model/photographer friend's collection here:
Yes, I'm in there :)

Friday, 16 August 2013

Just try this and tell me you don't feel better, I dare you!

As with each of the posts in this series, I would suggest you start by scrolling down to my post 'This is where it all starts' and reading up from there, in the order I wrote them. That way you'll understand the context a little better!

I'll start by making this clear: I do not believe in miracle cures. I am not trying to suggest that we should live without the medicines that scientists have spent hundreds of years developing. I would hate to think that anyone would want to shun western medicine on the basis that 'nature knows best.' You only have to look at mortality figures 100 years ago compared to today to see that the medicines available to us DO help.

Saying this, I don't believe anyone should reach for the medicine bottle as soon as they feel unwell, without first considering what other factors might be contributing to it. Most of us, if we are entirely honest with ourselves, could do a bit more to keep our bodies fit and healthy. I'm talking prevention here rather than cure.

Speaking for myself, I have always prided myself on eating a fairly healthy diet. I know I could get a bit more excersize, but I did at least believe I ate well. Which is why the subject of this post was such a slap-in-the-face-wake-up-call for me!

So, having done a bit of research into what goes on inside a woman's body, and researching my own hormonal imbalance to get a bit of a grip on what might be out-of-sync, I then moved on to looking into what nutritionalists and health experts had to say about a healthy lifestyle when it comes to the reproductive system.

As soon as I got onto the subject of fertility, the information came streaming in! Since so many couples have difficulty having babies, there are endless websites on the subject! I looked into herbal medicines, lifestyle changes and diet, each of which I will write about soon. But in this post, I want to concentrate on diet.

How many times have you heard the same advice, or said it to yourself: 'You are what you eat!' If you eat sweet, fatty, carbohydrate-rich foods all the time, your body will suffer. Avoid fizzy drinks, avoid sweeties and chocolate, avoid cake, avoid white sugar, white flour, white bread, white rice, don't eat pizza, don't eat take-aways, don't eat too much fat- avoid butter, avoid cream... etc, etc, etc.

But we never want to hear it- of course we don't! All those things are so damn TASTY! Where is the
fun in life if we have to constantly stop ourselves from eating things we love?

I'm saying this because I want you to know: I GET IT. I'm not one of those holier-than-thou quinoa-loving self-sacraficing wholefood eaters! I would list coffee, wine and chocolate as three of my favourite things in the world!

Unfortunately however, it seems there is some truth in the old sayings. And this is how I found out:

For two weeks I obeyed the following rules:

*  no caffine
*  no extra sugar or foods containing high levels of sugar
*  no alcohol
*  no saturated fat (butter, cream, cheese)
*  no gluten (anything containing wheat- so this means flour, pasta, bread, cake)
*  no processed foods (ready meals, packaged cereals, sauces from jars or packets)
*  every day, eat 1 portion (small handful) of crucifers, such as cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, broccoli sprouts
*  every day, eat 1 portion of green leafy vegetables and herbs, like parsley, kale, watercress, chard, cilantro, beetroot greens, dandelion greens and mustard greens
*  every day, eat 1 portion of citrus, like oranges, lemons and limes (avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice)
*  every day, eat 1 portion of sulfur-rich foods, like garlic, onions, eggs
*  every day, eat 1 portion of a liver healer, such as artichoke, asparagus, beets, celery, dandelion-root tea, whey and nutritional yeast flakes
*  every day, add a tablespoon of ground linseed to your food
*  every day, eat 1 portion of colon-caring foods: carrots, apple, pear or berries.
*  every day, drink 2 litres of filtered water
*  every day, eat 2 portions (palm-sized) of protein in the form of lean beef, lamb, skinless chicken, turkey or fish
*  every day, eat 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil

The reasoning behind this came from numerous websites, books and knowledgable people I spoke to while I was doing my research, and it comes down to one body part: the liver. Apparently most herbal therepists, no matter what your ailment, will begin by focussing on the liver. This is particularly important when it comes to hormonal problems, because if your liver is in tip-top condition, it will process any excess hormones in your system.

You'll want to avoid foods that give the liver a lot of work to do- hence avoiding processed foods and gluten. 

As for caffine and alcohol... this is the heartbreaking truth: they are just bad for you. Plain and simple. It's the one thing I heard over and over and over. 

Having got that out of the way, this is what I found after two weeks of following this 'diet':

- My diet before was not the healthy diet I previously thought! When I had to stop myself from reaching for something sweet, or an energy-boosting drink or snack, or a lump of cheese, I realised just how often I do it!

- I wasn't hungry. This isn't like a diet-diet! The fridge was packed full and I was eating three decent-sized meals a day, plus snacks. There is no guilt in eating as much as you want, because the aim isn't to loose weight, it's just to fill your body full of the kinds of food that will do you good!

- It was really hard to eat enough to cover everything in the list! This was what really got me- just how much you actually have to eat to fulfill your body's needs! I was so full from eating the foods on the list, that there was no room for the kinds of foods I would usually have reached for when I got hungry.

- I lost weight! Despite eating loads, and drizzling olive oil over my steak, I lost almost half a stone in two weeks.

-  I have only ever felt this healthy once before, and that was when I was doing an hour of yoga every day and swimming twice a week, as well as eating a fat-free diet... and this was MUCH easier! I can't even explain how it felt- just that my body felt good

-  I had loads of energy: I didn't get the usual dips, which I would usually combat with sugar or coffee: I didn't feel like I needed the extra sugar or caffine because I didn't feel like I needed a pick-me-up

-  My period came on time and I suffered less PMT

Having said all of this, I couldn't live like that. I was craving cheese and bread by the end of the two weeks. Strangely though, not caffine or alcohol! 

I have, unsurprisingly, eaten a much less strict diet since following this for two weeks. But for the time I was on the diet, I felt fantastic and I can't deny that it worked!

So, what's the conclusion? Well, if you follow the 'rules', you WILL be healthier! So it's your choice: give yourself a strict diet where you fill your body with all the things it needs, don't allow yourself the usual vices, ignore your cravings but feel super healthy; OR carry on eating everything you fancy, but remember your health will suffer for it. 

I have chosen a third option: a little from column A, a little from column B! I figure I don't need to be super-healthy! Just healthy-er will do! I have more-or-less given up caffine, except when I really fancy it. I have more-or-less given up cakes and sweets... though I still indulge if I have a strong craving or feel a bit blue. I stop before I pour a glass of wine and think to myself 'is it worth it?' and if the answer is no then I put it back in the cupboard and feel good about my decision. If the answer is yes... then I pour a large one! And I have printed off a list of liver-loving foods to stick to my cupboard door, so I can try to eat as many every day as possible. I've also borrowed a friend's juicer- because I can throw in anything from the list and it's a fun way to eat a shed-load of healthy fruit and veg in one go!

And in a few months time, I will write again to let you know if there is any change to my hormonal problems.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Some Lesser-Known Facts about Hormones

As with each of the posts in this series, I would suggest you start by scrolling down to my post 'This is where it all starts' and reading up from there, in the order I wrote them. That way you'll understand the context a little better!

It's amazing the troubles a small hormonal imbalance can cause! So, as far as I and my doctors can tell, the route of all my various pains, irregular periods, missed periods, exhaustion, nausea, dizziness, grumpyness, tears, hairs and swellings, is a small hormonal imbalance and the occasional ovarian cyst. It sounds so trivial on paper, but I can assure you when I'm in the middle of it, it doesn't feel trivial (and I'm certain anyone else suffering similar symptoms will agree)!

But as soon as you start looking into the job hormones play in controlling the functions our bodies perform, you can understand a little more about why an imbalance can have such a profound effect.

Please be aware that I am not a physician, and the following information is cobbled together from books and websites I have discovered. It's fascinating for me to learn about these things and I would like to pass my limited knowledge on- but it is just that- limited knowledge!


When my doctor told me I had an elevated level of prolactin, I was baffled, and if I'm honest, a little bit grossed-out. All I could think was 'but that's the one that produces breast milk! I'm not producing breast milk!' Why would my body be doing that? Producing too much of a hormone that women only use to feed a baby they'd just given birth to; when babies were so far from my reality at the time?

But here's the thing- there's more to it than that!

Some interesting facts about prolactin:

-  its best known role is in lactation, but it also has other jobs, for example, it was helping to control water and salt balance in fish millions of years before humans even arrived on the planet!

-  it comes primarily from the pituitary gland in the brain, which is in turn controlled by the hypothalamus. A chemical called 'thyrotropin-releasing hormone' stimulates its production, while dopamine inhibits it *see below*

-  it is also produced in the uterus, breasts, white blood cells, and (in men) the prostate

-  prolactin is an important regulator of the immune system
-  it affects a person's metabolism

-  it is important for controlling cell growth and death, and helps to keep blood healthy, form new blood vessels, and regulate blood clotting

-  prolactin has been found to have effects on a person's brain and behaviour

-  high prolactin levels have been linked to mental health issues

-  it is responisble for feelings of sexual gratification, but increased levels are also linked with impotence and loss of libido

-  stimulation of prolactin in turn inhibits production of another hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone. This is the hormone responsible for the release of FSH and LH, which you might remember from my post titled The Monthly Cycle. These hormones play a key role in the cycle of fertility: telling the ovaries to produce and release the egg. So if they are being inhibited, the cycle will obviously be affected and ovulation may not take place.
-  elevated levels of prolactin can have serious effects on estrogen levels- both by elevating and decreasing them

-  levels of prolactin vary over the course of a day, as well as over the course of the menstrual cycle. It even varies depending on the seasons! Levels peak during REM sleep and in the early morning, and can also rise after food, excercise and sex.

-  while the hormone estrogen stimulates prolactin during pregnancy, the combination of estrogen and progesterone also stop it from telling the body to produce breast milk. It is only when estrogen and progesterone suddenly drop while prolactin remains high, that milk is produced.

-  a very high level of prolactin is one of the most common results of a tumor on the pituitary gland

-  prolactin is a peptide hormone *see below*: a type of protein which is formed from amino acids and released into the bloodstream once the correct signals are given

-  prolactin secretion is regulated by something called vasoactive intestinal peptide *see below*, which also keeps the digestive system funcioning smoothly, and inhibits gastric acid. Interestingly this is produced in the hypothalamus, as well as many other area of the body (spine, gut and pancreas)


This is the only other hormone I was tested for that was above the average level for a woman my age. Firstly- yes, women DO have testosterone in their bodies- it is not just a male hormone. The difference is that while women have a higher level of estrogen, men have a higher level of testosterone: hence estrogen being seen as the 'woman's' hormone and testosterone as the 'man's.'

Some interesting facts about testosterone:

-  there is no 'cure' for an increased level of testosterone

-  a high level of testosterone in a woman's body is often linked with polycystic ovary syndrome (where, instead of eggs forming and being released, the follicles form cysts)

- excess testosterone is often the cause of hirtuitism (excess body hair) in women. Some women can grow dark hairs on their faces, arms and armpits, back, chest, stomach and legs.

-  other symptoms of a high level of testosterone are: acne, an enlarged clitoris, increased muscle mass, weight gain, thinning hair, irregular periods and deepening of voice

-  testosterone is produced in the ovaries and in the adrenal glands (which are controlled by our old friend the pituitary gland)

-  it is a steroid hormone, made from cholesterol

-  it helps to build muscle and burn fat, and contributes to bone strength

-  testosterone increases sex drive. Women with excess testosterone often have a higher than average sex drive

-  testosterone is a growth hormone, and is partly responsible for the growth, maintainance and repair of reproductive tissues

-  women are more sensitive to the hormone than men, and require less to be affected by it

-  interestingly, when a man and a woman enter into a loving relationship, the man's testosterone levels fall while the woman's rise! Apparently this only lasts as long at the 'honeymoon' phase, and has been theorised to be linked with the fact that couples tend to mimic each other's behaviour in the early days of a relationship. Testosterone levels in men also fall when they become fathers. Research has also suggested (sorry guys you might not like this one...) that men with higher levels of testosterone are less likely to get married or enter into committed relationships. They are also more likely to divorce, and more likely to have affairs

-  testosterone can affect behaviour: higher levels of testosterone lead to more aggressive, assertive and spontaneous/risk taking behaviour. It has also been linked to depression, moodiness and irritability

-  apparently elevated levels of testosterone are more common in city-dwelling women with hectic work schedules, and it can also be triggered by: a high sugar and carbohydrate diet, poor liver function, low sex hormone binding globulin, insulin resistance and poor thyroid function


*Extra notes*


Interestingly, decreased levels of dopamine have been linked to 'restless legs sydrome'. This is a condition where the sufferer feels the irresistable urge to move body parts (usually the legs) to relieve an uncomfortable feeling. Moving or stretching offers temporary relief but the feeling returns. I often suffer from this, but would never have guessed it could be linked to a hormone imbalance until now!

Decreased dopamine levels are also connected with ADHD.

Dopamine has important functions throughout the body: blood, digestion, processing toxins, motor control, motivation, arousal, feelings of reward/satisfaction/happiness, sexual gratification and nausea

Thyrotropin-releasing hormone

 If you have too much of this hormone, it will inhibit the production of dopamine. So, you can see how this has a knock-on effect on the production of prolactin, since TRH stimulates its production, and dopamine decreases it.

Vasoactive intestinal peptide

 In the brain, VIP helps to control the body's daily timekeeping. I find this particularly interesting, since my body clock so oftens seems to behave strangely- keeping me awake all night, or causing me to feel sleepy at three in the afternoon. Of course, this may simply be caused by other factors such as stress and exhaustion... but since there is a link here, I think it may likely be a combination of many factors.


An interesting link between two apparently separate body systems is that both VIP and prolactin are peptide hormones. Peptides are produced in the digestive system when an enzyme called pepsin is released in the stomach. Pepsin degrades food into proteins, amino acids and peptides, all of which are essential components in the production of hormones in the brain. Healthy digestion = healthy brain = healthy reproductive system!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Brain and Menstruation

Before reading this post, I would suggest you start with my previous entry 'This is where it all starts' and work up, to undertand the context.

The key word here is ‘hypothalamus.’

This is the part of the brain that regulates the production of hormones, so I guess you could call it the control centre for your menstrual cycle. Now, the interesting thing to note here is that you CAN influence the hypothalamus consciously and unconsciously, as it responds to factors like stress/relaxation, anxiety/rest, nutrition, depression/pleasure. It basically tells the pituitary gland what to do, and also regulates the adrenal gland, which produces stress hormones. And these are just two of its functions.

I think it’s easy to think of this as one-direction-only transaction: your brain controls your body, your hypothalamus controls your hormones and your hormones control your menstrual cycle. But what Dr Tray Gaudet and other doctors, scientist and therepists are suggesting is that the system flows in a more circular motion than this: if you take care of your body, your brain will react positively. And what I am suggesting is that since we can view our brain and our body as the same thing, by taking care of our body we are taking care of our brain and if we take care of our brain we are taking care of our body! And using this theory, you can understand why we often get ill when we’re stressed, over-worked and unhappy; why we tend to feel healthy when we’re happy; and happy when we’re healthy!

The Monthly Cycle

Before reading this post, I would suggest you start with my previous entry 'This is where it all starts' and work up, to undertand the context.

This is basically a general sketch of what takes place in a woman's body every month. The first thing to know is that everybody is different, and a ‘normal’ cycle can be anything from 21 to 35 days. They also tend to be more regular when we are younger.

The first day of the cycle is the day we start bleeding. It will last 3 to 5 days, but again, this varies from woman to woman. During bleeding, our estrogen levels are just a tenth of what they will be at their peak. The ‘blood’ is not actually blood- it is the lining of the womb (built up over the previous weeks) coming away, discarded because we’re not pregnant and therefore don’t need it. Sometimes it might seem like a lot of blood to loose, but it’s actually only around an egg-cup full on average.

As bleeding ends, the pituitary gland in our brain secretes a hormone called FSH (follicle stimulating hormone). The purpose of this is to tell our ovaries to prepare a few follicles, ready to produce an egg. As these grow, they produce more and more estrogen- which in turn, tells the lining of the womb to thicken again. This stage is called the follicular stage, and can last anywhere from 5 to 20 days, depending on the length of our cycle.
Usually only one egg will mature inside one follicle. As it reaches maturity it begins to secrete another hormone called progesterone. Next, the FSH is joined by another chemical produced in the pituitary gland- LH (luteinizing hormone), telling the follicle to release the egg. This is ovulation, and will usually occur midway through the cycle (so that would be day 10/11 in a short cycle, up to day 17/18 in a long cycle). It will take around seven days to journey from the ovary to the uterus… and it is during these days that we are most likely to get pregnant. Some women are able to tell when ovulation happens: they may be more horny than usual, or feel a slight cramping sensation in their lower stomach.

Now it’s all go for the uterus! Our bodies basically WANT to get pregnant at this point in our cycle (whether we consciously want to or not!) and so the uterus is preparing itself for a fertilised egg. This is the bit I find really interesting: while the womb lines itself with a soft, thick layer of cells, the ovarian follicle which housed the egg turns into something called a ‘corpus luteum’ and now has the job of producing the hormones needed to make the uterus ready for a baby to grow inside it. Progesterone is the main one, and is forty times it’s lowest level at this time! Estrogen, LH and FSH dip while progesterone rises sharply.

If the egg is fertilised (there is a window of around fourteen days after ovulation for this to take place), the body will continue to produce estrogen and progesteone. The egg itself will also produce another hormone called HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) which is what home pregnancy tests pick up.

If the egg isn’t fertilised, estrogen continues to drop, and progesterone also drops. The corpus luteum shrinks and is reabsorbed, and we return to day one of the cycle when the lining of the womb begins to break down again.

Now you can probably understand why women tend to be labelled as ‘hormonal’! After puberty, men’s hormones settle and level off. Women, on the other hand, live with a constant shifting of hormones as our bodies prepare for pregnancy, and then ‘tidy up’ after themselves, ready to start all over again!

The menstrual cycle is powered by hormones. Every day the levels of each hormone will be different, and yet so predictable that a scientist could tell you exactly what day of your cycle you were on just by taking a biopsy. For example, LH is released in pulses by your brain every sixty to seventy minutes before ovulation, and only once every 200 minutes by the time your period is starting.

With a system so complex and intricate, it’s unsurprising to me that we often have problems with it!

And all of this is going on, every single day, without us even being aware of it!