I’m 17 weeks along in my pregnancy now. I had an OB appointment last week and everything is going great. Little Dude and I got to hear our baby girl’s heartbeat and I got some blood drawn. (Yes, I said baby girl!)
Since we announced our pregnancy, I’ve been asked a particular question over and over: “I thought you couldn’t have kids. What happened?” I’ve been answering this honestly and completely, because I just never know who could benefit from my experience. And since the question persists, I thought I’d share it here. It’s personal – more personal than most of my entries, but I feel that is important.
I started on birth control pills at the age of 16. I remained on them until I was 24, when my therapist said that they could contribute to depression. She recommended ditching them for a while to see if it helped, rather than simply prescribing me another medication. I did as she recommended. Two years came and went. I never saw any sign of a menstrual cycle. Nothing. Nada. During this time I also became fairly thin, diagnosed with EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), but the lack of cycle preceded the EDNOS. I feel that’s important to note. And at that time, I did NOT exercise. (I know . . . right? If you know me now that’s hard to believe.) Many people tried to blame my weight and my exercise habits for my infertility. (That was incredibly unfair to blame me. It was hurtful every time I heard it. People said these things to me off the cuff, without knowing my history. I’ve heard these comments as recently as this past year. And I am no longer skinny – not even a little. I’m smack-dab in the middle of the normal range for my height and weight. I know plenty of women who are much thinner than men who successfully bear children, and athletes who do as well. And, by the way, at that time, I ate meat. All of the meat. Red and white.)
I tried to give blood one day at the local blood bank. Typically my iron had been borderline acceptable, but that day, after testing my iron, one of the women there rushed over to me. She said, “Honey, are you on your period?” I said no, I hadn’t had one in over two years. She asked me a couple of other questions. Then she said, “You need to get to a doctor right away. Your iron is very, very low and it’s not good.” She recommended seeing my GYN.
I called my GYN that day and scheduled an appointment. The blood work came back and confirmed what the tech said. My iron levels were super low. I was referred to a local hematology/oncology office for treatment. My doctor told me that there was only one immediate solution: IV iron therapy. For the next 6 weeks I spent 4 hours on my Friday afternoons with the chemo patients, hooked up to an IV. After that, I went on daily doses of iron and had frequent follow up appointments. The threat of more IV treatments was always on the table. I took my pills daily, ate my meat, and did what the good doctor told me.
It was a struggle to keep my iron even at the bottom limit of the acceptable range.
During this time, my iron levels were the top story. The lack of a cycle was on the back burner. The docs felt that balancing out the iron should fix the lack of a cycle. After a couple of years, though, it hadn’t. At 26 years old, no one could really give me an answer. But now I was with my new boyfriend (now he’s my husband) and we weren’t ready for a baby. The doctors couldn’t tell me I WOULDN’T get pregnant, despite my lack of a cycle, so they recommend the pill again.
I went back on that thing, and it forced my body to cycle regularly. By this point I had eliminated red meat. My iron crept up ever so slightly, but not enough to really mean anything. Shortly before we got married, I cut out meat altogether. My iron crept up again, but still not significantly.
In 2009 we decided we were ready to start trying for a family. I went off the pill in November and, you guessed it, nothing happened. Usually your GYN tells you to wait 6 months before calling them, but because of my history, they said to call if nothing happened after 3 months. I really don’t think they had any hope that anything miraculous would happen. And it didn’t.
By the spring of 2010 I was at lots of appointments with my GYN and an infertility specialist 80 miles from my home. They did a battery of bloodwork and xrays and diagnosed me with Hypoestrogenic Hypogonadism. If you have ever been diagnosed with IBS, you probably went through tons and tons of tests, with lots of negative results, and in the end were told you had IBS . . . pretty much because there was no other answer. That’s how I felt here. I read the definition of my diagnosis and really didn’t feel like it answered my questions. I don’t have any of the disorders that cause it. So if kind of felt like this was the diagnosis because nothing else fit. Maybe I’m wrong about that. I probably am; I don’t have any fancy letters after my name.
Then we adopted. Let me tell you again that the adoption had nothing to do with my biology.
During my husband’s final trip to Ethiopia, I decided to play around with my diet. I was, at this point, fully vegetarian. I was having lot of gastro-intestinal issues and wondered if a food sensitivity was to blame. I had already been tested for the common food allergies and had no positive results. I decided to follow the Thrive Diet for a few weeks. Thrive is fully vegan and corn, soy, peanut, wheat and refined-sugar free. Yes, it’s very limiting, but honestly there were plenty of tasty things to eat. I felt really good while on the diet, so I knew that something (or some things) that I had eliminated was causing me issues.
When S returned, I slowly started adding those common allergens back into my diet. Corn was no problem. Soy was fine. Refined sugar was okay in small amounts. Wheat and peanuts, though, gave me stomach issues. Cutting out peanut butter was tough, mentally, but in reality it was really very easy to do. I just substituted it with almond butter and called it a day. I can tolerate almonds and other nuts in small amounts, so this worked. But wheat was tricky. My reactions weren’t severe and I had tested negative for a wheat allergy, but there was definitely some sort of relationship between wheat and my problems. I decided to do my best to eliminate it from my diet.
After a few months I was feeling better – a lot better. The craziest thing happened too: I had my first menstrual cycle in years (without medication). It was the most random thing, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Months went by without another one, but it made me wonder. I had been suffering from anemia and nasty, nasty bouts of fatigue for years. And the infertility. I wondered if there was a common link between them? So I did what anyone would do. I Googled it. And I returned an article showing a link between gluten intolerance and all of those symptoms.
I was sold. I ran it by a doctor friend and she said to give it a shot. So I tightened up my diet and got serious about ridding my diet of gluten. I downloaded an app to track my cycle, and over the following 3 years, it became more and more regular. It was a slow process, but I could see progress. I started seeing my mom’s oncologist/hematologist, and ran this all by him. He was convinced gluten was the problem and encouraged me to continue down this path.
When my mom died I ate whatever was available . . . which, in the hospital, was often gluten filled crap. My cycle was off for the next couple of months, but I can’t say stress didn’t play into that a little. Last year I was very consistent in my diet, and even had 3 months in a row of 30ish day cycles. I was astonished. Those months were October (the month of my last 100), November and December. I found out I was 5 weeks pregnant in early January . . . you do the math.
So . . . the bottom line is that, for me, gluten seems to be the reason that I couldn’t get pregnant. If you would have told me this 5 or 6 years ago, I would have thought you were crazy. I didn’t understand the issues that gluten can cause people. I thought gluten was super tasty. But then I realized that it wasn’t for everyone. Sure – some people can eat bagels for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, a plate of spaghetti for dinner and chocolate cake for dessert without an issue. But others cannot. Gluten intolerance manifests itself in many different ways for many different people. For me, the difference was life changing – no, life giving.
Edited to add: On a related note, my iron levels have been much better since giving up gluten and following a healthier vegan diet (by this I mean adding a greater variety of fresh veggies, beans and using predominantly cast-iron skillets for my cooking). I have not had any bouts of fatigue like I used to have either. Those bouts were awful. I would come home from work over my hour lunch and take a 45 minute nap just about every day. (I lived a mile from work.) If you know me, you know I HATE napping, but this was necessary for me to function. I had these bouts twice per year, just about every year, since I was a teenager. I had numerous blood tests done, and they always came out normal. The only downside to being a gluten-free vegan is it’s tricky to go out to restaurants!!