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I Was So "Healthy" It Hurt My Fertility: My Journey With Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

Anna Phelan
September 19, 2015
Anna Phelan
Written by
Photo by Getty Images
September 19, 2015

In our new Realtalk series, we're sharing personal stories about fertility and family planning. We hope they offer support and inspire honest conversation about an incredibly tough topic.

As a kid, all I wanted to be when I grew up (well, besides a mermaid) was a mom. It’s been my life goal ever since I was little.

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And so in May 2014, just after my wedding at 25, I was ready to snap my fingers and make that happen. What I didn’t expect, however, were the struggles and journey I was about to embark in.

After the wedding, I immediately went off of birth control. I had my "withdrawal bleed," as expected. And then three months passed — with no period.

Worried, I went to my gynecologist. “It's just post-Pill amenorrhea," he said. "No big deal.” But a few more months went by without a cycle. And then I started to question things.

Stress and Excessive Exercise: How I Developed Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

Ever since I decided to focus on my health and lost 30 pounds a few years ago, my lifestyle habits have been extremely healthy. So what could be wrong?

But then I started thinking back on the last few years, which happened to be the most stressful and emotional years of my life: My boyfriend and I had moved to a new city, gotten engaged, and planned a wedding in a mere 10 days so that my mother-in-law, whose cancer had severely spread, could attend. We lost her two weeks later.

On the day my mother-in-law passed away, I didn't know what to do. So I just started running. From that point on, I ran three to five miles a day. It was one of the most emotional times of my life. I was a newlywed, and yet I was mourning that immediate loss. In the midst of it all, I was finishing my master's thesis and we were moving into our home.

Around this time, I started taking my healthy habits to a new extreme. In the past, my workouts used to make me feel great. I was proud of bettering my health. But now I was no longer getting that same feeling.

Instead, although I didn't realize it then, I was using exercise as a way to cope. My life was crazy and I felt like I couldn’t control anything else — so I worked out.

Eventually, I upped my workout regimen to seven days a week. I was pushing my body to the extreme. This continued through the summer of 2014, and at that point I hit five months without a cycle.

I saw more doctors, who told me that my body was simply taking longer to bounce back. They said I was healthy, and that I should keep up my exercising. While I wanted to believe this, I felt there was something deeper going on.

Every pound was worth it when I thought about that end goal: holding my future babies.

Through my own online research, and reading various wellness blogs, I came across something called hypothalamic amenorrhea. This is a condition in which menstruation stops due to a problem involving the hypothalamus, which is the center of the brain that controls reproduction. What can cause this? High levels of stress, excessive exercising, weight loss, not enough fat, going off of birth control, and disordered eating. The moment I read about HA, I knew that's what I had.

As I researched further, and read success stories from women with similar backgrounds, I learned how to beat HA: weight gain, eating more, cutting workouts, stressing less. Anywhere I looked, this seemed to be the “cure-all.” At first I thought: Are you kidding me? I had spent all these years working for the body I have now — and now I have to give it up?

I hadn't officially been diagnosed with HA at this point, and I tried fighting the process for a while. However, in the fall of 2014, I did start eating a little more, and added lots of nut butters and avocado to my daily diet. I cut my workouts down to four to five days per week and put on five to ten pounds.

But by January 2015, I still had no sign of a cycle and was referred to a reproductive endocrinologist. After a few tests, I was told that my hormones were slightly out of whack (low levels of LH, FSH, and estrogen) but that everything else was normal. The doctor had an inkling that it was exercise-induced amenorrhea, or HA, and explained that some women's hormones are more sensitive to working out. He recommended I continue with the steps I had been taking: cutting back on workouts, managing stress, and fueling myself with the proper levels of nutrients.

Rethinking My "Healthy" Habits ... and Regaining My Cycle

A few more months passed. During this time, I also tried various hormonal treatments and medications, but nothing happened. I was officially diagnosed with hypothalamic amenorrhea in May 2015 and was told I may never regain my cycle. Fertility treatments may be my only option. I was 26 years old.

At that point, I knew things really had to change. I reflected on what I wanted most in life: to be a mother, to be healthy, to enjoy life, and to love myself.

And so in June 2015, I went all in. I cut out all forms of working out besides barre3 and light weightlifting. I upped my food intake even more and gained 15 pounds. I also started doing things I hadn't done before: taking slow hikes with my husband, coloring for stress management, and finally relaxing (without feeling guilty).

I wanted to prove that I could regain my cycle naturally. I wanted to love my body and have it love me back. And it all got easier when I thought about that end goal: holding my future babies. That made every pound worth it.

Then, on August 11, 2015, I reached a big milestone: my period came back. I was ecstatic. Honestly, it was one of the greatest days of my life.

At this point, I’m still not sure what my future holds. I’m not even sure if my cycle will show its face again anytime soon. But I'm grateful that my body decided to trust in me again. And I'm so hopeful that this is a huge step in the right direction toward motherhood.

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Anna Phelan
Anna Phelan

Anna Phelan is a Wisconsin native who is an Academic Advisor by trade, and a Wellness Blogger by hobby. She is a wife, gluten-free foodie, wannabe photographer and is passionate about sharing her journey with Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. Follow her on Instagram @annacphelan, or check out her blog at!