Fertility Talk for College Girls
Several months back I gave a 2-hour talk for college girls, covering many factors in health and fertility, available on Podbean and Apple Podcasts.
For those who prefer to read, here's the transcript! It's long, because recording is long. Hope this is helpful!
Fertility Talk for College Girls
JEN: I think I got fifteen RSVPs and 7 of them were in the last 48 hours, but this is even more than 15 people, obviously. So, how many of you are engaged?
JEN: One, two, three … okay. Okay. So, actually, it’s a minority who’s actually engaged here. Is anybody hoping to be engaged in the next 6 months?
JEN: Oh, yeah. I guess you don’t want to raise your hand; that’s kind of like bad luck.
JEN: So, for many years now, I’ve thought about teaching a class for girls who were engaged, getting engaged, getting ready to get married, getting launched, and I thought that would be a great time to go in-depth on cycle stuff before you start trying to get pregnant so you can solve some problems in advance. But even if you’re not engaged, this is still good to know and you can still benefit from improving your cycle, even if there’s not supposed to be any babies on the way. I think you guys probably all know me from the health class; I am Mrs. Dunlap, I graduated in 2003 from TAC, and I have 5 girls – three of whom are at Rabalais right now and the other two are home with my husband. We live outside of town, and we both like this area so much. That’s why we decided to stay here after we got married.
My oldest is 15 and she made these pretty handouts for me with her little graphic design skills. I thought maybe we’d just start by talking about your monthly hormone. I made this chart. So, when we’re tracking cycles, we always count the first day of bleeding as Day Number 1. Most people bleed on average 4 to 5 days, so this is a theoretical 28-day cycle, even though we all know that most people’s cycles are not exactly 28 days most of the time. Somewhere around Day 14 we ovulate, and in the picture that I put in your folders there’s a picture of an egg popping out, just to remind you.
JEN: You might notice some mucus at this time, you might notice your underwear’s wet, or when you wipe it’s wet, and that is normal. That’s totally normal, that’s not a yeast infection; some people I know get concerned. Then, as you can see, your body makes all these hormones and then they start dropping about Day 21 when your body realizes, “I’m not pregnant. We’re not going to need this lining to do any more thickening because there’s not going to be any embryo implanted in it.” Then it starts processing those hormones, and when they drop below a certain threshold, that’s when you are able to start your next period and bleed. Your hormones have to drop for you to bleed. If you are bleeding, presumably your hormones have dropped. Sometimes people’s hormones drop in the middle. If you’re spotting in the middle of your cycle, that’s because your hormones are dropping in the middle of your cycle. Sometimes people always spot a little bit in the middle of their cycle and they still have 10 kids; it’s not a problem. But if you were trying to have kids and you weren’t able to, that would be one of the things you would troubleshoot. It can also be just kind of irritating.
So, this is the theoretical 28-day cycle, but really it can last anywhere from 21 days to maybe 40, 45, or longer. So, where you get the variation is mostly in two places. If you don’t have the resources in your body to ovulate on time, then you won’t ovulate on time. If you’re too stressed out, your body decides, like, “Whoo! Too much going on out here. Let’s wait to ovulate.” So, if for some reason you’re short on nutrients or you’re really stressed here, that can delay your ovulation. The other thing where you can get a delay –once you’ve ovulated, if you have enough hormones in your body, it’s going to be another 14 days before you start bleeding again – so if your ovulation gets pushed back to Day 18 or 20 or 25, then add 14 days to that, if you have enough hormones. You won’t have a period for 12 to 14 days after whenever you ovulate. So, if you’re having long periods, it could be that you’re always ovulating late. That’s a pretty common reason to have long periods.
The other way you can get a long period is if you ovulate on time but then you eat a bunch of rich food and basically lay in bed for this week. It’s going to be a lot harder for your body to process those hormones and you can get a delay on this end. Even if you ovulated on time, you can get a delay in getting that hormone level down low enough to actually bleed, and this will be a very bad several days because you’ll feel very moody, very weepy, depressed, cranky, whatever, ...
JEN: … bloated. If your hormones are backed up and they’re not going down at a steady clip, you’re probably not going to feel great. So, those are the two main areas where you get cycle variations.
Another thing that can happen is that when you have your period you could bleed for a long time and it could take a long time. You’re supposed to stop bleeding as your body starts raising your hormones again, but if for some reason it can’t raise your hormones – there’s not enough nutrients, you’re too stressed, you’re on an extreme diet, you’re exercising, you’re in a war, who knows what –then you will bleed for longer and that will push this whole thing back as well.
So, those are the different areas where you might get the variation. So, when you’re tracking your own cycle and trying to learn something to help it be better, you’re going to try to find out where the weak points are. A couple of things you can consider: there are people who had periods in Auschwitz, and had babies in Auschwitz, and there are people who have one short night of sleep and it sets their ovulation back 5 days. People vary tremendously in their sensitivity to environmental cues and how much that’s going to change their cycle. My mother-in-law said she’s one of those people who could practically set the clock by her cycle. It was 28 days and 4 hours or something. She almost could predict it down to the hour.
JEN: It was so reliable, no matter what was going on in her life. She’s kind of a high-hormone person. She’s short and very busty, so obviously her body made plenty of hormones when she was growing. If you have a lot of hormones, you will tend to be shorter and curvier. If you have fewer hormones, you will tend to be taller and bonier. You can tell that I’m bonier and, until I had kids, I was almost flat-chested. So I was definitely the lower-hormone type. It’s partly just genetics, it’s partly exercise or different things like that, but you can look at your body and probably get an idea of what your type is. If you have a body that’s more sensitive to environment, there are a lot of things that can throw your cycle off and you have to be aware of those. If you learn through experience by tracking them, then you’ll have a sense of, “Oh, I’ll probably ovulate late this month.”
So, why would you want to know? Well, if you’re married, sometimes you’re trying to get pregnant and you don’t. I’ve know people who’ve said, “I got married. As soon as my period ended we’d be doing it all the time and then we’d kind of get bored of it about ay 10 or 11 and then we’d take a break, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting pregnant.” Well, that egg wasn’t coming out ‘til day 14 or 15, so they just weren’t hitting it on time. If you want to get pregnant you might need to time it, which doesn’t sound very romantic, but it’s what a lot of people do.
Conversely, if for some reason you need to not get pregnant – if you have a C-section, if you have a baby that is in the hospital getting their heart fixed, or something like that; these are things that happen to people I’ve known – if you have a reason to not get pregnant, then you would not do anything from about Day 7 or 8 until you know the egg has already come out. The egg only lasts for about 2 days. So, you wouldn’t do anything from here to here. Otherwise, your option would be not doing anything ever until that baby gets his heart defect fixed, which is not great for marriages. So, that’s why people typically track it when they’re thinking about getting married. If you’re not thinking about getting married and you’re just trying to have a healthier cycle, then you’re getting a lot of information from that. For instance, if you’re bleeding a long time, there are a couple different reasons you could be bleeding. One could be, you just have a ton of hormones and you make really thick linings so you’re just going to bleed a lot when you bleed. Another reason could be that, when you bleed, your body can’t get your hormones back up. Maybe you’re anemic. Maybe you don’t clot very well because you’re not getting enough vitamin K in your diet. If you find what makes your ovulation late or changes your ovulation, that’s really good information to have, to know, “Oh, I’m only sensitive to time zone changes. It doesn’t matter if I lose a night of sleep, it doesn’t matter if I have coffee, it doesn’t matter if I exercise more or less.” That’s really great information to know.
If things are running pretty normally, that’s a sign of overall health. It’s supposed to be pretty consistent like that. Again, this could be the cranky week, right? That last week before your period you can feel bloated, so this is a week to really put some extra attention into what you’re eating and how much you’re exercising. For most people who are your age, just exercising, drinking a lot of water, and eating a lot of vegetables will mean that you don’t really get PMS or cramps and, conversely, if you drink coffee and alcohol and eat a lot of cheese and chocolate and sit still and watch movies for that week, it’s only going to make it more so. You’re not helping your body to process these hormones and get them down to the low level that they’re supposed to be.
I’m not saying never have chocolate or watch movies, but just be aware. If this is a bad time for you because you have a lot of hormones in your system, this can be a really rough week. For somebody who has fewer hormones in their system like me, is about Day 5. So, maybe I run a little anemic. On the last day or two of my period, I am just ravenously hungry. This just happened last week and I thought, “Why do I keep eating?” I’m not normally just eating all day. I’m 38. My metabolism is not that fast. I’m not that hungry all the time. I thought, “Oh, yeah. It’s the Day 5 munchies.” Day 5 is the day where everything sounds good: “Ooh, Fritos! Sour Patch Kids!”
JEN: “Donuts,” things that don’t normally call my name. Any calories sound great on Day 5. But I think I’m always behind the curve because my body doesn’t make a ton of hormones. So by the time I’m done with my period, I’ve lost some blood and I’m behind the curve. If you make a lot of hormones, you might feel great as soon as your period starts, like, “Finally! Finally the levels are down.” You might feel great during your period or you might feel awesome at the end of your period because you’ve just released a bunch of hormonal material and things haven’t gone back up yet. So, knowing what your own tendencies is really, really helpful. My mom used to say, “Are you on your period?” when I would start crying on Day 5, and I’d say, “No, I’m not on my period.” But, now I know that I’m just super, super hungry and kind of tired, and that that is what would make me emotional when I was a teenager.
Any questions? There are probably lots of questions. Yes?
STUDENT: I have a quick question. You said the last bit can be hormonal and hard before you start your period and to watch your exercise. Do you mean not exercise too much or make sure you’re exercising?
JEN: No, make sure you’re exercising. If there’s any time of the month to exercise too much and really push yourself, it’s the last week. If you normally exercise but you find you’re feeling cranky at this time of the month, exercise more. I was talking to a girl who would exercise 40 or 45 minutes at a time, and I said, “Well, why do you pick 45 minutes as your stopping point?” and she said, “Well, that’s the place where I just feel kind of nice and relaxed but not too tired. “ But she was still getting pretty bad cramps, so I said, “Well, that week you would need to exercise an hour and a half. You need to push yourself until you are wiped, but then you won’t be cranky.” Exercise also tends to help cramping a lot, so in addition to making this week better, it makes the next week better.
STUDENT: I asked that question because I love to run, but when I run a week before my period, I’ll start running and I’ll feel fine, but then once I stop I get this really bad pain in my, like, down …
JEN: Do you get cramps normally?
STUDENT: Not normally, no. It’s not so much a cramp, it’s more just like a really sick-y, almost crampy feeling, and it happens if I run intensely right before my period. So, I was wondering, is that a bad sign?
JEN: Well, sometimes people will get nauseous right before their period even without running, and generally that’s thought to be excess hormones. So, if you ate more vegetables and if you tried drinking a couple glasses of water before you went running and then a couple glasses right after, it could be that the running is really moving everything around in your lymphatic system but your body’s kind of like, “Oh, I just got this dump of hormones and now I have to do something with it.”
Your lymphatic system is like your fluid circulation in your body – it’s different from your blood—and when you exercise, it helps your body move everything around and process it. Also, eating fiber helps you poop out things that you don’t need, like the excess parts of hormones that your body says, “Nope, we don’t need this.” When your body breaks things down, it’ll reuse them sometimes but sometimes it’ll just excrete them as well. So, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and staying really regular can also help your mood a lot and tends to make you less bloated because the potassium in the fruits and vegetables helps balance out the salty stuff you want to eat and you don’t retain as much water. It’s not the salt that’s the problem, but if you eat salt and it’s not balanced by potassium, that’s not a good balance. All fruits and vegetables have potassium, not just bananas.
JEN: Bananas have a marketing campaign behind them, but all fruits and vegetables have potassium. A fairly common thing that girls experience with their cycles is polycystic ovary syndrome, called PCOS. That tends to go with very, very irregular cycles, putting on weight, having skin problems, having thinning hair, and kind of a collection of other signs. The reason it happens is that your body is not processing sugar or your calories well, and then over time you become insulin resistant, which means the cells don’t want to let the sugar in. When you eat your food, the sugar is floating around. Your body sends out insulin, like diabetics need insulin. The insulin is supposed to open up the cells to put the sugar and nutrients in the cells. If you’ve been eating more than you need, particularly more sugar or salt than you need – so, basically, a lot of processed foods – it can tend to start this pattern of eating too much and the cells being very unhappy with your body trying to force the stuff in there. They’re like, “We’ve got plenty.” So, if you have that tendency, then you’re going to have to probably watch your carbs and exercise more.
I’ll tell you a story of somebody I know who had this polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. She had very irregular cycles. She’d go months without a cycle. The reason that happens is because when your insulin is too high, all of your hormones end up too high and your hormones never get low enough to allow you to bleed. So, she would have an epic period, a 10 to 12-day period every 3 or 4 months, and she would bleed a ton because of her hormones, and she would feel pretty gross for a lot of the time as her hormones got up and they stayed up. You can go on medications to regulate this, but ultimately what she ended up doing was going on a very-low carb diet because her body tolerated carbs so poorly that that’s what she had to do. It’s not recommended for everybody, but in her case that was the right kind of diet. After she’d been on this diet for some time, she got pregnant, which she hadn’t been able to before, and then after she had that baby, she got pregnant right away without doing any low-carb diet, which is very often the case. As she’s gotten older, she’s been on the low-carb diet, exercised more, built her muscle mass to increase her metabolism and help everything run better; she now has regular cycles. In her 30s, she has perfect 28-day cycles, where in her 20s her periods were just a mess because she hadn’t figured out how to eat and exercise for her body type.
STUDENT: Is she still on a low-carb diet now?
JEN: I don’t think she has to be as low-carb now as she did for that period of time, but for some people, going on a very low-carb diet allows their body to relax and heal from that, and then over time she eats more of a moderate-carb diet and it’s fine. But she also exercises a lot more and she’s really fit. You figure out what works for you. She is short and curvy and has a lot of hormones; that’s just how she’s built. So, she would go run 2 or 3 times a day the week before her period. Her family would say, “Please, go. Just leave already and go running again. Yes, again!”
She also really, really liked coffee. She wouldn’t give up her coffee and that is not helping her body to process. Your liver can only do so much. Your liver has so much to do processing all the different substances you take in; one of those is coffee. So, if it already has a bunch of hormones to process, drinking a pot of coffee a day is not going to help you feel better.
Another thing that some people have is called endometriosis, commonly thought of if you have extremely painful periods. A couple of my friends had such painful periods that one of them said childbirth was a piece of cake, because she would sometimes pass out from her painful periods and pass big clots. Since I’m on the low-hormone end, my periods were never that bad, so childbirth was quite an experience.
JEN: We don’t totally know why endometriosis happens but women who have it seem to get a lot of inflammation in the lining of the uterus and pieces of uterine tissue start growing in other places in their body. The weird thing about endometriosis is, it should be able to happen to anyone because your uterus and ovaries are an open system. It’s not tightly sealed, and little bits of your menstrual tissue could theoretically make it into your circulation every single month, and they probably do. For most people, though, their immune system is always looking around and it kills any cells that are in the wrong place. One of the theories for endometriosis that makes the most sense to me is that there’s a defect of the immune system. Something is suppressing your immune system for a period of time and those cells that are supposed to find things that are where they’re not supposed to be and get them out of the way don’t get things in time. Then you get little bits of endometrial tissue – the lining of the uterus tissue – that grow in other spots, usually in your pelvis. They grow in other spots and that’s part of what causes period pain, because those little spots of tissue will also grow in response to the hormones and then you’re bleeding inside or you get big clots. It’s very, very painful.
There are a lot of dietary things you could do for endometriosis. The most common thing is to go on a very, very clean diet, usually low-dairy and tending towards, if not completely, vegan; lots and lots of vegetables. These tend to be people that make a lot of hormones. So, if there were a war and a famine, they might be the only people that would have kids, but in our affluent society where we can all eat as much as we want, people like me who make less hormones get the advantage. We can eat whatever and we’re not going to get endometriosis.
People who get endometriosis seem to be people who have gone through an extremely stressful period of their life or who have another immune disease such as celiac or an autoimmune condition. They often seem to go together. We know that if you have severe food intolerances, that tends to impair your immune system because it is busy dealing with this food that you don’t process very well. That might be what opens the door to endometriosis. Stress is also not great for your immune system. I’ve known people who had moderately bad cramps. Maybe they had that tendency to endometriosis. After they went through an extremely stressful year or two, they developed endometriosis so badly that they were looking at surgery. In the surgery, they go into you and try to find the bits and take them out, or, if you’re trying to get pregnant, they go in and scrape your uterus out, because the lining tends to accumulate and be inflamed. Many people who have endometriosis miscarry the first time they get pregnant, but after that they get pregnant very easily. So, some doctors had the brilliant idea, “Well, if we know you’re more likely to get pregnant after a miscarriage because the lining sheds so completely, then why don’t we just pretend you had a miscarriage – basically, scrape your uterus out – and then you try to get pregnant in the 6 months after we’ve done that.” It works a fair amount of the time. So, there are solutions, but the solution that will mean you don’t have to be in pain every month is to figure out what you need to do for your diet. My sister dealt with this a lot and she’s tried many different things and gotten pregnant without getting that scraping surgery, just through eating a really clean diet with lots of juicing vegetables.
STUDENT: How common is that?
JEN: Oh, I don’t know; maybe it’s 5 percent. It’s not extremely common, but I definitely know several people with it. With polycystic ovary syndrome, it’s hard to get estimates because there are overweight people who don’t have any insulin problems, who have no trouble getting pregnant, and have regular cycles. Other people could be overweight enough for their frame. You can be “skinny fat” and still have that insulin resistance situation. I knew someone who, for the first 5 years of her marriage she didn’t get pregnant. She did not look overweight, but you couldn’t see her wrist bones. So, she’s a very small person; she was very fine-boned. She was talking to me about not being able to get pregnant. She had fairly regular cycles, but something was not quite right, and she had skin trouble. Once she got pregnant with her first kid, though, as in most cases, it wasn’t a problem after that. When you nurse a baby, it takes so much sugar out of your blood that, for people who have polycystic ovary syndrome, if they can just get pregnant the first time, they’re good after that. Getting pregnant the first time might mean eating a low-carb diet; there’s medications that help manage your blood sugar; just exercising a ton.
I know someone who has polycystic ovary syndrome who was never particularly overweight, but she had to work out really hard to not be overweight. Her skin didn’t look bad, but I found out that she had a very careful skin care regimen just to have normal skin. When you’re 25 or 30, hopefully you should not have to be that careful about your skin. I don’t use anything. I just wash my face with water, put some moisturizer on, and that’s the end of it. If you’re still using Proactiv when you’re 25 or 30, that might be a sign that your blood sugar is not quite right, because that tends to manifest in your skin. She also had the thinning hair on the top. Actually, it was her hairdresser who said, “You know, it’s pretty thin on the top here. That can often be associated with hormone problems. I think you should get that checked out.”
So, that finally got her going down that path. She’s used medication and gotten pregnant with that. She’s also had times where she wasn’t using any medication but she’s gotten pregnant during Lent and Advent because she cut back on some of her treats, and that was the deciding factor to cutting out the couple chocolate bars or the bowl of ice cream. It wasn’t like her diet was awful. She just cut out the little treats and that is what flipped the switch for her. It’s surprising sometimes; you can go for years and feel like this is a huge, insurmountable problem, and then one Lent you give up chocolate and you get pregnant.
JEN: I’ve seen this happen to people. [laughing] I’ve also known people that have very irregular cycles or who have very long cycles and have 5 or 6 kids. Then you meet people who seem to have regular cycles but aren’t getting pregnant. As you can imagine, it could be a question of timing. They might not be timing things right, because the sperm only lives so long and the egg only lives so long. It could be that a person isn’t ovulating every month if they have a 28-day cycle but they’re not getting pregnant. The other thing that can happen is you might have a 28-day cycle, but you actually ovulated on Day 20 or 21. So, if you were to ovulate here, the egg that’s supposed to pop out here actually pops out here, but your hormones then drop very fast. If the egg had been fertilized, there are not enough hormones to support a pregnancy.
I know people who had reliable cycles and when they got married, they’d been, like, “Oh, whatever. I don’t need to track it.” But then they couldn’t get pregnant or kept miscarrying and when they tracked their cycles they could see, “Oh, my luteal phase that’s supposed to be 12 to 14 days is only 9 days.” If your luteal phase is too short, you will miscarry. There’s just not enough hormones to keep you pregnant. So, those people tend to get progesterone supplements. Or, you can change your diet to help your body make more hormones. But that’s a really nice thing to know before you get married. If you’ve tracked your cycles and you can see, “Oh, yeah, every month it’s 28 days, but I’m ovulating on Day 20. I only have an 8-day luteal phase.” That is a nice thing to know before you try to get pregnant and then miscarry many times and have that unnecessary heartbreak. It’s a very, very easy fix.
Many doctors are familiar with charts like this now, but older doctors probably are not. You go to your doctor and bring in your chart or they’ll check your progesterone in your blood, and they’ll say, “Ah, you’re right. You don’t have enough.” If you are good at negotiating with your doctor, you can get your progesterone prescription in advance. Some people, if they’re trying to get pregnant, will time when they’re sleeping with their husband and then watch their temperature go up. Your temperature kind of goes like this: it’s steady the whole month, then after you ovulate it goes up. If you get pregnant, it goes up another step.
So, if you’re taking your temperature every morning, you can tell when you’re pregnant before you would be able to take a test. Some people who are trying to get pregnant time it; they look for that extra temperature bump. Then they know they got pregnant and they start taking progesterone before they even would’ve missed their period. That’s how they stay pregnant.
JEN: Yeah! Just giving you a sense of all the different options there are out there. You don’t have to just wait. I’ve known people that for whom waiting until they missed their period, on Day 28, was too late. “Well, now I’ll find out if I’m pregnant.” They would take a pregnancy test, go to the doctor, get the progesterone prescription, and then they’d miscarry two days later.
JEN: They hadn’t gotten the progesterone in time. They had such a severe deficiency that they needed it before they would’ve even been able to take a test.
STUDENT: Is this shortened luteal phase the same thing you were talking about earlier when you were saying ovulation would get bumped back 5 days or so?
JEN: It’s possible. Sometimes ovulation gets bumped back and then your whole luteal phase will still be 14 days.
STUDENT: Oh, okay.
JEN: Then your whole cycle ends up longer. Overall, that’s overall a simpler problem because it means somewhere in here before you ovulated, you got too stressed out, busy, or forgot to eat or something similar. If your luteal phase is short, you’re probably very low on nutrients, particularly protein. I know a few people who have this problem. Some of them had low progesterone in their 20’s already. One had gone through an anorexic phase, which is not good for your hormones, because you lose too much body fat. It tires out your body. Another one of them was very, very cheap about what she would buy. I think she was just living on oatmeal and beans and rice for years, which is enough to sustain life, but not enough protein for optimal fertility for most people. Another exercised really, really hard and ate a low-fat diet when she was young. So, two of these women found that as they got older and more affluent, and as they ate more protein and fat, and they put on a little more body fat – because your fat actually makes hormones – that they didn’t need progesterone the same way. You would think that if your hormones weren’t great in your 20’s, it’s only going to be downhill from there, but these people actually found that their hormone systems worked better in their 30s since they had figured out more of what worked for them regarding nutrition.
But, again, the progesterone supplement is there. It’s a very safe supplement, and occasionally people who aren’t even trying to get pregnant will get it for a period of time because it just helps them feel better. If you had the short luteal phase, you might also have the problem of poor sleep quality, or anxiety. Progesterone is a very calming hormone. I wouldn’t say in your 20s to use progesterone all the time. People use it for a period of a few months. They use it just in this last week or two of their cycle once they’ve ovulated. Don’t use it before you’ve ovulated, because it interferes with ovulation, but if you’re fairly confident that you’ve ovulated, through looking at temperature and mucus signs, then you could use progesterone in this last phase just to feel calmer or sleep better. Women in menopause often use progesterone for that reason. If for some reason your hormones aren’t working very well when you’re young, it’s still a possibility.
STUDENT: I have a question.
STUDENT: Do you have anything about Hashimoto’s thyroid disease?
JEN: Yeah, actually there’s a handout on that.
STUDENT: Real quick, what are the letters? Are those different types of hormones?
JEN: Yes. So, FSH is called follicle stimulating hormone, this is estrogen, and this is progesterone.
STUDENT: What’s LH? Sorry.
JEN: Oh, luteinizing hormone. This is the one that spikes the most when you’re about to ovulate. If you use an ovulation predictor kit, where you pee on these strips to figure out when you’re going to ovulate, the strips are detecting the LH. Basically, the line won’t show, then the line gets darker, and then – oh! – it’s very dark, and the day after that the line’s light again. It’s very clear, if you’re ovulating. People also usually figure out, “Oh, I’m not actually ovulating. Something’s inhibiting ovulation.” The funny thing is that only one or two eggs get released each month, but the egg selection process begins 6 months prior. There are eggs that are pre-selected and then primed, and then one egg – there’s like maybe 5 or 10 or 15 eggs that are ready to go that your body ripens – but one pops out and that becomes The Egg. So, there’s one that would be ahead of the game, but the pre-ripening process actually happens quite a few months before. That’s why it can take several months of better nutrition to actually improve your fertility, because the process actually begins earlier on.
STUDENT: You mentioned vitamin K earlier. What is that in?
JEN: Cheeses and green leafy vegetables, mostly. If you’re eating a really good variety, you’re going to get vitamin K. It would usually be in a good multivitamin as well.
Hashimoto’s, or low thyroid, is an autoimmune disease where your body attacks your thyroid. We don’t totally know why, but we can definitely draw a strong connection with Hashimoto’s and prolonged stress. If it’s autoimmune, it means your body is attacking itself, which means something has gone haywire; your body is not supposed to do that. Sometimes, if you can get your body to settle down, it will stop hurting itself like that. You could also have a low thyroid without having Hashimoto’s. Hashimoto’s is a pretty common cause of a low thyroid, but it’s not the only case. You could have a low thyroid without your body attacking itself. Your thyroid’s simply low.
There are a lot of dietary things you can do for Hashimoto’s. The most important thing is just to notice when it’s happening because you can slowly start to feel worse and worse and not realize why. I had a friend that this happened to. She’d already had a few kids, but Hashimoto’s runs in her family and she just started to feel like crap. She was dragging herself through the day, felt weird, had palpitations and – ugh!– just gross. It took her a while to figure out that’s what it was. She’s treated it with diet on and off. I don’t she’s ever going on medication. She was first diagnosed about 5 years ago, and she’s found that it comes and goes for reasons she can’t explain. It does make her cycles unreliable. She still has 7 kids [chuckles] in spite of this, so it’s not a deal-breaker in terms of fertility. It does make it a little harder to chart and avoid having kids, but since her fertility was unreliable they just decided to not worry about it.
If you have low thyroid, there’s a whole list of symptoms. We don’t know why women are so much more prone to thyroid problems than men, but about 90% of people diagnosed with thyroid problems are women. It’s just something we’re more prone to. Men are more prone to heart disease and some other things when they’re young.
STUDENT: What exactly is a thyroid?
JEN: Oh, yes. So the thyroid is a little gland around your neck.
JEN: It is a big part of what regulates your metabolism.
JEN: Of course, it’s not the master of your metabolism. It’s getting signals from your brain and different organs in other parts of your body. One thing we know that will cause low thyroid in women is if you eat a low-carb diet for a longer period of time than you need. If you’re not solving a problem like polycystic ovary syndrome and you think, “I’m going to eat a low-carb diet so I can be 16% body fat because I’m a model,” over time your body’s like, “Whoo! There’s not much carbs in this environment.” There’s clearly an energy shortage because eating a mix of foods tells your body, “There’s all sorts of foods out here in my environment. You can keep my metabolism up at the regular rate and it’ll be fine.” But if you’re never eating carbs and you’re exercising a ton and you’re very lean, that tells your body, “Whew! Normally, people who are exercising want to eat carbs. If she’s not eating carbs, they must just not be there. Clearly there’s an energy availability issue in this environment and I’m going to slow down her metabolism because she’s not getting enough.”
So, if you don’t have a particular metabolic problem that you’re trying to solve and you’re eating low-carb just for weight loss, a really common way that women make sure their thyroid doesn’t get the wrong message is to have carb reefed days, 1 or 2 days a week where you eat more carbs. It doesn’t have to be junk food. You could eat a ton of sweet potatoes, mango sorbet, or a pile of strawberries, but you don’t watch your strawberries. You eat your potatoes. You just eat a lot of healthy carbs, and of course some bread and whatever else you want to have. If you’re eating low-carb for months to years, that in itself can cause a low thyroid, even if it was a great idea at first.
STUDENT: So, like, for a time that’s okay, but do vegetables count as carbs?
JEN: A lot of vegetables don’t really count. If you’re an epileptic who has to stay in ketosis and only be burning fat, maybe you want to track your potatoes. I don’t think anyone in America has gotten fat from eating potatoes. Potatoes by themselves are not that exciting. Even though potatoes have carbs and sweet potatoes have carbs and oranges have carbs, how many oranges can you really eat?
JEN: Orange juice you can eat too much of, and potato chips you can eat too much, because the fiber is gone and it’s easier to just keep going. Most foods with the fibers included are just not worth agonizing about how many carbs they have, especially if you’re going to eat that potato with some protein and salad. For most people, if you have anything like a normal metabolism, it’s not an issue to have your potato with your salad and your meat. You’re probably not going to eat 5 potatoes at one sitting. I can sit there and eat 8 oranges. When I’ve tried eating paleo, I’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, I need paleo carbs,” and then I sit there and eat 8 oranges as my carb refeed.
STUDENT: Does that count? That’s so funny.
JEN: It would count. You’re getting about 150 grams of sugar from your oranges if you eat a ton of them. I mean, that’s a healthy way to binge on carbs if you want to, because it comes with all these vitamins and fiber. But, my point is that’s not really how most people do it. My husband laughs at my bowlful of oranges for my treat. He’s like, “Oh, you and your treats!”
JEN: So, when I was in college I tried something called the Zone Diet, which they actually have a book on the shelf over here. That’s a moderate-carb diet where you have about a one-to-one ratio of carbs and protein. That would mean you would balance out an orange with two eggs; so it’s pretty low-carb. After I lost the initial 10 or 15 pounds that I needed to lose from my “Freshman 15”, I needed to add back in more carbs and fat. I couldn’t eat endless amounts of protein because I wasn’t bodybuilding. I wasn’t that hungry for huge amounts of protein every day. Once I had lost the extra weight and my insulin and blood sugar had normalized, then I started putting olive oil in my eggs and eating 2 pieces of fruit instead of one.
So, the Zone Diet is a nice diet in the sense that it gives you these ratios to follow. If you just eat sugar and you can’t fill up and you don’t get energy, if you tend to gain weight, especially in your middle, that could mean you have insulin resistance. So, I was the classic insulin-resistant type. I had the sweet tooth, I could kind of binge. When I gained weight I always gained in my middle and then, when I went on the Zone Diet, I lost a pound a week for the whole first semester. It was fairly painless. I just started not eating the carbs that weren’t that special. I just started eating a lot more protein and then eating less carbs and I skipped the bread because I didn’t like the bread on campus that much. I saved all my carbs for desserts and the fruit. By then, I knew how much protein to balance it out with so I wouldn’t spike my blood sugar and I felt great. So, it was a great experiment. In the long term, though, when I’m nursing a baby, I can’t eat like that. I just crash. My muscles don’t get enough sugar. If I don’t carb load every couple days when I’m nursing a baby, I feel like I’m in one of those nightmares where you’re running and your feet are stuck to the ground. That kind of level. I feel like I just worked out for an hour and all I was doing was nursing my baby. So, I realized I wasn’t getting enough sugar. So, I can’t low-carb and nurse. Some people can. I can’t low-carb and exercise, but if I’m being my sedentary self and just reading books, then I try not to binge on carbs, because it doesn’t agree with me unless I have someplace for it to go.
So, I have tended more toward the low-thyroid side since I had my first kid. It’s very common to have thyroid problems after you have a baby; at least 1 in 10 women do. After I had my first baby, I think my metabolism slowed way down and I remember complaining to my mom that I hadn’t lost even one pound of baby weight – I think I even gained weight – and I was like, “Mom, nursing is supposed to take it right off. I’m 22!” She said, “You’ve got a low thyroid, Jen. You need to get your thyroid vitamins.” So, she told me to get kelp and seaweed – at the time, I wasn’t eating any fish – she said, “Go buy yourself some kelp and take one capsule a day.” Sometimes they’re tablets and they’re even smaller than this. This supplement is very cheap because seaweed just grows in the ocean. They just harvest it, dry it out, and put it into capsules. So, this bottle probably costs less than $10. You only need 1 capsule a day, and if you miss a day it doesn’t matter. So, this will last you almost at least 6 months, maybe a year. That’s what I did after I had my first couple kids; I’d remember to take this and the baby weight would come right off. Over time, as I got stocked up on my iodine and my body had better stores, I found I didn’t need it anymore. If I do take it now, I get hyperthyroid symptoms like hot, prickly hands and feet and a weird feeling in my neck. I just don’t need it anymore. But there was a time when it was really, really helpful. I started taking it when my daughter was 7 months old and I hadn’t lost any baby weight. I had just caved and ordered size 14 pants online. I was so demoralized. By the time the pants came, they were too big.
JEN: That’s how fast it came off. Also, if you’re married and your husband wants you to be interested in having sex after having a baby, this is really important. If your thyroid is low, you will not be interested, and that’s not doing a favor for your husband. So, that’s another reason to take care of that after you have a baby. It’s a really common thing to have happen. We don’t totally know why but one plausible theory is that when the baby is nursing it needs iodine. If the baby doesn’t have iodine, its brain won’t develop. They can become retarded and not grow, and even die, just from not getting enough iodine. It doesn’t happen very much in America anymore because we have iodized salt, but it used to be a problem in the Midwest. So, the baby takes a lot of iodine from your milk, and I think that’s why moms end up often very behind.
STUDENT: And you can get it from fish, too?
JEN: Yes, you get it if you’re eating fish a lot or if you’re eating those seaweed snacks, which I didn’t eat when I had my first couple kids. Now the seaweed snacks are a more common thing in my house because my kids like them. If you have really nutritious soil, you could even have iodine in dairy products from the grass eaten by the cows, but that varies a lot from place to place so you can’t really count on that.
STUDENT: Is that like the fish oil Omega 3 stuff too?
JEN: When you take fish oil, you’re getting the oil. You’re probably not getting any iodine from that. So, it’s good for you but for different reasons.
STUDENT: Is there anything else that nursing takes away from your body?
JEN: It takes at least 500 calories a day, which is great for losing baby weight. But, I find that I get very, very tired nursing so with my last couple of kids I started taking a liver powder because it brings my iron back up. That’s one of the things I wanted to talk about, too, is that it’s so common to be anemic. At least 20% of women test as anemic, but this is a very crude test. The way we test anemia is that we look for how many red blood cells you have per standardized unit. Your body makes red blood cells partly out of the iron stores you have. But, you really need red blood cells. You have to have a certain amount circulating or you will turn blue and not have enough oxygen and ultimately die. So, your body will do everything it can to make enough red blood cells until it has absolutely almost no iron left. A better test, which you can order but you have to request it, is to check how much iron is actually in your system, not how many red blood cells you have. By the time your body can’t make as many red blood cells, your iron stores are usually almost gone. I had a friend whose midwives eventually said, “You know, you’re not testing as anemic, but you look so exhausted. You’re pale, your lips are pale, you’re telling me you’re tired all the time. We need to do a better test,” and it turned out she had almost no iron stores. Once she started supplementing, she said, “Oh, is this how everyone else feels? I just had to drag myself through every single day.”
One sign of iron deficiency can be irritability, not just fatigue because, of course, if you’re exhausted and you have to keep going, you’re going to feel cranky. That’s pretty normal, especially for kids. I knew a kid who was very anemic. Her lips got so pale they were basically the same color as her face and she was sad all the time. She wasn’t tired, because she was desperately trying to keep up with her big brothers, but she was miserable. So, that was a sign.
STUDENT: So, how is iodine and iron deficiency linked, exactly?
JEN: Oh, they’re not necessarily linked. It depends on what you’re eating. There are different reasons why you might feel tired. So, if you weren’t getting enough iodine because you weren’t eating any seafood or taking kelp, then your thyroid will just turn down a couple notches and you’ll feel cold and sluggish and maybe brain-foggy and have all these low-thyroid symptoms—there’s a whole list on the chart – and dry skin, constipation, brittle hair. There’s a big collection.
STUDENT: So, could you have symptoms of a low thyroid but it would be a problem like that or just a deficiency?
JEN: It could be. I would always say that’s the first place to start. If you have low thyroid symptoms but you just haven’t been eating any iodine, then it could be a question of supply because the body just can’t run the chemical reactions that it wants to run. If you are eating fish and you’ve taken some kelp, then I would look at other signs of fatigue. You could go get your thyroid checked, but there are also other things you should rule out. If you’re tired, you could also be anemic. You don’t have enough iron. Maybe you’re just not eating enough overall. There’s also something called B-Vitamin Anemia where you’re not getting enough protein in your diet. So, there are many different reasons and if you read the list carefully, you might be able to distinguish, “Oh, yeah. I’m anemia-tired, not hypothyroid-tired.” You could also look at your diet. Many people end up anemic because they don’t eat eggs and meat every day. Iron is in so many foods. Iron is in almost all real foods, but we absorb the animal form so much better than we absorb the plant form.
It’s a total order of magnitude difference of how well you absorb it. So, if you’re going to be vegetarian or vegan and you want to avoid anemia, you have to be very, very conscientious and probably supplement. You can’t be a quesadilla-vegetarian and be healthy. There’s almost no iron in the tortilla, there’s almost no iron in the cheese. If you’re a black-beans-and-quinoa and leafy-greens kind of vegetarian, you might get enough iron, but it’s still not guaranteed. It depends on how well you absorb it, and people vary in how well they absorb iron. Some people absorb iron too well –it’s more of a problem for guys – but they accumulate extra iron in their tissues to the point that it causes problems. Women don’t tend to get this problem because they bleed every month, or they don’t notice it until they go through menopause and stop bleeding and start to get weird symptoms. So, a small percentage of people, accumulate iron too readily. Though nobody’s named this disorder yet, I suspect there are also people who don’t accumulate iron very well at all. I know people who can only get their iron up by supplements and cutting out grains and dairy, which is not typical. So, they’re a poor absorber and they have to ramp it up. Dark chocolate also has iron, so that’s a perk. Even though I like eating eggs and I like protein and I like meat, it’s far, far simpler for me to take about 6 of these liver powder supplements a day. The cow stores a lot of nutrients, especially iron, in its liver. So, this is equivalent to about one ounce of liver, if I were to fry up liver in a pan. Of course, it takes up less space when it’s dried. I don’t mind swallowing pills and I really don’t like liver, so this is the best solution for me.
So, I just try to take 6 of these a day, and if I do that, I can nurse my very active 2½-year-old, who probably takes a thousand calories a day from me at this point, and I don’t need to nap, which is enormously convenient as a mom. If I don’t take these, I don’t feel bad all day, I don’t get that anemic, but I’ll really want my nap after lunch. So, life would go on if I didn’t have these, but it’s a lot more convenient to not need to nap. I like that, over time, I have a really great sense of physical resilience. For example, if I have a poor night of sleep or don’t eat very well one day, it doesn’t matter. It’s a bit of a cushion for me against being sloppy in the rest of my life, so it’s a game-changer if I take it. There’s also vitamin A and choline, which is thought to be especially important for fertility, and some B vitamins. If you accumulate enough vitamin A in your body, over time you will tend to not get allergies, which is also very convenient. You can take Claritin or you can take herbs that will mitigate your allergies. There are many solutions. But I have found that when I started taking it consistently last fall, then when spring came, I just didn’t get allergies. There were just a few days instead of weeks.
STUDENT: What are low-iron symptoms again?
JEN: Basically just fatigue, slow wound-healing. I think heart palpitations is one of them.
STUDENT: Is it normal for your iron to be really low when you’re bleeding?
JEN: You mean if you get it checked during your period?
JEN: It shouldn’t be out-of-the-ballpark low. If you tested it at the end of your period and it came out low, then I would try to get it re-checked at a different point in your cycle. So, try to get it checked at Day 21 or so to see if it’s bounced back up into the normal range. Also, when they test your red blood cells, they’re looking for a certain range of about 11 to 15. In my experience with all my pregnancies – you get checked when you’re pregnant a lot – if I’m down at 11, I am feeling wiped. Even though that’s technically in the range of normal, for me that’s just really not a happy place. If I’m a 13, I feel fine. So, where your body wants your iron to be might vary from individual to individual. That’s the case for most other hormones. Where your body would like your estrogen or your progesterone to be is kind of individual. We tend to not get things checked until there’s a problem. Most people don’t say, “I feel amazing! Get all my blood work right now so I’ll have it for reference later and I’ll have it for reference later in case I have a problem then I’ll know these are my ideal numbers.” So, if you’re troubleshooting and you’re looking at your blood work, there can be a little trial and error. You need to go by how you feel as well as the numbers. I listed some iron-rich foods, just in case. If you have vitamin C with your iron, it makes you absorb it a lot better, which pairs well, like steak and broccoli, broccoli beef, etc. Our kids like black bean and chicken in their quesadillas, so they’re getting a little iron in the quesadilla.
I think that the iron might be part of why many people feel better on the paleo diet. Not that they were actually intolerant of dairy or grains, but bite-for-bite, a paleo diet has more nutrients because a bell pepper or tomato has more nutrients than a piece of white bread. So, I think that just tends to help you absorb your iron better. You might not need to go full-on paleo to get your iron up, but just be aware that combining the vitamin C with your iron-rich protein source such as eggs or meat, it can make a big difference. Occasionally, people do not tolerate iron supplements well. They have touchy digestion. So, if you were to get something like this, you might just start with one and kind of ease up to it. Most people tolerate it great, but I’ve know a couple people who get stomach cramps from taking too much iron at once, and they have to just do it through their diets. If that’s how your body works, you have to eat a lot of meat and eggs.
In this book, I included some pictures of different prenatal vitamins, because the best time to take prenatal vitamins is before you get married and before you get pregnant. Ideally, you’d be taking them months before because if there is a window to prevent a birth defect, it is probably before. It is thought that having the right nutrients in your system helps the DNA to split evenly down the middle. The way you get Down’s syndrome or other birth defects is that the DNA doesn’t split cleanly and you have extra bits that then combine with something else. It’s more common when you’re older – that’s just unavoidable – but it’s also thought that in some cases, this might relate to nutritional deficiency. That’s a theory.
STUDENT: So, these prenatal vitamins in general are for promoting the health of the baby not for promoting fertility?
JEN: Well, in many cases, they would also promote fertility. Some people find that getting on vitamins makes their cycles more regular because they have more nutrients. If your cycles are typically 35 or 40 days because you’re a little bit anemic or you’re just not eating quite enough, once you get on vitamins and maybe eat more, your cycles will probably come closer to 28 days and then everything’s running like clockwork. It’s probably going to be easier to get pregnant. I know people with 40-day cycles that have 5 kids and it didn’t really inhibit them getting pregnant, but if you wanted to have the easiest time or just have the clearest way to chart, taking vitamins often helps. The gummy vitamins are kind of cheesy but they’re very convenient if you don’t like swallowing pills. There’s also liquid vitamins. If you are iron-intolerant, gummy vitamins are a good option. They never have iron in them because if a kid were to eat a whole bottle and it had iron at the amount that a typical vitamin has, they could die. It’s very bad for you to get too much iron at once, so they don’t put it in gummies. They don’t put anything that you could really overdose on into gummies.
STUDENT: If people are iron intolerant, can they have that?
JEN: They can eat foods with iron but they can’t tolerate iron supplements, or they can tolerate only a small amount at a time. Somehow their iron-processing machinery is very limited. I don’t know that we fully know why; maybe they don’t make enough enzymes. I know people who can take just a little bit at a time. I was talking with a mom who was pregnant and very tired. In the past she hasn’t tolerated iron supplements well, but she had worked her way up to taking 6 or 7 of these a day before she got pregnant. Once she got pregnant, she didn’t want to take any supplements for awhile because she felt a little nauseous and just wanted to eat boring food. Then, when she tried to go back, she couldn’t take more than 3, so she’d lost her tolerance and we don’t really know why. So, the gummy ones are nice if you don’t want to swallow things, but of course the gummy ingredients take up a certain amount of space. These ones have more nutrient-density than non-gummy ones. Or you could just take a lot of gummies.
JEN: Another way to approach vitamins is just to take individual things. These are combo formulas where they put it all together in amounts that seem to be the right amounts based on all our research. But with one of my kids I did a different approach where I just took a bunch of healthy pregnancy herbs, liver, royal jelly, and all these whole food supplements. So, it’s a lot more pills, but I never had any nausea from the vitamins, which is what I was trying to avoid. She’s healthy so it seems to have worked. Some people just like to take a whole food supplement. You get foods as a supplement so you don’t have to take the time to eat them. So, maybe you get greens in a greens supplement or ground up berries or something, maybe a powder you can put it in your juice. It’s like, “I’m not going to have time to wash and chop my greens every day, but I’ll take that supplement, or I’m not going to cook liver because I don’t like the taste but I really want the benefits of it, so I use this.” Any questions about that?
STUDENT: I have one more about the, actually about iodine.
STUDENT: I’ve often been diagnosed with low sodium levels. Would that have any correlation with low iodine levels?
JEN: Iodine, well, in America mostly we get iodine through our salt.
JEN: Does your family not salt their food?
STUDENT: No, we always did.
JEN: Okay, so, if you’re salting your food and your sodium is still testing low, I would think somehow your kidney is just being too active in how it excretes your sodium.
JEN: It’s not keeping the sodium in, and so that’s just probably something about your metabolism that’s a little funny. So, that’s a bigger question. Seaweed is salty, but you’re not eating it primarily for the salt, you’re eating it mostly for the minerals in the kelp. I would guess that you need to do something to help your kidneys be happier and keep more of the sodium in, but I’m not sure what that would be.
STUDENT: I have another question.
STUDENT: Do you need to know if you need to take these supplements before you start taking them?
JEN: That’s a good question. I would say if you have particular health concerns like depression, PMS, anxiety, or fatigue, you would probably benefit from taking vitamins for a period of time, because whatever you’ve been doing through your food hasn’t been quite enough. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have to take them for the long term, but it can definitely get you over the hump. If you’ve tried different things to help your PMS or other condition and it hasn’t resolved, then if you’ve done all the diet things it might be time to add some vitamins. I would say if you’re getting married and you’re planning to get pregnant in the next 6 months, take vitamins no matter what. There’s too much at stake. I’m a risk-averse person. If there’s any benefit from it, it makes sense to me to just take it. You’re going to feel better when you’re pregnant if you’re in a better condition physically, so anything you can do to make that happen will help you enjoy your pregnancy more and your baby might be healthier. There are certain things that we know, for example, if your blood sugar is running very high when you’re pregnant, we know that that causes heart defects; kind of a weird thing that you wouldn’t think about.
STUDENT: Sorry, what’s running high?
JEN: Your blood sugar when you’re pregnant. It’s more common with older people because our blood sugar tends to be less efficient as we get older. If your blood sugar is normal before you get pregnant, you’re less likely to get gestational diabetes, you’re likely to gain less weight when you’re pregnant, and you feel healthier. But if you’re feeling fine and you need minor tweaks, let’s try exercise and water first. You probably don’t need vitamins if you’re not actively looking at having a baby. So, if all you’re looking for is smoother cycles, usually exercise and some extra vegetables will be sufficient. People don’t usually have huge nutritional deficiencies by the time they’re 15 or 20 if they’ve been eating mostly real food. Iron seems to be harder to keep up on in college, though. They’re not serving you red meat every night, and if you don’t like eggs, there go your options. If I’d known about these supplements in college, I think I would’ve taken them then. I’d heard about liver powder, but it wasn’t really on my radar.
STUDENT: Is it just red meat, or does chicken also have iron?
JEN: Chicken has some too, but red meat has more and liver has much more than red meat. That’s why people used to eat liver and onions and bacon, but it just kind of fell out of our culture.
STUDENT: So, is it good to take the iron before you know you have an iron deficiency?
JEN: Basically could you get too much? That’s a great question. If you just went on some crazy red meat diet, your body would just adjust so you would absorb less. Unless you have that actual genetic disorder where you’re destined to absorb too much, your body will adjust your absorption of most nutrients depending on how much you need. Basically, it opens the gates if you’re really short on something and your body will gather it all in. If you get too much your body will be like, “Yeah, I’ll just poop it out.”
STUDENT: Isn’t it bad to have a lot of liver if you have low thyroid?
JEN: Yes. There’s an interesting interaction between your thyroid and your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands and kidneys are what run your overall energy in your system, and the thyroid runs your metabolism. More than once I’ve encouraged someone by saying, “Oh, it sounds like you’re having low thyroid symptoms. Go get some kelp.” They go get some kelp and they feel much better and drop some weight, but then after about a month they start to feel not so great again. What’s happening as far as we can tell is, if somebody has several nutritional deficiencies and that’s what was slowing down their metabolism – that’s what was telling their thyroid to take everything down a couple notches, the environment is not helping us – if you then ramp up their thyroid, their metabolism speeds up and they feel better, but they still have the nutrient deficiencies. So, now I tell people, “Yeah, take the kelp, but you also need to take a multivitamin and eat more protein. “ Otherwise you’ll just be telling your body, “Whip the horse harder and faster,” and then you’ll hit the wall after about a month. You’ll be like, “Oh, I feel just as bad as before,” but for a different reason because your thyroid is getting enough nutrients but the other nutrients aren’t sufficient to help your whole system.
STUDENT: Kelp and liver pills are the same, right?
JEN: No, no. Kelp is seaweed, basically and liver is the liver from happy cows in New Zealand.
JEN: So, I would say you may or may not need the kelp if you already eat fish. I know they always have tuna on campus, so if you’re eating that regularly, you might be covered for kelp. If you’re not eating red meat or eggs, you might want to consider the liver. You can get a bottle or two and just see if you feel better. If you feel a little sluggish or like you would really like to nap every day and you have to power through with your cup of coffee, then this might make your life better.
STUDENT: Are there alternatives to kelp or fish that do the same thing? I can’t eat any sort of seafood.
JEN: You can just buy iodine liquid. I don’t think that’s really recommended as a supplement, but people used iodine drops as an antibacterial. I know that they can just get iodine out of the ocean and concentrate it. So, you could try that, or maybe just stick with a purer one and try to buy bulk. I also find it very helpful to read Amazon reviews for different supplements because sometimes they’ll say, “This is the best supplement ever,” but if I read the 1- and 2-star reviews and they’ll say things like, “This totally disagreed with me; this gave me heart palpitations; this seemed contaminated,” from people who are a little more sensitive but they write about their experiences in detail and I find that really, really helpful. There’s food grade and then there’s pharmaceutical grade. Pharmaceutical grade is a higher laboratory standard of how they process it. So, that might help kind of just narrow it down if you look for that.
STUDENT: Is there any app that you recommend for charting?
JEN: Oh, for cycles? There are so many apps. My daughter has one called Clue. You can go in and change the settings for “what am I actually going to track” so that there’s not a bunch of extra stuff. You can always just do it on your calendar too, you know. Just super, super basic; develop some kind of code system for yourself.
STUDENT: Never let the men see it.
JEN: I know someone who realized that his coworker would have these explosions at certain times, and he’s like, “Huh.” He’s homeschooled, so he had some candor from his mother and sister about cycles. He thought, “Hmm.” So, he started tracking and he ultimately ended up with a period chart for several of the women in his office.
JEN: For him, it was very obvious when they were on their cycles.
STUDENT: Honestly, that’s really strategic and probably very helpful for him.
JEN: Yeah, he’s like, “I’m not going to ask her for any help this week.” Yeah, he’s very, very strategic. It was really funny. Yes?
STUDENT: So basically, what does having a longer or shorter cycle do? Like, if you always have a 25-day cycle versus a 30-day cycle.
JEN: So right now I have a 25-day cycle but when I was in college, it was about 28 to 31 days. It shortened as I got more active and maybe just older. I’m not sure why. So, if you have a 25-day cycle, it could be that you ovulate on Day 14 and then your hormones drop a little faster than they ought to. It could also be that you ovulate around Day 10. When I started to notice my cycle getting shorter, at first I freaked out. I went online and asked, “Can I get pregnant on a short cycle?” Basically, “Are things still going to work?” And all these people said, “Oh, yeah. I always ovulate on Day 8 or Day 9, and I have 3 kids and everything works fine.” So, again, we don’t totally know why. It could be I’m a little too amped up or something. Maybe I’m taking too much of something. But I think I ovulated on Day 10 with my last baby and everything worked fine. So, you would have to track your temperature to be sure when you’re ovulating, but you could also look at your mucus signs. If you’re ovulating on Day 14, what’ll tend to happen is from about Day 10 to 15 is when you’d have mucus and if you’re having shorter cycles, it’ll start on maybe Day 7 and go to Day 11. The mucus starts to dry up right about when you’re ovulating. The point of the mucus is so that sperm can ride through the mucus and get to the egg. So, it’s designed to be there before the egg would pop out, because as Aristotle says, nature acts for an end.
If the sperm have this great road to ride on and they’re there when the egg pops out, then it’s very easy to get pregnant. If you’re seeing that you get mucus at an earlier point in the month, even without tracking your temperature you could assume that you’re ovulating earlier and then you’d still have that 14-day luteal phase, which is fine. You just run a little on the fast side.
STUDENT: But it is bad to have a shorter luteal phase, if you are ovulating on Day 14 then your hormones are just dropping really fast?
JEN: Basically a 12-to-14-day luteal phase is probably enough to stay pregnant, but if it’s under 9 or 10, that’s when you’re probably going to need some help. So, there’s a grey zone in the middle where if it’s a 9- to 12-day luteal phase where it might be fine but it might not.
STUDENT: Then you would take the supplements?
JEN: That’s right. Some people find that just making their diet more nutritious makes their luteal phase longer over the course of several months, but not usually the first month. You can also get the progesterone supplements.
STUDENT: You mentioned earlier your friend who worked out constantly but then needed to work out more. Was that before her cycle started?
JEN: Yes. That last week she was having a lot of mood swings, she was getting really cranky and her emotions were all over the place. She was doing a lot of other things for it. She was taking care of herself, getting enough sleep, and eating real food, but she just makes a lot of hormones. I think it’s her family trait to have just a very abundant supply of hormones, so she really has to help things along to process them. That’s why I suggested she work out for 90 instead of 45 minutes.
STUDENT: The week after she was bleeding?
JEN: No, the week before the next bleeding. It would be when you’re just about to start bleeding again, so, the end of your cycle.
STUDENT: What if it takes longer to ovulate, so in the other direction?
JEN: This means that somewhere in here (pointing to chart) your body is thinking, “There’s not enough resources to make this happen.” Ovulation takes energy; it takes at least 800 calories. I’ve heard of girls losing their period during Lent because the sweets they gave up had been giving them enough calories. A stressful week at the end of your period, not eating very much, or anemia are all things can delay your ovulation because it takes your body longer to gather the resources to make it happen.
STUDENT: And how do you track your luteal phase? How can you see whether it’s 9 days or 14 days? Is it just judging from when your period starts?
JEN: It’s from whenever you ovulated. You can track when you’re ovulating by looking at your mucus or, if you want to, you can get these little pee strips. They’re little test strips which have a control line and a test line, and the test line is very light at first. Right before you ovulate, it gets very dark because you’re testing for the lutenizing hormone that stimulates ovulation. Once you’ve ovulated, you’ll get two dark lines and then the test line fades quite rapidly returns back to light. So, it’s very clear the two days before. People use this to help get pregnant or, if you’re just charting, it can be information to help you confirm that you’re interpreting everything correctly. If you’ve been trying to track your mucus but you don’t make very much mucus, maybe you run a little on the drier side, maybe you’re a smoker, I think just drinking can make a difference for some people, or maybe it’s a really dry time of year and you’re just dry all over. All of those can make a difference, so if you don’t see clear mucus signs for 3 or 4 days, then you might not feel sure about when you’ve ovulated. Some people cramp when they ovulate. That would be another sign. But if you don’t see mucus, you might not have much to go on, so you could get these pee strips start using them around Day 8 or 9 if you’re really curious. Use them until you see that test line get darker and then test it the next day to see if it get lighter. Basically, once it gets darker that means the lutenizing hormone has peaked and it’ll come out in the next 12 to 36 hours.
STUDENT: You said the egg is out for about 2 days?
JEN: It’s viable for about 2 days, so yes it’s out. It can be fertilized for about 48 hours, we think, and then at that point it just kind of starts to deteriorate. So, it’s going to come out and then 48 hours is the limit.
STUDENT: But sperm also lives.
JEN: You’ll have to abstain for a week or 10 days if you want to feel confident that you’re not going to get pregnant. One of the glorious things about NFP is that that’s going to be the time of month when you’re going to be most interested, because nature does act for an end. That only becomes more so the older you get. NFP has been more irritating in my 30s than it ever was in my 20s. I don’t know why, but your hormones get much more assertive. My friend was joking with me about this the other day. She’s got 7 kids and an 8-month-old on the floor; her husband’s out chopping wood and took his shirt off, and she’s like, “I can do this again. I can do this,” and she had to talk herself out of it. She’s like, “Chill out. Chill out. You’re totally overwhelmed with your 7 kids 14 and under.” Then, it’s Day 18 and the egg is no longer viable, and now when he’s out chopping wood she’s like, “Meh. Whatever.”
JEN: The difference can be quite comically dramatic. So, yes, sperm can live for at least 5 days. They used to say 3, and then they had to say 4 and then they had to say 5, and now some people say 6. And there is no test that we know of that will predict your ovulation 5 days in advance. So, if you need to prevent pregnancy, you need several months of cycles to know when you are likely to ovulate. The baby I had when I ovulated on Day 10, she was our Day 5 surprise baby. She’s wonderful, but it was in many respects a terrible time. I had very good reasons to not get pregnant, but I had not ovulated on Day 10 in the prior year that I’d been charting. So, this is definitely divine intervention, obviously.
Two or 3 years before that, when I had not been charting my temperatures but just charting mucus, I had suspected I was sometimes ovulating on Day 9 or 10, but it hadn’t happened recently, so I thought, “Ah, Day 5 should be fine,” and it should be fine if you’re ovulating on Day 12. None of those sperm would be alive by the time the egg pops out. But if you ovulate on Day 10, two days earlier than the earliest I was expecting, then it was not, and so we had a little baby. So, if you have a really significant reason to avoid pregnancy, you probably aren’t going to do much in this time. You have the option to basically sleep with your husband during your period. If you have any chance that you might ovulate early, if that’s ever been your tendency, then you would abstain until you are certain you have ovulated. So, if you don’t feel like doing it on your period, you’re basically abstaining from Day 1 all the way until Day 17, and you have one week or 10 days to enjoy yourself after that. So, this is a significant commitment.
STUDENT: So it’s after the day of ovulation that you’re not fertile?
JEN: Well, actually, you have to wait a full 2 or 3 days after ovulation to be sure that the egg is not viable. If you see the strip spike, you’re ovulating probably in the next 24 hours. Then the egg is viable for another 48 hours after that. So, you have to leave at least 3 days after that.
STUDENT: So, it’s right before ovulation that you’re really fertile?
JEN: Yeah, if you’re trying to get pregnant, you’re looking for the test line to get darker and then you really enjoy yourselves during this time and you have your best chance, because you’re trying to have the sperm reach the egg just as it gets popped out, when the egg is the healthiest. If for some reason your eggs are not amazing, you want to catch them right when they come out because they might not last actually the full 48 hours.
STUDENT: Yeah, that makes sense.
STUDENT: So, you mentioned the temperature and then the mucus. What do you recommend for starting out your charting?
JEN: The simplest thing is probably mucus if you have clear mucus signs, and then the next simplest thing is the pee sticks, if you just want to buy a pack of those online, then the third simplest thing if you want the next degree of confirmation is to do your temperature. The catch with the temperature is that you’re supposed to take your temperature before you get up and moving because it’s not your walking-around temperature. It’s called you basal body temperature or BBT. It’s your body’s baseline temperature while you sleep. Typically, you stick a thermometer in your mouth at like 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning even before you get up to pee, before you have a water, anything. Some people’s temperature is very touchy and it goes up as soon as they get up and go to pee or do anything. Other people learn from experience; they check it before they get out of bed and then they check it after 10 minutes and it doesn’t go up that fast. That’s something that’s good to learn about yourself if you’re going to use this kind of charting. I don’t think mine was super touchy when I did it. It’s just I’m not back in the habit of doing that right now, so I’ve been using these sticks more because it’s a little simpler since you can check any time of day. If you’re trying to precisely determine when you’re ovulating, you might check a couple times a day when it’s getting darker, to find out whether it’s in the morning or the evening that is peaking.
STUDENT: For the mucus test, does it stop right before you ovulate?
JEN: It seems to. I think for most people, yeah.
STUDENT: So, 2 or 3 days before your egg drops is when your mucus peaks?
JEN: Right. I’m not an NFP teacher for any particular method, but if you’re trying to get pregnant, a typical rule is that you’re doing it when you have the mucus. If you’re trying to avoid pregnancy, you wait for the peak day of mucus which is really like the day before you ovulate, then you ovulate, plus 5 more days you wait. Peak-plus-4 or Peak-plus-5 is how long you would wait to be certain that you’ve ovulated and then are unlikely to get pregnant.
STUDENT: Are you probably going have the most mucus the day before your ovulation day?
JEN: Yeah, maybe two days before, but somewhere in there. If you tend not to have regular mucus signs and you’ve dieted, and your coffee intake and stuff is generally pretty normal, a really simple way to get more clear mucus is signs is to eat more root vegetables. I had a friend from college who called me and said, “I just can’t get pregnant.” She had very dry skin, she was a redhead, and had dry hair. And I’d learned some things about this in herbal Chinese medicine school, so I said, “You know, they say you should eat a bunch of seeds and root vegetables like yams and carrots. That’s free; you’re going to eat anyway. Just try it before you go get progesterone cream or blood work done. Just try that.” I didn’t hear from her so I thought, “Oh, maybe it didn’t work,” but then the next thing I heard was, “Oh! She had her baby.” It was that simple. You can also take cough syrup. There are other ways to get more clear mucus signs if you are really trying, but I would just say try the root vegetables first. They’re good for you anyway and it really makes the signs clear. I’m not epic on root vegetables, but generally if you’re healthy you’ll see some mucus and it helps you determine. When I was in college, I started paying attention before I got married and I didn’t eat root vegetables every day but I would eat them when they were there. So, that’s probably going to be enough.
STUDENT: You said that one thing that can cause a longer period is if you’re just up late at night and you can fix that by better nutrition?
JEN: In most cases, yes.
STUDENT: Is there anything else that can cause late or irregular periods to know what supplements we need for it to be fixed?
JEN: If you Google this topic, there’ll be a long list of all the things that can cause irregular periods including remote possibilities like fibroids or uterine malformation or some other weird disease. So, if you’ve really done all the other stuff and they’re still irregular, then you might need to look into some of the less likely causes. So, yes, there are other causes.
STUDENT: Well, also for, like, just longer periods besides early ovulation?
JEN: Besides ovulation? It could be that you could have delayed ovulation and also the hormones are not processing quickly on this end. It’s possible to have both. It’s also possible for polycystic ovary syndrome to make them long and somewhat irregular.
STUDENT: But would that be unlikely if you don’t have any other symptoms, or if you’re bleeding normally? I mean, I bleed normally but I maybe feel little cramps for a day or so. It’s never crippling or anything.
JEN: Cramps are not always there with PCOS. Cramps are pretty much always there with endometriosis. Yes, there is some variation. It could be that you’re sensitive to something like light in your bedroom or just something kind of random or your sleep/wake cycle, or if you go to a party. So, it could be that there are other factors that are making it a little different every month. The other thing is, if you’ve only had your cycle for a couple of years, it can be a little less reliable at first. In some families, the girls don’t get their cycles ‘til they’re 16.
STUDENT: But if it’s been 6 years?
JEN: Yeah, but is it like 29 to 35 days, or is it like 21 to 50 days?
STUDENT: It’s like 29 to 35.
JEN: That is a pretty small range that it’s shifting between. My guess is that some months you just have a really busy couple of days and you ovulate a little bit late, and then maybe you have another day tacked on here (at the end). In other months, everything just works a little faster and smoother and those are your 29 day cycles.
STUDENT: Having a paper weekend can do it.
JEN: [chuckling] I would think so.
STUDENT: I’ve heard that if your mother has had a lot of children, then you’re less likely to be able to get pregnant. Is that true?
JEN: I don’t think so. The only way I’d say that that might be the case is if you were at the bottom end of a large family and your mom was just exhausted when she had you. I mean, you might have gotten less [chuckles] “life essence” as the Chinese would say. But there are people who don’t look very robust, who have 8 kids. They’re tiny little people and they have terrible teeth, so you know they didn’t have great nutrition growing up, but as adults they take very good care of themselves. They’ve had 8 kids, no problem. So, I think that, fortunately, most of it depends on how you’re taking care of yourself in the shorter term. You have a lot of control over it. Occasionally it happens that a mom having her 17th child gives birth to a daughter that doesn’t have ovaries or something; there are random things. You have fewer eggs or they could be a little less well-formed, but most of that your body has so much capacity to heal.
I’ve known people who couldn’t get pregnant for 10 years after they got married and then, all of a sudden, they just started having kids, but sometimes they don’t even know why. My mom had 9 full-term kids and a ton of miscarriages. I’m the oldest kid in my family, but I’ve had no trouble at all getting pregnant. My sister has had. She went through an anorexic phase and has celiac, so those things have impaired her fertility. She’s still on her 4th kid, and she’s younger than me so she might have another one. In fact, there’s a funny story about my sister. She called me after she’d just gotten married and said, “Oh, I went to the doctor. He looked at my blood work and he was like, ‘Whoo! You’re going to need a lot of help. Come back.’” So they left and they were going to come back a month or 2 later when he was going to give her this whole packet. She said, “I’m so depressed. You know, I really wanted to get pregnant.” I said to her, “Well, in the meantime, you can try this and this,” and by the time she went back for her packet, she was pregnant.
JEN: And the doctor said, “I have your blood work here. This should not have happened. What were you doing?” and she said, “Well, my sister said try this and this and this,” and he said, “Well, okay.” He thought it was a couple of these particular supplements that had regulated her blood sugar. Who knows? God is in control, it’s not really us.
So, with NFP as you can see from this chart, you’re looking at a minimum of 10 days of abstinence to have that 99% certainty that people typically want to have. Sometimes people say, “Ah, I’d rather not be pregnant, but we’ll just be kind of sloppy about our NFP and just kind of see what happens,” and that’s fine. That’s just a different sort of system; don’t call it NFP.
So I would suggest that if you’re anticipating getting married down the road, to think about not just understanding your cycle but what would it take for me to be able to be okay with having a bunch of kids? In reality, the difference for a lot of couples between NFP and Not-NFP tends to be about 2 kids. Ultimately, if you get married in your 20s, you’re going to be fertile for a solid 20 years, if all is going well. So, there’s a lot of time. The funny thing is, some of my peers would wean their babies when they were young to get pregnant faster, which I always thought was weird because one toddler at a time was plenty for me. And they’re enjoying nursing, you know. You have time. You probably have time. Even if you have health problems and you don’t get pregnant the first 5 or 10 years you’re married, you probably still have time; and there is adoption too. Many people adopt and then get pregnant. It can be very panic-inducing if you get married and you’re not getting pregnant when you’re hoping to be or you’re thinking, “How many kids am I going to have?” But what tends to happen is people get tired and old and their fertility often slows down as they get older or they just decide that the difference between 6 kids and 8 kids is not worth months and months of abstinence over the course of their marriage. I can think of people who have 12 kids and they don’t mind. They’re just like, “Ah, we’ll take them as they come.” This one lady I’m thinking of, her husband works hard, money’s not a problem, he takes her out on a date every single week, which is very unusual among married couples, and he’s always taken out on a date every single week. Most of the other women I know say, “If my husband did that, I wouldn’t care how many kids I had either.”
JEN: So, I think the moral of the story is, it’s great to chart and it’s great to understand how this works and do the best you can with the body that you have, but it might be just as good to make your husband take you out on dates once a week, and then you might never really feel like you need to space out your kids. So much of it comes down to not just random circumstances like, “Does my kid need a heart surgery,” or some kind of extreme things that happen. A lot of what makes people think, “Oh, I have to really space this out,” is just that the husband and wife are not supporting each other very well in their roles as parents. I would not say that it’s necessarily easier to have, say, 6 kids than 10 kids because it depends so much on the parents, as you probably already know. It’s not even necessarily easier to have 3 kids than 10 kids, depending on the kids and depending on what your relationship is like. So, while I think it’s great to know this, another place to really think about putting your energy is, “What do I need my relationship to look like so that we can just be open and not have to worry so much about when the babies are going to come? What do I need my health to be like? What do I need to do to take care of myself so that if, maybe I prefer I not get pregnant with a 1-year-old, but if I did everything would probably be fine?” That’s a nice place to be in, if you can take good enough care of yourself that you don’t have to worry about it.
If you’ve been a Type 1 diabetic since you were a kid, you are going to have to do this your whole marriage. Most can’t have more than a couple of kids because it’s just too complicated. So, there are certain situations where you are going to have to be abstinent for a lot of your marriage because of really significant health issues. If you’re basically healthy, it is such a blessing that you have the option to not really worry about it one way or the other. Even if you think, “Oh, I could really only handle 4 kids,” or whatever, you can just take it one at a time.
STUDENT: I have a quick question. You say that this works 99% of the time. So, that 1%, is that just for your whole cycle there’s a 1% chance of you getting pregnant, and if so, how does that work?
JEN: No, I think the 1% means if 100 couples use a Natural Family Planning system for a year, on average 1 of them will get pregnant, even if they’ve all used the system perfectly. So, either the sperm lives longer than they know, or there’s a second ovulation or something. No system of contraception is 100%. None. Not even the hormonal, barriers, IUDs. None of them are 100%. There’s only one system that’s 100% and that’s not doing it. People want that 99% certainty, but they want to maintain that part of their relationship with their husband. They don’t want to just go without for years, but that’s what people used to have to do. There are stories of people who are now in their 70s or 80s who were told after the wife had their fourth kid that she had bled so heavily she should not get pregnant again. She would die. At that point, if people were told that, they might simply stop sleeping together for the next 20 years until the wife goes through menopause. We are very, very blessed that we have so many ways that we can track this easily. We have a lot more options than people did even 50 years ago.
STUDENT: Maybe I missed it, but you were saying that the different colors were different hormones?
JEN: Yeah. This is a very rough chart, but this one is lutenizing hormone. This is what ripens the part that pops out the egg. You have follicle stimulating hormone, which is another hormone that ripens. So, the egg pops out of the follicle on your ovary. One way that we tell when people are in menopause is that this goes up a lot, because over time your ovaries kind of stop listening and they become like hard of hearing. So, your body will ramp up your follicle stimulating hormone to try to get your ovaries to try to pop out another egg and your ovaries are like, “Oh, can’t do it. Too tired.” So, this if this is extremely high, it’s considered a marker for menopause.
If you’re young and everything’s working, this is not going to be extremely high. It simply goes up at the right time just enough to stimulate this. Estrogen and progesterone I think we’re all familiar with. Estrogen comes in different forms, some more biologically active than others, and we don’t even know exactly what role every single one of them has. Progesterone is the one you make a lot of. You make a lot of estrogen and progesterone when you’re pregnant. That’s why pregnant women get really thick hair; the estrogen and progesterone change their hair growth patterns. It’s also why pregnant women can be really moody and really weepy, because the extra estrogen can make you super weepy. I remember one time when I went to the midwife, she asked me some question and I just started crying. She was like, “Whoa! Lots of estrogen today.” I was like, “Oh my gosh. Do some people feel like this every month? This is terrible!”
If you have extra progesterone it can make you sleepy. It can make you retain water, but nothing really bad happens. That’s why there’s this idea in prenatal care of why not supplement with progesterone? There’s basically no downside except that it can make you sleepy, so most people take it at night. Most people don’t supplement with estrogen until they’re in menopause or they’re having awful hot flashes or something. Normally you don’t need extra estrogen and it will make you very emotional if you have too much.
STUDENT: If your estrogen is too low, is there anything you can supplement with or do you just have over-the-counter medication?
JEN: You could take it. It’s pretty uncommon for young people to get estrogen supplements, or even hormone supplements in general, because the only way your hormones would end up really, really low is if your body fat was too low or if you really weren’t eating or something. If you just naturally have kind of low estrogen, it’s not going to interfere with your fertility or anything really funny, as far as we can tell. You’ll be less busty, certain things will grow differently, but it shouldn’t affect your life too much. Generally speaking, your body wants to make hormones. Nature is acting for an end. So your body wants to make the hormones when you’re the right age. If you’re eating nutritious food, your body will tend to make those.
STUDENT: This is weird, but I feel like my cycle is different when I’m at home than when I’m at school.
JEN: Then you probably eat differently.
STUDENT: Well, actually, I try to eat the same things. I have a very particular diet because I’m allergic to basically everything. So, it’s not really that.
JEN: Do you eat more at home? Does your mom make it better?
STUDENT: No. I cook for myself. Anyways, I’ve heard that there’s, like, an alpha that can exist in a dorm [laughing] …
JEN: Oh, the cycle runner theory? Yeah. I don’t know if that’s true. It doesn’t seem implausible to me that the person who makes a lot of hormones and has the alpha personality could somehow lead the cycle pack. But, we definitely know that when you’re sharing clothes, you share hormones and that will tend to line up everybody’s cycles; skin-to-skin, sharing clothes, a lot of cuddle time, yeah. I have two daughters and I’m cycling, so there’s 3 of us cycling, but we’re not cycling that closely because we don’t share clothes since we all wear a slightly different size and we all sleep in different rooms. So, even though we’re in the same house, we don’t actually cycle together. But if you’re the same size as your roommate, or if you have the best wardrobe and everybody’s sharing your clothes, I think that would accelerate the effect.
STUDENT: I normally have a pretty regular cycle; every 4 weeks I have my period. I came back to school and I had my period 2 weeks later because that’s when my roommate was having her period.
JEN: Yeah, so maybe that was stronger than your own effect. And I wasn’t thinking of that in terms of college students having irregular cycles. I forgot about the dorm room effect, but it’s a thing. It’s really a thing.
STUDENT: If somebody has a stronger period, they’ll make other people have their period?
JEN: Well, some people just shed more hormones. You have more hormones, you sweat more, and then you share clothes; your hormones are on the clothes more than the person who sweated less. So, you could see how yours would be dominant, if you just make more. I mean, there’s hormone patches if you need supplementation; your skin is actually a great delivery system for stuff. I don’t know if you count sharing shoes because feet are kind of sweaty, but so many people share shoes. Blankets? How often do you wash your throw blankets or your scarves? They’re right around your neck. I guess jewelry would hold some. I don’t remember if I was cycling at the same time as my roommates in college. I don’t remember asking them, but it’s possible we were.
STUDENT: Because I think we’re basically all … pretty much our whole wing …
JEN: Wow. So it sounds like your whole wing needs to go hiking together the week before your collective period so you’ll be happier people.
STUDENT: Do you know anything about folic acid?
JEN: Folic acid is a B vitamin. Folate is the nature form. When it was first discovered, there was this connection that was drawn between folate and cleft palate and spina bifida. So, they’re called neural tube defects because when the baby is growing, this whole thing is the neural tube. It basically goes from the top of your mouth all the way down to your tailbone, in developmental terms. They noticed that women who were deficient in folate seemed to be more likely to have babies with cleft palate on the upper end or spina bifida, which is the other end. It’s really funny because my mom is 64 and when she was pregnant with me, she told her doctor, “I’m taking folic acid to avoid neural tube defects.,” He said, “You’re ridiculous,” but then by the time I was in high school, it was on billboards. So, the information was in there in the scientific literature before it became part of our popular culture, before they got it into prenatal vitamins. But the doctor she mentioned this to 38 years ago just laughed at her.
So, I’m sure there’s more to birth defects than the folate but in prenatal vitamins we usually have the synthetic form which is folic acid. There’s a big debate about this right now, whether folic acid – the synthetic form – is good enough and fills in the same spot and your body can use it or whether it actually displaces the real folate that you might get from your diet. I don’t think the debate has been totally settled, but the better quality prenatal vitamins will tend to have folate and the cheaper ones will have folic acid. So, there is a difference. If you’re eating fruits and vegetables, though, you get folate from eating leafy greens and other fruits and vegetables, so it’s not that common. Fortunately, at this point in America I think it’s less common because if you’re eating a good diet, you’re probably getting enough folate.
It underscores why you want the vitamin so early, though. When the baby is this small, around 2 weeks, the placenta is not hooked into the mom. So, whatever vitamins you’re taking at this point of the baby’s growth, it’s not getting directly. This baby just has whatever it came with from the egg yolk sac. So, when the egg froze, there’s kind of a pre-placenta, the yolk sac. Whatever nutrients this yolk sac has the first several weeks the baby’s growing is dependent upon the nutrients you had before the egg came out. This is why, if somebody said, “You get 3 months of prenatal vitamins. When are you going to take them?” I would take them 2 months before I get pregnant and probably Month 7 of pregnancy, which is when the baby tends to take a lot of nutrients.
STUDENT: This is so helpful.
JEN: This is why I’m having this class. Everybody starts taking prenatals after they’re pregnant – and it still does help the mom, it helps you, you need the nutrients to have a better pregnancy – but in terms of any chance at preventing birth defects, that ship has sailed. In Asian medicine, they say that when you’re born you’re already one year old because they consider those 3 months before conception as part of your growth period because of all the nutrients that play a role in how you’re going to grow.
STUDENT: Can you take prenatal vitamins even before you get married?
JEN: Absolutely, yeah.
STUDENT: How long before?
JEN: However long you feel like paying for them and getting in the habit of taking them. I’m a pretty slow habit former so it took me awhile to get in the habit of taking things. But it’s still something, even if you’re inconsistent. You might just experiment, even if you don’t have any particular health issues. You might just find that you feel more energetic when you take them, so it’s worth the $30 a month since you can get more done. Someone I was talking to recently about this said, “All these supplements are really adding up.” I’d suggested 3 or 4 things and it was probably about $60 a month that she was getting in supplements; she just has a coffee shop job so it seemed like a big hit. So I asked, “Well, can you work 4 more hours a month? Are you 4 more hours more productive? Because that’s all it takes in terms of your working hours to make up the difference,” and she said, “Oh, yeah. If I look at it that way, it doesn’t seem so much.”
So, the placenta isn’t really hooked in until the baby is about 6 or 8 weeks along. At that point it already has its fingers and toes and everything.
STUDENT: You said something before about how supplements can help with stress and anxiety? Because I’ve also heard that the baby will receive any stress and anxiety that the mom feels, and it will affect growth. You’re saying supplements could help control that as well?
JEN: Yes. Again, you’d want to start before you’re pregnant. The best supplement for anxiety is often just a mineral supplement like liquid minerals. My kids take them for growing pains, but I think it also helps my high-strung kid to be a little more chill. Magnesium is one that you’ll often think of, but supplementing one mineral and not the other minerals is not really how food works. If you get a liquid mineral supplement where they take mineral out of soil or salt beds and concentrate it, some of them don’t even taste that bad, surprisingly. There’s one that even my kids like. It’s called “Ionic Trace Minerals.” It’s like $10 for a bottle, so it’s quite cheap. You just put a capful in your juice, and it just makes your juice taste a little different but it’s not bad. Especially if it’s tart like cranberry juice, they just drink it right down. My 10-year-old will take it because she’s been getting growing pains and it helps. The minerals are good for if you’re having muscle cramps, like if you work out a bunch. For many people just eating more protein and fat and then taking minerals will help their anxiety a lot.
Many people find that, especially if you’re trying to eat only healthy food, you just might not be eating quite enough. It’s very easy to not eat enough fat. Sometimes for breakfast my high school kid will whip up a pint of cream, take a large bowl of strawberries, and dip the strawberries in the pint of cream that she’s whipped up just for herself. Then she’s super happy and mellow for like 4 hours.
Fat is good for your brain. If I went on a low-fat diet, I’m pretty sure I’d be a raving lunatic in a couple of weeks. It makes my blood sugar so unstable. But people are different; people have different needs for this. My husband always teases me about how much butter I put on my bread, and I’m like, “Well, it’s clearly working for me.” Especially if I’m nursing a baby, I think there’s times when I go through a stick of butter a day when I’m nursing a newborn, definitely half a stick a day. When I butter my toast, the toast it just carrying the butter. The only reason I eat toast is I can’t eat butter by itself, like when I was a kid. So, you need fat and protein. Protein gives you the amino acids that your body turns into serotonin and dopamine and all the things that our body makes all our different brain chemicals out of we use to regulate our moods.
STUDENT: Have you heard of Bulletproof coffee?
JEN: Oh, yeah. My daughter and I went to the Bulletproof conference a couple times. It’s really fun.
STUDENT: Oh, that’s so good! Yeah, I was learning about that. It’s interesting. It’s like brewed coffee in the morning and then you have a tablespoon of butter and you blend it up.
JEN: Yeah. So, that guy was really about the ketogenic diet. He really popularized it, partly because it’s easier to fast if you have coffee with butter in it.
Then you can get through the whole morning, and it tastes pretty good. So, it’s interesting, though; I follow his stuff and I read a lot of the articles on his blog, and he’s a guy and he really healed his hormones by being on the ketogenic diet for a long time. He really enjoyed it. He felt great, up to a certain point. He said he was lean and his brain was working great, but after about 18 months or a couple years of ketosis he couldn’t make tears anymore. You need some carbohydrates, polysaccharides, some certain kinds of sugar to make tears. So, people will get these weird things happening sometimes after being on ketogenic diet for an extended period of time.
Also, male tolerance for ketogenic diet seems to be vastly different than female tolerance, partly because women’s thyroids are very sensitive to the energy availability in their environment. If a woman has polycystic ovary syndrome or a definite imbalance, a ketogenic diet can be the best thing that ever happened to her, but if you go online you’ll see hundreds of comments from women, even on the Bulletproof blog, that say, “I was great, I was 20% body fat, fit and lean, I felt amazing, my cycles were great, and so I went on the ketogenic diet thinking, ‘This’ll make it even better; I’ll be like a god,’ and then 3 weeks or 3 months into this I have acne and my periods are weird or my periods stopped.”
So, don’t mess with a good thing, you know. If a woman already is metabolically healthy, I don’t know that there’s a huge advantage. If you want to explore ketogenic diet, go for it. There are plenty of reasons. Just be aware that your body might not be delighted the way you think it would. You might need to carb refeed. So, some women just cycle in and out; they’ll eat a a heavy fat day and they’ll eat a heavy carb day, and they mix of going back and forth and it seems to work for them. But that’s more work. I like my fat a lot and I’ll get into ketosis accidentally sometimes, but then I’ll always want to pull out of it by eating a bunch of carbs like mango sorbet or something.
Let’s see. Any other questions?
STUDENT: I was just going to ask: where did you learn all this?
JEN: I was always that kid who would sneak off and read nutrition books and that’s kind of what we had around. My mom didn’t really like children’s literature very much. We had like, picture books, adult books, and nutrition and history books, and so I just always thought it was really cool. I’d seen my mom take care of things. I’d see my grandpa, who was always reading the latest nutrition book. He’d overhaul his diet and change different things and he would chat with me about it. Then after TAC, I went to oriental medicine school and learned about acupuncture and herbs and their way of looking at nutrition, which is more big-picture than us. In Asian medicine generally, they don’t do the scientific method like we do, where they’re like, “Why is it happening? I’m not going to tell you to eat this thing unless I can say why. I need to know why.”
They’re like, “Who cares? Carrots cure night blindness and liver cures night blindness.” They didn’t know it was vitamin A and they didn’t care. They just say, “If you have night blindness, I can solve your problem.” It’s a very different mindset, very pragmatic but also kind of poetic. They’ll say, “Oh, you run too hot and dry. You need more cooling wet foods.” And guess what: cooling foods are things like cucumbers and apples. Surprise, surprise, right? Or, “You’re feeling cold and sluggish after a meal? Did you eat your food right out of the fridge and chase it down with an ice water? Well, you just ate a bunch of cold food. Your body now has to heat that food up to digest it. You just made a bunch of extra work for your body. Try eating your food hot and see if you get more energy.”
There’s a lot of stuff like that, but they’re very good at analyzing cycle things and they’re very big on getting you healthy before you get pregnant so you have a better time and it’s better for the baby. Babies do survive stressful pregnancies; it changes their brain, though. Actually, in most cases, babies will even survive when the pregnant mother is starving, but it will change the baby. We know this from World War II. Sometimes they couldn’t get food to a town for months, so people were just eating the turnips out of their backyard and whatever they could find, and they tracked which ones were pregnant. The girls who were inside their mothers’ tummies when their moms were getting almost no calories, those eggs developed differently. The eggs will develop in such a way that their children can survive on almost no calories. Unfortunately, that means that the grandchildren of those starving mothers are probably going to be likely to be obese. So, this was documented, to everyone’s surprise, but they could clearly correlate it back to these starvation things that happened during World War II.
STUDENT: Like, survival mode?
JEN: Yes. If you’re pregnant with a girl, her eggs are getting messages about the environment and the genes are changing, or if the mom is exposed to different medicines or chemicals, the eggs can get accumulated with those chemicals. I know someone whose mom had this weird drug that was popular at the time for some sickness when she was pregnant. Her first several kids had really impaired health. We were kind of joking like, “Maybe those were the eggs on the outside of the ovaries and the ones on the inside didn’t get as much exposure,” because the first four kids have a bunch of health problems but the second four are fine. Were those the later eggs? What’s going on?
So, there’s a lot we don’t understand about it. I think there’s a way to switch those genes back off to make the people not obese, but we have to give them this extraordinary, nutrient-dense diet and they’ll still have the tendency to be overweight, unavoidably.
STUDENT: Why are they obese?
JEN: We think it’s because their grandmothers were starving when they were pregnant with their mothers.
STUDENT: So, what would trigger the obesity?
JEN: We think that the genes in the eggs changed. Your eggs were all growing when you were growing in your mother’s stomach.
JEN: So, your eggs have been alive basically as long as you have.
STUDENT: Wait, so you don’t really form new eggs your whole life?
JEN: No, but you don’t need to because you’ve got thousands.
STUDENT: And they were all there, just …
JEN: By the time the baby comes out of the mother, the eggs and the machinery are all there. The eggs are all there in their simplest form and then they’re going to ripen and develop.
STUDENT: That’s crazy.
JEN: You’re not going to get any more later, as far as we know. Who knows? Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe you can grow more eggs later. Lots of other things that we thought were true about the body, like, “You don’t make any new brain cells.” Well, that’s been shown to be false.
JEN: Yeah, so, if guys want to put your email, I’ll keep in touch. I have a website and I send out updates. You can feel free to kind of reach out to me with questions as things come up. I have a Facebook page, too.
STUDENT: Thank you so much!