Harp and Banks creator Michelle O’Brien shares her health journey during the process of quitting sugar on the 8-Week Program – from her battle with fibromyalgia to PCOS. The mum of 2 dives into the importance of community support on the path to health and happiness.
Michelle lives with fibromyalgia, having been just a teenager when first learning about the condition, the mum of 2 daughters; a 12-year-old and a 2-year-old, has been on a long journey of discovery, facing numerous blockades and challenges that are par for the course when it comes to fibromyalgia.
“I had a doctor who told me all about fibromyalgia when I was about 19-20 and at that point it was something that, if you said it to a health professional, they’d say 'that doesn’t exist, that’s a word for pain', so I actually had a lot of push-back going to other specialists about it," she says.
"It was a really interesting ride and more knowledge has come out about it, there’s more cases, people are more readily being diagnosed, there’s a bit more research behind it – that’s changed dramatically. It was hard for me at the start, it was like, 'I think I’m crazy, the pain won’t go away and I’m just fatigued.'”
Michelle’s not alone with her experience – fibromyalgia often goes undiagnosed and untreated, affecting around 2% of Aussies, with women at an elevated risk for the condition.It often overlaps with symptoms of a number of other illnesses and conditions, with medical professionals often overlooking the possibility of fibromyalgia. It is characterised by pain, tenderness and sensory issues due to the over-sensitisation of the body’s neural pain pathways. Often time, upon medical assessment, symptoms of pain, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction lack evident abnormalities, leaving doctors to overlook fibromyalgia. The condition may develop suddenly, but it’s usually the result of a build-up of maladaptive bodily functions and responses, though infection and chronic disease are other possible causes.
Unfortunately for many people living with fibromyalgia, the signs and symptoms are invisble, leading to further isolation and pain for those with the condition.
“It’s one of those things you can’t see – when I met Matt, explaining it to him was such a journey, that sometimes my hands cramp and I can’t use them,” she says of her experience sharing her condition with her partner. “I’ll be holding something and they just don’t work anymore.”
Take a look at some of the most common signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia:
- Bodily pain, achiness and stiffness
- Fatigue and weakness
- Depression, anxiety and low mood
- Sleeping difficulty or irregularity
- Memory and concentration problems
- Headaches and migraine headaches
- Paresthesia – strange and uncomfortable sensations in the body
- Brain fog
- Sensory sensitivity
- Excess sweating
Michelle is familiar with a number of both uncomfortable and debilitating symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. She says the dietary changes she made during the 8-Week Program led to some relief.
“I get a lot of hand pain, hip pain, shoulder pain, joints in general tend to flair and I’ve noticed in the last 2 weeks, really heading into this last section, a lot of that inflammation is reduced – it’s not gone, it’ll probably never be gone if we're very honest, but that’s the nature of the beast,” she says. “But the flareups have reduced, they’re less frequent and less intense when they do occur, and much more manageable. That’s been the most surprising thing because nothing else has ever really done that for me.”
But that’s not the only health issue Michelle’s living with, the mum of 2 has struggled with PCOS, also known as polycystic ovarian syndrome. Affecting nearly 10% of women of menstrual age around the globe, POCS is a hormonal disorder which results in enlarged ovaries and the development of small cysts. The symptoms could include anything from excess hair to acne, weight gain, infertility and irregular periods. In fact, irregular menstrual cycles are one of the hallmarks of POCS, believed to be caused by elevated androgen levels – these include reproductive hormones like testosterone – along with lower levels of sex hormone binding globulin – this is important for androgen regulation.
The 34-year-old says she noted a marked difference after nixing the added sugars.
“My period has seemingly regulated which is great. Which I did expect; when I’ve done similar programs that’s been the result, so having that consistency has been incredible this time, I saw that result instantly, it’s something that came through within the first few weeks.”
There are a few reasons why added sugars and other inflammatory foods could worsen the symptoms of PCOS – while the cause of the condition hasn’t been proven just yet, researchers believe a combo of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors could be at play. Diet is one such factor that can encourage PCOS – specifically high-sugar diets. This is because foods with excess sugars can create an imbalance of the gut microbiome, then going on to promote chronic inflammation – which is responsible for a whole host of conditions from metabolic syndrome to autoimmune conditions and mental health issues – along with stimulating androgen production, which plays a major role in PCOS. First, let’s unpack the effects of sugar on our gut – it comes down to the increase in bad bacteria, kicking our microbiome out of order. Studies have shown that high-sugar diets lead to higher levels of Proteobacteria, and an excess of this indicates the presence of an unbalanced microbiome, known as dysbiosis. The result? A higher vulnerability to inflammation and illness – including the development of PCOS.
Michelle says it’s been the support that’s been so integral to her health journey. Her Instagram channel Harp and Banks has been a place for people to connect and share stories, advice and support in a world that leaves many of us without education and understanding around our own bodies and health.
“Harp and Banks is a creative outlet for me, but also a way to connect with other mums, and people in general, during the global pandemic,” she says. “I have a passion about sharing my journey – we had fertility issues having our second child, hence the age gap, and I’ve got polycystic ovaries, fibromyalgia and food allergies, so it’s been a beautiful way for me to share my experience with other people out there who might be going through the same. But equally you learn from those people.
“Mums, families and even partners are supporting others through it, it’s been a really lovely space,” she says. “It was a surprise to me just how open people are to that.”
Like many others, Michelle noticed some fringe benefits of quitting sugar.
“So, happy story, I’m two pant sizes down,” she says. “A lot of that is bloating, which comes really heavily to people with those other lovely things we talked about earlier, from a fibromyalgia point of view.”
But she notes that the goal isn’t centred on weight loss, it’s about health – and despite society’s obsession with the scales, many women are working to fight the stigma and unrealistic expectations around weight.
“I didn’t actively track size change or weight loss, I didn’t measure before or after, I’m much more inclined to go off fit of clothing,” Michelle says.
“When it comes to weight loss, I’ve always had that attitude, particularly raising girls, it’s about how something fits on my body, not how my body fits to whatever I’m wearing.”
Michelle’s advice to those of you starting the 8-Week Program is to be gentle with yourselves.
“I’d advise with anything like the 8-Week Program to just go into it with an open mind and don’t put too much pressure on yourself – putting pressure to be perfect in the program, that’s not what it’s about,” she says.
“It’s about having common sense in that space, being kind to yourself; it’s okay to get it wrong it’s ok to not feel good. It’s ok. Just give yourself permission to feel it all and go through it all.”
Check out Michelle’s inclusive, supportive and inspiring Instagram page HERE to continue the conversation around health and wellbeing – and delicious food!