Engineering your way to wellness

13 September 2022
By Fashion Quarterly

Our lifestyle can have a tremendous impact on chronic health conditions – endometriosis included. Fashion Quarterly talks with Helen Cross – AKA The Health Engineer – about nib’s Women’s Wellness Programme and how to take control of your wellbeing.

Functional nutrition and lifestyle practitioner Helen Cross — or as she’s known to many, The Health Engineer — understands how crippling chronic pelvic pain can be. From a young age, Cross experienced debilitating periods that often left her doubled over in pain, but like many young women, Cross was told her pain was a normal part of her menstrual cycle.

It wasn’t until Cross turned 30 that she decided enough was enough and sought the help of doctors — for the first time, Cross heard the word ‘endometriosis’. But for Cross, a diagnosis was just the start of a long and tumultuous journey.

In the following years, Cross underwent multiple surgeries, including a hysterectomy, to deal with her chronic pain. Unfortunately, surgery wasn’t a silver bullet, and Cross’ health declined. As isolating as her ongoing health concerns were — she lost friends and struggled with a career she had spent years building — Cross refused to accept that she had to live with her pain and decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. Through several lifestyle changes such as embracing functional nutrition and improving sleep and exercise habits Cross’ healing journey finally began.

Knowledge is Power

It was her own life experience that catalysed Cross’ desire to help others suffering from chronic pain. Today, Cross, who has a master’s degree in health coaching, provides functional nutritional and lifestyle coaching to New Zealanders suffering from chronic pain conditions, including endometriosis. More recently, Cross has teamed up with nib to share her knowledge with eligible members who have recently undergone surgery or been diagnosed with endometriosis. 

Her coaching forms the basis of one of nib’s proactive Health Management Programmes designed to help mitigate chronic health conditions. Through the Women’s Wellness Programme, eligible clients work with Cross to help manage endometriosis-related pain and help forge pathways to better wellbeing through lifestyle and diet changes.

Not only is Cross a proponent of a holistic approach to managing endometriosis, she is also a big believer in formulating a bespoke, tailored programme for each client as no two clients’ concerns or lifestyles are the same. Cross explains that her initial session with a client helps her understand their unique needs and how pain has impacted their wellbeing. “I think about three different things I like to understand about someone,” says Cross. Firstly, she needs to understand the pain: what are the symptoms or things that are a problem to them? Secondly, she focuses on gains: what will clients gain from helping manage their pain? “And then the third thing is understanding their life goals. What could they achieve if their pain was manageable?” 

While symptoms are an important focus for Cross, understanding underlying causes and what else is happening in her clients’ lives are equally crucial to creating an effective programme. “I want to understand what is going on for them. For some people, it’s trauma or for some, changes in hormones are having an impact. And from there, I want to understand the body systems – how healthy is their GI system? How are their immune systems? And then, how are all of these related?” Cross says one of the first things she explains to her clients with endometriosis is that there’s often more than one thing going on. “I explain that endometriosis can be related to gut, immune, and neural health,” she says.

Eating, moving, and sleeping for better wellbeing are all part of Cross’ programme, with gut health being a big focus. While endometriosis can be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, Cross says it is common to see clients dealing with more than one chronic health concern. As a result, healing the gut through food, sleep, exercise, and stress-release is a big part of what Cross does.

Baby Steps

The thought of taking your wellbeing into your own hands can be a little daunting. Cross agrees that it is easy to feel overwhelmed by our busy lifestyles – for many, finding the time for a home-cooked meal, breakfast or exercise each day is hard to squeeze into an already hectic schedule. “I think part of it is finding a way to create some space for yourself,” she says. “So you need some bandwidth to think about that time — you make time in the week to do some cooking, to get some groceries, to exercise.”

Rather than putting more pressure on yourself, Cross advocates for incremental changes that are easy to implement. “You don’t have to be perfect; it’s about finding little ways to incorporate small changes in our lives.”

Cross explains that changes don’t have to be difficult or dramatic to make a big difference. Instead, she prefers to set realistic goals with her clients that they are likely to have success with. “Each session, we discuss my diet and lifestyle recommendations and how it’s all going for them. From there, we set three challenges for the fortnight,” she says.

Cross says challenges might be as simple as drinking more water over the coming weeks, having breakfast every morning or getting to bed at the same time each evening. At the following fortnightly session, Cross and her clients discuss any issues they might have had and how they’re going with their challenges.

“I find they start noticing changes, and it becomes quite motivational,” she says. “I like to talk with them about the idea of trust, healing and empowering yourself — they learn to trust themselves, their knowledge and their bodies,” Cross explains. “We’re not putting bandages on things; we’re empowering them to feel better.”

While eligible nib clients set their challenges with Cross’ help, Cross also focuses on pain reduction. Cross explains that as part of the nib Women’s Wellness programme, with her clients, she monitors different pain levels — maximum and average pain during menstruation, average and maximum pain outside of menstruation, and overall quality of life. “

Our aim across the three months is to see a two-point change on a scale of zero to 10 in at least one of those parameters across the programme.” Cross says each of her nib Women’s Wellness programme clients has had a successful outcome; for many of them, it’s life-changing. “If we can move the dial on their pain so they’re actually out there living life, then they’ve got the confidence, they’re empowered.

A Holistic Approach

Diet, lifestyle and stress can have a tremendous impact on wellbeing, and endometriosis is no exception. To help you with your wellness journey, nib offers eligible members access to the nib Women’s Wellness Programme. The complimentary three-month programme takes a holistic approach to the management of endometriosis. It includes a consultation with Helen Cross, six fortnightly 45-minute Zoom sessions, practical diet and lifestyle advice tailored to your unique needs, information, recommendations and trackers for 12 weeks, and email support if and when needed. nib members who have been diagnosed with endometriosis or have had recent surgery for the condition may be eligible to join nib’s Women’s Wellness Programme. nib members who would like to find out if they are eligible can email nib’s clinical team at [email protected] to learn more.

Visit nib to find out more about the nib Health Management Plans.

Functional Nutrition 1o1

The Health Engineer: Helen Cross, Functional Nutritionist.

Functional nutrition puts the individual at the heart of dietary-related decisions. Instead of accepting that all ‘good’ foods are good for everyone, functional nutrition looks at the bigger picture, including health conditions, physiological make-up, and lifestyle habits.

Rather than pop a bandage on problems, Cross uses this information to delve into the signs, symptoms and causes. Before recommending lifestyle and dietary changes, Cross explores health history, genetics and current health concerns to create an entirely customised nutrition and lifestyle plan that  will work for you and your lifestyle.


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