Recently I attended an online webinar about how our menstrual cycle could be an indication for our general health, and why holistic nutritionists need to pay attention to the cycle of their clients. It was a very informative and interesting topic and it made me think. So many women complain about painful periods, PMS and fatigue, and yet it is often considered normal, as it is so common. But just because these symptoms are common, it doesn’t mean they are normal.
I asked you on my Instagram stories if you’d be interested in me writing more about women’s health and 97% of you replied with “yes” to my question. So, in this article I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned in this webinar, and give you some information about what a healthy menstrual cycle looks like and what are some things you could do to balance it. It is a long one, but this is an important topic.
– Your period is an expression of your underlying health
– Common symptoms such as PMS, pain and mood swings don’t mean they’re normal
– How our hormones affect our health and menstrual cycle. The role of progesterone and it’s protective effects
– Understanding the four phases of menstrual cycle and their related symptoms
– What does a normal cycle and period look like?
– How to support a healthy menstrual cycle
– Nutritional guidelines
– Lifestyle changes that can influence our menstrual cycle
– What does your menstrual cycle say about your health?
Your period as an expression of your underlying health
“Your period is not just your period. It is an expression of your underlying health. When you are healthy, your menstrual cycle will arrive smoothly, regularly, and without undesirable symptoms. When you are unhealthy in some way your cycle will tell the story.”Dr. Lara Briden, ND
Let us first step back a little bit and remind ourselves about the function of our menstrual cycle. At its core, it prepares the body for pregnancy. Each month when an egg is released, the body thinks there’s a chance that you might get pregnant. However, this is not necessarily the only reason why we should care about reproductive health and particularly our menstrual cycle. The hormones that are involved in our menstrual cycle also play a role in our breast, brain, bone and heart health, they are important for numerous other bodily functions, like regulating our mood, our appetite, and our sleep. Our menstrual cycle is very important to our overall health and wellbeing as it’s an indicator and promoter of health.
Observing and understanding our menstrual cycle is also a significant part of body literacy and body awareness. It can also connect us deeper to the cycles of nature as well as wise women traditions.
Our menstrual cycle can be affected by the function of the thyroid, diabetes, eating disorders, such as not eating enough calories and malnourishment can affect and even stop menstrual cycle, bleeding disorders, mental health and our cycle also has an effect on our athletic performance. Below are some statistics on menstrual cycle:
- 1 in 10 women experience PCOS, endo, infertility
- 90% of women experience painful periods, whether that’s cramping, headaches, backaches
- Up to 80% develop fibroids
- 10.6 million women are taking hormonal contraceptives, which can have multiple side effects
- At one point or another, all women will reach perimenopause and menopause
Let’s talk about hormones
The hormones at play in our menstrual cycle are generated in different parts in the body.
Estradiol, is one of three types of estrogen that our body produces. It is key in the menstrual cycle and is produced by the follicles within the ovaries. While estrogen might have sort of a “bad reputation” when it comes to hormones, it is important to remember that we have estrogen receptors in every cell in the body. In the first half of the menstrual cycle estradiol works to mature the eggs before they are released for ovulation, it helps to thicken the uterine lining to help achieve pregnancy with the fertilized egg, and it helps produce cervical mucous.
People with estrogen dominance might experience more heavy periods, clotting and longer periods or irregular cycles, as well as painful periods. High estrogen is also linked to breast cancer. On the other hand, low estrogen levels might result in shorter cycles and very short bleeds, where the blood is bright pink.
Progesterone is produced by the ovaries and the adrenal glands after ovulation and it has multiple benefits and could be considered the star of the menstrual cycle. When we ovulate regularly, we can reap the benefits of this hormone beyond reproduction as it has lots of other physiological functions. Here are some of them:
- Prevents breast cancer
- Boosts thyroid hormone
- Lighten periods
- Reduces inflammation
- Builds muscles
- Promotes sleep
- Protects against heart disease
- Calms the nervous system and makes it easier to cope with stress
There is also the follicle stimulating hormone or FSH, which is produced in the pituitary gland and it helps stimulate the follicle in the ovaries to develop the follicles. The follicle holds the growing eggs, but only one (though occasionally more than one) will mature and be released as an egg.
Luteinizing hormone (LH) also produced by the pituitary gland is responsible for stimulating the follicular growth but also completing it. LH spikes just before ovulation and it sort of pushes the button for ovulation.
Gonadotrophin releasing hormones (GnRH) are produced in the hypothalamus and they tell the pituitary gland to produce FSH and LH.
Testosterone also plays a role in a menstrual cycle and is higher at the beginning of menstruation. Elevated levels of testosterone can cause acne and PCOS.
The four phases of the menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle is composed of four phases which can also be linked with the seasons in nature.
Menstruation (day 1-5) – winter
Hormone levels are low and we might feel fatigued, introverted and experience low energy. There might be the urge to cosy up and eat nourishing food. Appetite is also increased and symptoms might appear, such as headaches, cramping and emotions.
Follicular phase (first half of cycle to ovulation – days vary) – spring
This is when our period is over, and we feel on top of the world. Estradiol begins to rise and this phase can feel like “upwards and outwards”. We are feeling more confident, more extroverted and motivated. On a physical level, the uterine lining is thickening, cervical mucous forms and the follicle matures.
Ovulation – summer
This is when we’re in full bloom. At this point progesterone starts to rise and as soon as we have ovulated LH begins to reconfigure the follicle that was holding the egg in the ovary into the corpus luteum, which also manufactures progesterone in the ovaries. If you become pregnant at this point, corpus luteum will continue to produce progesterone until the placenta takes over around the end of the first trimester. If you didn’t become pregnant then the corpus luteum is disposed within the next two weeks and it stops making progesterone. In this stage of your cycle estrogen and progesterone start to drop so some women might experience a heightened sensitivity, irritability and low mood. Some women might even feel a slight pain during ovulation. At this point cravings for higher fat and calorie foods might increase. This is simply because the body is wanting to ensure enough calories to support an eventual pregnancy. Other unpleasant symptoms of this stage might be constipation, water retention and bloating.
Luteal phase – autumn
The feeling during this phase might be described as “downwards and inwards” and can last up to two weeks (can be less, but not more). You might start feeling some mood changes in this phase. As we get closer to menstruation sex drive might increase, cravings can still persist especially for carbs, high fat foods. This is also where existing symptoms or diseases might be exacerbated.
Some of the conditions that might be exacerbated during luteal phase include:
- Skin issues, such as acne
- Bipolar disorders
- Depression and anxiety
- Eating disorders
- Rheumatoid arthritis
What does a normal menstrual cycle and period look like?
A normal menstrual cycle is between 21 to 35 days in total. Oftentimes we hear about the 28-day cycle, but this is a referral to the average length of cycle (which is actually 29.5 days). In adolescence it is also normal for the cycle to be longer than 35 days, up to 40-45 days. Also, if your cycle varies a couple of days this is also no cause for concern, and it can be influenced by stress during the follicular phase, by prolonging it somewhat.
Bleeding in a normal cycle takes place for 2 to 7 days and the total of the flow during this time is about 80ml. The menstrual blood should be bright red, and free of large clots. Some small clotting on day 1 is normal. While it is normal to be a little more fatigued and lower at energy, PMS or any other symptoms are not part of a normal cycle. If you’re stuck in bed, missing out on life and calling in sick at work during this time because of pain and discomfort, this might indicate a bigger imbalance.
How to support a healthy menstrual cycle
The prescription of hormonal birth control to regulate the menstrual cycle is not regulating it at all. It’s like putting on a Band-Aid – it doesn’t treat the cause. Every hormonal birth control is different (uses synthetic hormones) and what it does is it turns off ovulation. The body stops making progesterone (hence we lack the benefits of this hormone) and some estrogens and because of no hormone fluctuation you’re feeling the same every day.
Nutritional guidelines for a healthy menstrual cycle
Here are few dietary and nutritional guidelines that can help support a healthy menstrual cycle.
- Manage blood sugar
- Support thyroid and adrenals
- Support the liver
- Improve digestion/gut health
- Ensure eating enough calories and nutrient-dense foods
- Remove inflammatory foods
- Identify and remove food sensitivities / allergies
Other nutrients that you can consume more regularly include:
- Magnesium (can help with pain and PMS)
- B vitamins (especially for anxiety and fatigue)
- Vitamin D (during ovulation, and for insulin resistance)
- Iodine (thyroid function, PMS, ovarian cysts, heavy periods)
- Zinc (PMS, acne)
- Selenium (PMS, endo, thyroid)
- Essential Fatty Acids (Pain, inflammation)
- Probiotics (gut health, estrogen excess, PMS, endo)
- Protein (hormones)
Lifestyle changes that can influence our menstrual cycle
Stress plays a major role in hormonal health and also affects our menstrual cycle. Working on reducing the stress levels in our life can be beneficial for multiple reasons. Focusing on pleasure and joy and connecting to our feminine energy can also help us get more in touch with our body and its cycles. Make sure you exercise regularly, and practice some meditation and yoga. When it comes to intimate products and cosmetics we use, it is also important to avoid the toxic load some of them bring to the body, as these toxins and xenoestrogens can negatively affect our hormones. Consider organic and reusable intimate products that will lessen the toxic load on your body.