Menstrual Cycle Self-Care: How I’ve learned to listen to my body and be kinder to it
Every time I have spoken about issues of fertility or menstrual health, my inbox has been flooded with other women relieved to have an opportunity to talk about what's going on with their bodies. Women I’ve known for a long time and women whose names I’ve never heard.
When I first posted my blog post about menstrual cups, more than a dozen women immediately told me they were going out to buy one.
When I posted about ovulation syncing with the moon phases, several women sent me questions about it and were shocked to learn their own cycle was synced.
And finally when I posted a poll asking whether my Instagram followers wanted me to talk more about these issues, dozens upon dozens of followers voted yes with far more responders than I've ever had on a poll. It's pretty clear - women and all people* who menstruate want space to talk about their health.
For something so fundamental to our life experience and our overall physical wellbeing, it's shocking that we still keep our menstrual cycles so private. At age 10 we're sat down and told that once a month for most of our lives, we're going to bleed. We're taught that boys get erections, girls have periods.
Then typically a few years after menstruation starts, around about the age many girls start sexual activity, Doctor's immediately recommend we start birth control to "regulate" our periods. We’re taught that our bodies are defective and periods are a disease that needs to be treated with artificial hormones. And that's that. That's generally all the knowledge we get given to make complicated, risky decisions about our health. That’s the extent of our education unless we choose to become gynaecologists.
Why aren’t we taught to understand basic processes like menstruation, fertility, pregnancy and menopause?
Why do we grow up seeing these natural changes in our bodies as diseases or defects that have to be rectified with supplemental hormones?
Why are we so disempowered and detached from our own bodies that we’re scared of natural hormonal fluctuations, but trust synthetic hormones entirely?
It was only age 25 that I really got into learning about my menstrual cycle. I’d had no idea when we ovulated or what that even meant. I didn't know there were four phases in the menstrual cycle. I didn’t know I was only fertile around ovulation. I didn't know hormonal birth control impacted almost 200 symptoms in the body and was strongly linked to suicide and fatal health conditions. I didn't understand how dependent our cycles were on nutrition or lifestyle choices.
And I've learned even more about how hormonal birth control isn't necessarily the most effective method to prevent pregnancies in the first place. It's pushed on us and pushed on us, as the most prescribed medication in the world, but we’re no better protected against pregnancy than if we opted for some of the healthier methods. And we have no way of knowing this.
So this blog post is coming to you 2.5 years since I had my last birth control injection, and I'm finally seeing positive results in my PMS, my skin and the regularity of my cycle. Before taking birth control I had great skin and almost non-existent periods, I’d never experienced PMS. During and after hormonal birth control I’ve experienced almost every side-effect in the book including severe cystic acne, debilitating cramps, migraines, depression, anxiety, and I could go on.
It's taken me this long to recover and it’s still ongoing, but over the last few years I've learned so much and would love to start a conversation about how I got here and get feedback from you all about your own menstrual health journeys, too.
In this post, I am going to talk about the practices I’ve implemented into my daily life to see me through my menstrual cycle, and most notably the week over my actual period. In future posts I’m going to break down different phases of the menstrual cycle as well as have some frank chats about birth control, PMS and hormone imbalances. Hopefully linking you onto more knowledgable resources to continue learning about these topics together.
Nothing I ever say is intended to be medical advice, I don't have any health qualifications. I just have a keen interest in discussing things I’ve learned that my Doctors forgot to mention.
Keeping track of where I am in my cycle and when I experience certain symptoms is one of the kindest things I do for myself. It only takes a few seconds a day but has significantly improved the quality of relationship I have with myself. Understand why you feel what you feel when you feel it. Know why you’re feeling sensitive or insecure, why you’re craving junk food you normally don’t eat, or why you’re tired or achey.
There are four phases to our cycle and you’re not supposed to feel the same at all times. If you don’t experience fluctuations, that might just be an indicator that you’re covering things up with drugs. Once you know what to expect and when to expect it, you can be so much kinder to yourself and forgive yourself for experiencing these symptoms.
I use the app Flo to track which you can use for the fertility awareness method to prevent pregnancy (a topic for another post), but you can also use it just to predict your symptoms and when your period is starting.
For whoever needs to hear this, it’s OK to slow down if and when you want to.
Being honest about your capacity at certain times of the month and slowing the heck down around your period is so essential. But it takes practice and sometimes even guts to overcome your FOMO or the fear of looking lazy. Tracking my period was completely revolutionary for this. For some people, they only slow down the first day of their period. For other people like me, I am impacted for 4-10 days depending on my diet that month. This month I only took a half day off but last month I took two days off work.
By keeping track of my symptoms throughout my menstrual cycle, I can predict what days I know I’ll be functioning below 100% and schedule my work tasks and social life around those days so I have the bulk of my responsibilities falling at times I should have more energy.
I also make sure I am not making important decisions in the lead-up to or during my period, because when I’m not in my best physically or emotionally, it’s not the time to make life-altering decisions. For the immediate days around my period I should just be running on auto-pilot and focusing on my self-care.
While most people can’t cancel their life and maybe can’t afford a day off, you can always cut some items from your to-do list to give yourself an extra 30-60 minutes in bed. An example is simply cancelling one work out or coffee date to watch TV in your pyjamas instead. If you don’t think you have time to relax an extra 30 minutes on your slowest days, then the stressful life you’re leading is kind of a red flag that something has to give anyway! (May I recommend The Slow Home podcast?)
Wholefoods Plantbased Diet
I cannot stress enough how much I am living proof of the impact of refined foods versus whole foods on your menstrual cycle. While I won’t feel a difference at the time of eating refined foods (oil, bread, chocolate) I experience severe pain, fatigue and nausea closer to my period in months I have eaten more of them. And this is the typical experience.
Unless you have a chronic underlying health condition or the problem is influenced by medications, alcohol, smoking etc. then most of your hormonal issues can be addressed through diet, either by omitting eggs and dairy or by adding in something you’re missing. We have so many external and genetic factors to contend with, but everything the body produces must still be powered by food.
As much as you can hear this over and over, until you actually trial a balanced wholefoods diet you can’t truly appreciate how your body was meant to be working this whole time. Proper nutrition improves your mental health, energy levels, digestion and your hormone regulation! During our period we’re losing blood so need to focus on nutrient-density, even if this is the time of the month we’re least likely to want to eat well.
When considering periods there are two minerals we typically have to keep an eye on: Magnesium and iron. Why? Because iron is lost during your period which makes iron the most common deficiency in the world, and because low magnesium levels actually cause PMS. I don’t supplement iron, because supplementing iron when you don’t need it is harmful. The average vegan eats plenty of iron while maintaining lower serum ferritin levels which is important. (Google heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimers, colon cancer and their links to high iron stores in the body.) But I do supplement magnesium, and you can read why here. It’s safe for almost anyone to be taking magnesium because modern diets are too low in legumes and leafy greens.
So when fatigued or nauseous I just focus on eating enough. It’s easy to under-eat or fill up on empty calories with period cravings, but that just worsens your problem. I build my diet on lentils, tofu, oats, quinoa, brown rice and include nuts and seeds to ensure I’m getting plenty of vital minerals that keep me healthy throughout my cycle. Tons of fibre, fat, protein and iron-rich grains. Then once you have iron and magnesium on lock, two other important nutrients are B6 and calcium to replace what’s lost in blood loss.
While science says the average person should be consuming under 15% of their calories from fat (and 0% from saturated fat) to avoid disease, I have had a few specialists say for my hormone issues I should be eating closer to 30%. My hormones are out of whack and I need a little extra fat from heart healthy sources, which seems to be working.
(Even the most generous, mainstream sources say saturated fat should stay under 10% while Americans are eating twice that amount every day, as an idea of where your own fat intake might be right now.)
When I landed in Micronesia there were no healthy sources of fats available. There were no nuts, seeds or legumes. Animal products and refined oil were it, so I passed. I ate brown rice and frozen vegetables, or plain oats with cinnamon because that was what I had available. And the result was that I ended up in the emergency room on a drip for the pain, after taking a week off work. While my heart is healthy, I still needed more fat to metabolise my hormones correctly.
Since, there have been a few chances to buy fats from a local store, but I’ve prioritised sourcing things like nut butters and flaxseed. I have one tablespoon of ground flax and a scoop of peanut butter in my morning oats, snack on walnuts during the day and eat tofu every day. Without resorting to refined oil, I now get the amount of fat my body needs and not much more.
I tried seed cycling for awhile to rebalance my hormones but I couldn’t find the seeds needed to keep it up today. Seed cycling works by consuming a tablespoon of seeds per day, but changing the seeds halfway through your cycle. For the first half of your menstrual cycle you have a tablespoon of pumpkin and/or flaxseeds, and after ovulation you have a tablespoon of sesame and/or sunflower seeds. This isn’t as hippy voodoo as it sounds. Flaxseeds and sesame seeds contain lignans that remove excess estrogen, pumpkin seeds are high in zinc which helps progesterone levels and sunflower seeds contains selenium which is great for overall hormone balance. Some people point out the evidence isn’t solid to prove this works, but there’s no downside or harm to adding a tablespoon of seeds per day into your routine. Other good sources of fat are avocado, hemp seeds and edamame.
Hydration is huge for me around my period because my skin dries out to an extreme, and my digestion is usually off as well. I drink a lot of water with hydration salts, plus I incorporate hot ginger and turmeric teas into my life to tackle the inflammation and pain. (Did you know ginger can help with period cramps, diarrhoea and decrease the amount you bleed?) So I try to meet the minimum 1900mL of water per day for my body weight, plus added electrolytes and liquid minerals.
As above, I experience extreme dehydration around my period. I also experience aggressive acne breakouts. They’re red and they’re angry. So while normally I go very gentle on my skin to leave it alone, around this time I have to amp up the skincare! I exfoliate with a cloth, use a clay face mask, a hydrating toner, my Dirty Hippie moisturiser, and a mixture of Sukin (Aus) or Twinkle Apothecary (US) face oils and my face roller to massage out some of the cystic lumps. On the immediate days before and during my period I might just keep re-applying moisturiser or oil every few hours.
The supplements I take that I believe help are milk thistle (which helps restore liver function after the damage of hormonal birth control), calcium and magnesium to boost my levels for general wellbeing, and sodium sulfate which helps reduce bloating and IBS around menstruation. When taking these, my symptoms are greatly lessened and I have more energy throughout the lowest point of my cycle. I have a whole blog on my supplementation here.
Painkillers just don’t work for my period pain. My Doctor prescribed Naproxen which makes an impact, but on my worst days I experience such terrible lower back pain that the only thing that provides relief is light stretching. I’m not a yogi and I have always been naturally stiff because I’m double-jointed so stretching is a nightmare, but I’ve finally found a routine that works for me. I just roll out the yoga mat and drape my body over a yoga block, moving it around to target different areas of my body. Specifically, I get cramping in my lower back so stretching out my hamstrings relieves that pain. I try to do this for at least 15 minutes a day, but I will lay there until my cramps subside.
I have a whole blog about the Lunette menstrual cup and how it’s revolutionised my life. This was such an important change in learning to understand my body, remove the major downsides and discomforts of my cycle and overall feel more empowered around that time. Additionally, I recently added in a set of Modibodi vegan period underwear, too. To ensure maximum comfort around my period! Now I have one less thing to worry about when I’m just trying to make it through my day.
In my next blog in this series I am going to start talking about the different phases of our menstrual cycles, what is happening to our bodies and how we can take better care of our mental and physical wellbeing at those times.
There are phases of productivity and abundant energy, phases where I’m touchy and very sensitive, as well as phases where I’m apathetic and can hardly move. There are times I feel fit and fantastic, and times I’m convinced I’m the ugliest person to ever have the misfortune of being born. This is all pretty normal, but if you’ve never spent the time trying to understand it (like I hadn’t) I hope digging into the specifics of what we experience is helpful!
*While writing, I struggled to maintain gender neutral language without erasing my underlying point that this is absolutely about gender. It often comes down to binary gender roles. While it’s not only women that experience menstruation, I believe the reason menstruation is so poorly understood is because it’s dismissed as a women’s issue. Take a look at the research into Viagra versus conditions like endometriosis. Discrimination against women also harms the NB and trans community but for brevity’s sake to keep this thing readable, I summarise it as “women’s health” at times. Keep in mind this is about anyone disadvantaged for having “woman’s” health concerns, whether that label is their choice or otherwise.