Every so often a news story breaks about a strange taboo or tradition related to menstruation from somewhere far away in the world, often about women being banished to menstrual huts, barred from a place of worship or prevented from cooking certain foods while on their periods.
In Canada, these headlines are preposterous. But have we ever considered the menstrual myths and lies we’ve been taught in our own culture?
Although we might not banish women to menstrual huts without sanitation or clean water, we’re not exactly celebrating the magic of menstruation either. Here in the West, girls learn periods are supposed to be painful; that menstrual blood is gross and shameful, and pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) will make you stupid or crazy.
But periods aren’t just a monthly curse. Your period is part of your menstrual cycle, an important indicator of your overall health and wellness, and a vital sign, like blood pressure. Your menstrual cycle hormones don’t just make you bleed, they also promote ovulation, bone, breast and heart health, and influence your moods, appetites and energy levels, just to name a few of their many jobs.
When you’re in good health and your hormones are balanced, your period will come regularly, and without the pain and discomfort that you were taught to expect. While 80% of women report some pain or PMS with their periods, there’s a difference between ‘common’ and normal: long menstrual cycles, irregular periods, pain or severe PMS are all indicators that your hormones are out of balance and need some attention.
UNLOCKING YOUR FIFTH VITAL SIGN
Before you can observe and interpret your menstrual cycle you first need a primer on the four phases of the cycle and how it affects your body. A resource like Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler will teach you about your menstrual cycle and how to chart it. The second step is body literacy.
Knowing your cycle will help you to connect the dots between your hormonal health and day-to-day wellness. Use an app like Clue or Kindara to track your periods, fertility signs and symptoms such as pain, changes in mood, energy levels or skin breakouts that may flag a hormonal imbalance.
Having this big picture view can help you make changes to improve your menstrual experience. The good news is that there are easy nutrition and lifestyle changes that you can make to help get your hormonal health back on track. Here are my top 5:
Balance your blood sugar
Your body perceives sugar as a stressor, and stress impacts your hormonal health. Avoid blood sugar spikes and crashes by reducing refined carbohydrates and sugar – including natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup (in moderation)! Make sure to include protein and fat with every meal or snack. Try an apple with almond butter or roasted sweet potato, chicken and flax oil dressing in your salad.
Focus on anti-inflammatory foods
Prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals that are a part of your inflammatory response, are responsible for pain and cramping during menstruation. Therefore, reducing your overall inflammation will have a positive effect on period pain too. Fill up your plate with anti-inflammatory foods such as green leafy vegetables, avocados, whole grains, nuts and seeds, cold-water fatty fish, and spices like turmeric and ginger.
Get enough fibre
Fibre helps to stabilize your blood sugar, keeps your cortisol levels in check and flushes out excess estrogen – a triple threat to PMS and imbalanced hormones. Whole grains, chia and flax seeds, lentils, beans, berries and cruciferous vegetables are rich in fibre to keep your hormones in check.
Focus on pleasure & joy
Instead of stressing about stress management, focus on daily pleasure and joy. Whether that comes from dancing to your favourite music, using an essential oils diffuser in your workspace or spending time with loved ones, do a little of what makes your heart sing every day.
Use better period products
Conventional pads or tampons are processed with harsh chemicals and materials that can irritate the vagina, in turn causing more discomfort. Making the switch to natural, organic products or a reusable product like a menstrual cup or period underwear, isn’t just better for the environment or your body, it may also lessen pain.
Your period doesn’t have to be a curse. Making small changes to your diet and lifestyle will add up to big changes for your next cycle.