Do you experience bloating, mood swings, headaches, fatigue, or painful cramping before or during your period? These complaints are common but not "normal."
What does a healthy menstrual cycle look like? A healthy menstrual cycle is one that comes regularly, approximately every 26-30 days, with no premenstrual physical or emotional discomfort, no pain, moderate flow (needing to change a pad or tampon every 3-4 hours), no clots, no spotting and that consistently lasts 4-5 days. The color should be a medium red color, not too dark and end concisely (no lingering spotting beyond the fifth or sixth day). Girls are typically not well educated about their menstrual cycles and grow up thinking that it is normal to be irritable and in pain or discomfort during that time of the month.
Here are ten ways to help minimize discomfort and have a healthy menstrual cycle on your own. (Expect to follow these tips for 3 months to see major changes):
1. Decrease refined sugar & flour, alcohol, coffee, tea & chocolate. All of these are inflammatory and can exacerbate many of the complaints and symptoms listed above. Some people can handle small to moderate amounts without much discomfort, but some cannot tolerate them at all. Experiment with reducing or eliminating and then record how you feel. It may take some detective work and careful planning to figure out what and how much of these substances your body can tolerate.
2. Eat only organic meat and dairy products. Conventional meat and dairy products have added hormones and antibiotics. These are endocrine disruptors and upset the body's hormonal balance.
3. Add some nutritional supplements. Many PMS and menstrual complaints have been linked to low levels of Vitamin B6, Vitamin D, Calcium, Magnesium, and Essential Fatty Acids (fish or flax seed oils). Essential Fatty Acids play an active role in the regulation of hormone production. Talk to your doctor or nutritional expert before you start taking anything. You should get your Vitamin D levels tested before starting supplementation.
4. Avoid extremely cold or raw foods, iced beverages and excessive exposure to cold environments during menses. It takes extra effort to digest cold, raw foods and they can weaken the digestive system. Cold temperatures also constrict the flow of Qi and blood which can cause menstrual cycle problems. Externally, avoid exposure to cold environments (swimming in cold water, not dressing appropriately during cold weather, sitting on cold surfaces, etc.) during your menses. The uterus is particularly vulnerable to external cold temperatures which can cause painful cramping or even infertility.
5. Use food as medicine. Beneficial foods, herbs & spices that help alleviate PMS and menstrual cramping include: beets, chives, cardamom, marjoram, onion family, fennel, chestnut, dill seed, radish, mustard greens, ginger, basil, eggplant, mint, tangerine peel, rosemary, peaches, saffron, turmeric, oregano, cumin, and cherries.
6. Choose pads over tampons. This is especially good to do if you suffer from painful cramping or endometriosis. Tampons disrupt the normal downward movement of menstrual flow and can cause blood stagnation.
7. Engage in appropriate exercise. Exercise is important, however avoid vigorous exercise during the heaviest days of your period. Stick with gentle walking and stretching. A lot of sources say it's better to work out during your period because it helps minimize cramps. However, from a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) perspective, as well as many other cultures, a woman's menses is a time for rest. Your body is using a lot of energy to cleanse and empty the uterus and too much activity will deplete and exhaust the Qi and blood. Intense exercise is more appropriate in the week before your period to help circulate Qi and blood, which soothes mood swings and lethargy.
8. Use a different form of birth control. Oral contraceptives are often marketed to help "regulate" your cycle. However, essentially they turn off your ovaries and create a simulated cycle. Many women complain of weight gain, bloating, mood swings and low sex drive from the artificial hormones. Long term use of oral contraceptives make it difficult for your body to resume its normal hormonal function after discontinuing them. I've seen women's cycles stay irregular for up to a year after stopping the pill.
9. Manage Stress. Stress disrupts the entire cascade of hormone signals. Your body puts out stress hormones at the expense of sex hormones. Meditation, yoga, petting animals, gardening, spending time in nature, exercise and acupuncture are all good ways to de-stress. Unplugging from phones, tablets and finding some quiet time each day where you are not overstimulated is helpful.
10. Plan life accordingly. Menses is a time for rest, it's okay to take it easy for a few days. If you can, don't take on too many responsibilities or activities and give yourself adequate rest and downtime to renew your energy. Treating yourself kindly during your menses will go a long way to help you feel better all month long!