I’ve been really focusing on improving my menstrual cycle the past few month. Dialing it in and really trying to understand how best to support my body. I have been experimenting with quite a few different things and am happy that I can report back with quite a few successes!
Keep in mind that I eat a whole foods based diet and have completely eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet for almost 6 years. Dairy can be a very pro-inflammatory food for some and cause PMS symptoms to worse – especially those with conditions such as PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) and endometriosis.
I am also not on hormonal birth control, which creates a “false bleed.” What actually happens is what is called a “withdrawal bleed” because ovulation has been blocked by the birth control. This process doesn’t allow our bodies to cycle hormones naturally throughout our cycles, which is actually really good for us! When synthetic chemicals are used to down regulate sex hormones and tells our own bodies to make less. I hope to write an in-depth article on this soon but for the meantime read more here for the effects of hormonal birth control.
Also keep in mind that I am not a doctor and these are merely example of what has worked for me. Be sure to talk with your doctor or functional medicine doctor to determine what options might work best for you and your specific needs.
I have also always had a regular period, meaning it comes once a month usually “on-time” and lasts for about the same amount of time every time. Prior to my cycle I have always had tell-tale signs of what was to come like: sore breasts, lower back ache and some pretty hefty mood swings (usually not in the positive direction, oops). What had also always been “regular” would be the crippling cramps I would get the first day of my cycle along with massive fatigue and usually a migraine.
That is just what happens to me personally. Why do I share all this? Because I want to let you know that just because there are “regular” and “normal” symptoms that accompany a period, doesn’t mean you need to experience them or be in pain for X amount of days out of the month. Yes, I said it. YOU DO NOT NEED TO BE IN PAIN. Your body is extremely smart and is telling you something by having exaggerated PMS symptoms.
While some signs that your period is coming or is happening are typical, they should not interfere with your life or cause you a large amount of physical discomfort. I have been challenging myself to come up with creative ways to avoid taking ibuprofen to mask the horrible cramps and generally poor attitude I get every month. Using ibuprofen might take away discomfort but it is nothing more than a band-aid used to mask symptoms and avoid getting to the root cause of the problem. I wanted the root cause, I wanted to create a smoother transition in and out of my period and avoid being essentially “useless” for 2 days out of every month.
While I am not trying to shame or talk down on using ibuprofen or any other pain-relieving medicines, I am truly trying to offer up other, more holistic solutions. Solutions that make a huge difference, when used consistently, to reduce symptoms and discomfort without taxing our bodies further. By this I mean the extra amount of work our bodies and livers must do to detoxify from NSAIDs and ibuprofen.
Shall we dive in?
#1 Seed Cycling
I posted about seed cycling about a month back and have honestly found this to be SO helpful throughout the month. If you want to read more in-depth click here. The gist is that you take estrogen-boosting seeds such as flax and pumpkin in the first two weeks of your cycle to support the follicular phase. In the second half of the cycle, the luteal phase, progesterone-boosting seeds like sesame and sunflower are consumed.
While I have not been incredibly strict about this, I have been pretty dang good about adding more flax into my diet for the first two weeks and sunflower seeds (soaked and sprouted) the second two weeks.
What I’ve noticed? A pretty serious reduction in mood swings prior to my cycle and no insomnia the nights before my cycle starts! I also have reduced breast pain (really not fun while running) and have reduced my cramps on the first day. This is HUGE for me, I am able to work and be a normal human again instead of curling into a ball and crying all day.
I am a huge believer in this! Seed cycling has been touted to re-balance hormones, improve sleep, trigger a period (for those with amenorrhea), help with infertility and abnormal cycles. Honestly, this is so worth a try! It’s pretty simple to add in 1-2 tbs. of seeds a day for such a huge benefit.
If nothing else, consuming flax seeds specifically has been such a huge game changer for me. The high-fiber content of flax combined with the Omega-3 fatty acids are essential in reducing the release of prostaglandins, which is the inflammation that causes painful cramping. Flax seeds also contain lignans, which bind to excess estrogen in the body and eliminates it. Excess estrogen in the body (there are multiple types of estrogen, more here) is known to cause hormone-related cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.
#2 Magnesium Supplement
Did you know that anywhere between 50-80% of people are deficient in magnesium but yet it is responsible for over 300 different biochemical reactions in the body?
What can cause magnesium deficiencies? In short, avoiding leafy green veggies (think kale, spinach, collard greens and Swiss chard) can cause deficiencies as well as taking too much of a calcium supplement. Calcium, taken in excess, can cause calcification in the body and in order to balance this, magnesium is used to stop the process. However, if we are deficient in magnesium, and have excess calcium the ratios continue to be skewed.
Along with a diet high in processed foods, refined sugars and carbohydrates, magnesium deficiency can lead to some pretty scary consequences. If you are curious about what can cause magnesium deficiencies on a more detailed basis, Wellness Mama has a great article here.
Magnesium deficiencies can cause muscle spasms and cramps in the body, create hormonal imbalances, sleep problems resulting in low energy and can even impact bone density. Sound like problems you’d like to have? No thanks.
How can a low supply of magnesium impact menstrual cycles? Since magnesium can help to control cramping, a deficiency can exacerbate the cramps and make them pretty gnarly to deal with. Magnesium, taken daily, can actually help to reduce the amount of prostaglandins released in during a menstrual cycle.
Luckily enough, getting enough magnesium can be a really easy fix. I absolutely LOVE the Trace Minerals brand for a supplement. I can honestly say this has been a really big game changer for me and how much pain I experience during a cycle. Though there are certainly whole foods sources of magnesium that I could focus on, I really do feel like supplementing is easier to incorporate.
I usually add 1-2 full droppers (100-200 mg) into a large glass of water (sparkling usually!) some stevia drops and lemon and/or lime juice. If you really want to up the ante, add some liquid electrolytes to the mix too!
#3 Zinc Supplement
Similar to magnesium in the terms that most people walking around are deficient, zinc is incredibly important for balancing hormones and maintaining a regular cycle.
Zinc can be responsible for supporting and activating the thyroid and can help to actually regulate cortisol response to stress. It can also help to block excess androgen (testosterone) that can be responsible for those pesky pre-period acne or breakouts.
Click here for an excellent article form Lara Briden, author of The Period Repair Manual. I highly recommend this book if you need specific trouble-shooting with your period, or getting it back to regular!
#4 Raspberry Leaf Tea
The raspberry leaf (yes, from the raspberry bush!) is often called the “woman’s herb” for it’s usefulness in supporting women’s health. It contains high levels of magnesium (see above), potassium, iron and high levels of vitamin B and C, among other vitamins.
Raspberry leaf tea contains fragarine (an alkaloid in raspberries) and tannins that can help to strengthen and tone the uterus and pelvic region to reduce cramping and create a more regular flow during a cycle. It can also help to alleviate nausea, if you experience that.
I have personally noticed a pretty large reduction of cramping during the first two days of my cycle using raspberry leaf tea. I love this brand.
The taste is of raspberry leaf tea is somewhere between a herbal tea and a black tea, but without the caffeine! I especially love it with a teaspoon of honey, a scoop of gelatin or collagen and some coconut milk.
#5 Hot Water Bottle Heater
I have had the same hot water bottle heater since I was 16. Shout out to one of my good friends Sam, whose family was smart enough to know I needed one when we were traveling throughout Germany! I will never forget the relief I got from that simple little pouch!
If you haven’t heard of them before they are really excellent in providing a soothing warm sensation and spot treatment to areas of the body. I love using it directly on my stomach or lower back and can get pretty instant relief.
I pull this out if I am having especially bad cramping, it also works really well on stomach aches! This isn’t my first go-to anymore because sometimes it is a bit hard to find the time to lay down during the day but it is certainly one of the most effective options I’ve found.
#6 Epsom Salt Bath
In much the same way hot water bottle heaters are soothing, so are Epsom salt baths! Epsom salt contains a lot of magnesium (noticing a theme here??) and can provide almost immediate relief.
I love to use an unscented one, because I’m not a huge fan of whatever “natural fragrances” might be included. You can feel free to add in any essential oils that you enjoy though! I love lavender and peppermint for their soothing qualities.
#7 CBD Oil and Cream
This stuff is seriously magic. While I don’t necessarily enjoy smoking or consuming THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana) I do REALLY like the benefits that CBD provides.
I write more about it here but find that I can either ingest an oil blend or rub a cream on my stomach and the pain usually subsides within an hour or so. CBD is touted for it’s pain relieving qualities, anti-inflammatory effects and generally calming properties. I certainly can attest to these.
Brands I trust and love include Trade Winds and Ceres. I have tried a few others but love the clean ingredients and low amounts of THC relative to CBD. Depending on which state you live in there are different laws surrounding the use of CBD but if you are lucky enough to live in a state that allows it, give it a try!
#8 Diva Cup
Okay reaaaal personal over here but I think it’s a pretty important topic to bring up. With the amount of personal care products being used every day – just think about it how many do you use from the time you get up (toothpaste) to when you shower (shampoo, lotion, soap etc.) to putting makeup on – there are a ton of different chemicals being absorbed into our skin and bodies.
It is the same with tampons. The cotton used can be sprayed with some pretty nasty pesticides in order to keep them bug free and later with preservatives to keep them on the shelves for longer. Along with additional artificial fragrances, colors and adhesives I am seriously appalled and could no longer use them in good conscious. These toxic ingredients have been linked to hormone disruption (again, not good), cancer, birth defects and infertility.
I’m a little bummed I was so late to figure all this out (AKA I just made the connection between the chemicals and conventional cotton this summer) but really made an effort to avoid those products in the future.
For the past 4 months I have been using a Diva Cup. It is a menstural cup designed to sit in the vagina and collect blood. Typically made out of silicone (check for BPA free!!) and shaped like a bell with a stem. They are designed to be leak-proof while also being comfortable enough to forget about during the day.
The Diva Cup offers up to 12 hours of protection and I can honestly say this is true. No more switching out tampons every couple hours has been AWESOME. Although the price I paid for it wasn’t exactly cheap (~$35), it has more than paid for itself since I no longer have to buy as many tampons.
It comes in two sizes, one for those who have given birth and one for those who have not. It is easy to sterilize between uses and honestly I don’t think I will ever go back! It does take a couple cycles to get the insertion and suction down so that it doesn’t leak but it’s also kind of a neat way to get to know your body better!
Since using the Diva Cup I have noticed a huge reduction in cramping, very likely from the lack of chemicals and preservatives involved. Before, when I would use a tampon when my period started I would instantly feel worse and now with the Cup I hardly notice when it’s in!
#9 Organic Tampons
Along the same lines, I did buy a box of organic, pesticide free tampons to have during night time use. Laying down with a cup that is designed to sit upright just wasn’t working out.
I have noticed much less cramping and discomfort using the organic version of tampons and am really happy knowing I am not adding more toxicity to my body or causing further hormone disruption.
#10 The Flo App
Big fan over here! I honestly believe education is the first step to trying to solve a problem or create a solution. The Flo app is a cycle tracking tool that can be used to track symptoms and give insights as to why they might be happening.
It can also be highly useful in tracking patterns in mood swings, PMS symptoms, ovulation and more! I always feel so much more relieved when I can see a pattern and take it for what it is, instead of worrying so much WHY something is happening. It definitely gives me a sense of relief to know that if I have a headache I can check to see if that is a common symptom that I have every month around the same time.
Honestly that was a lot of information but I felt like it was necessary to get out there! Are there any tips or tricks that you use that helps you feel awesome all month long?