Did you know that over 40 million women in the US struggle with hormonal issues?!?
I’ve noticed a lot more questions and general awareness from my clients and others around hormone balance. It’s something I am glad we are talking more about, not just with the other women in our lives but men and everyone! It’s a natural and quite miraculous function of women’s bodies. And though I do work with men and their hormones as well, today is all about the ladies! I encourage everyone to share this with the men in their lives. This is something we should all know and no longer hide or look away from.
First let’s define what a healthy menstrual cycle is. It should be on a 21-35 day cycle and won’t flux more than 1-2 days around your regular number of days. For example, a pretty standard cycle is 28 days. But whatever your number is, is your “normal” cycle.
It should not be painful. I repeat, it should NOT be painful.
Most women grow up hearing that it’s “normal” to have cramps, PMS, brain fog, etc. Or that because your mother, aunt or other family member had “x” you will too. Though we too often dismiss it as “normal” and use it as an excuse for behaviors or staying in bed, we should not accept this is how it is and will be. (NOTE: if you have PCOS, endometriosis, uterine fibroid, a thyroid condition please seek a personal evaluation from a practitioner, like myself, or a ND, RD, OBYGN or anyone else you trust, since these are conditions that need to be treated specifically.)
The phases of a healthy menstrual cycle:
Phase 1 – Follicular Phase
a. Menstruation: Day 1-7 (approx.) – Day 1 is the first day of bleeding, this is the lining of our uterus shedding. It’s when the body is lowest in all hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone. The color should be bright red, like cranberry juice, without any large clotting or clumps, and last 4-7 days. You may feel a slight heaviness or sensation in your lower abdomen, but anything more than that, this is not normal.
b. Day 8-13 (approx.) is when estrogen begins to increase and thicken the uterine lining so it can carry an egg.
Phase 2 - Luteal Phase
a. Ovulation: Day 14-20 (approx.) – This is the time when an egg is released in to a fallopian tube to be fertilized. For those women wanting to know about fertile days: according to Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler, “In a vacuum, a woman would be fertile only a maximum of 24 , or 48 hours if two or more eggs were released at ovulation. But her fertile phase increases with the viability of both sperm and egg. The only reason a woman is fertile for longer than 24 to 48 hours is because sperm can live up to 5 days.”
b. Day 18-28 (approx.)is when estrogen declines since it’s no longer needed to fertilize the egg and progesterone increases to preserve the lining for the fertilized egg to attach to the uterus.
Here’s the top things you can do to helps regulate your cycles, divided by categories:
Foods to Ditch:
1. Dairy – This is often a major cause to a heavy flow, since they are usually full of synthetic hormones and fed GMO food they wouldn’t normally eat that cause inflammation and an imbalance of hormones in our own bodies. Plus, even if it’s organic, milk is made when a cow is pregnant, which in turns means it will have high levels of estrogen and hormones in it. We’ve got enough work just to manage our own hormones without adding in other animal hormones. Try switching to unsweetened nut or grain milks, almond or coconut yogurts and cheeses. It’s easier and tastier than ever. Give it a try for 2-4 weeks and see how you feel. I’m guessing you’ll feel so good won’t want to go back!
2. Caffeine – This one hurts me even to write, believe me I know, I LOVE my coffee! Though coffee and caffeine can have their benefits, see my post on it here, for women that have difficult periods caffeine can be a direct cause of cramping. Caffeine also increases cortisol and epinephrine, two hormones that create stress in the body. I highly recommend taking a week to ween yourself off caffeine, especially if you are drinking more than 1-2, 8 ounce cups daily. Simply try cutting back ½ a cup per day and slowly switching to decaf towards the end of that week. Then switching it out for a cup or two of green tea, a matcha latte, turmeric latte, or herbal coffee are all great and delicious substitutes!
Foods to Enjoy:
1. Cruciferous Veggies – This group of vegetables includes broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, cabbage, and more. Aside from adding some great fiber to your diet, which will support liver detoxification, which is needed for proper hormones elimination, these veggies contain DIM, a compound that helps with healthy estrogen levels. For best digestion, lightly cook or steam these before eating.
2. Fermented foods – these have probiotics and help maintain good gut bacteria. This will help to metabolize estrogen so you can elimination it properly. These are foods like yogurt (without added sugar), sauerkraut, kimchi, lacto-fermented pickles, kombucha and more!
3. Chocolate – Dark chocolate (over 70% cacao) is not only a great source of magnesium, helpful for relaxing our muscles, tension in the body, headaches and PMS, it also contains small amounts of tryptophan which is used to make the neurotransmitter serotonin which produces feelings of happiness!
1. Magnesium – 80% of the U.S. population are magnesium deficient. This is because when we are stressed, which unfortunately most of us are these days more than not, our body pulls from our magnesium stores to maintain homeostasis in our bodies, meaning all the functions working as they should. Start with 300-500 mg daily and try increasing it up to 600 mg 5 days before your period, best at night. I prefer glycinate for those that don’t want any laxative effects. And those that do like/need the laxative, citrate is great. If you’re stools become loose that means you are simply taking too much and you just want to back off on the dosage a bit.
2. B-Complex – though B6 is extremely important for supporting progesterone levels and hormones balance, it’s important to take the B’s in conjunction together because they can easily get out of balance. A b-complex will also help us use or food for energy more efficiently, build a healthy immune system and reduce the risk of heart disease! My two favorites are MegaFoods Balanced B Complex or Thorne Research Basic B Complex.
3. Fish oil or Evening Primrose – both are anti-inflammatory. I would suggest either a fish oil at 2,000 mg EPA + DHA or evening primrose oil at 2,000 mg. Seed cycling is a great option for taking both, fish oil during your follicular phase then the evening primrose during the two weeks, in the luteal phase.
1. Nettle – This herb is great for iron support, especially during phase 1 when we are losing blood and those that have heavy and long bleeding. However, nettles is so wonderful, I strongly encourage everyone (men and women) to drink a quart of nettle tea a day! Try it for 1 month and I bet you’ll see a difference!
2. Tulsi (aka Holy Basil) – This is adaptogenic herb is fantastic for uplifting mood, mild depression, coping with physical and emotional stress, as well as balancing blood sugar and healthy immune system.
3. Raspberry leaf – This herb is great for strengthening the uterus. It’s also anti-inflammatory and can help to bring calm to the mind and relieve the body of cramps and pain.
Other ideas that will help restore balance to the hormones and body:
1. Track your cycle – Free apps, like Glow, and are great for tracking your monthly cycle and seeing where you might have other issues, patterns etc. that need to be addressed.
2. Switch out your period products – About a year ago I switch over to the Lunette menstrual cup and though there was a bit of a learning curve, I would never look back! If you aren’t ready for this option, or you have PCOS, endometriosis or uterine fibroids, opt for a non-toxic (organic, 100% cotton) pad or tampon are a great option.
3. Go Toxin-Free – This can be everything from body products to cleaning products to plastics and more. Toxins clog up the liver. When that happens, our used hormones have no way to be eliminated from our body and they will recirculate though the body and further disrupt hormones. This one can be overwhelming since it can be part of our routine. Try taking it 1 product at a time. When something runs out, instead of buying it again, find a natural and clean alternative. Here’s a short list of things I have tried and loved to get you started.
4. Manage stress – This is often the missing link between it all! Briefly, ongoing stress means that we are constantly asking our adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This will contribute to belly fat and salt/sugar cravings, as well as general fatigue or exhaustion. This not only ripples into so many areas of our lives, but is a main contributor to hormonal imbalance. To help manage and reduce stress, try things like yoga, meditation, dance, listening to music, baths, hikes or walks in nature, reading or making a cup of tea, can all help to bring peace and lower our stress levels. My main rule, if you don’t like it, don‘t do it!
On Birth Control:
Let me be clear and upfront: I am not anti-birth control.
Many women walk through my doors either currently on the pill or having been on it at one point in their life. I don’t think one is right or wrong. It’s your body and we all have the choice to do as we best think fit. However, what I do think we need more of is education and curiosity of what our choices are and how our bodies work.
Back in the 60’s when the pill was approved by the FDA, many saw this as a great marker of feminism. And though it might have had some validity then, now it’s tossed around to many woman for numerous reasons, often which have nothing to do with actual birth control. By popping the pill without question, we are not trusting or getting to know our bodies and cycles. So, I encourage you, whether you are on the pill now or not, to get to know your body. You’ve already started by reading this, so good on ya’! Keep going. Keep digging deeper. See what the side effects are of your or any method of birth control. Read about what birth control really does to your body and hormones. Two great places to start are where a lot of this post comes from: Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and Woman Code by Alisa Vitti.
In fact, what you’ll find out is that on the pill you can’t have a regular cycle. Most forms of birth control work by controlling your cycle with synthetic hormones that don’t let your body do it’s natural thing, essentially tricking it into thinking it’s pregnant all the time. This means your body maintains consistent levels of estrogen and progesterone so that you never ovulate. Your cervical mucus lining thickens so much that any sperm cannot reach the egg that hasn’t dropped or been fertilized. All this affects our weight, emotions and sleep, just to name a few.
If you are looking for other options, they’re out there. The one I personally use (currently, I am not trying or wanting to get pregnant) and stand by for 7 years now is the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM). The bible on this is Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler.
This is part 1 of a series on Women's hormones and health. Next up is cycle syncing! Stay tuned.
Image via Karl Magnuson on Unsplash