A Quick Cycle Overview
Every month or so, from teenage years until your 40s or 50s, you’ll have a period, unless you’re pregnant, nursing, or have a health condition which inhibits the cycle. Your monthly cycle is like a snapshot of what went on in your body for the last several weeks. How much inflammation did you have? Did you need to exercise more? Was the week before your cycle easy or hard? Your period shows you how your hormones are doing.
The menstrual cycle is typically measured with day 1 being the start of bleeding, for however many days, until the start of the next bleeding phase, which starts the next cycle’s day 1. A typical range for cycles is from 24-40 days, with 3-7 days of bleeding. More specifically, 27-30 days for the cycle, and 4-5 days of bleeding, are often the “ideal normal”.
The blood on heavier flow days should look like fresh red blood, as if you had a cut. On lighter flow days it might look pale red or brown. There should be few to no clots, and the amount of blood should be moderate, tapering off after the first couple of days. Some people have periods that stop or lighten in the middle, which is a variation of normal. Your hormone levels are lowest while you’re bleeding, and this causes some women to feel tired or introverted. It’s normal to want to do less during your period, and you might want to read, snuggle the baby and pets, and take a few days off from heavy exercise.
After you finish bleeding, your hormones rise to ripen and release an egg, stay up for a while, and then decrease before your next period. When your hormones are higher, you may have more energy, or even feel a little crazy or restless. You might find that more exercise helps you sleep better.
As your hormones come down before your next period, it sometimes happens that they don’t process as smoothly as they should. If you’ve ever had part of your brain thinking “why am I crying about this?” while your emotions have a life of their own, your hormones were probably in the driver’s seat. This can be common the week before your period, when your hormones may not be decreasing quickly, or may be
slightly out of balance.
If your cycle is out of the normal range but you seem otherwise healthy, you could wait and see if it settles into a regular pattern. It’s likely, though, that if it’s much outside this range, you have other symptoms that you’d rather live without. Many women find that their cycles arrive at a steady pattern when they improve their food and lifestyle.
Phases of the Cycle The menstrual cycle is commonly divided into 4 phases - Menstruation, Follicular Phase, Ovulation, Luteal Phase. But really, it’s all about MAKING and BREAKING down hormones, in the right amounts, at the right times.
Menstrual Phase 3-7 days of bleeding, ideally without cramps or clots. The amount of blood should be moderate, tapering off after the first couple of days, and not stopping in the middle. Very light bleeding is considered a sign of “Blood Deficiency” or what we might call anemia (not just of iron but other nutrients), which causes insufficient blood flow, and thus a thin lining being shed. Very heavy bleeding can be a sign of excess hormones or uterine enlargement due to structural abnormalities. Long bleeding can signal hormones that aren’t rising promptly after the period. Follicular Phase A follicle in the ovary is stimulated to ripen and release an egg, and a lining is prepared that would receive the egg if a baby were going to grow. Ovulation Theoretically around day 14, the ovary releases the ripened egg. You may see some clear or white discharge when you wipe after using the bathroom, and that’s normal. Luteal Phase
The follicle that released the egg continues to release hormones to keep the uterine lining growing, and then allows it to shed because there’s no need for the lining if pregnancy does not occur. Hormone levels drop until they are low enough to allow bleeding, and the next cycle starts/
PMS, or Pre- Menstrual Syndrome
Pre-Menstrual Syndrome is a group of symptoms, such as moodiness and sore breasts, that can occur in the week or so before your period. If you’ve ever had part of your brain thinking “why am I crying about this?” while your emotions have a life of their own, you may have been experiencing PMS. Of course, strong feelings may be alerting you to real problems that need attention and solutions. Either way, a walk or change of scene is going to help, and whatever else you can do to keep perspective.
If you don’t care for exercise and watching your diet all the time, and you still want to get some relief from cramps, watch what you eat during the Luteal phase (the 10-14 days after ovulation and before your next period), and exercise hard in the week before your period. Plan a hike, eat lots of vegetables, sleep, drink a ton of water, and skip the caffeine, alcohol, and junk. Doing this in the week before your period gives you the most results for the least amount of time.
Not only will this reduce cramps, it also lessens sore breasts, migraines, breakouts, and mood swings. B Vitamins (the whole collection) and magnesium have been shown to help, and a good multivitamin for women generally has enough nutrients to start. If you have nutrient deficiencies such as anemia, consider specific supplements, and if your PMS is still significant after improving your lifestyle and diet, you may want to consider herbal supplements as well as vitamins. A naturopathic doctor or herbalist can give you ideas.
The Pill for Periods Currently, 60% of prescriptions for hormonal birth control are officially for skin
problems and cycle problems, not for preventing pregnancy. The hormones in the pill do not correct the cycle, but simply supply enough hormones that the body doesn’t bother to try running a cycle itself. Ovulation generally does not occur. A lining builds up in the uterus, and then the lining sheds during the week of hormone withdrawal, when you take a placebo. Whatever difficulties you have with periods, taking hormones doesn’t solve them; it just postpones having to figure them out. And since your period reflects your overall health, why hide the problem when you could actually fix it? Most teens don’t need more hormones in their system; they need to process their hormones efficiently.
High and Low Hormones Some people have a tendency to high hormones, while others tend toward low hormones. If your hormones run on the high side, you may be shorter, curvier, have more muscle tone, have thicker or oilier hair, be more prone to acne, and feel best during or just after your period, when hormones are lowest. You might have to eat more fiber and exercise harder the week before your period to manage your mood, process those hormones, and prevent cramps. If your hormones run on the low side, you may be taller, bonier, less curvy, and have thinner, drier hair and skin. You may feel more energetic in the week or two before your period, and tired during and after your period. While you may not experience the intense mood and energy swings, you may need to eat more nutrient- dense foods to keep your energy up, especially as your period ends and you may be a bit anemic.
What if I miss my period? It’s common to have irregular cycles for the first few years of menstruation, but if months go by without a period, you should think about what’s going on. Missed periods might be convenient, but it needs attention if you’re a young woman, because
it signals that the hormone balance is off, and your bone health and growth may be compromised. Possible causes of missed periods include: - Hormone Imbalances - low estrogen and possibly low progesterone, causing insufficient lining, or high testosterone preventing ovulation - Weight fluctuations due to food restriction or heavy exercise - Medications, such as mood-altering, allergy medications, and blood pressure medications - Structural or Genetic problems (rare)- if you’re older than 16 and have not started your period, and this is not a family pattern, it’s worth looking into
Should I rest during my period? Many cultures, such as Native American and Jewish culture, have social norms that limit a woman’s activity during her period. Observant Jewish women do not cook or touch their husbands, though they care for children. Native American women went to a special lodge for several days to rest. While these traditions can sound restrictive, it’s normal to feel quieter and introspective when your hormones are low during menstruation. Many women choose to lighten their schedule around their period to feel better and in some cases, bleed less. If you feel very moody and tired before or during your period, you may want to clear your schedule for a long walk, a bath, and an early night of sleep.
Cramps can feel like an ache or fullness in your abdomen, lower back, or thighs. Eastern medicine describes “stuck energy” as the cause of cramps. In Western medicine, cramps and clots are thought to be caused by prostaglandins, inflammatory molecules that our body makes to promote tissue healing and other key processes.
There are many different kinds of prostaglandins. Some promote inflammation, while others resolve it. Ideally, after inflammation peaks, the body resolves it with other anti-inflammatory molecules. Clearly it doesn’t happen quite right if you’re left with painful cramps. So the strategy is to “move the energy” or lower inflammation, depending on how you look at it.
Exercise is the best way to move things around in your body, because it moves the lymphatic system, which can’t move itself like blood can. Eating a diet with more fiber and less junk food tends to lower inflammation because you’re just processing food, not dyes, chemicals, and the wrong kinds of fats.
A simple way to think about all of this is that moodiness before periods shows hormones are not being processed efficiently, and cramps show inflammation. Moodiness after your period is likely due to low nutrients.
To support your body in processing hormones, exercise, drink water, sleep, and eat vegetables and fruit. Avoid caffeine, junk food, and greasy food the week before your period. If you have significant cramps, consider anti-inflammatory foods and herbs, and take them the week or several days before your period starts. If you find yourself feeling emotional after your period, eat more nutritious food to restock the iron and other nutrients that were used for your cycle.