Each year when summer rolls around, I tend to check in with my body and recommit to my health goals, particularly if I’m not feeling my best. This almost always means some tender loving care for my gut health and microbiome — because it’s one of the biggest game changers there is when it comes to overall health. In my own journey to what I call vibrant health, addressing my compromised gut was the key to getting past all of my symptoms (mainly a cycle that could be described as erratic at best and extremely blemished skin).
Gut health is so important because it’s where the majority of our microbiome, the bacteria that lives within and on our bodies, lives. Don’t get me wrong, our bodies are covered in mostly beneficial bacteria (about 10 bacterial cells to each single human cell), but a good portion of them reside in our intestinal tract. These friendly gut bugs help us to digest our food properly and boost our immune system. Studies also show that the presence of good gut bacteria also helps with mood stability and can make us much less susceptible to anxiety and depression.
Gut health and the menstrual cycle
The way that our periods do (or do not) show up every month is a direct reflection of our overall health. If our gut is compromised then this can impact the female cycle in a number of ways. Firstly, if we can’t digest our food properly, many of the essential nutrients we need to maintain a symptom-free cycle get lost. This is particularly true of B vitamins and Magnesium.
Secondly, a compromised gut will often contribute to inflammation, and can cause an inflammatory issue known as Leaky Gut Syndrome, where the single cell lining of the digestive tract breaks down and allows partially digested food particles into your system. Chronic inflammation of the gut can cause inflammation elsewhere resulting in symptoms like acne and painful periods, and can even be a contributing factor to more serious disorders like endometriosis.
Thirdly, if our good gut bugs aren’t flourishing, less beneficial strains of bacteria and yeast will take over in their place. This can further exacerbate inflammation and inflammatory disease, and is also often behind nuisance symptoms like unexplained weight gain, bloating and even sugar cravings. This is because yeast such as candida, that often thrive in the absence of good gut bacteria, need sugar to survive – and they will actually cause you to crave and eat sugar so that they don’t die off. Crazy, right? Sugar cravings and consumption, in particular, have an adverse affect on the menstrual cycle because blood sugar levels need to remain stable in order to support healthy reproductive hormone function.
As demonstrated by my own case, cleaning up gut health is one of the key pillars to addressing menstrual issues. PMS, cramping, cyclical breast tenderness, spotting, light periods, heavy periods, absent periods, PCOS and endometriosis can all be addressed — at least in part — by focusing on the gut.
How does gut health become compromised in the first place?
If you’re like me when I first learned about all of this, you might be thinking, “Oh I’m fine. I eat reasonably well and my stomach feels pretty good.” And maybe this is true, but it wasn’t for me. What I wasn’t taking into account was my 1-2 glasses of wine a day habit, or the fact that while yes, I did eat really well about 70% of the time, 30% of the time I was getting into all sorts of sugary, processed foods.
Alcohol, sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates are major culprits when it comes to altering the microbiome.
Caffeine can also disrupt your microbiota. So does stress. And who hasn’t had a period or two (at least) of high stress in their lives?
In my case, and in the case of many of my clients with problem skin, long term hormonal contraceptive use and several rounds of antibiotics had a huge impact on gut health. I would argue that these two items have the largest impact on the gut. Antibiotics, particularly broad spectrum pills like doxycycline, do not target just the harmful bacteria in your system – they wipe out the good and bad gut bugs alike. (To be clear, antibiotics do have their place but I believe they should be taken with care.) Oral contraceptives, over time, have a similar affect on the microbiome, making women more susceptible to yeast overgrowth and symptoms like yeast and urinary tract infections.
I truly believe that by the time we reach the ripe old age of 20, all of us have a compromised microbiome to some degree. We’re often dealing with stress, we frequently indulge in food and drinks that aren’t ideal for our systems, and we don’t eat enough of the fermented foods that our ancestors did to support our microbiome.
How do we fix it?
The good news is that healing the gut is entirely possible. There are a few basic steps for repair, and they vary depending on individual circumstance and how much damage your digestive tract has sustained. However, one of the key steps in the healing process is repopulating the gut with beneficial bacteria and then maintaining a healthy microbiome going forward. An easy way to do this is with prebiotic foods and probiotic supplements.
Eating enough prebiotic foods is important for the success of any probiotic regimen, because the fiber in prebiotic foods helps support the good bacteria. Essentially prebiotics feed good gut bacteria so that these strains can thrive, and probiotics introduce beneficial strains to the system. Whole grains, beans and legumes, and fibrous veggies like asparagus are all good sources of prebiotics that ensure the survival of probiotics.
Probiotic supplements should generally be taken on an empty stomach and not too close to meal time, otherwise you run the risk of having the probiotic being pulled through the digestive tract with your food, or compromised by your stomach acid. (I actually like to take mine before bed). A good probiotic, unless it’s fermented, will always require refrigeration. You should also check to see that the strains (different types) of bacteria in the product are listed somewhere on the label. Probiotics with multiple strains tend to be higher quality than ones with a single strain. It’s also a good idea to rotate the strains you’re exposed to so that you get a more diverse microbiota. If you experience symptoms compatible with a yeast overgrowth, make sure to choose a probiotic with no yeast strains.
I certainly encourage all of my clients to take a probiotic, and use probiotic supplements myself, but it is important to note that the best source of probiotic bacteria is fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented veggies. The strains in these fermented foods are fresher (usually referred to as “active”) and less likely to be harmed by your stomach acid. Also of note, when you get your probiotics from fermented foods, you are often consuming the prebiotics you need to support the growth of the bacterial strains in the food.
If you did not grow up eating fermented foods, take your time and experiment until you find the varieties you like the best. Remember, your stomach will thank you for it, and so will your cycle!
Kara DeDonato is a fertility health expert who works with women to troubleshoot their monthly cycles and digestion so that they can feel their best and be their best selves. Read her full bio here.