Symptoms experienced at different points of the cycle can tell us A LOT about our hormones and hormonal balance (or imbalance). The bleeding days of our period alone are packed with clues about our health, and one indicator alone is really all we need to look at: our menstrual blood.
As a women’s hormonal health coach, I talk about periods all day every day, but for those of you who aren’t quite with me yet, let’s just take a minute to get comfortable. Periods are pretty awesome, and the fact that as menstruators, we get a monthly report card on our health means that, if we know what to look for, we can make huge changes for our health and our lives. Honestly, I didn’t know how good I could feel – nearly all of the time – until I started really paying attention to my body, and to my cycle in particular.
So let’s talk about those periods, shall we?
Bright red with a steady flow
In a healthy cycle, estrogen builds up the uterine lining in the first half of the cycle, leading up to ovulation, and then progesterone holds the lining in place until your period comes.
A healthy period is bright red from start to finish and ideally lasts from 4-5 days. The consistency of the blood should be thicker than water, but with a smooth texture.
Bleeding ideally starts in the morning of the first day and can either start off heavy (meaning you need to change a tampon every 4 hours), and then gradually taper off, OR it can start with a lighter day before becoming heavy (every 4 hours), going to medium (every 5-6 hours), and then tapering off.
Dark coloring and a heavy flow
Dark red, purple, or even black bleeding that is thick in texture indicates a cycle with too much estrogen.
You may also notice multiple clots or a lumpy consistency. Bleeding flow tends is heavy, and you may need to change a tampon every 3-4 hours, or more often, for most or all of your period.
Women with excess estrogen may also experience breast tenderness, emotional PMS, fibroids and endometriosis.
Things that contribute to too much estrogen are processed foods, excess weight, over-consumption of alcohol, a stressed liver, endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates, and estrogenic foods like soy.
Light pink and light flow
On the flip side of the coin, a very light period that is watery and pink-ish in color indicates too little estrogen. You may experience a normal flow day or two followed or preceded by a few days of very light pink bleeding, and will be able to go more than 6 hours without changing a tampon for entire length of cycle.
Women with too little estrogen may also experience additional symptoms like vaginal dryness, dry skin, joint pain and low sex drive. Periods may become completely irregular and sporadic
Women with very little body fat have a greater risk of low estrogen. Other potential causes are low-fat diets, disordered eating, over-exercising, the birth control pill and stress.
Brown with spotting
Brown, rust-colored spotting before or after your period is an indication of too little progesterone. This symptom can occur in combination with too little or too much estrogen as well. In addition to brown spotting, women most commonly also experience a heavier than average flow.
Women with too little progesterone will also be prone to anxiety, particularly in the second half of their cycles, PMS, cyclical breast tenderness and difficulty becoming or staying pregnant.
The biggest culprit behind low progesterone is stress and high cortisol levels. A poorly functioning thyroid can also contribute to low progesterone. The birth control pill and irregular ovulation can also lead to low progesterone levels.
Getting back to bright red
If your bleeding is not following a healthy pattern, there are several simple things that you can start doing to help course correct.
For dark red, purple or black bleeding with a heavy flow, the first place to start is with your liver. If your liver is having a difficult time detoxifying excess estrogen from your system it will result in estrogen dominance. You can support your liver by reducing your alcohol, caffeine and NSAID consumption and increasing the amount of leafy and bitter greens in your diet. You should also reduce or eliminate estrogenic foods like soy to lighten the estrogen burden.
For light pink bleeding and a light flow, you want to make sure that you are eating enough healthy fats (coconut oil, fatty fish like wild caught salmon, and nuts), and getting enough protein. Animal proteins can be especially helpful here (so long as their grass fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free!). If you have an intense exercise routine, you may want to try easier workouts like yoga and walking to see how this affects your period.
For brown spotting and low progesterone, the first place to look is at your stress levels. If you have a lot of stress or anxiety in your life, how can you institute self care practices to help reduce the affect on your body? Easy workouts, walking, meditation, mindful breathing, giving up multi-tasking, making room for quiet time are all good places to start. Increasing your consumption of leafy greens is also important as these food megastars contain all the vitamins you need to support progesterone production. Try to get some green in at every meal.
Remember to be patient with your body – it may take a full two to three cycles to see a marked difference in your period. And now that you know how to interpret your bleeding, you can start to course correct whenever you see changes from your typical healthy flow.
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.