We hear stories about painful periods all the time. It seems to be the only aspect of menstruation women agree on. That must mean periods are inherently painful, right? Well, not exactly. Painful periods are usually a sign of an underlying hormonal imbalance. And contrary to what we have been told, hormonal imbalances are more common than we think.
Menstrual irregularities are not just reserved for women with Metabolic Reproductive Syndrome (PCOS), Endometriosis, fertility issues, etc. Completely healthy women can experience hormonal disruption from time to time. The foods we eat, the amount of stress we are under, the type of body-care products we use, and many other environmental factors can cause disruption to our hormonal balance. And even if these disruptions are small, they can create serious consequences in relation to our menstrual experience.
As many of the readers know, I have Metabolic Reproductive Syndrome (formerly known as PCOS). I have been trying to manage it since I had my first menstrual period at age 11. I have used various forms of hormonal intervention like birth control, progesterone cream or soy, medications like Metformin, and herbal supplements like Vitex to find relief from my symptoms. But what I have found to be the most effective for managing my hormonal imbalances are stress management, a healthy diet and regular exercise. If I stick to this regiment, I have regular, pain-free, easy peasy periods. But if I skip making these behaviors a priority, I pay for it.
Last week I finished writing and defending my masters thesis. The amount of stress I was under was like nothing I had ever experienced before (and I’ve been in my fair share of stressful situations). I dedicated every waking hour to editing and prepping my presentation. I failed to eat regularly throughout the day, I found myself relying more on snacks than complete, balanced meals. I sacrificed exercise for time with my laptop, and I abandoned entirely my self-care routine (meditation, relaxing reading, taking calming baths, etc).
The result? My last cycle was 42 days long instead of the usual 25-29 days, I had breast pain for an entire month because of elevated progesterone, I am dealing with an incredibly painful bout of traveling menstrual cramps (contrary to what we are taught you can feel menstrual cramps in your back, your stomach, your legs, your vulva and your rectum), and I have retained so much water I can’t fit into my pants.
The lessons I take away from all of this? We have far more control over our menstrual health than we are led to believe. Also, I know exactly how to have peaceful menstrual periods, I just have to make healthy behaviors a priority*. But most importantly, when we have balanced menstrual health it is because of our healthy behaviors. If we take those behaviors away, we take away the balance.
*Please note, there are some menstrual irregularities that cannot be meditated, eaten or exercised away. It is not my intention to minimize those experiences. This is just how my individual body works.
Amy Sutherland is a period-positive advocate, educator and writer. She prefers tackling topics like reproductive health, fertility, sexuality, feminism, social justice issues and all those tricky subjects you avoid talking about at family gatherings. Amy holds a Master’s Degree in Women’s Health as well as a Graduate Certificate in Holistic Health Studies. Read her full bio here.
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