Warning: The following post is about the menstrual cycle. If you are uncomfortable with the words menstrual cycle, period, uterus, vagina, blood, ovary, fallopian tube, VAGINA, then I don’t suggest reading on.
I want to share my thoughts about a woman’s monthly cycle. Specifically, I am going to talk about the ways that I handle my period without using pharmaceuticals, synthetic pads and tampons, and birth control.
I was partially inspired to write this post by a booklet that I own titled: “Sacred and Mysterious: Healing Wisdom and Herbal Lore For Those Who Menstruate” by Brittany Wood Nickerson.
I will pull on a few different herbal remedies that I have found to be useful.
To begin I will give a brief run down of the menstrual cycle just so we are all on the same page.
The start of a woman’s cycle is known as her menstrual period and typically lasts 4-7 days. This is when the thickened lining of the uterus (endometrium) begins to shed. After the lovely times of blood and cramps are over the ovary gets ready to release an egg and the uterus builds its lining back up. Around day 14 the matured egg is released from the ovary and travels down the fallopian tube where it awaits its sperm in shining armor. In most cases said sperm is not present so the unfertilized egg hangs out in the uterus for a bit then breaks apart. Hormone levels drop and the uterus prepares to shed its lining once again signaling the start of a new cycle.
Typical girl from a tampon commercial. I don’t know about you but this does not correctly encompass how I feel when I’m on my period.
That was just a very brief insight into what it means to menstruate. I left out most of the gory details but the reality is that having a period is not always about eggs and fallopian tubes. For me, having a period means cramps (my uterus literally shredding itself apart to get rid of the dead tissue), voracious mood swings, acne, wanting to eat 15 reese’s peanut butter cups in one sitting, countless pairs of favorite panties ruined, tampons that run a risk of toxic shock syndrome, pads that feel like a diaper, and birth control being pushed on me by parents, doctors, and friends.
I don’t want to have to fight my body. Menstruating is something that nature intended so I am learning how to “go with the flow” so to speak. Here’s how I deal:
Raging Hormones: Hormones fluctuate wildly during all times of the month. Before ovulation I might be feeling like a sex goddess tigress on top of the world. Then within a few days the imbalance of estrogen and progesterone post ovulation make me feel anxious, depressed, irritable, and overwhelmed.
I find the two most important things that help curb these extreme fluctuations are food and exercise. It’s hard to sum up exactly how to eat right in just a few sentences, but I feel like it should be a pretty intuitive thing. Your body already knows what it needs, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to listen to it. Exercise should not be brushed off either. Whenever I feel that overwhelming sense of frustration that can come from nowhere else but my hormones I slap on my running shoes and just try to break a sweat. It always makes me feel better. My herbal booklet recommends several tonic herbs (basically another word for tea). These are two of my favorites:
Red Clover Blossom: “Red clover nourishes the hormones and helps restore hormonal balance, providing relief to symptoms of menopause and premenstrual tension.”
Oatstraw/Milky Oats: “When taken over time, oats help to nourish and rebuild the nervous system and improve the body’s ability to cope with the everyday stress of life. Consistent consumption can help to curb anxiety, nervousness, irritability, and exhaustion.”
Acne: Right around ovulation is when a lot of women experience a breakout or a single pimple in the same area of the face. I’m still learning how to deal with this one, but it is all linked back to hormones. The most I can do at this point is to make sure I am washing my face enough. My skincare is pretty basic at this point. I’m done with using harsh facial scrubs and suds. I use Dr. Bronners as shampoo and soap for my whole body including my face. I moisturize with an unscented lotion or some coconut/olive oil. Once a week I’ll do a facial with an egg and whatever else I have in my fridge (yogurt/honey/lemon/oatmeal/ etc.) I notice when I don’t eat sugar my breakouts tend to be very small/non existent, but I work in an ice cream shop, so this might be one thing I just have to cope with.
Sweet Cravings: And speaking of sugar! The week leading up to my period is when I have crazzzyyyy cravings for anything with sugar. I’m not a big candy fiend so chocolate is usually my go to choice. Seriously, I wasn’t kidding about the 15 reese’s in one sitting. The thing about succumbing to these cravings though, is that it is not going to do anything to alleviate the chemical reaction of those pesky hormones (aka make the cravings worse.) But rational explanations will not pacify the pms monster. In these situations this is how my thought process usually goes:
Me sitting on the couch doing something on the computer, reading a book, or maybe even mid conversation when…
Brain: Okay hormones try to eat a piece of fruit before you do anything rash
Hormones: There might be a year old chocolate bar in the back of the cupboard
Brain: You don’t need to go there. Wait, why are you getting up. PUT THE HERSHEY’S DOWN STEPHANIE
Hormones: Numnumnumnumnum sugar chocolate so good
Brain: And you call yourself an evolved human being
One of my typical cravings
Sometimes it’s a losing battle, but having a small stash of high quality dark chocolate (with sea salt… mmmm) on hand never hurts when the craving strikes. The herbal booklet recommends bitter flavor therapy. The idea is that increasing bitter flavors in the diet (such as kale, collards, dandelion greens, lettuce, mustard greens, broccoli, parsley, watercress, and arugula) will enhance liver function which in turn regulates blood sugar levels. This can also be done with herbal bitters (tinctures) taken in water.
Cramps: If I were to start an all-girl combat boot wearing punk band we would be called The Menstrual Cramps. Cramps happen during the first few days of the cycle when the uterus is shedding its lining. The pain ranges from mild to severe. Some women don’t have cramps at all. Some have them so bad it is acute to labor pains. I never had a problem with cramps during the first four years of my period. It was after high school when I stopped playing sports (meaning I was exercising 2-3 hours a day 5-6 days a week) that I began to get pretty severe cramps. My doctor recommended 600 mg of Aleve (Active ingredient: Naproxen) every 12 hours when I needed a pain reliever. Compared to most pharmameuticals, Naproxen, Ibuprofen, and Ketoprofen (the three drugs commonly used to counteract cramps) are pretty safe to use, but my stance on pharmaceuticals is that I don’t want to take them unless I really need to. If there is another way for me to treat the problem using a natural home remedy, then I would rather do it that way. So far I have had a 100% success rate when it comes to treating cramps the natural way. The supplement that I started using recently is Rainbow Light Food Based PMS Relief Dietary Supplement. I found it at a natural food store by my house. Mainly any supplement you use for cramp relieve will contain some antispasmodic herbs such as Rosemary, Catnip, Ginger, St. John’s Wort, Dandelion, the list goes on) as well as vitamins (E and B6 for example) and minerals (magnesium and chromium) which give total body support. I have also taken just a magnesium supplement and some fish oil caplets and that has done the trick. Compared to taking Aleve, which just masked the pain, I feel like taking herbs and vitamins did more to help the actual process of menstruation.
Also a side note* When I stopped consuming animal products I stopped getting cramps completely and my cycle was the most regular it had ever been (28 days on the dot.) I’m not advocating a vegan diet because I’m not even vegan, it is just an interesting side note I thought I would share*
Tampons and Pads: If you’re like me you might think that tampons and pads are a necessity and that there is not a lot that can be done sidestep this fact. But alas! Gone are the days where the only two options are diaper-pad or chemically laden synthetic tampon. Here are my problems with pads and tampons:
-They are expensive. I usually end of dropping $10-20 every month on pads and tampons
-They are not environmentally friendly. Pads and tampons (as well as wrappers and boxes) wind up in landfills and don’t break down.
-They are not safe. Pads and tampons contain harsh chemicals and are usually cheaply made from synthetic material such as bleached rayon, cotton, and plastic. That is going directly into your vagina. A friend told me that something “the kids are doing now days” is soaking tampons in alcohol in order to get drunk (I was pretty horrified by this) but it works because whatever is in the tampon will enter directly into the blood stream. That made me really ponder how safe it is to be putting this chemical concoction in my system.
And even besides that fact menstrual blood is absorbed into the pad/tampon and then sits for hours, creating a perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
There are alternatives to this. Before running away in horror at the thought of a menstrual cup watch this video. It changed my perspective.
Another alternative which I was pleasantly surprised to see at the store was sea sponge tampons. They are honestly only a bit more expensive then the nicest box of tampons, but they are reusable for six months and they are about as natural as you can get. I think that’s pretty awesome.
Even though there are other ways to go besides pads and tampons, they are what most of us grew up using, and they are extremely convenient in an emergency when your cup or sponge isn’t on hand. In that case look for 100% cotton pads and tampons.
Birth Control: The final topic I will address is birth control.
I had a pretty bad experience with birth control so my opinion is somewhat one sided. Most of my friends are on birth control, and the main reason isn’t to avoid unwanted pregnancy, it is to help regulate their period. Taking birth control gives one complete control over whether to even have period or not.
I can’t say whether or not birth control is right or wrong, but it is pretty creepy and likened to Brave New World if you really think about it. I went to a gynecologist when I was thinking about going on it. She was extremely pushy bordering forceful and so I took her prescription and tried it out for about two months. It was absolutely awful. I gained weight, I got pretty bad acne, I felt terrible and just something didn’t feel right about taking this tiny white pill every night. I felt like I was trying to control my body, but it just made me confused. It’s true, I was able to control my period and even skip it all together if I wanted to, but it didn’t feel like it was good for me. After I stopped taking it I had my period for 9 days. I realized from then on that my body is not something I need to have reigning control over, it is my link to nature. It’s no coincidence that a woman’s cycle is the same as the moon. I just need to listen to it and appreciate it for what it is.