Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Understanding menstruation and eliminating period shame

I love that this topic is getting more "news feed" action. In many countries around the world, girls are shamed for having their periods. Some people (most commonly men) don't understand that women from puberty to menopause bleed on a monthly basis, why, or what it means. Even in North America, the majority of our advertising for menstrual products is so unrealistic.

Recently, Bodyform from the UK came out with a new commercial entitled "No blood should hold us back." Showing videos of women in different situations bleeding - instead of having a standard commercial demonstrating the absorbency with an odd blue liquid.

So let's be real here. Theoretically, every single woman with functioning sex hormones and a uterus (from puberty to menopause) menstruates (bleeds). I say "theoretically" as those who use synthetic hormones or an IUD may or may not actually bleed regularly or at all. But beyond that, this is part of being a woman - it is part of our biology and our reproduction.

Our bodies and hormones have this amazing synchronized ebb and flow of two tides. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), menstrual blood isn't Blood as it is referred to in pathology, but as "Heavenly Water" originating from our Essence. It represents our ability to reproduce. We can create new human beings. Yeah, how cool is that?

Where TCM describes the menstrual cycle as a flow and exchange of Yin and Yang, Western medicine puts it into terms of an estrogen-dominated Follicular phase and a progesterone-dominated Luteal phase. These phases influence both ovulation and the start of menstruation. With so much going on, it's no wonder we're more complicated than men. But we should celebrate that fact. We should be in-tune with our bodies and understand what's going on.

Cycle tracker apps are one great way to help you. Start with the easy stuff:

1) Track when you get your period and how long it lasts. Learning to cycle track is a wonderful way to understand your body. The first day of bleeding is Day 1 of your cycle each time. A healthy cycle is 26-32 days long. Healthy bleeding should last 4-6 days.

2) Track your symptoms. Take notice when you experience symptoms such as headaches, acne, lower backaches, mood changes (some apps like "Period Tracker" will even allow you to document very specific moods), breast tenderness and cramping. Log these each day along with the intensity of each.

3) Pay close attention to your flow. Begin to understand your periods by paying attention to the characteristics of your flow. For example, how heavy/light is it? Is the colour dark maroon, bright red or somewhere in-between? Do you pass clots? Notice any changes from cycle to cycle.

4) Learn to track your ovulation. Some women experience mittelschmerz: a pain or discomfort from ovulation. It will be noticeable on one side (one ovary) and may switch to the other the following cycle. But a better predictor of ovulation is tracking your cervical mucous.
Cervical mucous is sticky and stretchy with a consistency like raw egg-whites. It begins to appear about 3-5 days before ovulation, occurs on the day of ovulation and then stops.

Tracking your cervical mucous can also help you understand your most fertile days. If you're interested in using fertility awareness-based methods for preventing pregnancy - or for trying to conceive - understanding which days you are fertile can help you with this. I highly suggest getting practice with your tracking first and practice logging your vaginal/cervical mucous type (ie. each day log if you experienced a "dry" day, a "wet" day, or a "sticky/tacky" day).

Another tool that can help you become more familiar with your body is using a menstrual cup instead of pads or tampons. Using a menstrual cup forces you to become very comfortable with your anatomy as you're using your hands/fingers to insert it and position it properly. It can also help to locate the anatomical position of your cervix. We might have the same organs, but we're all individuals. Your cervix may be located more left, more right, or more posterior (towards the back). Of course, you don't need the cup for this, you can explore your anatomy all on your own. Most women can reach their cervix with a long finger - it'll feel slightly firm, like the tip of your nose.

There is no shame in having a period. We just have more going on than men, and that's a good thing. We're special and different and we should own that. You own your uterus. It's yours. Understand your body and take care of it. Some of us need some extra help - a naturopathic doctor, fertility specialist, gynaecologist, Planned Parenthood and other wonderful sources can help you with this. I love teaching my patients cycle-tracking. As well there are so many alternative ways to support your cycles: acupuncture, botanical formulas, specific diet changes, seed cycling and maintaining a healthy body fat percentage (20-24% depending on age).

And how cool is it when your cycle is sync'd to your friends, roommates or co-workers? It reminds us that we're all experiencing this together. Even cooler if you can sync yourself up with the lunar cycle (New moon - menstruation, Full moon- ovulation)! Seriously, you can be in sync with the moon. As Neil Pasricha would say: Awesome!