“your body isn’t just a generic human body. it’s a female human body. a glorious, wonderful, beautiful woman’s body. and as such you have needs and parts and hormones and cycles that you’ll want to understand if you want to be healthy.”
~ cameron diaz, the body book
How our periods do (or do not) show up each month provides a lot of information on our health. It wasn’t until I went off of hormonal birth control and began to regulate my cycle naturally through diet and lifestyle changes that I learned just how good I could feel.
WHY THE CYCLE IS THE MONTHLY REPORT CARD
Our cycles are often the starting point of our journeys to what I call vibrant health because they are so intricately connected to all of the body’s systems. Our monthly cycle is entirely dependent on the endocrine system to produce the two main hormones of the cycle: progesterone and estrogen. The making of these hormones in correct amounts is dependent on thyroid heath, blood sugar stability, adequate nutrition and strong systems of detoxification and digestion.
Furthermore, in times of extreme stress (physical or emotional) the body’s first priority is to protect the organism (your body) and secondary functions like reproduction are sacrificed. After all, if your body feels like it is facing a long-term threat, such as starvation, it will not further jeopardize the system by allowing a pregnancy which would consume valuable resources. This is why cycles become irregular or go missing during times of extreme emotional stress, or in cases of chronic inflammation, over-exercise or under-eating.
ESTABLISHING YOUR UNIQUE PATTERN
In order to use your cycle as an indicator of your overall health, it is best to start tracking your cycle month-to-month. This will establish your own natural patterns. Some women may experience what could be considered troublesome symptoms on a regular basis – if they aren’t accompanied by other symptoms, then they are likely just a part of your cycle.
In order to know if a cycle is healthy or not three things need to be observed: cervical fluid, ovulation, and the period. Cervical fluid patterns, as unappealing as they may sound, are actually what tells us whether or not we are ovulating regularly. Ovulation can also be confirmed using basal body temperatures.
There are a number of period-tracking apps on the market, all of which make learning the ins-and-outs of your cycle extremely easy. The best one I’ve found for ladies who are new to cycle-tracking is the FEMM app, which provides feedback in real time to help you identify potential issues (such as lack of ovulation), and establish your natural pattern. For women using basal body temperatures, I recommend using Kindara and the wink thermometer – the app syncs directly with this super-quick reading thermometer making life so much easier.
Once you’ve established your unique pattern over 2-3 cycles, you can identify specific issues if you experience the same host of symptoms on a monthly basis, and also notice when your cycle changes, indicating a potential issue.
HOW TO INTERPRET YOUR MONTHLY REPORT CARD
In a natural cycle (not under the influence of hormonal methods of contraception) there are several things you can look for each month to make sure your health is on track:
Your cervical fluid should change throughout your cycle.
Cervical fluid is produced by the cervix in the presence of estrogen. In an average cycle a woman will experience a few dry days after her period, followed by increasingly moist cervical fluid. At the time of ovulation, this cervical fluid becomes especially slippery, and after ovulation it begins to dry up. During the luteal phase (between ovulation and the beginning of the period) most women will experience dry days. Each woman’s cervical fluid pattern is unique, but will follow some variation of this ideal.
Excessive cervical fluid may indicate too much estrogen, while very little cervical fluid may indicate too little. Too much estrogen can inhibit ovulation, and too little estrogen can also prevent ovulation, and too little cervical fluid can prevent the fertilization of the egg since sperm require cervical fluid to survive and reach the egg – so both of these indicators can tell us a lot about our fertility and health.
Constant pasty cervical fluid can also indicate an infection, which is why knowing your own unique pattern and observing and deviations from it can be so important.
The 28-day cycle is a myth – a healthy cycle may be between 25 and 35 days in length, and should not differ too much from month-to-month.
If your cycle decreases drastically in length it may be an indication that your estrogen levels are rising more quickly than in previous cycles, resulting in early ovulation. While not necessarily an issue, this can lead to a hormone imbalance such as estrogen dominance.
Alternatively, it may be a sign of luteal phase defect, in which the luteal phase is too short. A luteal phase of less than 10 days will typically result in an infertile cycle since there is not enough time for a fertilized egg to implant in the uterine lining before the period begins.
If your cycle increases drastically in length, this may be an indication of delayed ovulation. This could be caused by different hormonal factors, or also by stress.
Chronically sporadic or irregular cycles can be indicative of low progesterone, low estrogen, or excess androgens. It’s very important to look at secondary symptoms, or to pursue hormone testing in some cases, to figure out which hormone imbalance may be at the root of the issue.
A healthy cycle is 4-5 days in length with at least one day of heavy (need to change a tampon every 4 hours) or medium (need to change a tampon every 6 hours) bleeding.
Heavy bleeding for more than 1-2 days may indicate excess estrogen, low progesterone, or an imbalance between the two called estrogen dominance in which there is too much estrogen in relation to progesterone. Other symptoms associated with this type of bleeding are a deep red to purple or even black color, and an increased amount of clotting in the blood.
Light bleeding, especially bleeding that is light pink in color can be indicative of low estrogen. Other symptoms that may be associated with this hormonal imbalance are dry skin, brittle hair, vaginal dryness and low sex drive.
Spotting and brown or rusty bleeding is typical of low progesterone. Progesterone is the hormone of pregnancy and is especially important for our fertility.
PMS and Other Symptoms
PMS should not be a part of your monthly experience!
Due to hormonal shifts pre-period, it is common for women to feel more tired and experience a bit of social withdrawal. However, the extreme mood swings, weepiness, and even anxiety that many of us have come to experience as normal are not part of a healthy, well-balanced cycle. This type of PMS is usually associated with excess estrogen or deficient progesterone.
Cyclical breast tenderness is a big one that many women experience, typically in the week or so before their period. This can also be an indication of excess estrogen or deficient progesterone.
**Please note that the menstrual cycle is complex and that these tips should be used as a starting point for assessing your health. Speaking with a healthcare professional who can assess the big picture and state of your individual cycle is recommended.
Kara DeDonato is a vibrant health and fertility coach, helping women to feel their best every day of the month. She helps women obtain their fertility goals and troubleshoot their cycles through holistic means, and also helps women transition from the pill to fertile as seamlessly as possible. Kara empowers women to reclaim their health and discover how great they can feel in their bodies. You can find her at www.liberawellness.com, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.