How Can We Champion Our Cycles?

As I write this, I am on day one of my cycle and I feel like absolute shit.

That may be too much information for some of you, but I’m really bored of the taboo around periods and female health. Considering that half the world’s population has periods for a big chunk of their lifespan, it shouldn’t feel so difficult or wrong to talk about something that our bodies do every month in order to create human lives.

It seems bizarre to me, especially because I know – from friends, our Instagram community, and women of influence who’ve shared their experiences – that periods can fucking suck.

A lot of us don’t get an easy, breezy situation, and having our period each month can be quite a debilitating task. That’s right, I called it a task, although it more so feels like a chore you’d rather jot at the bottom of the list, and then burn said list in a full moon ceremony wishing to banish it from your life.

Here’s a little background info for you (because lord knows, we love background info):
I am 24 years old and have been suffering from intense period pains for the last four years – since I stopped using the pill, to be precise, but my doctors refuse to acknowledge the correlation. I have a regular cycle, so for one or two days each month, I am smacked out of action. I take strong painkillers and curl up into weird positions crying for the pain to numb, even just a little.

I do not have endometriosis, so I’m in that inconvenient – but surprisingly large – category of women who are told that there’s “nothing we can do”. I’m ready to embark on a journey of acupuncture and other non-traditional medicines, but until then I get to suffer like clockwork, because I am a woman.

My story is not revolutionary to any extent.

A few weeks ago, EndoActive and Ernst and Young released their research on how endo (specifically) affects working women in Australia. The study* found that “on average, women with the condition used 60 per cent of their sick leave on managing their endometriosis”.

I’m not surprised by that AT ALL. Even without an endo diagnosis, I’ve spent the majority of my sick days (when I had them, lol) going home because of period pains.

When I worked in a female led environment? Brilliant. I could honestly say “I have horrible period pains today and panadol isn’t cutting it” and I’d get to go home without so much as a blink. But in a male run workplace? Not only did I not feel comfortable enough to share the specifics of my ‘sickness’ but I was scared that they wouldn’t understand.

Because men, as wonderful as some of them are, will never understand how it feels. It’s biologically impossible for them to do so, so if they’re not blindly sympathetic, or taking your word for it, more often than not we have to lie and say it’s a stomach bug or bad migraine.

But what about the lucky souls who get to work for themselves?

Sure, we have the luxury of taking a day off as we need (well, I hope you do, otherwise you’re doing the boss thing wrong), but when it comes to needing 1-2 days off each month, without being able to schedule it in? Total. Fucking. Nightmare.

I’ve been really fortunate to have understanding clients and friends. If I need to reschedule, it’s not for a dumb reason. It’s because I literally cannot sit up today.

Having been in both situations – begging to go home sick and granting myself a day of rest – I’ve begun to wonder if there is a better way for us to tackle this thing. I.e. the terror that I have to put up with for at least another 20 years.

I want to know: is there a way to better champion our cycles, and use this natural force to our advantage?

This debilitating pain isn’t something we can erase, so how can we work and schedule our weeks/months/years to live in a better flow? What everyday practices can we put in place to make it more manageable and less impactful on our lives?

Sadly, I don’t have the answers – yet – so I did the next best thing and reached out to an expert.

Meet the lovely Sara Widdowson, Dietician, Nutritionist and founder of Your Monthly, a space for women to get in touch with their nutritional and reproductive health. Newsflash: it’s so much more than bloating and back pains.

I asked Sara a few pressing questions that have been on my mind – and I imagine many of yours – for quite some time.

Firstly, thank you SO MUCH for taking the time out to speak (email haha) me. As a twenty something I feel like I know SO little about my body – and only really started noticing the patterns once I got a period tracking app. Is this a common theme with women that you work or speak with?

Unfortunately yes! In my experience working with women (and as a fellow twenty-something) our mind set regarding our period health has historically been to push through or endure it (or using hormonal contraceptives, skip it all together). Your Monthly was born from the ambition of wanting women to see their periods as something to be celebrated and as a measure of health.

Just how normal are period pains, and is there anything we can do to alleviate them beyond taking a painkiller and waiting for it to pass?

It is normal for women to experience some discomfort at certain times in their cycle, sure. Some women swear they experience physical sensation during ovulation and many will comment that they feel more bloated or uncomfortable in the first few days of their period. Pain however, is not normal although we have been taught to think otherwise. It is difficult to express or advice how much pain women should tolerate, after all pain is something we experience in our bodies and how do you measure the experience of pain from woman to woman? However I would ask women to think about whether or not period pain is stopping them attending work, school or social events? Is it impacting on your sleep or quality of life? If the answer is yes to any of the above then investigation into the possibility of conditions such as Endometriosis is warranted.

“Normal” period pain is caused by the release of prostaglandins by your Uterus which stimulate contraction to help expel your uterine lining (these hormones are also responsible for the change in bowel motions many women experience before their period but this is a whole other conversation!).

My top recommendations for improving normal period pain is:

  • Zinc and Magnesium supplementation (reduces prostaglandins and in clinical trials regular supplementation was associated with reduced pain)
  • Reduce/eliminate high inflammation foods such as wheat and dairy. It is extremely difficult to give individual dietary advice on these platforms but many of my clients have seen a reduction in period pain and PMS symptoms by focusing on reducing foods that contain wheat or dairy.
  • Manage stress and fatigue during your period. Take this time as an opportunity to live slower and spend some down time with yourself!

Is there such a thing as championing our cycles, and working with them rather than against them? If so, how can we work out when we (typically) will feel more creative or energised throughout each cycle?

My goodness yes! Learn to ride the wave of hormones that occurs during a monthly cycle and use the mood/emotional benefits of each of the phases to your advantage. For example, Oestrogen is highest during the follicular phase of your cycle (essential in the lead up to ovulation). Oestrogen’s physiological role is to help mature follicles in your ovaries in the race to ovulation but this hormone has other effects such as increased libido, confidence, appetite and basal metabolic rate.

Notice your mood in the first half of your cycle – are you more social? Do you experience more creative ideas or clarity? Are you bolder? Learn to take advantage of the emotional effects of this hormone and take action (whatever that means to you) during this phase of your cycle. In terms of physical activity you will find you desire more intense physical activity (running, HITT or weight based training) during this phase.

Your luteal phase (second half of a cycle) is where Progesterone steals the show. This hormone is calming and reduces anxiety while improving sleep during its peak. We could therefore suggest that your second half of your cycle is for reflection, more still moments and for regeneration. Following that, more gentle movement such as walking, yoga and Pilates are beneficial for this half of your cycle.

For those who are suffering with intense period pains (not specifically Endo), is there anything we can do to ideally lessen the pain (i.e. diet, exercise, sleep, etc)?

If you are suffering from intense period pain this needs to be investigated. The average length of time to be diagnosed with Endometriosis is 8 years after a woman first experiences a symptom (such as period pain) and that is far too long! If you have sought Gynaecologist support for period pain and investigations show nothing sinister (Endo, Fibroids etc.) then again I would look into Magnesium and Zinc supplementation (as we discussed) and reducing intake of wheat and/or diary. Given that many of us rely on wheat containing foods for adequate fibre intake and dairy to meet our calcium requirements I do recommend working with a nutrition professional specialising in women’s health (such as mwah) to help navigate this.

I am also a big believer in understanding the connection between your mind (thoughts, feelings, narratives) and body (physical sensations). If you spend the majority of your cycle feeling overwhelmed, stressed and in chaos then that will likely be reflected in your period health. This could be through the loss of your period (Amenorrhoea), PMS symptoms or period pain.

 

If nothing else, I hope this article brings you a little comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Periods can be a terribly isolating experience, particularly when you grow up in a house full of brothers (me!) or you don’t have many friends who can talk about it candidly (not me, thank gawd).

You’re not an inconvenience and you’re not a waste of time or money as an employee. You are a woman and you are incredible. *mic drops*

If you’d like to get in touch with Sara for a consult or more info on women’s health, you can head to Your Monthly’s website or Instagram.

*I took this quote from Triple J’s Hack, and you can read the full article here https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/endometriosis-endo-costs-economy-in-lost-producitivity/11183166)

 

Until the next brew,  

 

Viv + Team Rust

Artwork by Torey Herbert

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