A woman menstruates approximately 500 times in her lifetime. Yet, how much do most women know about their cycle? Throughout history, women have been told they are unclean during this time. Doctors have advised their female patients to rest, restrict activity, and by no means have sex. A majority of women suffer some sort of discomfort during their periods. There seems to be only misery associated with this womanly function. Are we missing something? Let’s examine some of the mysteries surrounding menstruation, and learn how we can turn this monthly event into one of health and appreciation.
What is Menstruation
Very simply, menstruation is house cleaning. Each month a woman’s body lines her uterus with a rich bed of blood vessels, glands, and cells in anticipation of new life. The ovaries sprout a harvest of eggs and then pop out the best one for conception. When the egg doesn’t meet a sperm, the womb must shed its lining and start anew.
A woman’s monthly cycle can be artificially divided into three segments: menstruation, the follicular phase, and the luteal phase.During the middle, or follicular, segment follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) prompts eggs in the ovary to mature and sprout a follicle, or layer of cells, which secrete estrogen. Estrogen levels then build until at their peak FSH is turned off and luteinizing hormone (LH) takes over.
LH causes ovulation, the departure of the egg from the ovary. Progesterone, master hormone of the last, or luteal, stage continues development of the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. When conception doesn’t occur, all hormone levels drop and menstruation begins.
Occasionally a woman may experience problems with her period. She may suffer from cramps during menstruation called dysmenorrhea. Premenstrual syndrome, a condition consisting of 150 recorded symptoms ranging from irritability to sugar cravings the week or two before her period, may be her problem. Sometimes its not the symptoms accompanying menses, but the flow itself that needs help. Irregular bleeding, spotting, bleeding too much, clots or a total absence of blood are all signs that a woman’s reproductive system needs
Faizi Medeiros, ND of Norwich, Vermont has developed a protocol specially designed to treat female disorders. “I’ve had great results with menstrual problems by treating the bowel, liver, and immune system,” she says. One reason why treating the liver using substances
such as methionine, choline, dandelion, and milk thistle work in these cases is because the liver is responsible for clearing potent forms of estrogen from the blood. When the liver becomes sluggish, blood estrogen levels can rise and cause problems.
Getting to Know Your Cycle
Even if your periods are problem-free, you can improve your overall health by becoming more aware of how your cycle functions. For hundreds of years, women have used certain physical signs as a form of birth control. Today, this system is known by many names:
natural family planning, fertility awareness method, ovulation method, sympto-thermal method, and others. What they all have in common is their own means of observing and recording fertility signs in order to avoid or achieve pregnancy. These methods can also be
used to increase the effectiveness of other contraceptives.
These very same signs, cervical mucus, basal body temperature, and positioning of the cervix, can be used for other purposes. When a woman charts these changes in her body, as well as her moods, her libido, what foods she craves, breast tenderness, the quality and
quantity of her menstrual flow and anything else that seems pertinent, she becomes more familiar with her body.
This information can be used to track PMS and thus allow a woman to make lifestyle alterations which may improve it. Because a woman becomes familiar with her body’s monthly metamorphosis, she learns to differentiate between breast changes and vaginal discharge that are normal and abnormal. By recording such information on a daily basis,
a woman can widen the doors of intimacy with her mate and enhance sexual understanding. Most of all, a woman gains knowledge of how her body cycles through each month.
Taking monthly charts along to physical exams is extremely beneficial for your physician. Not only does the information give your doctor a concise picture of your health, but opens communication lines between you and your practitioner. This allows you to ask and answer questions intelligently, and in the long run improve your health and the care you get.
Something else that is being discussed within scientific circles and among health care providers is the relationship between immunity and menstrual cycles. Research suggests that a woman’s immune system peaks before ovulation and begins to decline after the egg is
released. At New York’s Cornell University, investigators confirmed a common medical observation that women are usually struck by vaginal yeast and chlamydial infections just before their periods (1).
A Swedish team from Uppsala University proposed that immunity rises prior to ovulation in order to rid the body of germs in preparation for conception and pregnancy. After ovulation or conception has taken place, however, the immune system is depressed because you don’t want the body to fight two very important foreign elements: the sperm and fertilized egg (2).
Suzannah Doyle, a Fertility Awareness educator, says that women “tend to feel better, look better, feel their strongest, and most able to handle things during the fertile time before ovulation.” These physical characteristics such as clear skin and increased sex drive are the secondary fertility signs that are often discussed during natural family planning classes. Not only are they indications of a woman’s peak in health, says Doyle, but on an anthropological level they increase her attractiveness to her mate so the species can propagate.
Investigations are beginning to show, adds Doyle, that surgery, vaccinations, and prescription drugs are less harmful when used on a woman before ovulation. “I don’t think anyone has professionally or scientifically recommended this. Although a lot of individual studies have noticed that if you have surgery during your fertile time, your outcome is going to be much better than if you have it during your premenstrual phase. Recovery rates are better, incidence of death is less, rubella vaccinations done preovulatory have less side effects. Women get more drunk having a beer premenstrually than during their fertile time too.
“I’m proposing that in the future,” concludes Doyle, “that observing fertility signs will be a way that doctors can actually adjust drug dosages for their patients. I really see looking at
fertility signs as a way to increase diagnostic and drug therapy effectiveness eventually.”
Menstruation: A Time of Healing
Armed with the knowledge that immunity and menstruation are more complex than we first thought, the question remains: “Should we treat ourselves differently during this time?” Kisma Stepanich, author of Sister Moon Lodge: The Power & Mystery of Mensturation (Llewellyn Publications, 1992) states that menses is a period of healing and regeneration. She says that bleeding is a release and women are instinctively more inward, quiet, gentle, and slower during this time.
Medeiros agrees with Stepanich’s views. She advocates that her patients eat a clean diet, low in fats and sugars, drink lots of fluids, indulge in gentle outdoor exercise like walking, and practice meditation during their periods.
Doyle reports that her clients tell her they feel more powerful, energetic, and aroused during menstruation. She says this makes sense considering that menstrual flow is not that much different from the flow of fertile cervical mucus near ovulation. Doyle warns, however, that one of the most overlooked precautions regarding menses is intercourse and tampon use during heavy menstruation. Many studies now indicate that such activity is associated with a higher incidence of endometriosis.
Healthy menstruation is more than treating PMS or menstrual cramps. It is a woman understanding and honoring her unique monthly cycle. Coupling this knowledge and respect with a healthful lifestyle and, when needed, natural treatments, women can learn to enjoy and tune into their own rhythm.
- Kalo-Klein A, Witkin SS. Candida albicans: cellular immune system interactions during different stages of the menstrual cycle. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 1989; 161(5): 1132-36.
- Edelstam GAB, Lundkvist OE, Klareskog L, Karlsson-Parra A. Cyclic variation of major histocompatibility complex class II antigen expression in the human fallopian tube epithelium. Fertility and Sterility 1992; 57(6): 1225-29.