Is Your Period Out Of Whack? Check These 6 Aspects Of Your Life
I polled over 4,000 women, asking if they thought PMS and menstrual cramping were normal. The results? Eighty-six percent of women reported that they thought it was normal.
It's not a surprise they felt this way, as PMS and cramps are incredibly prevalent in women across the nation. A recent study showed that more than 82% of people with periods1 reported significant and life-interrupting PMS and cramping to their OB/GYNs. Every month, people tell us they are missing work, passing out, and throwing up from their cramps. Some with PMDD even tell us they feel suicidal or cut themselves with their cycles. While we would like to count these as outliers, studies show that this is more common than we think. It is so common that the large majority of people with periods that we talk to tell us this kind of monthly menstrual suffering is normal.
This is not true.
PMS and cramping are incredibly common. Just because something is common, that does not make something normal. After all, 420 million people have diabetes, but we don't say that is normal. We treat it.
As long as we continue to tell people with periods that the emotional and physical pain they are experiencing every month is normal, the 80 million women will continue to suffer and believe that this is just what it means to have a period, and the conversations about how we can fix them will continue to be silenced. When we are silent about our suffering, we are less likely to advocate for better research and solutions to have healthier cycles and overall health.
PMS and cramping are incredibly common, but they're not actually normal.
You might be thinking, "OK, common vs. normal—what's the big deal?"
When we say something is normal, we are saying it is without pathology. Let me give you an example. I go for a walk every morning. That's totally normal and without pathology. In fact, it is incredibly good for me. On the other hand, on many days, my legs are arms are weak from my neurological condition. I would never say that was normal. Rather, the weakness is a symptom signaling that my body still needs more attention than I am giving it. For me, that typically means more rest, better food, and upping my stress management strategies.
Your cycle is the same. Think of your menstrual cycle as your monthly report card that gives you feedback on how your body is responding to how you are caring for it. Whether you have PMS, cramping, irregular cycles, endometriosis, or PCOS, the symptoms you are experiencing are all signals that your body is asking for you to pay attention and take additional action in the ways you care for yourself.
So, what should you do?
In order to have a healthy cycle, your body needs the following things: adequate sleep, the ability to turn food into energy (digestion) and that energy into blood, the right kind of high-quality food, the right amount and kind of exercise, and tools to manage the stress of daily life.
If your cycle is out of whack, start looking here for the areas of your health that may need more support:
One of the most important hormones changed by sleep is leptin. Leptin is essential for promoting ovulation and regulating menstruation. When sleep is interrupted, leptin levels drop, causing disruption in your menstrual cycles. When your body doesn't get the sleep it needs, it increases its desire for calories to keep it running. Your appetite increases, and this has the potential to cause weight gain. Increases in body weight have been associated with ovulatory irregularity and decreased fertility2. Without proper sleep, our bodies and our reproductive systems can begin to shut down.
Increased oxygen-rich blood flow to the reproductive organs brings fresh nutrients, movement, and waste removal to the area—all of which can seriously help with cramps. During REM sleep, blood flow to the vagina and penis increases in women and men, respectively3.
People often confuse digestion with elimination, but when we talk about digestion, we are specifically talking about your body's ability to take the food that you are eating and break it down into the building blocks for making high-quality energy and blood. When digestion is impaired for any reason, it can be a root cause of significant menstrual problems4. All of the reproductive organs require energy and blood that are byproducts of digestion.
We like to say you are what you eat, but I like to take it a step further and say you are what you eat and what you eat eats. The quality and quantity of food you eat directly determine the quality of the blood and energy you can produce, which will be directly reflected in your cycle. A healthy cycle needs abundant magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins (especially B12)5, which is why you are seeing so many PMS vitamins pop up everywhere.
The good news is that these nutrients are super easy to just get from your diet. Ramp up your consumption of greens, almonds, chocolate (yes, I said chocolate), and high-quality animal products. I personally think bone broth is a period superfood because it is so healing for the gut.
Research shows that moderate exercise can help regulate your cycle6. On the other hand, excessive exercise can have negative effects on common period problems. The first step to finding the right exercise is taking the pulse on your energy levels without caffeine. If it is below a 7, you probably only need to be doing very moderate exercise for no more than 45 minutes.
This cannot be underestimated. Under stress, our bodies produce adrenaline and cortisol—two hormones that regulate the "fight or flight" response in our bodies. High levels of these are great if we need to escape from a burning building or any other dangerous situation. Unfortunately, our modern bodies haven't evolved to know that we're only stressed because our boss is a jerk, not because we're getting chased by a pack of hungry wolves. Our lives have become so busy and complicated that many people are in a hyper-cortisol state every single day.
How does this affect your cycle? The body uses progesterone to make cortisol, stealing it from the reproductive system. The higher your cortisol levels7, the more difficult it is for your body to produce sufficient levels of progesterone, which is essential for regulating your cycle. It helps send a blood supply to your uterine lining, modulates your immune system, reduces inflammation, a main contributor to endometriosis and helps regulate insulin release and pancreatic function (which can affect blood sugar and diabetes risk).
Stress may be unavoidable in our modern lives. But, more importantly, how we relate to stress strongly influences the effect it has on our bodies. Changing the way we relate to stress takes practice, but it can pay huge dividends and have a positive impact on your cycle.
So, you can see that your cycle is much more than a curse. Rather, it can be an incredibly useful barometer of your overall health as long as you recognize that the symptoms you are experiencing from your cycle are tools rather than something to just endure.
Kirsten Karchmer, LAc, is a Board Certified reproductive acupuncturist and former President of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine. Founder and CEO of Brazen, she is leading a women’s health revolution committed to significantly improving the lives and clinical outcomes of women with PMS, menstrual cramps, PCOS, endometriosis, and infertility. She earned her Master's degree from the AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine. The author of Seeing Red, Karchmer has helped more than 10,000 women over the last twenty years to improve their health, menstrual cycles, and fertility.
In 2013, Kirsten translated her successful clinical programs into her technology enabled platform that uses machine learning/ AI to provide affordable and impactful reproductive solution. Conceivable was named one of the most innovative health tech start-ups from MedTech in 2015, and has been featured in Washington Post, New York Magazine, Tech Crunch, and the Huffington Post. She currently launched her new company Brazen to provide game changing software and products to improve the way people experience their periods.
Kirsten lectures internationally on women’s health, the future of integrative medicine, and using technology to better serve patients, providers, and healthcare systems. Kirsten has been recognized as one of the top female start-up founders to watch, the recipient of the Texas Trailblazer award for her innovation in health care.