It's time to learn all those things they never taught us in health class - periods, pregnancy and pelvic floor!
I'm a women's health educator, a nerd when it comes to learning "all of the things", and my obsession is teaching women how to take control of their health and create a life they love!
Half of the world’s population will experience a period.
A lifetime of periods equates to 8.6 years, 448 weeks, 3139 days, 70 080 hours.
And yet, I wonder just how many women actually understand what’s going on in their bodies. Not just during menstruation, but for the rest of the month too.
Welcome to your Menstrual Cycle Masterclass, where I’ll be diving deep into each phase of the menstrual cycle – what actually goes on inside our body, how to support your body, balance your hormones and support your reproductive system with nutrition, self care, exercise and sleep.
This episode kicks things off with the phase you are probably most familiar with, the menstrual phase.
Half of the world’s population will experience a period.
A lifetime of periods equates to:
70 080 hours
And yet, I wonder just how many women – we’re talking half of the world’s population here – how many women actually understand what’s going on in their bodies. Not just during menstruation, but for the rest of the month too.
Hello, and welcome to episode 12 of The Mana Women’s Wellness Podcast. I’m your host, Rachel and today we are launching the first episode of the Menstrual Cycle Masterclass. For the next 4 weeks, I’m going to be dedicating an entire podcast episode to each phase of the menstrual cycle.
If you want to kick things off the right way and get an overview of what I’ll be diving deep in to over the next few weeks, then I would encourage you to have listen to episode #1 of the podcast. Menstrual cycle 101. I started with this as episode 1 for a reason! Because this is stuff women just don’t know because nobody ever sits down and teaches it to us! We all know we bleed for a few days, but what happens for the rest of the month before it all starts again? Keep listening and I will be telling you all about it.
Now if you want a bit of a cheatsheet for all of the information I’ll be talking about over the next couple of weeks in our Menstrual Cycle Masterclass series you can get over at www.fertilityco.com.au/menstrualphase and grab the shownotes for today’s episodes. If you want to dive deeper into how to support your body during each phase of the menstrual cycle, plus how it all ties together plus all about hormones plus so much more, you can grab The Mana Guide to Understanding (and Loving!) Your Menstrual Cycle at my digital shop over on the website too. And if you head over to today’s shownotes or straight to www.fertilityco.com.au/freebook you can grab a free chapter of this book which gives you a really good and clear introduction to the menstrual cycle as well as outlining getting to know the hormones involved.
So, let me first give you a bit of a teaser about what’s going to happen over the next four weeks. Not only am I going to tell about each phase of the menstrual cycle, what actually goes on inside our body, how this all ties in to our ultimate reproductive goal of ovulating and getting pregnant and keeping the human race alive…I’m also going to talk a lot about how to support your body during each phase. And by this I mean optimising your hormone balance and supporting what your reproductive system is actually doing through the nutrition and the foods you eat, self-care and the way you look after your body, how each phase affects your sleeping patterns, your moods and I’ll even show you how you can change up how you exercise to support all of this too.
Ok, so let’s dive in.
Now we’re kicking things off with the menstrual phase, because this marks the beginning of a new menstrual cycle and it’s likely that this is the phase you are most familiar with. So we’ll start here and hopefully break things down more than you ever have before.
The menstrual phase includes all days of your period, usually lasting a total of 4-7 days. Day 1 of a new menstrual cycle is your first day of bright, rich-coloured bleeding. This doesn’t count the spotting that you might notice in the days leading up to you period, it’s that first day of rich bleeding that we count as Day 1. You will menstruate if the egg from your last ovulation was not fertilised. In other words, in the absence of pregnancy, menstruation will almost always follow ovulation, and it’s between 11-17 days later.
During menstruation, your cervix is open and the endometrial lining begins to shed. About two-thirds of your lining will be reabsorbed back into your body, while the remaining third will be shed along with blood and mucus that you typically see in your period. A healthy period lasts anywhere between 2-7 days, including a day or two of spotting afterwards. On average, you will lose between 25-80ml of blood during a cycle, about 2-4 tablespoons. Less than 25ml is considered light, while greater than 80ml is considered a heavy period.
As menstrual flow reduces, and your period comes to an end, the cervix closes and a mucus plug forms within in. This plug prevents sperm from passing through the cervix into the uterus. This busts the myth that you cannot become pregnant during your period. An open cervix allows sperm to pass through and you can’t accurately judge the quality of your cervical mucus during menstruation. It’s for these 2 key reasons that you therefore need to consider yourself potentially fertile from Day 2 onwards. If you want to dive deeper into potential fertility during your period, you can go back and listen to episode #9 where I talk about this exact myth.
It’s important to remember that your menstrual cycle is completely ruled by your hormones. It’s the changes in your hormone levels, mainly oestrogen and progesterone, that cause the physical changes in your body throughout the different phases of your menstrual cycle. And by that I mean that wet, slippery fertile mucus that your cervix produces as you approach ovulation and the change to a dry sensation or a dry, sticky mucus in your non-fertile window.
Hormones are chemical messengers in our bodies that are involved in growth, metabolism, mood and development. They maintain and regulate all of our body systems, including digestion, immune function and of course reproduction.
Hormone levels are changing throughout your menstrual cycle and one hormone will influence the levels of another. This is why women who experience hormone imbalance tend to have wonky cycles.
Oestrogen levels peak just before ovulation and so at the beginning of a new menstrual cycle, the first day of your period, oestrogen levels are low. As you finish menstruating and ovulation approaches, oestrogen levels rise and trigger thickening of the endometrium to prepare for implantation of the fertilised egg into the lining of the uterus.
Progesterone levels are also very low at the beginning of the menstrual cycle and they will remain low until after ovulation has occurred. This is because progesterone is a key hormone in establishing and maintaining pregnancy, so it isn’t really needed until pregnancy is possible, which is after ovulation.
Progesterone is essential for balancing oestrogen levels and maintaining overall hormone balance. Progesterone itself is not the cause of PMS symptoms leading up to your period. It’s actually the imbalance between progesterone and oestrogen as your period approaches that can lead to PMS symptoms. I will talk more about this when we focus on the luteal phase in an upcoming episode.
Menstruation can be a really difficult time for many women – especially if you’re currently trying to conceive or experiencing fertility issues. Your period is basically a sign that you’re not pregnant, which can be really devastating if that’s what you’re hoping for. Mood swings, feeling shitty and wanting to cry without good reason are some common symptoms that women experience either in the lead to their period or when they get their period in those early days of potentially heavy bleeding. Add to this that realisation that you’re not pregnant, that you now need to spend another month trying all over again and it can be a complete emotional rollercoaster. And so this is a time when you really need to be practicing self care. Your menstrual phase is a time to rest and reflect. Clear your social calendar and limit your responsibilities as much as possible. It’s a time to really slow down and take time to rest – this doesn’t necessarily mean watching Netflix on the couch and eating a block of chocolate! Rest means quiet and stillness. Take some time during menstruation to journal and meditate and – as terrifying as this may sound to some of you – schedule in time to just be alone with yourself and your thoughts! This can be really hard if you are not used to it – even rest takes some practice. Treat yourself to a bath, facial or something just for you. Turn your focus inward and spend some time alone to reflect on your life over the last month. Especially if you get pain and cramping and PMS symptoms, taking some time to think about potential causes of stress over the last month, maybe you’ve been sick, or not sleeping enough, eating worse than usual – all of these things will be reflected in your period. And that’s why it’s so important to take note of how you’re feeling every day of your cycle and especially in those first few days of a new cycle.
Other women find this time challenging month after month because of the symptoms they experience, or maybe their cycles are really irregular which causes extra stress and worry about when it will actually arrive next.
Some of the most common symptoms around this time of the month are:
If you’re a gym junkie or even exercise regularly, you might have already noticed changes in your energy levels and ability to perform at high intensities throughout your cycle.
Remember that these symptoms are really common but they’re not necessarily normal. That’s not to say that you’re doing something wrong if you get cramps every month, but if your symptoms are affecting your ability to function, to get out of bed and go about your day –it’s worth sitting up and taking notice about common habits and lifestyle tweaks we may need to make to improve them.
Yes, it’s common to feel teary and emotional at this time. But this is also a time to be focusing on your intuition. That gut feeling inside of you that helps you to make decisions. And really, this can be tied back into that self-reflection, and journaling and looking inward at this time of the month and when you think about it that way, it makes sense that this can all be tied together and an amazing time for trusting your intuition. I even like to think about it that menstruation, and everything that it represents, the ability conceive and carry life and all of that incredible stuff that ultimately makes us female – this is that innate knowledge, that feminine wisdom – and without getting too spiritual on you, it kind of makes sense that our intuition and emotions are all tied up with this stage of menstruation.
With all of that considered, with all of your wisdom, and emotion and self-reflection at work, it’s the ideal time for decision making, for brainstorming and coming up with new ideas. You’re journaling, you’re reflecting, so your creativity is high and this is time to look within, look back and make those big decisions you’ve been putting off.
With all of this going on, it only makes sense that you may like to reduce the intensity of your workouts during this phase too. Again, I’m not talking about lying on the couch with a block of chocolate and not moving for a week – I’m talking about reducing the intensity if you do find that your motivation and energy levels are lower during your period. Again, with all of this self-reflection we’ve been doing, it’s time to listen to your body and adjust your workouts to how it is feeling. You might like to skip your spin class or going for a long run and instead go for a nice long walk in nature or doing some yoga and stretching. There are specific yoga poses to help to relieve cramping and the discomfort associated with your period and if you’ve ever done yin yoga, or restorative yoga, where you hold these delicious poses for 5 minutes at a time or even longer, you’re in the dark listening to nice relaxing music and supported with pillows and blankets – that is my go-to exercise for period time.
And sure you might be thinking that it doesn’t really count as exercise if you’re not breathless and sweating and red in the face – well, I’ll tell you that cutting back your exercise intensity even for a day or two makes everything more sustainable in the long run. Taking a day or two off for an active recovery and these deep, feel-good stretches is necessary for your recovery. If you push through those low-energy days and continue to work out at a high intensity day after day with no rest, you’re at increased risk of injury, of that chronic stress response and potential hormone imbalance, which – you guessed it – could make your periods wonky and worsen your symptoms more than if you took a day off every once in a while!
If you’re feeling on top of the world and good and energised and ready to go for a nice long run, by all means go for it! What I’m saying here is not to push through when you are feeling tired, moody, low-energy – it’s all about listening to your body.
Now on the topic of feeling tired and having less energy, let’s talk about sleep. The hormonal changes during menstruation can leave you feeling a bit hot and sweaty at night, while cramps may also disrupt your sleep. You probably need a little more sleep during your period than at other times of your menstrual cycle, so it’s good to go to bed earlier than usual and keep your bedroom nice and cool for a good night’s sleep.
You may also want to use some essential oils to help manage your symptoms, which can be especially helpful diffusing in your bedroom before you go to bed. The most recommended oils during the menstrual phase are bergamot, lavender and clary sage. A blend that I absolutely swear by at this time of the month is a women’s blend by eco essentials. It contains cedarwood, lavender, geranium and ylang ylang and I don’t know if it’s completely a placebo effect or what, but the evening of day one is when I tend to get a little crampy. So while I’m lying on the couch I’ll just put a drop of this oil blend straight onto my lower belly, right where I’m feeling those cramps, and massage that oil in. It’s amazing and actually helps to give some instant relief. Again, I don’t know if it’s just a placebo effect but it helps so who cares!
The last area I want to talk about today is nutrition and really using food to support your body during your period. In this phase, you want to be focusing on eating healthy fats, vegetables and iron-rich foods. Now, it’s important to boost your iron levels to counteract the blood loss we experience during our period which contributes to our low energy levels and feeling more tired than usual. This is also really important if you have heavier periods, meaning you’re losing a little more blood. Obviously red meat is full of iron, so if you’re a carnivore having a steak with vegies can be great once a month to replenish that lost iron. I’ve raved about spinach and iron many times before, so spinach is great as well as kale, asparagus, broccoli, strawberries, tomatoes and citrus fruits too.
As you can imagine, menstruation does have an inflammatory component, so you can help to relieve this with oily fish, like salmon, ginger, curries as well as berries which are full of antioxidants.
Your body actually has lower energy requirements during menstruation, and if you’re taking the time to rest and recover and really give your body a break for a couple of days then you will certainly have lower energy requirements. This means you may not need to eat as much as usual, so as tempting as that block of chocolate is, avoid binging on comfort foods that are sugary and fatty, because your body really doesn’t need the extra energy – and the calories – when you’re doing a little less.
I like to practice seed cycling, which I might talk about in another episode, but basically you use seeds and grains to boost your oestrogen or progesterone levels depending on where you are in your cycle. As I mentioned earlier, both progesterone and oestrogen are low during menstruation, but we really want to support oestrogen levels in this phase because they’re to about to increase as we approach ovulation. So you can naturally boost oestrogen levels with flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds, and what I like to do is just add a tablespoon of each to my morning smoothie. So, I’m drinking it as soon as those seeds are whizzed up in the Nutribullet, which means I’m getting the full nutrient value. Full disclosure, Dan got a little upset when I told I that I did this, because I make our morning smoothies but we share them, so he was a little upset thinking I was trying to boost his oestrogen levels. But reassure your man that a tablespoon of seeds is not going to have a dramatic effect on their hormone levels – it’s a way to naturally support your existing levels but it’s not like you’re adding a supplement or pure oestrogen to your smoothie so reassure him that he’ll be ok. Or just don’t say anything, that’s probably the easier way to go!
Now, I don’t believe in self-prescribing supplements, but I do think they have an important place in filling in the gaps in your nutrition and helping to manage any symptoms, so talk to a healthcare professional like a naturopath or a dietitian about supplements that can help to support menstruation – especially if you experience a lot of symptoms – collagen, fish oil and magnesium can be really helpful. Magnesium is really good for relieving muscle cramps, and I find that on day one if I am a bit crampy, I’ll take a magnesium supplement which can give some relief. But again, don’t self-prescribe, talk to a professional about what’s right for your body.
I also love women’s balancing teas to sip on during my period. My absolute favourite is by Pukka and it’s called Womankind. It contains chamomile, licorice, hibiscus, marigold, beetroot, orange, vanilla rose and cranberry and it’s this beautiful pink colour and aa bit floral and fruity and it’s so nice to just sip on during those heavy period days.
Finally, bone broth. I’m a bit of a sucker for bone broth lately, especially in winter. You can cook up some bone broth to boost circulation and blood flow, improve your digestion and actually help to replenish the lining of the uterus, which is obviously broken down and flushed away during your period. You can make your own broth by boiling bones or if you’re not keen on having your house stink of meat for 48 hours then there are heaps of good options for pre-made bone broth. Google will give you all the answers you need here.
Now all of the information I’ve talked about in this episode, plus everything I’ll be talking about over the next couple of weeks in our upcoming Menstrual Cycle Masterclass series you can get over at www.fertilityco.com.au/podcast and grab the shownotes for today’s episodes. If you want to dive deeper into how to support your body during each phase of the menstrual cycle, plus how it all ties together plus all about hormones plus so much more, you can grab The Mana Guide to Understanding (and Loving!) Your Menstrual Cycle at my digital shop over on the website too. And if you head over to today’s shownotes or straight to www.fertilityco.com.au/freebook you can grab a free chapter of this book which gives you a really good and clear introduction to the menstrual cycle as well as outlining getting to know the hormones involved.
That is all for today. Thank you so much for listening and as always please let me know what you learnt in today’s episode and what resonated with you the most! If you found value in today’s episode, I’d love to hear from you! Send me an Instagram DM, post it on your stories – share a story of yourself listening to the podcast – and let me know what you want me to talk about. I am always open to topic suggestions and answering the questions you want to know more about. So let me know and I’ll do my very very best to answer them for you.
I will see you in next week’s episode, where we are talking the next phase of the menstrual cycle – the follicular phase, that window of time between your period and ovulation. Sneak peek for you – some women skip this phase altogether.
Ok, bye for now and don’t forget that knowledge is power! When you truly understand your body, you are empowered to make informed decisions and take control of your health!
Until next time.
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I'm obsessed with all things periods, pregnancy, pelvic floor and helping women just like you to navigate all of life's major milestones!
I'm a physiotherapist and natural fertility educator and my passion is teaching women how to take control of their health.