Periods and shame—they go together like peanut butter and jelly.
And why? Well, that's a whole other topic. It's just one of the many ways women have been shamed for biological processes that happen to their bodies. Stretch marks, pimples, weight, body shape, pregnancy, breastfeeding, hair (too much, too little) wrinkles, grey hair...
I could go on.
So when I ring up Melissa Ramos of Sexy Food Therapy, a holistic nutritionist with a background in Chinese Medicine, I'm filled with hope. This woman is known for getting women to embrace their time of the month, and lean into all of the cues that your body is giving you.
"When it comes to your period, you aren’t supposed to suffer," she says to me, from her practice in Toronto. And unfortunately it's common for women to struggle with many uncomfortable symptoms. But common doesn't mean normal, stresses Ramos.
So if you're suffering to a point of not being able to get out of bed, then you need to get yourself in front of a practitioner. While you're at it, (or before you go to meet them), start by tracking your cycle. "Your cycle is a gift," says Ramos. "I know mine inside and out now. Use this as a guideline, as we all have different experiences, and that's OK."
Ramos says that all women need to really understand their cycle to fully comprehend what their body is trying to do. By using a period tracking app (many work for periods and pregnancy interchangeably), you can start to pick up on some of the physical cues. For example, you might find that on day 14, you want to have sex, which is an indication that your hormone levels are higher (and p.s. day 1 is the first day you start bleeding). You'll need track your cycle for a minimum of three months so you can understand the pattern, says Ramos. Some of these apps allow you to log moods and symptoms, but you can also do this through free writing, and putting your thoughts down in a journal at the end of the day. Also note how you feel when you workout throughout the month. Does the spin class you crushed two weeks ago feel like agony now? There's a reason for that. "Your workouts should change during your cycle too."
The Cycle Through: Four Phases
Generally speaking, you can think of splitting your cycle in four phases. Day 1 through 14 (follicular phase), ovulation (which is the middle and varies from woman to woman), post ovulation sometime after day 14 (luteal phase) and menstruation.
The first phase of your cycle, your estrogen and progesterone levels start out low but begin to rise again. Around cycle day ten, estrogen and progesterone production peak, and progesterone slowly begins to rise. Estrogen shoots up around day 12-13 but then falls almost all the way back to pre-surge levels. Roughly around 24-36 hours after estrogen surges, ovulation occurs (seconds phase).
The third phase is the luteal phase, which varies in length but can be anywhere from 13-14 days. "This is when estrogen and progesterone shoot up 1-2 days after ovulation occurs, then peak once again a week later around day 20-22," says Ramos. If a woman doesn't become pregnant, then they both fall dramatically signalling the final phase which is menstruation (phase four).
Pre-period, you might experience feelings of being off balance, or more wobbly than usual. Around day 25-28, you might feel a little more tired, as you don't have those hormones surging through you at the same levels as you did at the beginning. During this phase, make sure your sleep is on point, says Melissa. And use common sense: are these low hormone, sleepy days the best time to force yourself through back-to-back, high intensity workouts, only to feel like you're stumbling through the squats?
Once you know what your cycle is telling you, you can make adjustments to lean into the feelings and symptoms you're experiencing. "I build in a self-care unit," says Ramos. "When I'm on my period, I know that I'm going to be craving more carbs—I love sweet potatoes with mayo, for example." Ramos also loves cozying up with Netflix, and releasing the guilt around not doing enough, pushing enough, or eating at 100% perfection.
Commitment over consistency
As women, there is so much emphasis on being consistent—whether it's consistent exercise, consistent eating, consistent self-care—but Ramos says that's something we need to let go of. Instead, "Aim for COMMITMENT over consistency, because if you're consistent and suddenly, you miss a day--a lot of women throw it all in the fuck it bucket." She also says she doesn't believe that women are biologically built to be consistent, as our period sends us through two different phases of energy.
"Rest is a life strategy."
Your period will tell you when you need to rest, says Ramos. So there's no sense forcing yourself through a brutal HIIT class when you're struggling to get out of bed. You can't go-go go at full speed for 30 days of the month and not expect to see a little blowback from that. "Rest is a life strategy," says Ramos. Ramos lives by this quote, which was originally coined by Lisa Carpenter.
Ramos also believes that women aren't build to be completely consistent all of the time, and there's research to back this up too. At the beginning of your cycle (i.e day 1, you're riding activation wave of the sympathetic nerve system (think fight or flight). During the latter half of your cycle, the parasympathetic system is running the show, so you're body is downshifting into a more relaxed sate.
But if you're truly in a place where your periods are really taking a toll on your life, in addition to seeing a practitioner, examine your life. What are you eating, how are you sleeping? "Go back to the basics; you have a lot more power than you realize," says Ramos. "People ask me about adrenal supplements when they're run down," she says. But there's no magic pill or powder that can reset your body if you're burning the candle at both ends, she says.
Simplify it all
And remember, when going back to basics, remember that your period was build for a reason. So heed Ramos' sound advice: "Go with the flow."
As I hang up the phone with Ramos, I'm left feeling a huge source of period pride. Now, when I'm feeling sluggish and tired, instead of telling myself I need to try harder or push myself, I'll take a second to scan the calendar. I'm looking forward to looking inward and having a deeper conversation with my body that is a lot less judgemental. And shame will be the furthest thing from that discussion.