My periods came once a month until they stopped. And when they stopped, a part of me stopped with them.
Like every woman on the contraceptive pill, I had played ‘God’ with my periods before, skipping the lolly tablets for a special event or holiday. But that was always in my control. When my periods ceased for two years and three months (and yes, I was counting) due to extreme weight loss from a chronic illness, that was anything other than in my control.
I never appreciated how integral periods are to a woman in her fertile years, until my body showed me exactly how much it physically and emotionally missed them.
The day my period returned was one of the most emotional days of my life. I had started to get a little cramping that morning and had said to myself, “You know what, I miss you; I miss my periods, I’m ready for you to come back.” Was it my body feeling loved or just simply coincidental, but later that day, sitting on the toilet in a country town pub, I finally saw those so desperately missed stains of blood.
I walked into the nearest chemist in a haze; I called my mother with tears streaming down my cheeks; and I sat with my hands on my womb for what seemed like an eternity. Talking to a girlfriend later that week, she said she hadn’t heard such excitement around a period since our days of entering puberty. To mark the event I returned some of my blood to the earth, in a sign of gratitude, as we as women did many, many moons ago. (Post continues after gallery).
When I had moved to Byron Bay two years earlier, period-less, I had taken with me an old packet of tampons and pads. In some way it felt silly, after all there were stores that stocked feminine hygiene products everywhere; but I think it was me keeping up the faith that one day it would return.
So you can imagine how my blood started to boil (pardon the pun) reading Nikki Gemmell’s column in The Weekend Australian Magazine last week. I was so disappointed to see her openly wishing away her periods. Fast tracking menopause to avoid the monthly cycle; for what, another set of life interruptions?
Sleepless nights, hot flushes and dehydration. For reasons I’ll cover shortly, typically those who suffer period pain also suffer from menopausal symptoms, so be careful what you wish for, as it just might be worse than what you already have.
Similarly, looking at the photos and comments surrounding the #livetweetyourperiod campaign, I was shocked to see the common theme was undoubtedly pain. Periods are interruptions. Periods are awkward. Periods are like dying. Periods cause me to turn into something evil and satan-like. Periods are something to dread.
Only recently, I also stumbled across discussion on a blog around absent menstruation. I was flabbergasted. I seriously hadn’t realised how many 20 and 30-something women had ceased menstruating. Illness, excessive exercise, dieting and eating disorders primarily the cause.
Something really serious and scary is going on among women today. Whether it be the extreme pain (dysmenorrhoea), the suppressed periods (amenorrhoea), or the desperate desire to be rid of our periods, we need to start addressing this.
Despite my disappointment, shock and bewilderment, I get Nikki and all these women. I get why she, and the tweeters, want to wish away something that causes so much pain. The problem is that it’s not our actual periods that are causing the pain, but the way we deal with them and the way we live our lives. We blame our periods for interrupting our lives; when really it is our lives interrupting our periods!
Where did it all go so wrong? How did we come to labelling our period the ‘monthly curse?’ When did one of the most inherent parts of being a woman end up as a hassle?
What happened to the blessed period? The event that enables life; the event that is the reason you may, or will be able to, have the children you do.
Unfortunately, it became a curse when we stopped respecting our differences as women. When we stopped viewing our unique femininity with wonder and curiosity and started to think of it in the context of the way we are different to men.
We can’t live like men in every way for the simple reason that our bodies are designed differently; most obvious in our hormonal makeup.
Cassandrah McKay, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner at Gold Coast Fertility Acupuncture, sees women with menstrual and fertility problems on a daily basis.
“The majority of cases are a direct result of lifestyle infringing on our health. Some may have a genetic disposition, but it’s usually lifestyle choices that exacerbate or similarly pacify a genetic disposition,” shares Cassandrah.
Until I lost my menstrual cycle, I never really understood it. In trying to get it back, I learnt everything I could about it. In seeking to develop a better relationship with my body, I searched out ancient wisdom on working with our feminine cycles and managing our periods.
There are so many things we aren’t taught about menstruation. The most important being: periods aren’t meant to be painful! (Post continues after gallery).
Yes, you heard me right. As someone who spent a day off each month throughout high school squirming in bed in excruciating pain; then 17 years on the contraceptive pill to ‘manage’ this pain, I tell you this was initially news to me too.
We aren’t supposed to get cramping, bloating, PMS or depression. The only reason periods are painful and symptom-rich is because we haven’t learnt to follow and respect our monthly cycle. We haven’t learnt enough about our body so that we can work with it to maximise our health.
“PMS and pain is a direct result of us not being in tune with our bodies and the way they talk to us. Whether it’s young women competing in sports on the first day of their period or mothers trying to be all things to everyone, the body’s cries for rest are being ignored,” explains Cassandrah.
We’ve just accepted this pain as something that comes alongside menstruation. After all, ought it not be a ‘red flag’ if we are getting such extreme pain from something as simple as expelling blood from the body. It’s not childbirth after all!
“If the menstrual cycle is creating health issues, generally that is a diagnostic sign that the whole body is suffering; one is merely a reflection of the other. If your whole body is balanced and healthy - the meaning of which is different for all of us - then there would be no signs of disharmony such as PMS or pain,” shares Cassandrah.
So what can we do about it? How can we better align with our natural menstrual cycle? In conjunction with Cassandrah, I’ve put together a list of ideas that you can explore; ideas that have worked for many women, including Cassandrah and myself. The guidelines following are not a replacement for individual medical advice, but may assist women to start to more successfully integrate their periods into their lives.
“According to TCM the prime reason for menstruation is fertility, so even if you aren’t wanting to conceive, one of the best ways to regulate your period is to mimic what your body needs to do to get pregnant,” suggests Cassandrah.
During your period.
The key message here is to stop ‘soldiering on’. Yes, women, we aren’t supposed to dismiss our period like an annoying interruption. It slows us down because it’s meant to.
In the olden days, women would be ‘on leave’ from family duties for the duration of their period. They’d often move into red tents where they gathered to celebrate this time of month and to give back to mother earth, whom we spend the rest of the month taking from.
Ideally, we are meant to menstruate at the new moon and ovulate at the full moon; thus maximising our fertility potential. How many of us do? In the Jewish religion, the new moon is known as ‘women’s day’. A day when women are celebrated and honoured; the exact same day as their period is meant to arrive.
We can’t all move into red tents these days, but we can do some things to better support this important time of month.
I like to look at it like this. We are born with this innate gift. Our ‘creator’ wisely knew that women like to keep busy and look after everyone else, so appreciating we wouldn’t take the ‘break’ for ourselves, we were given an enforced one!
Immediately after your period.
Some women will experience lethargy after their period has ended because they’re low in blood naturally.
Cassandrah offers, “Now is the time to eat nourishing, yet easily digestible foods. Blood is made via the digestive system so keeping the digestion strong during this phase is also important. Foods that build blood include any form of red meat, especially bone marrow and liver, eggs, sesame seeds, almonds, whole grains, dried fruit, avocado and red and dark green vegetables.”
Not a big red meat eater, this is the time I now crave it. Sometimes I may only have one piece of red meat a month and it’s after my period when I do. Another one of my favourite post-period tonics is black strap molasses stirred into hot water with a few drops of lemon juice.
Depending on your individual pattern, this is usually somewhere between day 10 to 14 of your cycle.
“Thinking in line with our ovulation cycle theme, this is the time of month when the egg needs to be released and passed down to the fallopian tubes, so cranking up your cardio activity and movement is important,” explains Cassandrah.
The week before your period is due.
“Food wise think chicken, seafood, quinoa, the onion family, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, pistachio, pine nuts, small amounts of warming spices, chai tea and jasmine green tea. This is the best time of month for a roast chicken and vegetable meal or a leek and potato soup. Limit cold foods, including raw and excess fluids.”
Many traditional practices, such as Yoga and Qi Gong, have specific poses and moves that can support you at different stages of your cycle. I personally practice Qi Gong and it’s been life changing in that way.
After introducing these practices into my life, my periods today are mostly painless and something I anticipate rather than dread. Actually the whole monthly cycle is one I am now totally in awe of.
Since becoming aware of my body, I see how it changes over the month - the differences in my skin, my weight, my food preferences, my lifestyle choices. When I’m ovulating I feel so in touch with the feminine side of me; more sensuous and more flirtatious.
After all, this makes sense, ovulation is when we are supposed to be procreating. And when I’m menstruating, I love the fact that I can give my body permission to take some time off. I take four days off my daily Qi Gong practice, I lounge around in bed a bit longer and I allow myself to be nurtured by others, including going out for meals.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learnt about menstruation is to follow its lead. It’s a chance for us women to let go of our need to control everything, and just let it flow, literally. Although you’ll have gathered by now that it’s not ideal to run a marathon with your period, at least in the recent London Marathon, runner, Kiran Ghandi, let it flow.
I dare predict that when we as women start to better embrace, and even stand in awe of our cycle, we’ll find out that we actually got a ‘bonus’ over the guys in this department! One we get a chance to be thankful for each and every month of our fertile years. The blessed period.
How do you manage your period pain?
Sharon is a writer, blogger and presenter based in Byron Bay. With a career spanning 15 years in corporate marketing and communications, her focus changed after spending 7 years with a chronic illness. She now writes and speaks on all things wellness, with a particular focus on how to better align our bodies with the natural rhythms of nature and life. She is also a passionate advocate for women learning how to better embrace their own femininity.You can find her website here.