From balancing hormones, healing PCOS, PMS, PMDD, endometriosis, dealing with period cramps, low libido, stress, to living in a world that most often fails to teach us the most basic things about our bodies, women have a lot to deal with. Most "women's issues" are centered around hormones, the menstrual cycle, and sexuality. All things that are "taboo". Topics that are literally censored on social media. Things we're not supposed to talk about at family dinners, with colleagues, in public, or even sometimes in private. The exclusion of the menstrual cycle and female physiology also exists in the scientific world. Most studies (medical, diet, fitness) are done on the male body because it's easier to control. Women are told to birth on their backs which decreases the space in the pelvis. And teenage girls are given brith control pills to "regulate" their menstrual cycles instead of learning what their bodies need in each phase.
Currently there seems to be a big movement of women learning about their menstrual cycles and reclaiming their cyclical nature. Sometimes I think it doesn't matter if I keep talking about it because I see SO many women online describing the menstrual cycle. My feeds are saturated with it. When I bring it up in conversation it often feels redundant and then I have conversations with women about PMS and PMDD I will use the phrase, "Luteal Phase" (post ovulation to pre menstruation) and women who have been bleeding for over twenty years will look at me and say, "Wow, I've never even heard that word before." And I'm reminded that the general population is incredibly undereducated about menstrual health and female sexuality.
Just a few years ago, I was the woman who had no idea about the power and basic biology of her menstrual cycle. So here are 11 things I wish I was taught about the menstrual cycle when I was growing up:
1. Working out too much in your Luteal Phase can lead to a dramatic increase in cortisol (the stress hormone) and cause your body to go into fat storage mode.
During the Luteal Phase, your body prepares first for a potentially fertilized egg to implant itself onto the walls of your uterus, and then to bleed. You burn more calories and need more calories. Your body is preparing for a possible pregnancy. Women who do the same workout or follow the same strict diet even in their Luteal Phases, might become frustrated with how challenging it is to loose weight (or put on muscle). When we workout too much or fail to eat enough during the Luteal Phase, the body doesn't receive enough nutrients and calories to support a pregnancy, so in order to protect itself and a possible baby, it starts storing extra fat.
2. It's normal to be tired during your period.
Have you ever consumed extra coffee during your period so you have energy for work or school? That was my MO growing up. Midol, an OTC drug for period relief, is literally just acetaminophen and caffeine. But it's actually completely normal to be tired during your period. Your period is your body's winter. It is quite literally a built in time to rest. At the beginning of your period, your hormones are at their lowest. If you force your body to do too much, it will start operating from stress hormones and the adrenals because it's depleted. After a few days, your hormone levels will start to rise again and your energy will come back. I've often noticed that when I truly prioritize rest during my bleed, I have way more energy throughout the month and even more stable moods during my Luteal Phase.
3. You're more intuitive during menstruation.
During the Luteal Phase and the Menstrual Phase the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate more. This means you might notice more things and understand how they make you feel. From a spiritual perspective, menstruation was always the time wise women would gather to receive oracular visions for their tribes. The menstrual phase was understood as a liminal space, a space between the physical and spiritual world.
4. You can only get pregnant six or seven days of the month.
We're so often taught that we need to be afraid of our fertility because we could get pregnant at any time! Not having an understanding about when we are truly able to get pregnant is great for pharmaceutical companies because it means we pay for hormonal birth control and plan B when we don't even need it. Theoretically you can only get pregnant about six days a month. This time frame is based on how long sperm lives in the body (five days) and how many days an ovum (egg) lives in the body after its released from the ovary (ONE day, at most two). Of course, there are some women who produce two eggs or ovulate twice during a menstrual cycle. However, usually when this happens, it's still within a day or so of each other.
Sperm has an easier time surviving during ovulation because of the cervical mucus the female body produces during the fertile window. Ovulatory secretions are a great way to monitor when you're in your fertile window. They're characterized as an egg white-like fluid. It's liquidy and sticky. This mucus begins a few days before your egg is released, and will stop the day after, when the egg has dissolved.
5. There are FOUR unique phases of the menstrual cycle.
The menstrual cycle is not just characterized by bleeding and not bleeding, there are four unique phases women cycle through each month. Each phase has its own hormonal and physical activity in the body. First is the Menstrual Phase, which begins when you start bleeding. Hormones are at their lowest at the beginning of menstruation, and Follicle Stimulating Hormone and Luteinizing Hormone begin to rise. The Follicular Phase begins after you stop bleeding and lasts until your fertile window or ovulation. Hormones continue to rise and the egg continues to develop. During your fertile window, you might experience egg white-like cervical fluid. Before the ovum is released, estrogen rises and LH peaks. After ovulation we enter the Luteal Phase. LH and FSH decrease as progesterone rises. Estrogen is high at first but slowly falls. In the second half of the Luteal Phase progesterone begins to fall as estrogen continues to decrease. This is why many women need more rest during the end of the Luteal Phase and beginning of menstruation.
6. It's normal that you don't feel the same each day.
Understanding the phases of the menstrual cycle is important because it shows that our bodies and brains are quite literally, not the same every day. Having this understanding can lead to women having more grace with themselves when they don't feel the same each day or when they have trouble showing up in the same way each day. It's completely normal that you don't feel the same each day. Your body was designed to have a 28 day cycle, not a 24 hour one. Women are designed to be cyclical, and our world is designed to be linear.
7. Birth Control does NOT regulate your hormones.
Whether you choose to go on birth control to prevent pregnancy, because of uncomfortable hormonal based symptoms, or for some other reason, it's important to recognize that birth control does not regulate your hormones. It does not solve the hormonal issues that may be causing PCOS or endometriosis. It does not regulate your period. You do not have a period on birth control. Birth control pumps the body with artificial versions of estrogen and progesterone. There are different generations of these artificial hormones that can have different impacts on the female body. Usually a 3rd or 4th generation is more likely to cause severe side effects. For more information on this I recommend the documentary The Business of Birth Control and the book This is Your Brain on Birth Control.
Hormonal birth control stops your body from ovulating so you do not get pregnant. When you bleed on the pill, you are bleeding because of hormone withdrawal and the placebo sugar pills (not because your body is having a menstrual phase). I repeat: you do not ovulate and you do not have a true menstruation while you are on hormonal birth control. Perhaps you're thinking, "well of course not, everyone knows that." But there are countless women who are taking hormonal birth control who truly don't understand what the pill is doing in their body.
Birth control might mask the symptoms of conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, or even PMDD, but it's not actually curing the underlying hormonal reason you're experiencing these things.
8. If you get migraines with auras, taking double-hormone birth control can increase your risk for stroke.
This particular topic is one I wish I learned before I began taking hbc. Unfortunately for me, and many other women I've spoken to, my doctor did not inform me of this risk nor did she inquire about my past experiences with migraines, my period, etc. It wasn't until I had been on the pill for six years and had increasingly worsening migraines that I found a study that reported women who experience migraines with auras should not take double-hormone birth control because it increases their risk of stroke.
Migraines with auras are migraine headaches that include one of the other senses. So you might experience a change in vision before or during a migraine, you might taste something specific, have tingling in the arms or legs, or numbness and lack of mobility in an area of the body. I'm not a neurologist so I'm not going to try and explain why having these types of migraines increase the likelihood of stroke when combined with hbc, but it's important to remember that they do. This is another one of those weird things women aren't told when they begin taking birth control. In order for us to truly consent to taking the pill, we need to be fully informed of how it can impact our bodies.
9. Orgasm can change throughout your cycle.
Another way our female bodies are super unique, our orgasmic capacity and experience can shift throughout our menstrual cycle. There are many different theories about this, some say that women are more sexually assertive during the Luteal Phase or that women are more likely to experience clitoral orgasm during the Luteal Phase and cervical orgasm during Ovulation. However, my work with women has showed that each one of us is different. As you go through the next month or two of your menstrual cycle, take note of the kinds of orgasm you experience in each phase. Notice where you feel the most increase in libido and what type of sex or pleasure you crave most during each phase.
It's interesting to note that during Ovulation the cervix rises in the vaginal canal which can make deeper penetration more comfortable. Ovulation and the fertile window is when the cervix secretes an egg-white like discharge which causes the vagina to feel wetter. Women's libido also increases just before Ovulation to make it more likely to conceive. This combination is what makes it supposedly more likely to experience a cervical orgasm during Ovulation. At the end of the Luteal Phase, the cervix is lower and a little more tense, which could be why it's more comfortable to experience clitoral orgasm during that time. However, the most important thing you can do is pay attention to your own body and explore different forms of pleasure during each phase.
10. Menstrual blood has stem cells in it.
Our menstrual blood is literally magick. It's an elixir of life, nectar of the goddess, holy blood. We're taught that menstrual blood is dirty. Period products are called "feminine hygiene" products, we hide our periods with tampons, throw our blood away in the trash can, and are trained that it is THE most embarrassing thing to get menstrual blood on our clothes. But all of these negative things we internalize about menstrual blood don't have to be true. The sacredness of menstrual blood is referred to in basically all ancient cultures. Our ancestors knew that it held mystical properties. They were right. Modern science has now proven that menstrual blood has stem cells in it. These are cells that can grow into any type of cell.
11. It's easy to know what phase of the menstrual cycle you're in, you just have to listen to your body.
We're often taught that it's impossible or even irresponsible to use cycle tracking to prevent pregnancy. I used to think this, too. For years it never occurred to me that knowing where you are in your menstrual cycle is the most natural part of being a woman. When you take time to connect to your body, listen to her cues, and devote time to be with your womb, knowing where you are in your cycle becomes second nature. Many women use the fertility awareness method to track their cycles. This means they take their temperature each morning and record it to establish when they will ovulate. Some women use the menstrual cycle apps. While I agree that it can be helpful to glance at your phone or it can feel more secure to track your temperature using a machine, my advice is to stop relying on an external object to tell you about your body.
Can you track you cycle by simply being with your womb and yoni each day? Can you pay attention to the subtle cues of energy and emotions as you shift from one phase to the next? Can you feel the peak of sexual energy right before you ovulate? Can you feel the stirrings of your womb before you bleed? Have you ever paid attention to your vaginal secretions? Have you ever paid attention to the way you smell? Over the next few months, keep track of how you feel emotionally and physically in each phase of you cycle (you might use some other tracking tool while you do this) and soon, you'll be able to know exactly where you are in your menstrual cycle at any given time without relying on something external. You will know when you should use a condom vs. when it's safe to have unprotected sex. You will know how your ovulation will impact your bleed and vice versa.