Updated: Jul 4, 2018
Women tend to grin and bear PMS, pain or heavy flow as if it’s the norm - yet it really doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ll say it again: just because PMS, heavy or painful periods are common, doesn’t mean they’re normal. All of it can be avoided by taking a few simple steps towards holistic hormonal health.
Think of your period as a monthly report card on your health - it’s there to tell you what’s wrong, and what you might need to change. What a great tool, eh?
The female hormones oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate naturally each month according to each stage of the menstrual cycle
In the follicular phase, which starts on the first day of menstruation, oestrogen is produced by the ovaries and helps the ovarian follicle to grow and develop ready for ovulation. After menstruation, the womb lining starts to thicken to prepare for a potential pregnancy.
Around day 14, oestrogen spikes and ovulation happens. The ejected follicle then starts to make progesterone, which takes over as the dominant hormone in the final two weeks to make the womb receptive to implantation.
If no pregnancy happens, both hormones slowly decrease until a final drop in progesterone provokes menstruation and the beginning of a new cycle.
A certain amount of fluctuation in these hormones is normal - in fact, women who practice cycle awareness find they can take advantage of these ebbs and flows to achieve greater success and satisfaction across different areas of life.
For example - when oestrogen is highest during the first two weeks of the cycle, we tend to enjoy greater mental acuity, concentration, confidence, physical stamina and people skills. This is when important goals are accomplished and relationships are strengthened.
When progesterone kicks in after ovulation, we tend to be more passive and introspective, with heightened powers of creativity and emotional intuition. We may write or cook more, tend to our gardens or come up with innovative ideas.
Then in the week that menstruation begins, a drop in hormones means we naturally feel withdrawn, solitary and lethargic - this is a good time to reflect on the previous month, daydream about the future and implement important changes.
Simply being aware of and giving space to the cycle has the capacity to lower stress levels significantly and improve PMS and other menstrual symptoms.
However, for some women it isn’t that simple and they need to make a few changes before their symptoms improve. Why do some women experience two weeks of torture and others laugh their way into the follicular phase? We don’t really know. There isn’t enough research on female physiology and female suffering is often trivialised and overlooked.
What we do know is that PMS happens either when the body becomes over-sensitive to the natural fluctuation of hormones throughout the menstrual cycle, or when there is too little or too much of a particular hormone in circulation.
Let’s have a look at those hormones and how their normal fluctuations can be disturbed.
Healthy ovulation, healthy periods
Progesterone is the most essential hormone where PMS is concerned. It connects with GABA receptors in the brain and has a soothing, calming action. It is also anti-inflammatory and boosts thyroid function, and generally provides the “feel good” factor.
The only way to make sure you’re getting enough of this lovely hormone is to have a strong, healthy ovulation.
Magnesium, vitamin B6, zinc and selenium are essential for ovulation, so I always start with a good multivitamin. I love the BetterYou Multivit and Magnesium oil sprays as they bypass digestion and are easily absorbed.
Make sure there’s nothing wrong with your thyroid or blood sugar levels as these can affect ovulation too. And most importantly, don’t stress! Stress affects ovulation and therefore lowers progesterone… if this is you, find a relaxation or meditation practice that suits you.
A great herb for boosting progesterone is Vitex agnus castus - probably the most well-researched herb for PMS treatment. Taken at the correct dosage, it promotes ovulation by suppressing prolactin secretion from the pituitary gland. It also contains opiate-like constituents which explains its calming effect, helping with premenstrual anxiety and sleep problems.
Hormones & inflammation
Underlying inflammation is another thing that impedes ovulation, affects oestrogen detoxification and blocks GABA receptors, lowering progesterone.
So, how to reduce inflammation? The simplest way is to avoid sugar, wheat, dairy and excessive amounts of animal protein, and eat lots of lots of vegetables. If you think you might have specific food intolerances, try to address these too.
My favourite herb for inflammatory period pain, uterine or gut inflammation is turmeric, or Curcuma longa. Women often come across turmeric by chance - they take the supplement for their knee or shoulder pain, and then realise they’ve just had a pain-free period!
This golden wonder spice is better at reducing inflammation than aspirin and ibuprofen, and has none of the side effects. It also works on the liver to promote a healthy menstrual cycle by helping with the detoxification of hormones.
Add it to almond milk with black pepper for a delicious anti-inflammatory drink, or to eggs, vegetables, rice, sauerkraut… anything! Up to 8g per day is tolerated and safe. And always use organic.
On the other hand there’s oestrogen. A weak ovulation leads to too little progesterone and too much ‘unopposed’ oestrogen, but our modern environments are also very ‘oestrogenic’ which only adds fuel to the fire.
Things like antibiotics, alcohol in excess and dairy products increase oestrogen by damaging gut and liver function and promoting inflammation, for example. Iodine deficiency increases cell sensitivity to oestrogen, and plastics, pesticides and other environmental chemicals expose the body to synthetic forms of oestrogen, causing a build up in the tissues over time.
The result? Breast tenderness and irritability, mood swings, fluid retention, heavy or painful periods, fibroids and endometriosis, breast and uterine cancers.
One marvellous herb that reduces oestrogen excess and boosts female fertility is Angelica sinensis or Don Quai. It contains weak phyto-oestrogens that sit on the body’s oestrogen receptors and block the action of stronger oestrogens. Angelica is also my favourite herb for women with a weak, sluggish or pale flow with clots, as it promotes circulation to the uterus.
Looking after your liver is also great way to keep oestrogen at bay, as the liver is responsible for detoxifying all our hormones. Have a look at my previous post for some ideas on how to do this.
It is also possible to have too little oestrogen in the run up to a period. Oestrogen boosts serotonin, so too little of this precious hormone can cause debilitating depression and insomnia caused by low serotonin levels.
In this case, you may benefit from oestrogen-enhancing herbs like Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) and Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) - however, taking the steps mentioned above to increase progesterone will also help to counteract the effects of low oestrogen.
Healthy, happy hormones
I will be running a few workshops on women’s health in 2018 where you will be able to learn even more about hormonal health - and you can always come and see me for a consultation, either in Luz or Aljezur, if you need help figuring out the best strategy for you.
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