By Melissa Hohaia, Naturopath
I remember being a teenager and waiting with anticipation for the day that I would become a ‘woman’. My understanding of this process was limited to an awkward conversation with my mum and a few sex education classes where we got to experiment with putting a tampon in a glass of water – not so beneficial in preparing me for what was to come! When the time did come for me to cross over the threshold into womanhood I found myself completely grossed out and inconvenienced by the whole process. Every month or so I was crippled with cramps, blinded with migraines and then caught off guard with a flood of blood that would leave me feeling wiped out and reduced to sitting on the sidelines at gym class. There was a level of embarrassment and humiliation, and the only option I was given to soothe my woes were painkillers, heat packs and the oral contraceptive pill (OCP).
Since working as a Naturopath, I have learnt that the idea of just managing or artificially regulating our cycle is the story for so many females and I believe that it is time for us to become empowered by our hormones and realise and work out what is ‘normal’ and what signs our body gives us when things aren’t ‘normal’. It is important that we distinguish between ‘normal’ and ‘ideal’ – as what should be our ideal cycle has become blurred by what is slowly being accepted as ‘normal’ due to the growing number of women experiencing non-ideal symptoms. If you sit around and chat with your girlfriends about their cycle you will probably find that it is normal for all of you to experience some kind of PMS, but I would like tell you that it is NOT ideal and should therefore NOT be accepted as normal – all of these PMS symptoms are clues that your body is trying to tell you that things aren’t in balance – it is time to listen to them.
Here are my top five clues that you can use to know if your cycle is ideal…
1. THE LENGTH OF YOUR CYCLE SHOULD BE CONSISTENT EACH MONTH
A cycle length between 25-35 days is normal, but whatever your cycle length is it should be consistent each time. So if it is 26 days one month and then 32 days the next followed by 28 days after that, this is not normal and your period is irregular.
If your cycle is consistently less than 25 days, there is a good chance that you are experiencing what we call Luteal Phase Defect. This is where the second half of your cycle after ovulation is shortened – this is most commonly caused by lower progesterone levels and higher estrogen levels (referred to as estrogen dominance).
In contrast, if your cycle is longer than 35 days then you may have a condition that is preventing or delaying ovulation – such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
2. BRIGHT RED FRESH BLOOD SHOULD BE SEEN IN CONSISTENT AMOUNTS
During the bleeding phase of your cycle (referred to as menses), the blood flow should be a bright fresh colour resembling ‘cranberry juice’ and present itself in a consistent flow with no clotting or mucous present.
If there are clots, lumps, or a thicker darker blood flow then there is a good chance that your estrogen levels are higher than ideal and that blood flow is sluggish or stagnant. Women with higher estrogen levels can also experience heavier blood flow and moments of ‘flooding’, where large gushes of blood are released suddenly (typically upon standing after lying down or sitting).
If your blood flow is light and pale, then this could be an indicator of lower estrogen levels or a reflection of poor nutrition or stress. As women approach menopause, menses will typically get lighter and paler in colour as the ovaries slow down their production of estrogen. Abnormally light periods can also be an indicator of autoimmune conditions and PCOS.
3. BLEEDING SHOULD BE OVER WITHIN A WEEK AND THERE SHOULD NOT BE ANY OTHER TIME IN THE MONTH WHERE BLEEDING OCCURS
The typical duration of your period is 2-7 days. During this time, it is common for most women to lose 10-35ml of blood and will generally soak 2-7 regular pads or tampons (each regular pad or tampon typically holds 5ml of blood). If you find yourself needing to change your pad/tampon frequently (less than two hourly), doubling up on the protection (using a pad and tampon at the same time), or still bleeding after 7 days then it is possible that you are experiencing an abnormally heavy menses. In addition to uncovering why this is happening, it is important that you get your iron levels tested – as bleeding to this extent can deplete your iron levels quickly and leave you feeling drained and exhausted.
Bleeding after your period is also not ideal. If you experience random bleeding during your cycle it is important to see your medical practitioner to rule out any infection, cancers, polyps, or hormonal imbalances.
4. YOU WILL SEE CHANGES IN YOUR CERVICAL FLUID OR DISCHARGE IN YOUR PANTIES
It is VERY NORMAL to see changes in your vaginal discharge. Over the month as your hormones change and fluctuate, they signal to your cervix to produce different types of fluid. This fluid production is dependent on the level of estrogen and progesterone. After your period there should be no discharge, but as your estrogen levels rise the fluid production should become more noticeable and the texture/consistency should become more viscous and stretchy (like the texture of egg whites). After ovulation, as progesterone levels rise the discharge should become sticky/tacky and then dry up.
If your discharge is coloured, lumpy, smelly or accompanied by other symptoms such as itchiness or burning, then this in NOT NORMAL and you need to go see your medical professional.
5. SYMPTOMS SUCH AS CRAMPS, BREAST TENDERNESS, AND MOODINESS ARE NOT ACCEPTABLE
Many women will mention these symptoms to their GP only to be told that they are normal. Individually they may not seem large enough to be concerned about, but I’m hoping that after reading this today you will be able to use these symptoms as warning signs that things aren’t ideal.
Ideally, when your body goes through its monthly hormonal changes, you should be free of any cramping, breast tenderness, bloating, fluid retention, headaches, food cravings, emotional changes etc. There can be multiple reasons and treatments available depending on the individual imbalances so it may be worth discussing these with your naturopath at your next consult if you would like to explore it further.
Are you interested in becoming empowered by your hormones? My colleague Natalie Pickering and myself will be running an exciting new series of educational sessions called “Womanly Wisdom”. Please see the separate information included in this E-news edition.