Did you know that menstrual cycle-related health issues can respond very well to simple lifestyle changes?
By following these four steps, many people could notice a significant improvement in their health and wellbeing, often without the need for medication (and its risk of side-effects). Better still, even if these changes do not completely solve your health issues, they will definitely help, and won’t make things any worse, since they are all health-promoting .
Note: If your symptoms are caused by your contraceptive medication, we suggest that you discuss your options with a doctor. These steps may reduce symptom severity, but are unlikely to be able to stop them completely while you remain on the same medication.
Healthy Diet- This is probably the most critical step, because what you eat affects your overall health considerably .
Please see this blog post for more information and to see the clinical research references behind these 8 recommendations:
1. Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
2. Eat lots of fibre (and drink water with it!)
3. Eat oily foods (mainly unsaturated fats)
4. Reduce meat and dairy products
5. Avoid sugary foods and drinks
6. Avoid caffeine
7. Avoid alcohol
8. Take nutritional supplements, if needed (e.g. Omega oils, calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamins, and zinc)
Note: A vegetable-based ‘anti-inflammatory’ diet, is also recommended for the management of stress , and several major diseases that have been linked to chronic inflammation; such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s .
Exercise- Don’t panic! You do not have to run a marathon, or take up competitive sports (unless you want to!)… What’s most important is that you regularly spend time moving your body, developing your strength, and getting slightly out of breath. The key to success is finding an activity that you enjoy doing, perhaps with others, to provide the motivation to keep going .
The NHS recommends that adults spend;
- at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week, and
- strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).
Obviously, there are many reasons why exercise is good for your health, but in terms of menstrual cycle-related symptoms it can maintain a healthy weight, improve self-esteem and low mood, and reduce the risk of major diseases such as diabetes type 2 .
Self-esteem– It is very easy to develop negative feelings towards your menstrual cycle, or body, if you experience cyclical, or chronic ill health. You may also find it difficult to work, socialise, exercise, care for others, or do the things you usually enjoy. This can lower your mood and self-esteem, and increase anxiety levels.
Getting to know and trust your body, especially the taboo bits (i.e. genitalia, or painful parts), can boost self-esteem. This is especially important because we have often been taught that menstruation is a disgusting, shameful, or somehow immoral, process- despite it actually being crucial to our health and wellbeing. Making peace with your body can make a surprisingly big difference in improving mental and physical health.
Happily, improving self-esteem is a relatively easy thing to do!
It involves noticing any negative internal thoughts, and analysing them to prove to yourself that they are not actually true, or reflective of who you really are (i.e. a human being of equal worth to all other human beings) . Some people might benefit from the support of a professional counsellor, but a good (and cheap) starting point is this amazing booklet from the Oxford Cognitive Therapy Centre.
Using a menstrual cup, and tracking symptoms over time, can also help boost self-esteem. For example, a menstrual cup encourages the user to get to know (and like!) their reproductive anatomy better, and to observe menstrual fluid up close. Just like symptom tracking, cup use helps people to know what is normal for them, and so feel more in control of their health and well-being.
Reduce stress– Although we have become used to differentiating between ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ health, this is actually an artificial separation, especially when thinking in terms of physiological effects .
For example, it is known that the menstrual cycle interacts with the HPA (Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal) axis, better known as the ‘stress axis’ . If you experience an increase in stress hormone levels, you will feel anxious- your ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered. This is what we have evolved to do, regardless of the fact that this response might have been triggered by your menstrual cycle, or contraceptive medication , rather than a scary, dangerous, or otherwise stressful situation.
Interestingly, research shows that menstrual cycle-related symptoms are strongly affected by external (stress) factors . For example, in severe premenstrual mood swings, or irritability, the triggering social factor is nearly always an experience of ‘injustice’ of some sort- e.g. whilst trying to get children ready for school, if your partner does not equally share this responsibility. In fact, being single, or having a supportive partner can significantly improve hormone-related symptoms, by simply reducing the sense of ‘injustice’ regarding personal responsibilities during the premenstrual/ menstrual phase !
By tracking symptoms over time, and getting to know when you are likely to feel more anxious, or sensitive to stress, you can feel more in control, and ‘resist’ those first fluttery feelings in the pit of your stomach. Take note of any triggering experiences- this will help you to identify the cause(s) of your stress e.g. work, home, or finances etc. Relaxation techniques or mindfulness practice can help to calm your breathing, and body, to break out of a downward spiral of emotional distress. Talk to others in your life about the triggers that contribute to your stress levels. Perhaps they could help in some way e.g. provide childcare support, help you to manage debt, or simply allow you some more space (e.g. at certain times in your cycle)?
Please cite as: King, S. (2017) “Four steps to better menstrual health and wellbeing…” Menstrual Matters, [Date accessed], https://www.menstrual-matters.com/managing-symptoms/