Your period as a barometer of your hormonal health
Your period. Chances are you live in a love-hate relationship with her or have at some point in your life. If you are not actually cursing her (anymore) and wondering who invented this unfair punishment for women, you might simply have silently surrendered, trying to deal with her as good as you can, pain-killers and all. In best case you might have gotten to a point where you are able to accept her as just another more or less annoying nuisance that comes with being a woman. It would probably not occur to you to look at her for guidance, leave alone a source of power. And yet that is exactly what she has to offer.
My own period story
I got my first brown spotting at age 12 and a more or less regular period at age 13. The initial excitement of finally becoming a “grown-up” was quickly buried under the experience of pain and discomfort that my period has been accompanied by from the beginning. I still remember my first fainting episode at around age 14. In this sense losing my period due to my eating disorder and excessive exercise at age 17 could have come almost as a relief. However, I already understood back then that losing your period was not a good thing and the thought of maybe never being able to have children motivated me enough to slowly start pulling myself out of my self-created prison. Still it should take 5 years for my weight, body-fat percentage and hormones to be stable enough that my body would trust me again and allowed me to get my period back. In the meantime, I was put on hormonal replacement for menopausal women, which didn’t feel half as cool and grown-up as I imagined taking the pill was – to the contrary… but I still took it for maybe 2-3 years.
When I finally got my period back, I was very happy and relieved. However, the pain at onset also returned and actually got worse and worse. Even though it only lasted for half a day on day 1, for the coming years the main thing I associated menstruation with was pain, devastating pain. Pain so bad it would completely knock me out. Pain that would confine me to bed with a hot water bottle on my belly, trying desperately to relax. Pain that would make my body want to empty itself on all levels. Pain that would even make me pass out sometimes, fracturing my jaw in one, and my foot in another occasion (luckily nothing more serious… I could have easily broken my neck…). Once I almost fainted on the bed of a friend who I was secretly in love with – which could have been nice for a change, had he not been completely shocked by being woken up in this way in the middle of the night :). Still, I considered all of that “normal” somehow. The gynecologist prescribed me pain killers (and also the pill at some point) and even though I only took them when I really could not manage the pain anymore, it’s thanks to them that I was able to actually dance at my 30th birthday…
Ever since I had started my journey into holistic health and nutrition I knew that pain killers were no real solution to my problem. From my training in Traditional Chinese Medicine I understood that there was a link between menstruation and liver “qi” stagnation, which is often caused by suppressed anger, frustration and a tendency towards perfectionism. However, it was only in 2013 when – as part of my Metabolic Typing continuous training – I attended a weekend workshop on hormones, that things started to shift for me. This workshop was eye-opening to say the least, life changing to be more accurate (irony had it that I missed one lecture because I had to lay down to deal with my period pain…). For the first time I really understood the delicate processes that govern a woman’s cycle. Sure, I had learned about the menstrual cycle in school, but just like many other things I learned in school, the concepts had stayed abstract rather than acquiring any real-life significance. And of course the training went much further and deeper. Now I was finally able to connect the dots. I was able to see how my symptoms were speaking to me about hormonal imbalances in my body. I got tested and was indeed diagnosed with high cortisol, low DHEA, low progesterone, low thyroid and absolutely low, but relatively high estrogen. On top of that, my ongoing explorations in psychosomatics and the symbolism of symptoms made me realize that my period struggles were strongly related to issues with my inner Feminine. My body literally had to force me to take a break from “doing”, to rest during this time of cleansing and renewal, to turn inwards and look at the pain that being a woman apparently still caused me. All of this made me finally go on a quest to get to the root of my problem.
Today my period is basically pain-free. It usually announces itself through some light pulling, but sometimes I only notice it when it is already in my pants (since my cycle is super regular, I am usually prepared). I can still feel my uterus working, but it is nothing compared to what it used to be. I can go on with normal life. I do not get diarrhea nor have to throw up nor do I faint anymore. That being said, I do take it easy and deliberately give myself time and space to rest and to turn inwards to make use of my hightened sensitivity during these days.
So even if you and every woman around you seems to suffer, let me tell you that periods do NOT have to be painful – at least not to such an extent that the pain is only manageable with pain killers. Suffering is NOT just a natural part of being a woman. A woman’s period is a vital sign that can help us judge how healthy and fertile we are. It can inform us about how well we respect our cyclical nature and are at peace with our inner Feminine. However, since we are not usually trained to look at our periods in that way, we have no idea what a “healthy” period should look and feel like and what signs to watch out for that something is off. Leave alone what to do about it, except for taking the pill or pain killers.
The menstrual cycle
The cycle starts by the pituitary gland sending out follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH tells follicles in the ovaries to grow. The follicles produce estrogen, which triggers the pituitary gland to secrete luteinizing hormone (LH). Estrogen and LH make the uterus build up a thick uterine lining, and cause changes in the vaginal mucus to make it a better environment for sperm.
Ovulation is triggered by a peak in estrogen. If sperm are present, the egg may be fertilized in the fallopian tube. Then it travels down into the uterus and implants in the endometrium. The so-called corpus luteum produces progesterone which keeps the endometrium in place. If the egg goes unfertilized, it eventually dissolves and progesterone will drop. As a consequence, the uterine lining begins to shed. If you do not ovulate, progesterone levels stay low while estrogen is uncontrolled. The endometrium continues to grow, you might experience long cycles and eventually experience something called “estrogen breakthrough bleeding”, which often manifests as heavy bleeding, but is still different from a regular period. If on the other hand, you do ovulate, but progesterone levels drop too quickly, you might experience very short cycles.
If you let it, your period can be a barometer for your hormonal and emotional health, your fertility and your relationship to your inner Feminine. Here are some of the key connections I learned about and that might help you figure out where you are currently at. Determining your status quo is crucial for developing a healing strategy (obviously, this is not meant to diagnose anything, but to give you a first idea to then confirm with your gynecologist).
- Severe cramps, pain, PMS: low progesterone, relative estrogen dominance (meaning total estrogen can still be too low in absolute terms, but it is too high relative to progesterone)
- Short cycles (<25 days): low progesterone or something called Luteal Phase Defect
- Long cycles (> 35 days): indicate lack of ovulation, relative estrogen dominance and high androgens
- Brownish bleeding: low progesterone
- Scarce bleeding: low progesterone and/or hyperthyroid
- Heavy bleeding: relative or absolute estrogen dominance and/or hypothyroid
- Clots: estrogen dominance
- Tender breasts during second half of cycle: low progesterone, relative or absolute estrogen dominance
- Cysts: low progesterone, relative or absolute estrogen dominance
- PCOS: relative estrogen dominance, high androgens, reduced insulin sensitivity (some degree of insulin resistance)
- Acne: relative estrogen dominance and high androgens
- Water retention: low progesterone, relative or absolute estrogen dominance
- Endometriosis: low progesterone, relative or absolute estrogen dominance
- Weight gain: absolute estrogen dominance
- Migraines: absolute estrogen dominance
- Absence of period: Low estrogen (and low everything else probably)
Please note that ALL of those conditions have the common denominator of deregulated cortisol (stress hormone). High cortisol from chronic stress (even if it is low-level stress) suppresses the production of sex and thyroid hormones. Sometimes those conditions are sub-clinical, meaning they cannot be diagnosed and everything seems to be normal on paper. I am all about getting tested (for hormones, saliva or urine tests are best), but my message is to always also listen to the body and trust it – rather than relying solely on numbers. If you feel that something is wrong, it probably is. Taking action to reduce stress, whether it manifests as physical, mental, emotional or spiritual stress can never hurt and is the first thing I recommend to do in any of those cases. Concretely that means working on optimizing nutrition, lifestyle and mindset, and looking at areas in your personal life (money, work, relationships…) that cause you disproportionate stress. Additional measures such as acupuncture or energy healing can also be very useful (they definitely made a big difference for me), but ideally in combination rather than as stand-alone. (In a future post I will share all the concrete measures that helped me personally.)
Once you start to work with your body and cycle instead of against it, you can start to access the power that it holds to inform your life. This is the process I am currently in and it is mind-blowing to say the least. However, the first step is to reconnect to your cycle and understand how it is talking to you. This is what I hope to inspire with this article. For more information, personal guidance and recommendations adapted to your individual case, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.