This guest blog post was written by functional nutritionists and founders of Body in Balance Nutrition, Amanda Montalvo (RD, FDN-P) and Kim Perez (NTP).
Disclaimer: the information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not designed to replace individualized recommendations from a practitioner. Always check with your doctor before adding supplements or making changes to your treatment plan.
For so many women, menstruation is such an awful time that it’s tough to imagine that some period symptoms may not be normal. We’re conditioned in our society to believe that our periods are just something we have to deal with as women— a burden we’re cursed with every month— and, worse, one we don’t really talk about.
We’re sadly not taught that periods are a metric of health, that they can be enjoyable, and that intense symptoms during our periods are a sign of a deeper imbalance, not just bad luck. And we’re definitely not taught that we have the power to naturally improve the way we experience this sacred time of the month.
Women experience a wide trajectory of symptoms before and during their periods. In fact, you may even find that your symptoms vary cycle to cycle. So what’s actually normal and a sign of a healthy period? What may be unusual? And what can we do about it?
"Just because something is common doesn't make it normal."
What is Normal?
Let’s start by going through what is normal to experience during menstruation. As we move through our cycles, our hormones are fluctuating, which is what causes these changes in symptoms. You'll see the fluctuations in hormone levels throughout your cycle below.
One of the most common symptoms leading up to (and during) our periods is fatigue.
The reason this occurs is that during the luteal phase, our hormones reach their highest point. This means that our bodies (and livers) need to process more hormones, which can slow us down a bit.
This is okay! We are supposed to slow down during our periods (so take this as a nudge to take it easy during this time).
On the other hand, you could also be experiencing fatigue during your period due to your nutrition, lack of water intake, not getting enough sleep, and stress.
All of these are not necessarily normal, although they are common, but by improving these lifestyle habits, you can greatly improve menstrual fatigue. (More on that below!)
2. Increased Sensitivity/Feeling Emotional
It’s normal to feel more emotional and sensitive during our periods for a couple reasons:
- Our bodies are less equipped to handle stress during this time. This is why we recommend making a period plan and trying to take it easy (even if it’s just for 15-20 minutes) at least the first day of your period. The more you can reduce stress, the better your future cycles will be.
- Our brain hemispheres can talk more! The barrier between the left and right hemispheres of our brains thins during menstruation, which allows them to have more communication. This leads to more contemplation, creative thoughts, and deep thinking. It’s a great time to journal, spend time alone, and get creative!
3. Cravings & Increased Hunger
Did you know we burn more calories the week leading up to our periods?
That’s why we get cravings for carbs and starchy foods, as well as fat-rich foods like chocolate and nuts. Our bodies are smart and want to adapt for that increase in metabolic rate.
We recommend keeping your favorite healthy treats on hand during this time especially. By avoiding processed sugars, you can keep hormones balanced and nourish your body so that your cravings don’t become out of control.
It’s when we are depriving ourselves that we typically go overboard!
4. Cramping & Bloating
A little bloating before and during our periods is normal.
About a week before our periods start, our progesterone starts to decrease, which can cause bloating since progesterone is a natural diuretic.
Light cramping is also normal.
During our periods, our body releases pro-inflammatory prostaglandins-- hormone-like substances that cause the uterus to contract and shed the lining. This is what causes bleeding.
But if your cramps make you double over in pain and curl up in a ball all day, or are accompanied by digestive distress, this can be a sign that you have too many prostaglandins (more on that below).
5. Breast Tenderness
Having some mild breast tenderness before our periods is also normal.
The increase in estrogen causes the breasts ducts to enlarge and the rise in progesterone causes the milk glands to swell, which can both lead to tenderness.
If you have extreme tenderness, that could be a result of a hormonal imbalance (we’ll cover this in a few).
What is NOT Normal?
Although some symptoms are normal to experience during and even before our periods, ultimately, they shouldn’t interfere with our day-to-day lives!
There are actually times when certain symptoms can signal a deeper imbalance in the body.
Many women believe just because their friends, sisters, moms, aunts, or other women in their life experience these symptoms too, it means they’re just our luck of the draw as women. Just because something is common doesn’t make it normal!
Let’s go over some of these and explain why they may be happening and most importantly, how you can address them naturally.
But first: No matter what your symptoms, it’s really helpful to track your cycle if you don’t already! Tracking the length of your cycle, duration of your period, and the frequency and intensity of your symptoms (and ovulation if you can) can give you very clear insight into what nutritional and lifestyle choices are impacting your symptoms and your period health.
1. Intense Cramping
Regularly experiencing cramps so painful that you need to miss work or schoo or make you wonder if this is what childbirth feels like, means you may be dealing with an overabundance of prostaglandins.
This is especially true when cramps are accompanied by low back pain or digestive distress like diarrhea. Prostaglandins can affect other areas of the body like the digestive organs, causing them to contract as well, leading to pain and increased bowel activity.
Why would someone have too many prostaglandins?
A few common causes are an inflammatory diet, chronic stress, smoking, or alcohol consumption. One of the most common ways women deal with cramps is taking an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen. These work by blocking pro-inflammatory prostaglandins.
But before you pop an over-the-counter painkiller for your period pain, listen to this:
Just as there are pro-inflammatory prostaglandins, there are also anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. This means instead of blocking inflammation, you can help your body do what it naturally does by boosting these anti-inflammatory hormones.
Extremely painful periods can also be a symptom of endometriosis, a disorder where uterine lining grows in areas beyond your uterus, such as your ovaries and fallopian tubes.
Other symptoms include abdominal, back, or hip pain, painful sex, and breakthrough bleeding. You’ll want to consult with a doctor if you struggle with any of these symptoms, especially if natural methods and lifestyle changes don’t help.
Intense headaches and migraines right before and during our periods can also be a sign of an overabundance of prostaglandins and therefore, inflammation.
However, menstrual migraines are commonly caused by estrogen dominance, when the body has too much estrogen compared to other hormones, especially progesterone.
What causes estrogen dominance? It varies depending on the person, but common causes include: hormonal birth control use/history, gut dysfunction (especially constipation), PCOS, chronic stress or inflammation, and poor liver detox.
3. Painful or Cystic Breasts
As we mentioned, some breast pain is normal leading up to our periods, but severe pain can be a sign that there’s an underlying imbalance.
Fibrocystic breasts means you have small masses or benign cysts in your breasts that cause pain.
The most common reason for fibrocystic breasts is surprise, surprise… estrogen dominance!
4. Soaking Through Pad/Tampon Every Hour
We lose on average two to three tablespoons of blood during our periods- in total.
If you’re soaking pads or tampons in under two hours, (especially in consecutive hours) or using more than 5-6 per day, or if you’re passing large clots, it’s time to do some investigating.
It’s especially important to take action if you also have symptoms of anemia like fatigue or shortness of breath. Very heavy periods can be a sign of something deeper going on, like low iron, estrogen dominance, fibroids, a thyroid condition, or other hormonal imbalance.
What Can You Do About It?
Read on to see how you can address the problems mentioned above naturally!
|Symptom||What You Can Do|
In addition to the recommendations above:
If you’re making the lifestyle changes that we’ve mentioned in this post and tracking your cycle, and not seeing improvements in 3-4 months, we recommend checking in with your doctor. This is especially important if you suspect a condition like endometriosis, PCOS, or hypothyroidism.
You may want to consider working with a functional or integrative practitioner if you prefer more of a root-cause approach to your period symptoms and are seeking holistic treatment rather than simply being prescribed a medication. Functional practitioners will investigate areas of your health like your hormones, gut, detox, and more.
We’ve put together a holistic guide to help you start balancing your hormones and create happier periods. You can download this complimentary resource here. We also run a free online women’s health group, Balanced Babes, and all are welcomed to join! Here, we educate, guide, and support women using our functional perspective on health and wellbeing. It’s a safe space for all women to talk about topics related to women’s health, hormones, nutrition, and self care!
See you there!
Kim Perez (NTP) and Amanda Montalvo (RD, FDN-P) are functional nutritionists who are trained in a holistic, integrative approach to health. They are on a mission to help women feel amazing in their bodies and get excited about taking care of themselves. Because they’ve been there themselves before, Kim and Amanda are passionate about helping women eliminate hormonal imbalances naturally through food, lifestyle habits, mindset, and targeted supplements tailored to each woman. They believe in the importance of intention, the power of intuition, and the value of prioritizing self care. Check out their free download for healing your hormones here.
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