Nurturing your body and mind through the four phases of your menstrual cycle could be the best decision you make as a woman.
In our culture, the biological processes that make women most powerful are also the ones that our modern culture fears, or at least views as problematic. In ancient societies, menstruation, labour, and menopause were seen as crucial initiations that brought with them new heights of wisdom and respect. Nowadays, menstruation is something to be ignored and hidden, labour and birth are heavily medicalised, and menopause is seen as a disease state to be managed.
Women are taught from a young age that periods are something to be ignored, in lieu of honouring our monthly need to become introspective and shed what no longer serves us. ‘Onwards and upwards!’we are taught. Advertising for sanitary products suggests that, during our periods, we should all be able to simply wear a tampon, don a pair of tight white jeans and ride a horse –to basically carry on with life as if nothing magical and attention-worthy were happening. Which it is.
The cyclical nature of the menstrual cycle communicates our constantly changing needs, both physically and emotionally. Let’s now explore the four phases of the menstrual cycle and how to best honour them using nutrition, herbs, and lifestyle changes.
The four stages of your menstrual cycle
1. Menstrual phase
This phase starts from the first to the last day of bleeding, approximately three to seven days. This is a time to go within, slow down, rest, or be in quiet communion with other women. When women lived on the land and bled on the dark moon, they were considered between the conscious and unconscious worlds, and often their wisdom was used to guide the tribe.
Good fats, healthy proteins
It is especially important during your period to get enough slow burning carbohydrates, good fats and healthy proteins to give your body all the building blocks needed to create a healthy new uterine lining. Nourish yourself with season-appropriate foods. As we’re now going into winter, that means vegetable soups, hearty stews and bone broths, which contain valuable amino acids and collagen. At this time of the year, moist, raw foods don’t provide enough carbohydrate to counterbalance the energy expenditure needed to stay warm. Winter produce should be mainly beans, legumes and root vegetables, and salads can be made from root vegetables and cabbage. Include plenty of omega-3 fatty acid rich foods such as oily fish, organic eggs with the yolk, nuts and seeds including flaxseed and hemp seeds.
Replenish iron lost during menses by including grass-fed red meat, oysters, mussels, eggs, silverbeet, lentils, cashews, prune juice, figs, and blackstrap molasses in your diet. In some cases (especially for those who bleed heavily), an iron supplement may be warranted –get your blood tested and consult a health practitioner for advice.
2. Follicular phase
After you have a period, you begin to grow a new egg inside your ovary and you enter an energetic cycle of inspiration and creation. As Dr. Christiane Northrup puts it, “our society loves women in the follicular phase!”This phase is ideal for giving birth to something outside yourself.
Now is the best time to do a gentle cleanse to complement the hard work the body has done in releasing the old womb lining. By ‘cleanse’I don’t mean dive into a ten-day juice fast every month, which is far too extreme for most people, and unnecessary. Keep it simple and gentle by incorporating freshly pressed vegetables juices, raw salads if it’s not too cold, and adding sprouts, spinach, or shredded kale to cooked soups just before serving –this is particularly pertinent as we go into winter.
Drink plenty of water or sip on herbal teas. Water is needed for all chemical processes in your body, and it also helps memory. Start drinking more water today, particularly if you exercise heavily. Because of the many chemicals used in our water supply, a water filter is essential.Or buy bottled water in clear glass bottles only.
3. Ovulatory phase
At ovulation, women are often described as electric –our libido is at its peak. Waitresses report getting the most tips at ovulation because they are maximally open to ‘cross-pollination’ from all sources!
Limit coffee and alcohol
Even though you might be feeling fantastic, avoid pushing yourself even harder during this naturally energetic time by increasing coffee consumption. Excess consumption of coffee taxes the adrenal glands, and pushes adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormone) levels up, which leads to greater fat deposition. Women are more affected by alcohol and for longer than men due to their lower body water content. They also metabolise alcohol more slowly because they have a smaller liver cell mass than men. Party too hard now and you’ll feel the effects not just the morning after, but also at your next period when your body is eliminating the month’s waste.
Take advantage of your naturally increased energy levels by making an effort to prepare nourishing meals for yourself more often. Some women I know enjoy holding a monthly full moon healthy feast or ‘pot luck’ dinner to capitalise on their heightened energy levels, metabolism, and joyous feelings.
This is a special group of herbs that help women adapt to all forms of stress. Ovulation is a good time to begin taking them, especially if you experience severe PMS and energy slumps, as these herbs may take a few days or a week to kick in. They also have wonderful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that protect your cells from damage from a variety of chemical exposures, in case you have overdosed on coffee and/or alcohol. Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) are all wonderful adaptogens for women. Consult your natural health practitioner about the best way to include them for you.
4. Luteal phase
If we don’t get pregnant, we move into a cycle of deep inner reflection and release. This is where many women experience PMS. This is when the tide is out, and everything on the bottom of the river that you don’t want to see, shows up. Whatever is not working in your life will hit you like a tonne of bricks in the two weeks before your period, particularly in day 3 or 4 before your period is due.
Rather than seeing this as a curse, as many women have been taught to do, we could see PMS as an opportunity to see what’s not working so that we can go within and do something about it. This is the beauty of our monthly clean-up cycle!
If you have a lot of stuff coming up at this time, consider paying attention to how you’re dealing with the emotional issues in your life. If we don’t do this during our 20s and 30s, wait and see what happens during menopause when 50 years of unresolved stuff hits you between the eyes! If we don’t start to honour our monthly wisdom and actively take part in our monthly clean-up cycles, we’ll have a lot of garbage removal to do when menopause hits, a time when we are meant to be entering the wisdom years of our lives.
Low GI carbohydrates
During the pre-menstrual phase, ensure adequate energy by eating slow-release complex carbohydrates for greater stamina and fewer energy slumps after eating. This is important for anyone troubled by blood sugar symptoms, especially women who have premenstrual sugar cravings.
Magnesium can also assist in cases of hormone and blood sugar abnormalities, and is found in dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, bananas, dried fruit, and dark chocolate –which may explain those chocolate cravings!Zinc is also essential to tone down skin breakouts –oysters, spinach, pumpkin seeds, grass-fed red meat, mushrooms and raw cacao. Just make sure if you choose to get some of your magnesium and zinc from chocolate that it’s the high quality dark kind, with at least 70% cacao.
Although tempting during this phase, try to avoid overeating as it puts an excess load on the digestive tract and will sap your energy even further. The heart has to work harder, and blood lipid profiles are more likely to be abnormal. The risk of high blood pressure also increases.
There are many herbal medicines that can be used for menstrual difficulties. Perhaps the most well known is Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) which seems to be capable of improving amenorrhoea, menstrual irregularities, and many of the common premenstrual symptoms, such as fluid retention and breast soreness. Consult your natural health practitioner before taking any herbs as many cannot be taken with other medications.
One of the simplest and most powerful things a woman can do to balance her reproductive biology and even heal menstrual and fertility issues, is to tune in to her menstrual cycle. Diet, lifestyle, and stress all impact on the ease and regularity of your cycle. Make the impact a positive one.
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