Do you flare during Menstruation?
Integration of nutrition and herbal medicine into mainstream healthcare has been a slow, if somewhat non-existent, process. This often leaves women with limited options in the sphere of menstrual health (Romm, 2017). Inflammatory symptoms of various autoimmune diseases are often exacerbated during menstruation – an experience that is often unaddressed in the conventional world of autoimmunity. This is critical to address, given that women are statistically more likely than men to develop an autoimmune disease (Ngo, Steyn, & McCombe, 2014).
I recently took a workshop on tracking the menstrual cycle and herbal medicine with Krista Poulton, a herbalist and educator on women’s health in British Columbia. This workshop was filled with important information that I want to share to with you, so here’s a recap of some of the most important points:
Our Systems are Connected
Our reproductive system is not isolated from the other systems in our body. Have you heard about the HPA Axis? This stands for Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, which highlights the areas of the body involved in the stress response. Those of us with an autoimmune condition know that stress is often a precursor to inflammation and can cause a flare of symptoms.
As the research mounts, we are beginning to understand more and more about the interconnectivity of our systems. So, how does this relate to the menstrual cycle? The ovaries play a vital role in this system. If stress, nutritional deficiencies, sleep disturbance, or other factors impact the system, then the ovaries and, subsequently, the menstrual cycle, can be impacted. By tracking our cycles throughout various stages of the lifespan, we can gain important data on the health of this interconnected system.
So, how do we gain access to the data that our bodies hold? One way is to track the phases of the cycle.
Tracking Your Cycle
There are 2 phases of the menstrual cycle: (1) The Follicular Phase, (2) The Luteal Phase.
The follicular phase represents the first half of the cycle, beginning with day 1 on the first day of menstruation and ending at ovulation. During this phase estrogen levels start low and begin to increase. The low levels of estrogen at the beginning of the cycle stimulate the follicles to develop, which, in turn, stimulates estrogen to increase and the endometrium to grow. This phase can be more variable than the luteal phase.
The luteal phase represents the second half of the cycle, beginning with ovulation and ending at day 1 of menses. This phase lasts roughly 12-14 days and results in an increase in progesterone provided by the corpus luteum.
The two phases can be tracked through the use of three options, (1) basal body temperature (BBT), (2) cervical mucous, and/or (3) position of the cervix (Weschler, 2015).
To take your BBT, you need a thermometer that is accurate to 2 decimal places. Take your temperature at roughly the same time each morning immediately upon waking up, but before you get out of bed. A rise in temperature usually indicates that ovulation has occurred, which is more precise when combined with the other two tracking options. A fever, alcohol consumption, less than 3 hours of sleep, or using a electric blanket that you don’t usually use can all impact temperature (Weschler, 2015). Take note of these variables while tracking your temperature. Cervical mucous can indicate that the egg is maturing. Clear and slippery fluid usually indicates ovulation, although, this can vary, especially if you currently take a hormonal form of contraception (Weschler, 2015). The position of the cervix presents another tracking option. The cervix is firm and low when not fertile and soft and high when fertile, although, there is also variation in these patterns as well (Weschler, 2015). See the Resources section below for more reading on this topic.
Tracking can help to assess:
- Adrenal fatigue
- Thyroid issues
- Estrogen dominance
- Low Progesterone
Figuring out how to assess the above is best done in consultation with a health-care practitioner. The important point is that this information is accessible when we tune into our bodies and consider the connectivity of our systems.
Nutrition and Herbal Medicine Can Help
Nutrition and herbal medicine offer several options for relieving symptoms associated with the above and for supporting transitions throughout the lifespan. A holistic approach may include:
- Supporting the liver to improve proper hormone elimination
- Acute and long-term pain relief strategies
- Gut healing protocols to address the important bacteria within our bodies
- Stress relief to support hormone balance and the HPA axis
The Western medical system has focused on separating the body into distinct systems. This has a very important purpose in several instances, including acute care. For chronic disease, however, the body, as a whole, has reached a state where the interconnectivity of our systems has been compromised. We often separate autoimmune conditions into the corresponding systems that they impact on a measurable symptom level, such as the thyroid, joints, skin, eyes, bowel, etc. The issue with this is that by giving a name to a specific system that is affected, we risk overlooking the underlying systems that are also impacted.
It’s rare to have an autoimmune disease that is only the result of one system malfunctioning. It’s often a combination of factors within the gut, immune system, and HPA axis that contribute to the symptoms we cluster together for a diagnosis. For me, joint pain almost always comes with digestive upset and stress!
Let’s Address the Holistic Aspect of Autoimmunity
Until we can start to talk about the body as an integrated holistic system, it’s unlikely that conventional medicine will provide the tools necessary for addressing the root cause of autoimmunity.
Tracking your menstrual cycle can act as an additional tool to understand how the systems of your body are connected, allowing you to piece together another part of the autoimmune puzzle. Never stop questioning…never stop learning. You are your biggest health advocate!
Read below for resources on this topic (I have no affiliations to any of the brands/books listed):
Menstrual tracking apps:
- Fertility Friend
- A quick Google search will demonstrate that there are lots!
Basal Body Thermometers:
- Any thermometer accurate to 2 decimal places (surprisingly difficult to find in drug stores!)
- Something like this will work
Books (check your local library for access):