I wouldn’t be in the health care field had I not suffered through years of bursting ovarian cysts and dysmenorrhea (aka, painful periods). That rough patch led me to commit to healing with weekly acupuncture treatments. These sessions taught me to drop the stress, clean up my diet to mitigate inflammation, and take charge of my health with better routines. Within two years of treatment and intense soul-searching, I was pain-free and my cycle was regular. In short, that was the catalyst for figuring out my life’s calling to guide people back to wellness.
The Menstrual Cycle is a complex orchestration of hormones that cycle every month. I’d love one easy explanation to how it works, but unfortunately, we’re not simple beings by design. Having a period every month involves the central nervous system, endocrine system, ovaries and uterus work in conjunction to make pregnancy possible.
So when something happens to your period that makes it abnormal or irregular, remember that your body will always work to your detriment to protect your reproductive system. Women’s bodies were created to procreate, whether or not they choose to do so.
how a menstrual cycle works
Estrogen and progesterone are the primary hormones that fluctuate in great quantity during an optimal menstrual cycle. A woman’s ovaries produce the hormone estrogen. With the help of estrogen, the lining of the uterus and mammary glands can develop. Remnants of a follicle that release an egg from the ovaries, called the corpus luteum, produce the hormone progesterone. The lining of the uterus is prepared to build in the event of egg fertilization or shed if not fertilized.
The follicular phase lasts from Day 1 to Day 14 in an optimal cycle. Here, the levels of estrogen being produced by a maturing follicle reach a peak. Three other hormones must be considered at this point in the cycle; Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), follicle stimulation hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH). GnRH initiates the monthly cycle responding to circulating estrogen and progesterone levels in the bloodstream. FSH promotes the growth of follicles, and LH promotes the process of ovulation. GnRH, FSH, and LH are released under conditions of high estrogen levels and low progesterone levels. A secondary egg is then released from this maturing follicle, called ovulation. Before Day 14, LH levels will peak as ovulation occurs.
The luteal phase is then prompted by ovulation and lasts from Day 14 until the end of the cycle at Day 28. Follicle tissue left behind from ovulation is then known as the corpus luteum. Progesterone peaks during this phase as the corpus luteum continues to promote its production.
When fertilization doesn’t occur, the levels of estrogen and progesterone that rose over the 28-day timeframe will drop, sparking menstruation. Day 1 is considered the first day a woman begins menstruation. Day 28 marks the end of the menstrual cycle when the lining of the endometrium can start to shed if an egg was not fertilized in this timeframe.
hormonal imbalances lead to period problems
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is one of the largest struggles women experience each month. PMS symptoms can be anything from headaches, cramps, food cravings, weight gain, irritability, anxiety, and breast tenderness to name just a few. These symptoms usually subside once a woman starts bleeding, but cramping and heavy bleeding during the period aren’t a walk in the park to make it any better.
Everything from medications to nutrition can influence how PMS goes for a woman each month, but the crux of it all that influences how easy or miserable PMS can be is hormones. Hormones are influenced by how we treat our body. As explained above, hormones involved in the menstrual cycle are wildly complex.
If you went to your gynecologist to complain about PMS and they put you on birth control pills, that doctor likely isn’t looking at the root cause of your symptoms. Birth control pills are just a largely ineffective band-aid for a larger, systemic problem with hormonal balance in the body. Instead of correcting the root cause of hormonal imbalance, birth control pills use synthetic hormones to trick the body when natural levels of estrogen and progesterone are out of whack.
If you’ve ever heard of someone losing their hair, gaining weight, or suddenly developing cystic acne when going on birth control or coming off of it, it’s because the body has to make the adaptation to compounds (synthetic hormones) that are foreign to the body.
nutrition for PMS
If you want an easy period, it takes discipline to treat your body right throughout the entirety of the cycle. Aka, you need to take care of yourself for the whole month, not just react when PMS symptoms rear their ugly head. There is no “quick fix” to the menstrual cycle, it takes a lifestyle shift.
the right kind of fat
The body uses fat for hormone production, but when it’s an inflammatory kind of fat, it makes our insides unhappy. Especially if you have a condition like PCOS, dysmenorrhea, or endometriosis, avoid vegetable oils like the plague. Canola oil, soybean oil, margarines, and peanut oil shouldn’t be eaten, especially when heated because they oxidize and become rancid substances.
Omega-3 fatty acids can benefit your hormone production greatly. From the diet we can obtain these from cod liver oil, wild-caught fish, sprouted walnuts, raw flax and chia seeds. If you require greater quantities of omega-3s, opt for a high-quality supplement.
avoid the inflammatory stuff
If your body is fighting inflammation from poor food choices, it doesn’t have time or energy to synthesize healthy hormones. I understand the craving for a bag of chips and soda is strong, but that means you probably don’t have adequate nutrient stores to fight those cravings.
conventional animal products (sources of pesticides and synthetic estrogens)
grass-fed / pastured proteins
sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes
high-quality fats (ghee, avocado oil, EVOO, coconut oil, etc..)
in-season fruits and vegetables
check out the cause of cravings
And before we move onto supplements, let’s look at cravings because they can be a huge symptom of PMS. Cravings are actually your body’s way of telling you that you are deficient in some nutrient. Carb cravings? Check your B vitamin status and maybe cut back on the coffee (because it robs your body of B vitamins). Chocolate cravings? Check your magnesium status. We’re smart by design. Sure, many of the vitamins and minerals that cause cravings can come from foods, but a more therapeutic dose could be more effective at the onset of a craving during PMS.
don’t skip meals
It it critical to control your hormonal balance by eating regularly. Like we talked about earlier, your body will always work to your detriment to protect your reproductive system. If the body senses starvation, control of insulin and glucose levels go out the proverbial window, further disrupting hormone regulation.
supplements for PMS
Before you reach for the Midol and Advil, let’s look at natural ways you can fight the PMS woes. Because this list is a broad look at supporting PMS, I recommend booking a nutrition therapy consultation with me to discuss formulas and further supplements for optimal results with your bioindividuality.
This magic mineral is a cofactor for thousands of reactions that take place in our bodies but in the name of PMS it’s great for sleep, hormones, and cramps. When looking for a supplement, stay away from magnesium oxide, magnesium chloride, and magnesium hydroxide. Magnesium glycinate and magnesium citrate are the most bioavailable, gentle forms to supplement.
Magnesium should be taken daily to get your body used to it and increase its efficacy throughout the month when you’re managing PMS.
Vitamin D can be obtained from the sun because it’s synthesized by the cholesterol in your skin, or taken as a D3 or fermented cod liver oil supplement (also contains vitamin A, K, and omega-3 fatty acids).
Gelatin makes the best matcha latte (I drink it every morning) but is a nutrient powerhouse with calcium, magnesium, and phosphate to help synthesize healthy hormones and soothe the GI tract.
This herb works wonders targeting the reproductive system, specifically helping balance progesterone and lowering prolactin to mitigate PMS symptoms
lifestyle for PMS
get your REMS in (aka, sleep)
It takes a lot of energy to have a period every month. Give yourself the rest you need. And I think this is a given, but sleep makes literally everything about your health better. We sleep so that our body systems can rest and restore. Cells can rebuild themselves and repair can be done where it needs to be, given we have the right nutrients in the diet to support regeneration.
exercise the right amount and type
Please don’t go wild on the cardio and HIIT when you’re having your period. You don’t need to spike your stress response during your period, yoga or light pilates are better suited. Try to get 20 - 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily throughout the entire span of your cycle, even if it’s a brisk walk.
support your liver
The liver is your #1 detox organ. I get fed up when people thing going on a juice cleanse is a detox method. Our bodies have organs to detox us, and they need to be supported. Some of the supplements that support optimal liver detoxification include milk thistle, choline, and the amino acid taurine.
But before adding in supplements, it’s important that we avoid sources of endocrine disruptors that add to our toxic load. Conventionally produced animal foods, as well as toxic self-care and home products among other chemicals and plastics are an enormous burden on the liver and compromise optimal health.
look at your stress
Your menstrual cycle gets painful, irregular, and annoying from one fundamental root cause: your hormones are out of whack. Hormones become out of whack when we’re stressing ourselves out physically and/or mentally, eating the wrong things, and exposing ourselves to environmental toxicities.