Obviously there are a lot of things that can go awry in the female reproductive system, and I'm not even going to touch on more serious conditions like endometriosis, fibroids, cysts and such things, in this post, but will talk about ways you can manage the more day to day discomforts of menses.
I've battled with painful periods and moodiness and hypersensitivity PMS for years. I can't honestly say that I've completely rid myself of all the discomfort of my cycle, but I keep working on it, and here are some of things I've found that work really well for me.
First of all, you have to change your attitude about menstruation. Yes it can be a pain, literally, and inconvenient, but it is also an incredibly rich, and fertile time in a woman's life. You won't get very far in overcoming some of the discomforts if all you can do is curse at your body for what it is doing, naturally. Being able to bring forth life through our fertility is a gift and a blessing, and even if a woman chooses not to have children, we can still bring forth life to creative projects, dreams, self growth, and embrace our feminine nature, in whatever shape that takes for us as individuals. Our monthly blood isn't dirty, and really isn't an inconvenience. It's a time of cleansing, letting go, creativity and self awareness and respite. Learning to accept and love your body, and respect the processes that make us women is a huge step in working with healing the menstrual pain many of us experience.
Ensure proper nutrition for hormonal balance. There are a lot of factors that go into your body's natural hormone balance and fluctuations throughout the month, but much can be accomplished by ensuring proper nutrition throughout the month. The hypothalamus, the endocrine gland responsible for the production of dopamine ( which is essentially the manager of the hormone regulation pathways) requires certain nutrients to function properly. The most important ones are B vitamins (B6 especially), Zinc and Magnesium. I've found that taking a combination of those as supplements throughout the month dramatically decreases my unpleasant pre-menstrual symptoms. If I get enough magnesium (800mg daily) and B6 (100mg daily) my moodiness and irritability is extremely minor. Even my sweetie says so. I also find that when I take both of those vitamins that my hypersensitivity to light, sound, smell, and touch is reduced. There was a time when I couldn't drive my car at night due to the barrage of lights, sounds, and stimulus. Though I am still extra sensitive during my cycle, I can much better filter the stimulus into meaningful information that I can use to further my own self awareness and growth.
Omega 3 fatty acids are of great importance in reducing any inflammation that causes premenstrual cramping and breast tenderness. I use at least a tablespoon of fish or cod liver oil every day. I've also heard of some women getting great results by eating salmon three times the week before they bleed.
Fiber is very helpful as well, as it reduces constipation (very common during menses), and helps to capture hormones that have been processed and eliminated by the liver in bile secretions, and excrete them from the body. Endogenous hormones that recirculate in the body can cause all sorts of havoc. This is most common with estrogen, which the liver processes and then secretes in the bile into the digestive tract to be eliminated with waste. If there isn't enough fiber to keep things regular and bind with bile in the digestive tract, estrogen can be reabsorbed through the intestines and cause hyperestrogenic symptoms.
In the week before menses ensure you are eating plenty of fiber rich foods, include chia, flax or sesame seeds in the daily diet. Also you should focus on eating plenty of warm, smooth and easy to digest meals in the week before menstruation. These types of foods are very calming to irritated vata element in the body, and irritated emotions. We might CRAVE creamy ice cream to soothe our woes, but we'd do better to choose a warm well cooked soup with vegetables, legumes, or well cooked meats. Cold, raw salads, crunchy crackers and the like can aggravate the vata element and make us more irritable and increase discomfort during menses.
One of my favorite new treats I learned about from an Ayurvedic practitioner are sesame ladhu, which are rich in minerals ( especially calcium) , healthy fats, warming spices, smooth ghee and fiber rich sesame seeds. I can whip up a batch of these in about 10 min, put them in the fridge for 15-30 min and then enjoy almost right away. It is suggested to eat one ladhu per day for menstrual problems, but I can't seem to keep them around long enough to eat just one a day.
Here's the recipe:
1/2 c whole Sesame seeds — * lightly roasted
1/4 c Jaggery sugar — (raw sugar works just fine too)
25/50g Coconut — grated from block,or use dessicated
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Cardamom — powder or seeds ground
1/2 tsp Ginger — ground
2 tbsp Ghee - warm and runny (you could probably make lovely ladhu with coconut oil or melted butter, but ghee is especially good, Make your own or buy it at the indian grocery.)
Grind seeds in a blender to a coarse powder, then add other items and mix in a blender.
Roll into small balls. I find they fall apart easily so gently round them into a ball and place on plate gently. An ice cream scoop or melon baller would work well too to form these.
refrigerate for 20-30 min, and store covered. Eat one a day ( I bet you can't eat just one. I can't)
*Note: Roast sesame seeds at low heat (electric 2) until they are golden brown; any darker gives a more bitter taste.
These are delicious, and everyone in the household can take part in your treat, and enjoy it. They might complain if you eat them all to yourself though, they are that good.
Oil Massage- Another excellent vata pacifying practice you can use during the week before menses, and especially during is a self administered oil massage. Choose an oil that pleases the senses. Sesame or jojoba are excellent choices, and you can scent them with rose, lavender, ginger, ylang ylang, geranium or other essential oils. If you have herbal infused oils those are especially nice to use in your self massage.
Warm up about 2-4 oz of your oil, strip down and stand on a towel or blanket you don't mind getting oily, and then rub the warm oil all over yourself, gently massaging as you go, starting at the feet and working your way up to the top of the head. Don't forget the face, ears, and neck, and the top of your head. Your scalp will love you for giving it oil and a massage. Give special attention to the area around the hips, thighs, uterus , breasts and lower back to relieve tension and increase circulation to the reproductive areas. This is nice to do if you are having cramps and using a warming oil like ginger mixed with antispasmodic pain relieving oils like lobelia or cottonwood bud.
Once you've massaged yourself all over , treat yourself to a warm fragrant bath to soothe the nerves, ease tension and to rinse some of the oil from your skin. Turn down the lights, smudge the room with sage, turn on some soft music, and relax for 10-20 min. This is especially good for menstrual cramps. I suggest not using a soap to wash all the oil off, you want the medicinal herbs to sink in, and the oils to moisturize your skin. Just pat dry with a towel and put on comfortable clothes.
During this sensitive time you should make sure to get plenty of rest. I always need hours more sleep on the days that I'm bleeding. It is almost torture to force myself out of bed early on those mornings, and I find it much more productive and self nourishing to get those extra hours of sleep, get to work a bit later and feel much more peaceful and centered throughout the day. Don't be surprised if you have less energy on those days as well. Don't expect yourself to be able to work as long , as hard or as fast. Your body is doing its best to cleanse and release and your focus should be on letting your body do what it needs to during this time. Ideally we'd all be able to take these days off work, school and other family obligations and sit in a red tent with our sisters who are also bleeding, but for many of us, it is just isn't possible at this time. I suggest giving yourself the extra gentleness and understanding that you need different things at this time of the month, including more sleep and less activity.
If you can spend more time focusing inward, writing in your journal, working on creative projects, and lavishing attention on yourself through good food, baths, and peace, do so. pay special attention to your dreams during this time, and look closely at the feelings, intuitions and emotions you experience during this time. Often I find that irritability or moodiness is more related to me not paying attention to my needs and giving myself the space I need, or that I have some latent feelings or emotions that I've been putting on the backburner, and not dealing with during daily life. This IS a sensitive time, and you can gain much insight into your self by heeding the feelings and emotions you experience. For me, I know that the first day of my menses I really want to be left alone, I don't want to be talked to, or talk in return. I'd rather work quietly alone, and have my personal space. I need that time to rejuvenate and focus inward. Pay close attention when you are feeling cranky, and ask yourself what you are truly needing in that moment, and then give it to yourself, and see if your mood doesn't change.
Of course, last, but certainly not least, the herbs can be our greatest allies in this time of our cycles.
For cramps: Wild Yam (Dioscorea), Ginger, Turmeric, Peony (red),Valerian, Lobelia, Cramp Bark, Angelica, Dong Quai (not if you bleed heavily)
I find a strong decoction of wild yam, ginger and turmeric works well for me. Tinctures seem to be less effective, but even a simple tincture of wild yam has offered relief when needed in the middle of the night.
For moodiness, irritability, tension- vervain, motherwort, wood betony, black cohosh, evening primrose, scullcap, passionflower
For me, myself and I, vervain and motherwort are especially effective, but it will depend on your symptom set. If you tend toward depression and brooding, black cohosh may be your great friend. If you get into uncontrollable crying jags, motherwort may be helpful. If you get angry and snappy scullcap and wood betony might do the trick.
Dandelion, nettles, shatavari, turmeric
And don't forget your flower essences for the deeper, finer nuances of what you experience during your menses. Rescue Remedy can be used at any time during emotional swings of the cycle.
Mustard or gorse for depression
Chicory or heather for neediness, clinging
Red Chestnut for worry about others
White chestnut for thoughts that just go round and round in your head, when you can't let go of something.
Larch for feelings of unworthiness, or insecurity, self doubt.
Crab Apple for feelings of disgust, body image issues, and dirtiness.
Of course there are more essences that are appropriate, and discovering which ones can be helpful is a learning process in and of itself. If you are interested in flower essences for PMS or menses, let me know and I'd be happy to help you decipher what might be of help to you personally.
Obviously, this is just a start, there are many more things you can do to care for yourself during your menses and beyond, but there's enough here to get you started on changing your relationship and experience of the female cycle.