On being a woman, period.

Before I launch into writing this post, I will just warn you that I’m about to write about my period and how it has affected (and been affected by) my overall health.  I’m only doing this because I think that some people feel squeamish and uncomfortable talking or reading about bodily functions that are managed in the toilet, and I’ll admit that I was one of them until I decided to have children.  I guess since then I have come to feel much more respect and less disgust for something I used to consider a real inconvenience simply because I didn’t fully appreciate its purpose.  I’ve decided to write about it because people are interested in some of the dietary changes and experiments I’ve been conducting in the kitchen lately, without realising that my motive for doing all these things is to try to manage my menstrual cycle naturally.

I didn’t get my period until I was 15 going on 16. I get the impression this was quite late, as most of my friends had already grappled with this awkward learning curve from the ages of 12-13.  I assume this means I will most likely be menstruating till I’m in my late 50s and this is one of the reasons why I’m trying to be really proactive to make my period more manageable even though I’m approaching 40.  As a teenager, pretty much as soon as I’d had a couple of regular cycles I went to my doctor and asked about the contraceptive pill.  Because I had no need for birth control, I’m not quite sure now why I started taking the pill. I think maybe I thought I was really “grown up” for doing so.  It felt like I was taking charge of my body at a time when it was changing in quite an overwhelming way.  I was encouraged to think that I could ‘pause’ or ‘skip’ my period with the pop of a pill.  It seemed really convenient.  I confess I also liked the sound and feel of popping the aluminium seal each morning.  I used some form of the pill for about 10 years, sometimes changing from one brand to another in search of the lightest, most pimple-free period possible.

At 26, I headed overseas for a year of backpacking, mostly to explore Europe. In preparing for my time away I had to consider how I was going to ensure an uninterrupted supply of the pill. Given that I’d spent my entire adult life thus far desperately single and very unpromiscuous, I decided to just stop taking it and simplify my packing 😉 .  It was actually pretty shocking to me how manageable my period was that year and the years that followed.  I was in my mid- to late-twenties before I finally found out what my natural cycle was and how my naturally occuring hormonal changes affected me.

When I met my husband 7 years later, I went back on the pill for about a year before we decided to have children. Basically, I looked at him and he looked at me, et voila! I was pregnant.  Our little girl arrived healthy and in good time but I wasn’t able to continue breastfeeding her beyond 3 weeks, so unfortunately for me my period returned when she was about 3 months’ old.  And boy did it return with a vengeance.  My periods were so extremely heavy that I was really incapacitated for a full week out of every four.  I needed to return to part-time work when Stella was 9 months’ old and I was really anxious about it.  As a teacher, I couldn’t be rushing off to the bathroom every half an hour for 2-3 days at a time!

One day I shared my worries and woes with a fellow new-mum friend and she enlightened me about the existence of “Mooncups” (menstrual cups).  I will write about the benefits of using menstrual cups in a future blog post if you like, but for now let me just say that discovering the cup was a life-changing experience for me.  I’ve had super-duper extremely heavy periods ever since having children, except of course when I was pregnant and breastfeeding our No.2.  My Sckoon cup has allowed me to leave the house during even my heaviest days (although some days it’s just easier to hide out at home all day 🙁 ).  My mum told me she’d suffered the same fate as me and she’d survived it just fine, so I may have just continued living in resigned acceptance of my monthly burden but for the fact that I’ve just been getting more and more tired. I mean really, really tired.

Sure enough, a recent blood test showed I was very low in ferritin (your body’s stored iron). I’m as low in iron now as I was in late pregnancy, even though I have a fabulously healthy diet which includes lots of iron-rich meat and fresh vegetables, as well as homemade chicken liver pâté (yum!).  Because I am now reluctant to go back to taking synthetic hormones through the oral contraceptive or IUD¹, the doctor’s suggestion for how I could manage my periods better was to pop a pill of tranexamic acid a few days each month to reduce the volume of blood loss.  I was really reluctant to because the list of possible side-effects and contraindications was very long and a wee bit scary.  I also felt that in prescribing me this drug, the doctor gave me the impression that she had little interest in finding out the cause of my heavy bleeding, which she noted down as “menorrhagia“.  It is understood that excessive blood loss can lead to anaemia, but did you know that anaemia can cause excessive blood loss as well?  I decided to give ‘natural’ medicine a go before reverting back to pill-popping, so I made an appointment with a qualified medical herbalist.

If you’re expecting me to conclude by saying that the herbalist cured all my health problems, including my menstrual woes, I’m sorry to disappoint.  I am not, however, disappointed myself because I always expected this issue to take a long time to unravel and resolve.  I’ve been extremely heartened by my herbalist’s complete confidence in our ability to normalise my blood loss through nothing other than my diet.  Over the past six months I have made some drastic dietary changes which I’ve documented in previous blog posts: I’ve quit coffee 😮 , I quit dairy (except butter), I’m almost completely gluten-free these days, I quit sugar (except the odd teeny weeny bit of dark chocolate!), and I’m fermenting or at the very least activating all the seeds and grains I prepare.  I take a herbal concoction she prepares for me, and recently I had a go at making my own iron tonic from dried herbs, plant roots, and molasses.

My homemade iron tonic includes yellow dock, nettle leaf, dandelion root, astragalus root, rosehips, and molasses.

These are massive changes which have required extreme willpower and a wee bit of social embarrassment (my friends aren’t quite sure what I actually eat these days…) but I’ve decided I’ll do it, indefinitely if necessary, if it means I can balance my hormones and normalise my periods without having to resort to synthetic chemicals and/or surgical intervention.  My herbalist is convinced – and the literature I’ve read over the past couple of years seems to lend weight to this – that my period problems are directly related to the health of my gut.  This is why I have quit dairy and gluten, even though I seemed to have no symptoms of an intolerance to either – because maybe in actual fact I did have a symptom; a really debilitating, quality-of-life-affecting one.  It didn’t show on my skin, but maybe this symptom is just as obvious as eczema is to someone who recognises it.  Moreover, if my herbalist is right about my gut flora impacting on my menstrual cycle then my taking the contraceptive pill all those years (ago) may have contributed to my situation now¹.  So while the simple act of popping a pill as a way of solving my problem is alluring, I am determined to do things the slow, less convenient way, in the hope of better understanding and supporting my body – not just for myself, but for my daughter as well.  I want to be able to share with her all that I have learned about my own body through this journey, so that she can reap the benefits and live her life healthy, happy, and free.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress… 😉
Esther x

PS. FYI, here’s my first progress update: https://mrsgoodness.nz/homemade-iron-tonic/

PPS. And here’s where I am two years later… https://mrsgoodness.nz/the-good-the-bad-and-the-what-if/

1. Why? Because…

Links to previous posts on…
Why I quit dairy
Why I quit coffee
Why I quit sugar

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  • I can totally relate. The first part of your post could be about me. First period at 16, straight on the pill, came off at 24 and periods were all over the show. Hormones were up and down, to the point I was sent home from work for uncontrollably crying for no reason at all! Had my son at 26 and refused to go back in any birth control that messed with my hormones. Periods weren’t heavy but were incredibly erratic – sometimes going 6 months without one, sometimes getting it twice a month. Went to a naturopath a year ago wanting to balance my hormones and become more regular. Quit dairy and wheat and now my periods are like clockwork! Naturopath reckons being on the pill for so long created a massive gut imbalance and messed with my hormones. No more issues without dairy or wheat. Feel so good! Thanks for sharing your story. I love hearing about others in similar situations

    • Thanks for sharing your story too! It is indeed really comforting to know that others are going through similar issues; I really wonder why we don’t talk about it more, when it’s such a massive part of our lives. I feel so lucky I was able to conceive so easily and have such (apparently) healthy children when clearly I had some major health problems I didn’t recognize.
      Thanks again for your comment