It’s hard to believe that what we eat could possibly affect the length of our period, whether it is heavy or light, or even whether we experience PMS or not. However, the period is a key indicator of what’s going on inside of a woman’s body. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists refer to a woman’s period as her 5th vital sign: meaning menstruation is as important a health indicator as what body temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure are (1). So, what is your period telling us about you?
Periods are generally affected by an imbalance of our hormones: predominantly estrogen, progesterone and also testosterone. A woman is unlikely to know when her hormones are IN balance, but will definitely know when she is OUT of balance. She may, however, not associate some of the body symptoms she is experiencing with hormones. Some of these symptoms may include irritability, weight gain, skin breakouts, cravings, headaches, fatigue and reduced libido. She may also not realise what an impact food can have on all of these factors.
As period health is not always discussed, often it is hard to know what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘normal for you’. Tracking your cycle can be the most helpful and insightful piece of information for your practitioner so that we can see over time what has been going on. There are some fantastic apps on the market now which make tracking your cycle very simple.
In clinic, when we start to investigate getting to the root cause of any issue with a client, we will ask a range of different questions relating to their period which can include:
The Bleed: Do you still have a period? If no, when was your last bleed? If yes, is it heavy? How many pads/tampons would you use a day? What is the length of the bleed? What colour is the blood? Any clots?
The cycle: Is it regular? What is the period of time from the start of one bleed to the start of the next bleed?
PMS: Do you suffer premenstrual tension, headaches, cravings, bloating, sore breasts, fluid retention and/or pain, irritability/anxiety? Does the pain interrupt your day-to-day activities?
Contraception: Are you taking an oral contraceptive pill? For how long? Are you experiencing any symptoms from this?
Our diet and lifestyle can have a profound effect on the way our hormones are produced and the way that they function. Below are some of the issues which can cause hormonal imbalance and some dietary strategies to adopt for each:
Inflammation: hormones are like chemical messengers in your body and if inflammation is present, other inflammatory chemicals, called cytokines, can interrupt our hormonal messengers doing their job. The following foods are anti-inflammatory:
- Turmeric: try adding a teaspoon to your smoothie, or sprinkle on top of fish or add to your salad dressing
- Ginger: try grating fresh ginger on top of fruit salad or breakfast porridge for an extra zing
- Omega 3 fish oils found in seafood, flaxseeds (linseed), walnuts and chia seeds are anti-inflammatory
- Ask your practitioner about whether supplementing with magnesium, zinc or fish oil may be beneficial for you
Gut health: our hormones require nutrients to be produced and if our gastrointestinal tract is inflamed, and not absorbing the nutrients from our food efficiently, then our hormones will be affected. The following foods support a healthy gut (however, some of these foods can also irritate the gut so please speak to a qualified practitioner if you find any of these foods give you gastric symptoms):
- Prebiotics: these are what our ‘gut bugs’ feed on so having plenty in our diet will keep the good guys around – asparagus, onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and garlic
- Probiotics: fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut naturally contain beneficial bacteria that have been shown to support a healthy gut
- Fibre intake: our excess hormones are excreted through the bowel and so ensuring you have the recommended 25g (for women) a day of fibre will help you stay regular and ensure you don’t store unwanted hormones. You may be shocked to know how little fibre you actually are getting. Very few people hit their target each day, and this is imperative to overall functioning.
High cortisol: as with most other health conditions stress has a profound impact on our hormone health. Hypothalamic-amenorrhea (HA) is a condition that can be caused by a range of stressors on the body including physical, nutritional, or extreme emotional stress. Managing our stress levels is an important part of keeping our hormones balanced. Some stress busting techniques to try:
- Switching high intensity exercise like running for something more restorative like yoga or walking in fresh air: this could actually have a more positive impact on your hormonal health
- Ensure you are eating enough to sustain your activity levels – too few calories can be a major stressor on your hormonal production
- Asking your practitioner about whether supplementing with magnesium and Vitamins B5/B6 could be beneficial for you
In some instances more serious conditions such as cervical cancer, thyroid problems, or PCOS can be at the heart of your problem – so it’s important you consult with a qualified practitioner.
For a personalized consultation on your hormonal health, please book an appointment with our resident clinical nutritionist, Leanne Myliotis. Small changes to your overall diet can have a profound impact on your overall health and wellbeing. If you would like to know more about anything you have read here or are experiencing difficulties with your menstrual cycle, Leanne would love to speak to you.
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 2015. Menstruation in girls and adolescents: using the menstrual cycle as a vital sign. Viewed 22nd Feb 2021 https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committee-opinion/articles/2015/12/menstruation-in-girls-and-adolescents-using-the-menstrual-cycle-as-a-vital-sign
- Hechtman, L. (2012) Clinical Naturopathic Medicine. NSW, Australia: Elsevier.