Written by Jenna Norman
On Menstrual Hygiene Day, we must move away from labels that perpetuate the idea of periods as something to be ashamed of. Let’s give that name a rebrand.
Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day, marked annually to draw attention to the plight of women, girls and others who menstruate and who need access to period products and water that they often don’t have. The World Bank estimates that 500 million people lack access to products and facilities, so it’s a worthy cause, but arguably one that needs a rebrand for 2022.
Just as we’ve stopped calling pads, tampons and cups ‘sanitary’ products, it’s time we ditched the hygiene label too. It perpetuates the idea of periods as something dirty and to be ashamed of. While it’s essential that everyone can manage their period in a safe, clean way, menstrual health means a lot more than that.
Thankfully a new understanding of hygiene is emerging. What would it mean to think about menstrual ‘hygiene’ as menstrual ‘wellbeing’? I spoke to experts about three areas that can improve your experience of your cycle as a whole, not just your period.
The number one ‘hygienic’ practice experts recommend when it comes to menstruation is tracking your cycle, either on an app or the old-school method of using pen and paper to note down your symptoms every day of your cycle.
“Understanding our cycle helps us understand ourselves a little bit better and acknowledge that we operate in a wider cycle,” explains Le’Nise Brothers, author of You Can Have A Better Period. “It’s a really good practice that helps us feel differently about what we’re capable of and gives us a little bit more grace.”
The hormones produced throughout our menstrual cycle affect everything from our appetites to our sleep, mood, energy levels, skin, digestion, confidence and even sensitivity to pain and injury. Brothers says our menstrual cycle is our “fifth vital sign” because it can tell us so much about our overall health status.
India Rakusen, presenter of the 28-ish Days Later podcast agrees. “Learning to recognise hormones’ impact on our lives in the different stages, for better or worse, can help us feel more in control,” she says. “We have different strengths in different stages of the cycle and harnessing the right one at the right time is kind of calming and empowering.”
If, like me, you have a menstrual condition like PMDD (pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder), endometriosis, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) or you have otherwise very painful or heavy periods, tracking becomes even more important.
“It gives you a vocabulary to be able to articulate fully what’s going on when you’re speaking to a doctor,” explains Rakusen. “We need so much more research into women’s pain, but menstrual health data can help us recognise that menstruation is a whole amazing complex powerful cycle. The more we learn to understand that, the more power we have over our lives and at our fingertips.”
“Despite half of the world’s population experiencing menstruation, there is not much good quality research exploring how our diets influence our cycles,” says Rhiannon Lambert, nutritionist, author and Food For Thought podcast host. From what research exists, she recommends supplementing and consuming foods rich in calcium and vitamin D, which may help to relieve symptoms of PMS. “It is also important to ensure that dietary sources of iron are kept high during menstruation to avoid the risk of deficiency, as we are losing blood.”
Nutritionists agree that because hormones are partly made up of amino acids and cholesterol, eating for menstrual health means prioritising plenty of protein and dietary fats. “It also makes sense to reduce foods such as alcohol, caffeine, fizzy drinks and fatty foods, which may cause inflammation of the gut and lead to bloating,” says Lambert. Stock up on nuts and seeds. You’ll also want to be putting leafy greens like kale, chard and broccoli on your shopping list as these contain many of the vitamins we need for healthy cycling including A, E, D and B vitamins. Lambert also recommends omega-3s in oily fish and seeds, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and may reduce the pain of cramps. There is also evidence that magnesium can ease premenstrual symptoms especially when taken alongside vitamin B6 for maximum absorption.
Everyone’s body is different, and there are plenty of environmental and financial considerations to make, but for me, attempts to switch from a primarily vegetarian diet to one that contains lots of oily fish, occasional organic meat, eggs, and plenty of vegetables (as well as magnesium and vitamin B6 supplements) helps ease my PMS. A long-standing battle with chocolate and the pub garden may be compromising these efforts, but if menstrual wellbeing means being kinder to ourselves, I say it’s about finding that balance.
And it’s not just what you put into your body that matters. “The hormones released during menstruation are known to slow digestion, so it’s essential to focus on eating lots of fibre and drinking plenty of water to keep bowel movements healthy,” says Lambert.
Exercise, rest and de-stress
Exercise and physical or mental stress can change the way we experience our cycle, so listening to our bodies when it comes to rest and movement is a must. Research shows biological interactions between key hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone, and neurotransmitters, such as cortisol (the stress hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone). These impact our training, stress levels, mood and sleep.
Brothers explains how our training can benefit from an awareness of our cycle: “After we finish our period, our oestrogen starts to rise and so does our testosterone, so you might notice that strength gains are easier,” she says. “After you ovulate, when progesterone is reaching its peak, is the time when cardiovascular exercise can feel easier.”
In the run up to our periods our bodies are often asking for rest or gentle exercise. Exercise is an essential tool to improving our health, but too much of it can be detrimental to ovulation and the period itself. Overexercising and excessive stress can cause amenorrhea (loss of periods).
Similarly, Brothers explains how our sleep can also be affected by our hormone levels. “Progesterone is our calming hormone that helps us get better sleep so when that is peaking after ovulation we might sleep better,” but this can drop off as we approach our period, leading to premenstrual insomnia.
Honouring that we’re likely to be more tired before and during our period is another great way to prioritise menstrual wellbeing. “In the first half of our cycle we have these chemicals making us feel really buoyant and more resilient,” says Brothers, “but as we move towards the period, it’s really great to make sure you’re getting enough sleep and also being a little bit gentler with yourself. Say to yourself: ‘I’m not going to take things personally during this time.’”
Reducing stress in our 100-mile-an-hour world where structural inequalities often dictate stress levels is tricky, but these resources are full of realistic ways to prioritise menstrual health in our daily lives:
•Period Power by Maisie Hill
•The Gynaegeek by Dr Anita Mitra
•The Red Zone by Chloe Caldwell
•Podcasts: 28-ish Days Later, Period Power, Period Story
•Clue is a popular cycle-tracking app (and it doesn’t sell your data)
Expanding our definition of menstrual hygiene can be life-changing for everyone with a menstrual cycle, but especially people with challenging symptoms. This Menstrual Hygiene Day, I say it’s time we ditch patriarchal ideas of menstrual hygiene and empower ourselves with the knowledge to focus on our menstrual health and wellbeing.
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