Two years ago, after several years trying various birth control options and failing to find one that felt right for me, I came off the pill for good. Before leaving hormonal contraceptives behind, I did my research, arming myself with books, courses, and information that would help me make informed decisions about how to maintain my fertility while preventing pregnancy. Beyond finding a method that works for me and my life, I finally started to understand what a healthy cycle was supposed to look like and why it mattered.
What is a healthy cycle?
A healthy cycle, as defined by Lisa Hendrickson-Jack in her book, The Fifth Vital Sign, identifies a healthy cycle as characterized by “adequate production of your main ovarian hormones—estrogen and progesterone.” One of my main motivations for coming off of hormonal contraceptives was so I could use my menstrual cycle as a vital sign. As a long distance runner, I am at risk for losing my menstrual cycle due to a high training volume. Unfortunately, being on the birth control interfered with my ovulation and made me question whether or not my body was working as it should. While not all hormonal contraceptives suppress ovulation, all of them expose women to synthetic hormones, thus resulting in hormonal imbalances that can have consequences. Since most birth control pills create a “false” bleed each month, I had no way of telling if I was capable of ovulating. Once I ditched the pill, I was able to use my menstrual cycle as a vital sign: yes, I was ovulating, and in doing so, I knew my hormones were functioning, and in doing so, protecting my bones, thyroid function, and a host of other important functions.
Several studies, including this 2003 review in the Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, note the link between amenorrhea—the absence of a period—and osteoporosis. As Hendrickson-Jack notes, “Regular ovulation is only possible when your endocrine and reproductive systems are functioning normally, so an irregular or abnormal cycle is an early warning sign of an underlying health problem.” Knowing the difference between a healthy cycle and an unhealthy, or absent, one can be the catalyst to taking a closer look at your overall health.
What does a healthy cycle look like?
Every woman’s cycle will look unique. More importantly, every woman’s cycle will change over her life. In The Fifth Vital Sign, Hendrickson-Jack suggests that most women bleed between 3-7 days with a total volume between 25mL and 80mL over the course of menstruation. That said, fluctuations can happen due to stress, travel, sleep issues, or heavy work or training loads. You may have irregular periods if you have fewer than 9 menstrual cycles per year or have fluctuations of more than 8 days from period to period.
What comes as a surprise to most women is that periods should not be painful. Having painful or irregular periods is an indicator that something is wrong and while annoying and downright painful, can prompt an investigation into the cause. Learning to chart your menstrual cycle—whether you use it as Fertility Awareness Method for pregnancy or to avoid conception, or you simply want to learn more about your monthly cycle—can be an empowering tool to understanding your body. Once you learn to take your basal body temperature (waking temperature), understand the health of your cervical mucus, and even check the position of your cervix, if necessary, you can begin to see your health differently, too. Thyroid disorders, polycystic ovary syndrome, hypothalamic amenorrhea, and even chronic underlying infections can first be spotted through charting. Once you notice something is off, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist or health care practitioner to get the support you need and deal with the issue at hand.
What can I do to support my cycle?
Although there are a number of ways to maintain and support a healthy cycle, at the top of the list is nutrition. Focus on nutritional density, aiming for foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. Some great options include:
- cod liver oil
- pastured eggs
- shellfish and seaweed
- bone broth
- probiotics like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir
- a variety of vegetables
Additional steps to take include:
- getting high-quality sleep (aim for 7-9 hours)
- eating organic, local produce if possible
- avoiding processed foods
- exercising (but not overexercising, either)
- getting your circadian rhythm in check
- managing stress
- avoiding conventional menstrual products and opting for organic or using cups instead
Supplements should never replace nutrition, but the right vitamins and herbs can help maintain a healthy menstrual cycle. In can be helpful to get your blood tested to determine where you might be missing key nutrients, though many women, especially those avoiding animal products or who typically experience heavy periods, may be low in iron and B-vitamins. Chasteberry, also known as vitex, can be helpful for reducing PMS symptoms and restoring regularity, especially after coming off of hormonal contraceptives.
Did you learn about healthy cycles growing up? What information do you wish you had been told? Let us know in the comments below!