Dr. Kristen Mitteness
The 5th Vital Sign: Why Your Period Matters
The four most common vital signs that are used to determine a person's state of health are body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate and blood pressure. When any of these are outside of normal (and normal varies based on each person), it's a great indicator of something not being right in the body. It doesn't tell us what is wrong, but it tells us something is wrong and requires further follow up. When it comes to women's health, a fifth and very important vital sign, is her menstrual cycle.
The most common response to an abnormal menstrual cycle is birth control. And while it does a great job of fixing the symptom, it does not address the underlying cause and may cause more issues at a later time. I know, I've been there. You can read my story here.
Until we know what's normal, it's hard to recognize abnormal. Let's start with what a normal menstrual cycle looks like. As long as food intake and nutrients are adequate, women typically start menstruating at 12-13 years old. During the first few years of menstruation, irregular patterns are common. After 3-4 years of cycles, it should find its normal. On average, we think of it as a 28 day cycle. However, anything between 21 and 35 days may be normal for you, as long as it's consistent. Anything shorter or longer should be addressed. In addition, if your cycle varies from cycle to cycle, this may also be an indicator of a problem. When it comes to menstruation (bleeding), 5 days is average, but normal can be between 4 and 6 days. Again, we're more interested in consistency when it comes to a normal cycle. Some minor symptoms (again, especially if they are consistent) may be normal during your cycle such as breast tenderness, change in appetite, mood, skin and energy.
Just like our pulse rate varies from person to person, our menstrual cycle varies from person to person. Like I mentioned before, consistency is more important than being smack dab average. If your pulse is 65 bpm one day, 90 the next and 70 today, you've got a problem! Although, if your pulse hovers around 65 all of the time and your friend's hovers around 90 all of the time, we aren't as concerned.
Tracking your cycle is a great way to determine how consistent you actually are. There are tons of great apps for this or you can use a calendar. I'm currently loving Stardust.
Beyond lack of consistency, there are some common signs of menstrual (and thus, health) problems that we often chalk up to "normal". Common DOES NOT mean normal. And birth control doesn't fix anything, it simply masks it.
Pain requiring a day off of work or cancelling plans
Bleeding that requires changing a pad or tampon more frequently than every 2 hours
Drastic mood swings including uncontrollable crying or overwhelming feelings of stress
Spotting between periods
Weight changes greater than 5 pounds per day
Severe breast tenderness
Okay! So, what if you are experiencing these symptoms and are ready to fix them? It's time we discover the root cause. The most common underlying causes of an irregular period are polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis and thyroid issues. While the fix for each of these may vary from woman to woman, the premise is the same: decrease inflammation and improve health. Here are a few of my favorite ways to do that:
Follow an anti inflammatory diet: the most important steps you can take here is to decrease your sugar and processed foods intake and increase your real whole food intake.
Spend more time in nature
Depending on how long you have been dealing with the period issues may determine how much time you need to put into healing. If you are relatively young and this is a new issue, the quicker you start the healing process, the faster you will most likely recover. If you have been on birth control for 10 or more years, had symptoms for years before that and are now off birth control with even more symptoms, the road ahead might be a bit longer. Remember, you are anti fragile and resilient! Your body is designed to heal. Stick with it. When you're on the right track, you'll know. Commit to a minimum of 6 months and see that magic happen.
Getting blood work done to check your hormones can be really helpful. Some supplements may also be the boost you need to get your period back on track. Working with a functional medicine healthcare practitioner can help to support you through the process if you are really feeling lost.
Want more on this topic? My favorite period resource is Dr. Jolene Brighten and her book, Beyond the Pill.