Your guide to caring for your reproductive health.
Why You’re Here: You know some of the basics about your cycle, but you also have some questions about how it all works inside your lady parts.
What’s Inside: Foundational information to help understand your reproductive health, some tips for stepping into your own empowerment and getting to know your body.
How To Use It: This won’t be specific to your reproductive health, of course - but it could be a good starting point as you begin to understand the parts of your reproductive system that aren’t discussed as widely as, perhaps, getting your period. Trust your own body and (of course) your doctor when it comes to your own specific needs, health goals and solutions Most importantly, ask questions and get answers.
FIRST THING’S FIRST
All the questions - no matter how basic you think they might be - are welcome here. No judgment about asking questions you feel you should know the answers to; at least you’re speaking up. It’s time to break that stigma and get caring for your reproductive health.
A lot goes down during a menstrual cycle that can affect you. A cycle is about 28 days. We’re breaking down what happens, and although every body and everybody is different, it’s important to talk to a health professional if you think your cycle has something going on.
The first day of your period. The blood and tissue that lines your uterus (aka your womb) breaks down and exits your body. That’s when you have a period. Bleeding lasts up to four to eight days for many women. Hormone levels are low, and low levels of the estrogen hormone can make you feel depressed or irritable, according to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health.
Your ovaries have follicles and inside of those are fluid-filled pockets that contain an egg.
One follicle grows while the others stop growing and go back to where they were before, absorbing back into the ovary.
The follicle puts out increased levels of estrogen, growing larger. Period bleeding typically stops by this day. You have higher estrogen levels from the follicle, which make the uterus grow and thicken. If pregnancy happens, the uterine lining is rich in blood and nutrients to help nourish and develop the embryo. Estrogen can help boost endorphins, the brain chemicals that help you feel good and are released during physical activity. You might experience more energy and calmness during this time.
A few days before Day 14
Your estrogen levels rise and there is also an increase in the level of luteinizing hormone. This hormone causes the mature follicle to burst, releasing an egg from the ovary—aka ovulation. Women are most likely to get pregnant by having sex on the day of ovulation or during the three days before ovulation, and sperm are ready to fertilize the egg once it is released. A woman’s egg lives for 12 to 24 hours, and men’s sperm can live up to three to five days in a woman’s reproductive organs. This is a time when you might feel your very best emotionally and physically.
Your breasts might hurt during your cycle, and you might experience what’s known as cyclic pain. It comes with hormonal fluctuations and accounts for pain during menstruation. That typically happens about two weeks before your cycle, according to Dr. Robin Smith. In addition to cyclic pain, there is also noncyclic breast pain, which is something a doctor must evaluate, Smith says.
“Fortunately, the risk of cancer is low, but it's not insignificant. About 2 to 3 percent of women who come to a clinic for evaluation for breast pain—usually that's reasonably severe breast pain—have a cancer at the site,” Smith says.
Vaginal discharge tells you where you might be in your cycle. The hormones that contribute to the changes in your cycle create cervical mucus — it’s the goo stuff on your cervix that ultimately comes out of your vagina as discharge. Depending on where you are at in your cycle, your cervical mucus can change in texture, color and amount. This also changes during ovulation.
At least 75 percent of all women will experience a yeast infection, according to the NIH. This can make your discharge appear yeasty or have a different smell than you might be used to. If you have questions about discharge, or what you have happening around your period, talk to a healthcare professional about your concerns.
Checkups are a major preventative care measure and a huge way you can take action and care of your reproductive health.
The HPV vaccine, or Gardasil, is a multiple dose vaccination depending on a child’s age, Dr. Abbey B. Berenson, M.D., Ph.D., Ruth Hartgraves Chair in Obstetrics and Gynecology explains to the U.S. Office of Women’s Health.
Boys and girls need to finish the full vaccine series of two or three doses for the vaccine to be effective. The HPV vaccine is administered in multiple doses, but the number of doses depends on a child’s age. Children 9–14 years old need two doses, and they should get the second dose six to 12 months after their first dose. Teens and young adults 15–26 need three doses of the vaccine over six months. They should get the second dose one to two months after their first dose and the third dose six months after the first dose.
It’s recommended that women ages 21-29 have a Pap smear every three years, according to Dr. Lisa Valle, D.O. in Los Angeles. From ages 30-65 a Pap smear is recommended every five years by ages 40-44 it’s important to have a mammogram. Once you are 55+, it’s recommended to have a mammogram each year.
WHAT TO DO
Know Your Cycle - Get an app that tracks your period, so you can start answering the doctor when they ask the date of your last menstrual cycle. And know your body - Get out a mirror and get to know what you look like down there. Knowing what your normal is for both your cycle and your body are crucial in owning your reproductive health.
Know Your Resources - Make a plan to learn more about the resources available to you, such as:
Gynecologists and gynecologist appointments -- what to expect for your first appointment, how to prepare for it, Pap smears and what a typical check-up looks like.
Know Your Needs - Perhaps you have certain health concerns, or you’re embarking on a new season that concerns your reproductive health (new sexual partner, first mammogram, etc.). It can feel like puberty all over again, but this time without a parent overseeing the process. Map out the next phase of your reproductive health by identifying what you want to get out of your next women’s wellness checkup. Some guidelines for your checklist:
Research + find a doctor or an OB-GYN, if you don’t have one already.
Make a list of questions to ask at your appointment - What are you concerned about? Is anything abnormal about how you’re feeling or how your body looks? Did you have any big changes in your life? Are you taking any medications? What’s your diet? How are you doing?
Phone-a-friend - Ask around to your trusted community and see if anyone else has experienced what you have questions about. Find out how they got the answers and take a similar or different approach depending on what your body and intuition tells you. Most likely, you are not alone in this health question.
What are my options for birth control if I don’t want to go on the pill?
If you’re trying to avoid pregnancy, the most effective way is to abstain from sex. But because this isn’t the Victorian age, we’re explaining the realities of birth control and which options might be best for you—and that’s whether you have information you need about the pill, or if you’re not interested in going on it. There are health reasons to and not to go on birth control pills.
Birth control pills are an effective way to prevent pregnancy if they are taken correctly, according to Planned Parenthood. Often, birth control pills are not solely prescribed for birth control. There can be health benefits to using the pill, including combination and progestin-only pills that regulate menstrual cramps, lighten periods and lower your risk for ectopic pregnancy. The combination pill can also prevent acne, bone thinning, cysts in both breasts and ovaries, endometrial and ovarian cancers, iron deficiency (anemia), PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and serious infections in the ovaries, uterus and fallopian tubes. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your reproductive concerns, consider requesting a blood test to understand the complexities of your system before choosing a birth control form that works for you.
Using the pill, the patch and a shot are good for preventing pregnancy when they are used perfectly, however people can sometimes have errors or make mistakes (Not you? OK OK!).
Condoms also help prevent pregnancy during vaginal sex, those are always highly recommended to help prevent STDs as well. Implant and IUDs are often considered most foolproof, or convenient in terms of preventing pregnancy. The most effective form of birth control method to prevent pregnancy is the IUD or implant, plus a condom, according to Planned Parenthood.
As for all of your health concerns, talk to your doctor about what type of birth control option might be right for you.
What other options are there for treating PCOS through diet or naturopathic routes?
When approaching healing with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), it is important to note that it might take some time or multiple doctors to even be diagnosed. Symptoms include ovarian cysts, weight gain, cystic acne, irregular periods, depression—and these symptoms can often go unnoticed or undiagnosed. So, once you’ve had a blood test, discussed options with your doctor, then it’s a good idea to look into your choices from there.
PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder and it is also the most common cause of female infertility. Researchers aren’t completely clear what causes PCOS, but it involves a combination of disorders connected to having more male hormones and irregular ovulation. About 70 to 80 percent of PCOS cases are genetic, and research shows it’s common that if a mother has it then her daughter could possibly, too.
In taking the naturopathic approach to healing PCOS, it’s recommended to start with diet and eating whole foods—real food. Weight loss is generally the best method to help ease PCOS symptoms and begin healing.
You don’t have to be outrageous, but it’s important to start eating vegetables, leafy greens, seeds, legumes, nuts. Processed food contains medium to high levels of sugar, so it’s important to avoid those high sugar items. Adding iron-rich foods, supplements, and even an Apple Cider vinegar routine can also help to improve your PCOS symptoms. By cutting sugars, starchy vegetables, carbs and dairy, you can also change your PCOS symptoms. And also, consider cutting the coffee—research shows it’s been shown to increase levels of estrogen in women and throw off cortisol and insulin levels in women with PCOS.
Exercise is another natural way to approach PCOS. Not only does exercise increase endorphins, it also helps to boost insulin sensitivity, which lowers the risk for diabetes and other health complications associated with insulin production. Exercise also lowers cholesterol, improves sleep and regulates hormones and weight loss.
How do I deal with Endometriosis pain?
Endometriosis is a condition with tissue lining the uterus is formed to line outside the uterus, often in the pelvic cavity. Like PCOS, this condition can be hard to diagnose, The Guardian reports.
If you have endometriosis, you might not just experience painful periods or infertility, but painful sex, painful ovulation, abnormal bleeding, fatigue, chronic pelvic pain. There is no cure and it affects about 10 percent of women at reproductive age. There is also no one cure all to relieve pain, and all women are different. There are three main treatments for endometriosis: surgery, hormones and pain management. It’s important to discuss your concerns and ask what treatment options could be best to help address your pain. Endometriosis pain can affect different women differently, so the approach most often does depend on the pain level.
You can learn more about ways to address endometriosis pain by visiting endometriosis.org.
How to get rid of those horrific sharp cramps that makes you not be able to do nothing but ball up in bed?
It’s very common for women to experience menstrual cramps, according to Mayo Clinic. That throbbing, super painful feeling that makes you want to ball up in bed is annoying for some women, but also dehabiliating for others. It’s important to identify your pain level, talk to your doctor about how it’s impacting your activity level and overall life. Often, cramps can be caused by conditions such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids.
Some women experience intense symptoms, including painful throbbing or cramping, pain that begins in one to three days before your period but peaks 24 hours after your period arrives and tampers off in about two to three days. Some women have a dull, continuous aching feeling or pain that feels like it’s radiating in the lower back or thighs, nausea, headache, dizziness and loose stools.
By addressing the cause, Mayo Clinic says, you can reduce the pain. And, some women tend to have cramps lessen in age, often improving after they give birth.
You can also make changes to your diet that can help lessen your period pain when it comes back to that time of the month. By eating more fruits and vegetables, and also adding anti-inflammatory spice turmeric you can approach that monthly pain with a better defense system. Go old school and get a heating pad. You might want to also consider an anti-inflammatory medicine such as Ibuproferin (Tylenol) or Naxoproxen (Aleve)—and you take this before the pain reaches a 10. Add vitamin B and fish oil supplements. Relax, try massage, take a bath or warm shower. Try out acupuncture. Gentle exercise like swimming, yoga, pilates or walking might also help, according to the National Health Institute. If you smoke, it’s important to quit because it’s thought to increase period pain. The NHI also recommends transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation (TENS), which is a small battery-operated device that sends a mild electrical current on your tummy to help reduce pain.