It was day 2 of my period and I was disliking staying out of the pool. My swimming had been peaking over the last 1 month and I was crossing the 1-1.3 km mark every day. Sitting out for 4 whole days because of my periods was irritating me. So, I went and bought tampons. Unaccustomed to them, I found them fairly cumbersome. But I was willing to endure the discomfort for my daily swimming gains. Off I went into the pool and back I came feeling heavy, bloated, and fatigued.
I was doing what most women I know do with their periods: ignore it and go about the day as usual. It’s been told to us in multiple ways, through advertising that pushes us to wear a particular product so we don’t even feel there’s something going on in the body; through sports academys, gyms, and training centres that don’t give women a break, often telling us it’s all in the mind; through office work places implementing gender neutral policies. During my initial intensive military training that lasted 6 months, several of us stopped getting our periods. This is not uncommon when the body is put under extreme physical duress.
Through my naturopathy studies over the past 4 years, closely observing and listening to the body, I have understood that pretending it simply isn’t there is yet another way of ignoring our health.
Our period is an opportunity
Many of us, especially those who experience pain and other discomfort, view our monthly cycles as a nuisance, something that interrupts life. In reality (I’m wearing my management professional hat here), it is an opporuntiy for us to examine out health each month. Specifically, we can do a check-in with ourselves about the state of our hormonal, emotional, and mental health.
A friend who suffers from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (extreme PMS symptoms every month) says, “I feel another person has entered my body a few days before my periods. It’s like I have an alter personality with horrible rage, aggression, and irritability. My food cravings go through the roof. There is nothing I can control those 7-8 days. I just wait for them to pass each month.”
For another, it is just a state of intense fatigue, usually a day or two before the start of the period. For a third, the personality and mood are fairly stable, but the stomach cramps and lower backaches are unbearable and have forced her to take a pain killers most of her adult life.
And then there is the ‘normal’ period: The period comes every month with fixed regularity, is accompanied by some drop in energy, and a change in appetite sans the pain. Women automatically feels like withdrawing from conversations, office work, domestic chores, and sport. The mind is drawn inward with the body demanding warm food and liquids.
Let’s pause for a moment
When was the last time you knew of someone who has had this experience? I didn’t and for the last 12 years have been bogged down by immense pain in the legs, stomach and lower back, accompanied by heavy bleeding.
The bigger question: When was the last time you knew of someone who experienced this normal period and respected it? Someone I know, who post childbirth, has always had a normal period, will go about her day without acknowleding her tiredness or the fact that all she wants to do is curl up on a couch with a book.
Our physical state
At the very least, our periods tell us a lot about our physical health.
a. The colour of our period blood can vary throughout the cycle and can indicate issues with hormones and underlying health conditions Colour changes in period blood are considered ‘normal’ and are generally nothing to worry about it (unless your flow is grey, orange, or foul-smelling)
If you want to do a deep dive into this, then I recommend reading the Womancode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source, by Alisa Vitti. Written by someone who suffered from PCOD , before the condition had a name, it is all about understanding how hormones play out in a female body, and what they mean for reproductive health. It also ends up being an introductory class in endocrinology.
b. Heavy bleeding and associated fatigue is often indicative of anaemia. Anaemia and heavy bleeding are a vicious circle with the bleeding causing the anaemia and vice-versa. I have lived with anaemia most of my adult life and wish I had understood earlier how damaging it is not just for reproductive health but also heart health. Low haemoglobin levels in the blood mean low oxygen. Oxygen deficient tissues become fat, the muscles and especially the heart muscles undergo fatty degeneration. This can result in milder symptoms like giddiness and palpitations to more serious issues like the heart valves (mitral) becoming incompetent causing low blood pressure.
c. Painful stomach cramps, burning sensations in the abdomen, a dragging feeling in legs, and lower backache are all signs of an unclean colon and an acidic condition of the body.
d. Acne, pimples, and headaches during and around our periods point to an acidic condition of the blood.
e. Regularity of periods is another essential indicator of reproductive health. Frequently irregular or absent periods can be a sign of PCOS, hypothyroidism, endometriosis, and other medical conditions.
Our mental state
Every woman who menstruates can feel an ebb of flow of energies, starting a few days before her periods begin. Noticing it and knowing that one’s periods are coming is fairly normal . But for those who experience extreme mood swings, like a friend who goes in depression every month during her periods or a colleague who becomes so irritable that no one at work want to go near her on ‘those days’, knowing that she will fly off the handle at the smallest pretext, periods are an unpleasant ordeal. ‘Premenstrual dysphoric disorder’, which is characterised by severe irritability, depression or anxiety is a real thing now. A person can feel like another personality has taken over their bodies during these times.
Putting this aside as just something ‘hormonal’ or ‘periodic’, is depriving ourselves of looking through a portal (that opens up) into our mental and neurological health.
Depression, extreme mood swings and extreme anxiety does not just pop up because of periods. The period is merely bringing to surface conditions that are already growing in our mental and neurological systems. Mental health too works like its physical counterpart, it gradually builds up and takes its time to become either chronic or fairly dysfunctional.
For those of us whose sleep gets seriously disturbed during the period days, not because one is getting up to change the pad, the period has affected the neurological anatomy.
The unconscious state
For those who have an interest in yoga beyond the physical postures, yoga theory offers a different view of looking at our anatomy.
In yoga, the endocrine organs correspond most closely with the location of chakras in the body. The 7 chakras which are located along the spinal cord, are like switches which turn on patterns of behaviour, thought, or emotional reactions. Swadisthana chakra is the second chakra from bottom and is believed to affect our reproductive and urination organs most.
At a yogic level, it is the seat of the unconscious and the abode of the water element.
During our periods, this chakra is automatically more activated. This may manifest as strange dreams and long supressed thoughts, thinking patters, and fears. Haven’t you ever found yourself thinking thoughts that you don’t usually think, during your periods? Or feeling strong emotions (more negative than positive) towards someone you usually are close to, as if blaming them for the pain and ills of your life?
Spritual teacher and writer Eckhart Tolle, says in his book The Power of Now , “for many women, the pain-body awakens particularly at the time preceding the menstrual flow. If you can stay alert and watch whatever you feel within, rather than be taken over by it, it affords an opportunity for transmutation of all past pain.”
What do we do now?
Like many other active, professional women I too have been guilty of seeing our periods as a nuisance. A nuisance that gets in the way of physical workouts and important work events. It makes travel uncomfortable and slows down an active lifestyle. Most of us assuage the symptoms with hot water bottles, pain killers, herbal supplements, and more. What I have learnt to do is to use my periods as an opportunity to diagnose my state of being.
Every month, nature presents us with a few days of introspection, when our bodies signal us to slow down, quieten, and draw inward. Why not use this time to get a better understanding of what is going on in our physical, emotional, mental, and psychic bodies?
At the least it will help diagnose current or approaching health issues. At a deeper level, it may open a portal into our unconscious, the seat of ‘self’ and give us insight into parts of ourselves otherwise elusive in daily life.