Cycle Diaries Vol 03: The menstrual cycle is a powerful tool
1st November 2021
I have been menstruating since I was 11 years old and it is only now as I approach 30 that I am truly getting to grips with my menstrual cycle.
I am somebody who has struggled with periods all my life. Heavy bleeding, extreme pain, uncontrollable PMS symptoms; you name it, I’ve experienced it. Each time I had a period, it would be a completely new and hellish experience. Fresh symptoms would occur, the length of time between each period would lengthen. I took time off school when they were really bad and I would always carry products with me in case of another surprise period. I think it’s fair to say that for a good 10+ years of my life, my periods had me a chokehold.
Whether I was taking birth control to delay or stop periods altogether, or simply ignoring my body and going about my day, a common thread throughout these years is the fact my cycle was a mystery to me. The truth is you cannot bury your head in the sand and then get frustrated when you’re caught off guard by your body once again.
However, there is not a lot of information out there that really breaks down the basics and helps those who are struggling to understand the menstrual cycle. The quest to understanding my body was a long one and, fortunately, it set me on a path to becoming a period advocate and educator.
I spent years absorbing everything I could about the menstrual cycle, meticulously studying my own, reading through studies, speaking to professionals as well as other people who menstruate. The more I started to notice about my body and menstrual cycle, the more I started to see how useful a tool it can be. In recent years there has been a rise in discussions surrounding harnessing your cycle in order to be more productive, but I find it more empowering to approach cycle tracking from a self care perspective.
Taking note of days where I feel low or struggle with certain symptoms like back pain or restless for example allows me to better understand my capabilities. I know what I realistically can and cannot achieve during certain parts of my cycle, I have a good idea of what food my body needs, I’m no longer caught off guard my body. Making a conscious effort to engage in the cyclical nature of my body has essentially allowed me to understand it again.
It’s important to note that the period-related symptoms I was experiencing were not ‘normal’ and were cause for concern. In 2019 after years of being dismissed by doctors, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is a complicated endocrine disorder (which means it impacts the hormones) that is very common. It is thought about 10% of cisgender women and people with ovaries have PCOS meaning millions of people have it in the UK alone. It can effect how the ovaries work and many who have PCOS experience irregular cycles although this isn’t the only symptom.
Upon receiving this diagnosis, a lot started to suddenly make sense. Despite this, I found the diagnosis very tough to come to terms with. Now wrestling with the fact that I would be dealing with the symptoms that were making life difficult forever, I found myself back to a similar place I was at the start of my journey. Depressed and frustrated, I felt betrayed by my own body and detached from it. Trying to get through things day-by-day whilst dealing with symptoms such as insulin resistance, inflammation, rapid weight gain and trouble sleeping, I soon found myself heading back to the sand.
Unless I wanted to return to birth control once more, doctors were not much help to me. It has taken a lot of research, trial and error and tearful nights to get to a place where I can confidently say I am managing my PCOS. Tracking my menstrual cycle, taking stock throughout every phase and practicing mindfulness has helped me more than any medical professional ever could.
Here are my top tips for getting to know your cycle and using it to help you with general self care or to learn how to manage a gynaecological issue:
- Forget everything you’ve been taught about cycle lengths. The perfect length does not exist. Of course there are bench marks you can follow (anywhere between 21 - 35 days is considered regular) but don’t worry if you’re not bleeding every 28 days. Most people don't.
- Try not to compare your cycle to your friend’s. Although there is something comforting about hearing somebody else experience the same thing you do, sometimes comparison can hinder us. Cycle lengths, PMS symptoms, flow type, a huge number of factors can change these things. Do not be concerned if you are not experiencing the same as your peers.
- Your cycle is unique to you. When tracking your menstrual cycle or trying to understand the symptoms you experience each month, try not to get too bogged down with the few symptoms people do talk about. By that I mean don’t freak out if you don’t get them, everyone is different! Focus on finding your normal.
Lastly, here are some signs that indicate you should to see a doctor: extremely painful periods, bleeding through products every hour, blood clots bigger than a large coin, bleeding for more than 7 days. Always speak to your medical provider if you are worried.