Over the past five years, I have become increasingly fascinated with women's health, particularly the influence of female hormones on our daily lives. The more I've learned about the menstrual cycle and its significance for women's well-being, the better I've understood my own body, its changes, and its needs.
For far too long, we have been conditioned to follow health recommendations that are primarily based on research conducted on male bodies. This approach has led to significant gender health disparities, with many women spending a greater proportion of their lives in ill health and disability when compared with men. These disparities are even more pronounced in disadvantaged communities.
As we strive to close the gender gap, it's crucial for everyone, including men, to learn about and understand women's health needs. This knowledge will enable us to develop better environments, practices, programs, products, and services that cater to women's unique requirements.
To begin this journey, let's start by exploring the concept of menstrual cycle literacy.
What Is Menstrual Cycle Literacy?
Menstrual cycle literacy refers to understanding all components of menstruation - physiological, hormonal, and emotional. By having this understanding in place, individuals can make informed decisions for their health and well-being.
It is vital to women's health and yet has often been overlooked when discussing female health.
In this essay, I will talk about its importance and how to achieve it.
Why is it important for a woman to be knowledgeable about the menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle is an important indicator of how your body is functioning. Understanding what is normal for you will help you understand when something isn’t quite right.
Changes in your menstrual cycles may be caused by various factors, including stress, weight fluctuations, and medical conditions. These should be taken seriously by you
Identifying Potential Health Issues
Changes in your menstrual cycles may be caused by various factors, including stress, weight fluctuations, and medical conditions. These should be taken seriously as it’s a sign that something is not quite right and should be taken care of.
Understanding your menstrual cycle can be essential in recognizing any changes, such as irregular periods, heavy bleeding, or severe pain that could signal polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, or uterine fibroids as possible sources of health concerns - which must not be ignored as possible sources.
Managing Menstrual Cycle Symptoms
Depending on the severity of your menstrual cycle symptoms, they can have a significant impact on your quality of life. If your symptoms prevent you from completing your day-to-day tasks, you should see a doctor. This is not normal and should not be ignored. Common symptoms include cramps, mood swings, bloating, sore breasts, headaches, back pain, and more. Understanding your symptoms can help you manage them better through lifestyle adjustments such as diet and exercise, as well as making time for rest.
For example, I am aware that five days before my period starts, I tend to feel exhausted and need 9-10 hours of sleep instead of my usual 7.5 hours. During those days, I make sure to go to bed earlier, and if I am still tired in the morning, I allow myself to sleep an extra hour and start the day a little later. The extra sleep balances my mood and helps me have a much more productive and serene day than running on empty.
Understanding your menstrual cycle can give insight into your fertile window, which is vital for those trying to conceive or those trying to avoid getting pregnant using natural birth control methods.
Emotional Well-Being and Self-Awareness
Following and understanding your menstrual cycle can help identify patterns in your mood, energy levels, and overall well-being to assist in better managing mental health issues.
How to Achieve Menstrual Cycle Literacy
Learn About the Menstrual Cycle
Gaining an overall knowledge of the menstrual cycle is the foundation of menstrual cycle literacy. By becoming informed about the physiological, hormonal, and emotional changes associated with the different phases of your cycle, you'll be better equipped to identify patterns and variations within your cycle.
Moreover, understanding the menstrual cycle can facilitate open dialogue and reduce stigma related to menstruation and female hormones thus, creating a more inclusive environment where women’s health needs are met.
What are the 4 stages (or phases) of the menstrual cycle?
The four stages of the menstrual cycle can be considered to be:
- Early Follicular Phase (aka Menstrual phase)
- Late Follicular phase
- Mid-Luteal Phase
- Luteal Phase
The follicular phase starts on the first day of your cycle and ends at ovulation. Whereby the Luteal phase starts at ovulation and ends the day before your period begins.
Having the 4 phases mapped out as above, can be very helpful in helping women identify when significant hormonal changes are taking place and related symptoms occurring.
Learn more about the phases of the menstrual cycle, hormones, and their fluctuations.
Learn About Your Cycle
What might be normal for one person may not be the same for another. Gaining an understanding of your unique symptoms during each phase of your menstrual cycle will help you take charge of your health. You can achieve this by tracking and noting down symptoms in each phase of your cycle over time. Once you identify recurring symptoms, you can devise strategies to mitigate their impact.
For instance, over time I have noticed that my PMS starts about five days before my period. My symptoms include:
- Increased fatigue
- Feeling less optimistic with heightened anxiety
- A desire for solitude and reduced sociability
- Increased cravings for sweet and salty foods
- Increased irritability, particularly with those I interact with daily
However, I've also observed that for the past eight months, once my period begins, I no longer experience a "reset." Instead, my mood remains low, my irritability intensifies, and most notably, I struggle to articulate my thoughts coherently.
Previously, every time my period started, I would feel re-energized as if all my batteries were fully charged, and I could take on the world.
Recognizing this shift allows me to plan accordingly. I now schedule important meetings where I'll be delivering a project and/or explaining difficult concepts either before Day 1 of my cycle (when my period starts) or after Day 6. During this 6 day window, I allow myself to engage in more solo work, attend shorter meetings, or meetings I’m not the one presenting and just contributing to.
If the meeting must take place during these 6 days, I set things in place to help myself, such as giving myself extra time to prepare and rehearse the points I want to make or even asking a colleague to attend the meeting to provide support if needed.
You can achieve menstrual cycle literacy by tracking whether using an app or simply journaling.
Period Tracking Apps
Numerous apps have been developed to assist women with tracking menstrual cycles and symptoms including Elara App, Clue, Moody Month, Jennis, Wild.ai, and MyFLO, to name a few.
There are many more but I've named some of the ones I respect deeply and have been created by women.
Manually tracking your period
A physical journal can be an excellent non-tech way of keeping track of menstrual cycles and symptoms. Record start and end dates, symptoms, as well as any other details like exercise, stress, diet, mood, anxiety, energy, sociability, sex drive, etc, changes.
Advocating for Menstrual Health
With healthcare professionals
Understanding what the menstrual cycle is and what is happening in your own body, will equip you with the knowledge you need to advocate for your (and someone else's) health. If you suspect an issue with your menstrual cycle, contact healthcare providers immediately. Be prepared to discuss both its history and any symptoms experienced so far.
Share your knowledge of menstrual cycle literacy with friends, family, and partners to reduce the stigma around menstruation and foster an inclusive and supportive environment for everyone experiencing it.
Menstrual cycle literacy is crucial to understanding your body and making informed decisions about health. By tracking your menstrual cycle with apps and/or journaling you can identify potential health issues more quickly, better manage your symptoms (emotional and physical), and advocate for menstrual health wellbeing.
Remember: knowledge is power! Understanding your menstrual cycle gives you power!