Ladies, ladies, ladies...we're here to get real and to talk about what is taboo and has been mostly controlled by men for millennia: THE FEMALE REPRODUCTIVE CYCLE. This includes not only MENSTRUATION, but also OVULATION and all that happens in between these two monthly events. What we are concerned with discussing is how we, as women, can holistically care for ourselves throughout this cycle, and in doing so, care for and empower each other, all while respecting the natural world...which our cycle reminds us we are not so separate from. In the midst of doing so, we'll suggest some rad sustainable products and provide easy tips and recipes...for your health!
DISCLAIMER: What follows is for educational purposes and relies on personal and anecdotal experience. Unlike Steve Brule, we are not doctors and do not pretend to be. If you have any serious medical conditions, be sure to discuss any changes in your feminine care practices with a healthcare professional!
Let's leave shame behind to begin! We are whole people and our bodies and their natural functioning should never be a cause for complying with cultural taboos that have been a source of oppression and repression for centuries. Women shed their uterine lining a couple of weeks after an unfertilized egg is released from an ovary. This is a part of our biology and if we remind ourselves of this, any social stigma seems downright silly!
So, with this unavoidable fact of biology in mind, we need to critically consider the current mainstream practices that women adopt in 'dealing' with their reproductive cycles. As we do so, we will offer some alternative practices that we find to be in line with holistic and sustainable body care.
PMS: Let's start with the days leading up to menstruation. You probably feel bloated, a bit irritable (or maybe A LOT), maybe a little sad, your boobs are hella tender, your lower back aches, and you're starting to feel some discomfort in your lower abdomen. In 'technical' terms, this is PMS, or 'premenstrual syndrome', (although we won't get into a critique of the use of 'syndrome' here).
The common way to deal with these symptoms is to take some over-the-counter remedy designed 'specifically' for women. Besides the painkiller acetaminophen, these remedies contain caffeine (as a diuretic) and perhaps an antihistamine (for bloating?). They are fine when used sparingly, but acetaminophen, especially if taken in conjunction with alcohol (we know it can be hard to resist a good red wine during this time), can wreak havoc on your liver, which, as we shall see, is a very important part of reproductive health. Plus, you might take some issue with supporting large pharmaceutical companies, but we'll refrain from any political diatribe here!
Here are some alternative, holistic ways to cope with premenstrual bloating and discomfort, which do far more than just target the surface symptoms:
- Purchase or make a Vitex tincture! A tincture is an herbal remedy / supplement that is usually made with 80 proof alcohol (vodka, brandy, or grain) in which herbs are soaked for 2-6 weeks. Vitex, or Chaste tree berry, is an herb that helps balance progesterone to estrogen levels. Since premenstrual symptoms occur as a result of increased estrogen levels and decreased progesterone levels, this herbal remedy may help to significantly, and naturally, reduce the symptoms associated with 'PMS' over time. It also has the benefit of targeting the underlying causes of hormonal acne! Here's how you can make your own Vitex tincture:
- Fill a clean mason jar 2/3-3/4 of the way full with dried Vitex berries (be sure to purchase either sustainably wildcrafted berries or organically grown and cultivated ones). Next, pour your choice of 80 proof alcohol over the berries until they are fully covered and there is about an inch of room left at the top of the jar. Secure the jar with an airtight lid and set on a sunny windowsill for 2-6 weeks. Shake once a day. Once 2-6 weeks have gone by, (the longer you let it go, the bitterer and more potent it will be!), strain the berries from the alcohol with cheese cloth and a mesh strainer. Bottle the liquid in a dark glass bottle and store in a cool, dry place. Take 1/2 teaspoon every morning (this is when your hormones are most actively being produced and regulated) two weeks before the start of menstruation.
- Drink some Dandelion leaf tea! Dandelion leaf is a natural diuretic that will help your body eliminate excess fluid (which causes bloating) by increasing urination. It's also an antioxidant! You can wildcraft your own, responsibly of course; only take what you need, or purchase this tea at any major grocer.
- For encroaching cramps, instead of popping OTC painkillers, try a decoction made of Crampbark (the name says it all!) and Ginger, which is naturally anti-inflammatory. A decoction is a little different than an infusion (or a normal 'tea'). To make one, chop up your herbs (if fresh) and immerse them in a pot of water. Cover and let simmer on low heat for about 30 min. Strain the herbs and enjoy your decoction!
- Another good way to deal with the manifold symptoms of 'PMS' is to massage your abdomen and lower back with an infused oil. Simply mix a carrier oil of your choice with a few drops of the following essential oils (experiment to find your favorite combo and always be sure to use pure and authentic oils!):
- Frankincense: Not only is this essential oil calming (it's a sedative y'all), but it is also a uterine tonic that helps with excessive menstrual bleeding.
- Geranium: Beyond smelling great and its being a mood booster, Geranium essential oil helps regulate hormone secretion.
- Basil: This little beauty is a natural antispasmodic, which will certainly come in handy when cramps start setting in!
- Clary sage: This one too is an antispasmodic, as well as a hormone balancer.
- Lavender: It does it all! Lavender essential oil is an analgesic (relieves pain), antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, and so on!
- Chamomile (Roman): Like Lavender, Chamomile does quite a bit. If you feel any rage, just take a whiff!
- Support your liver! This bit of holistic wisdom comes from Rosemary Gladstar, who is an herbalist extraordinaire (i.e. certified kween). According to Gladstar in her Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (2008), "The health of the entire body-including the reproductive organs-is directly related to the well-being of the liver" (p.201). The liver is a complex organ that has many integral functions, including cleansing your body of toxins and metabolic waste, digestion, and producing the materials that your body needs for hormone production. Here are some herbs that support liver health and that can be taken in many forms (capsules, tinctures, decoctions and infusions, and even as part of a culinary dish):
- Dandelion root
- Burdock root
Menstruation: Now you're bleeding! This is the taboo part of the female reproductive cycle that has caused women to adopt some rather unnatural and potentially dangerous practices without much hesitation.
The 'normal' way that most of us deal with menstruation is to plug ourselves up with overly processed and treated 'sanitary' products that aren't necessarily good for us or for the environment.
Tampons, tampons, tampons! Pads, pads, pads! Recently, many 'feminine hygiene' product manufacturers have been under fire for not disclosing exactly what chemicals are used to treat the cotton and other materials that tampons and pads are comprised of. Well, they don't really have to, since the FDA doesn't really regulate the ingredients of these products! However, what we do know is that the materials that make up these products are heavily treated...with chlorine bleach and pesticides. This is quite concerning considering that the vagina and surrounding area are highly sensitive and that the vagina easily absorbs everything that is put in it! Beyond Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), which we were told growing up was a result of leaving a tampon in for too long (it's your fault!), we should be concerned with the lack of regulations that are imposed on the manufacturing of products that can cause TSS and far more serious health issues.
Despite all of this, tampons and pads simply add to waste. Think about it. If you started menstruating at 13 and do so for a few decades, that amounts to A LOT of tampons and pads used and disposed of (on average, a woman uses 11,000 to 16,000 tampons in her lifetime). And that's just you! The plastics (obviously not biodegradable) and other materials that are used to make these products, as well as the treatment of them (specifically chlorine bleaching), are wasteful and harmful to the natural world (again, of which we are necessarily part!).
So, here are some alternatives to non-organic 'feminine hygiene' products:
- Sea sponge tampons: These seem to be the new craze, although women have been using sponges for centuries to absorb menstrual blood. These gals are natural, and if sustainably harvested (like those that Holy Sponge offers), might be one of the best holistic ways to collect your menses. But of course, there is potential hazard with any product that you insert into your vagina. Since you can, and should, reuse your sponges (they're good to use for up to six months), you want to make sure you are taking the proper measures to cleanse them, at least once a day during use and definitely before first time use. Here is a way to properly cleanse your sponges for maximum use. These are the preferred method of blood absorption here at Kalon Botanicals!
- Menstrual cups: These too are reusable, but instead of absorbing blood, they collect it. Cleaning seems to be pretty easy too. Diva Cup is probably the best known brand!
- Reusable cotton pads: Instead of feeling like you are wearing a diaper, cotton pads collect blood in a way that allows your nether parts to breathe. You can make your own from old cotton t-shirts or other clothing, or purchase some rad hand-dyed "pussy pillows" from Holy Sponge. As with any reusable product, you want to make sure you take the time to properly cleanse your pads, using a mild soap and hot water.
- Thinx Period Underwear has been pretty vocal about feminism and menstruation and has been putting up the good fight to knock down the ol' patriarchal stigma against periods, women's bodies, and sexuality. Thinx feels just like regular underwear, but can absorb up to 3 tampons worth of blood. They are reusable and easy to clean, just like your daily pair of cotton undies, and are comfortable and fashionable! A whole cycle set can get pretty expensive, depending on your needs, but every purchase goes towards helping women and girls in developing countries!
Ovulation: Unlike the unambiguous event of menstruation, ovulation seemingly occurs without notice. It generally occurs once a month, although depending on your lifestyle (i.e. stress level) and genetics, this may vary. It occurs in two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase (whoa, flashback to BIO101). The follicular phase starts at the end of menstruation and lasts anywhere from 7 to 40 days (this is where lifestyle and genetics play a role in terms of the frequency of your ovulation). The luteal phase starts with ovulation (bombs away, little egg) and ends with the commencement of menstruation, 12-16 days.
Even if you are not looking to get pregnant, it's still a good idea to make sure you are not ignoring this essential part of the reproductive cycle. When you ovulate determines when you menstruate, and if the former gets all out of whack because of stress, illness, and other life factors, so will the latter, which can make dealing with your body a real headache. And as should be pretty obvious, any time our natural rhythms are out of tune, many other issues result or there is something deeper going on that we need to examine. This is where a holistic approach to body care is really important. You want to make sure you are not ignoring the natural ebb and flow of your cycle and how what happens 'externally' affects what is going on 'internally'.
We tend to focus on what we can really feel and see rather than what happens more or less silently. But, if we know what to listen or look out for, we can better care for ourselves as whole women. There are some tell tale signs of ovulation, such as increased randiness (oh, baby!), minor bloating, spotting, pain on one side or the other of your lower abdomen (your ovaries rotate as to who gets the job done each time), tender boobies, and even a heightened sense of smell. Try seeing if you can sense when you are releasing that little egg and pay attention to when you start menstruating. This will give you an idea as to how long each phase of the reproductive cycle is for you. Ideally, the whole cycle should mirror the lunar cycle (28 days)!
When you're not obviously 'PMS'ing' or bleeding, there are plenty of things you can be doing during the total ovulation cycle in order to make sure these other more obvious aspects of being a woman aren't so daunting:
- Stress less: Do some yoga (if you can't get to a class, dedicate yourself to a playful home practice like Yoga with Adriene), meditate, go for a run or a bike ride, take a weekly bath, be intimate with your partner, or whatever brings a certain chill factor, via release, to your life (as long as it's not doing hard drugs...you know what we mean here).
- Take care of your whole body: Eat nourishing foods, drink plenty of water, avoid overly processed crap and fried foods, do not excessively consume alcohol, and the like....duh.
- Don't forget to prepare for 'PMS' and menstruation by taking your Vitex tincture and any other herbal supplements and teas, such as Nettle and Raspberry leaf, which are great natural sources of iron, calcium, and other minerals and vitamins. According to Gladstar, you should up your intake of calcium rich foods and herbs 10 days before the start of menstruation to reduce painful cramps (Gladstar, 2008, p. 219).
- Avoid products with harsh chemicals and preservatives: Chemicals found in all sorts of stuff from cleaning products to the foods we eat affect hormone production and regulation, y'all.
- Try to get away from plastics...in general: Not only do plastics contribute to a f ton of waste, but they also contain chemicals that mimic estrogen. This can really f with your whole cycle.
- Celebrate rather than relegate your femininity to something taboo and undesirable.
We'll let that last point resonate with you...Happy cycling!