'Menstrual Mapping' May Have Physical and Psychological Benefits
The term "menstrual mapping" has been making the rounds lately. If you've seen it and are wondering what it is, we're here to help. Menstrual cycle mapping is a form of tracking your period, but it goes deeper. This technique looks into the ways your menstrual cycle influences everything, including your digestion, mood, sleep and overall health.
Being able to manage your periods can help you plan your life and look after your body better. It can give you a better understanding of the emotional responses that seem to come out of nowhere. And it may even help with your skincare routine.
Phases of the menstrual cycle
There are four stages to the menstrual cycle:
- Menstrual phase: days 1-5
- Follicular phase: days 1-14
- Ovulation: day 14
- Luteal phase: days 14-28
This list indicates the average number of days in which each phase occurs, but remember, not all periods are created equal. Your phases may be shorter or longer and still be well within what doctors consider a "normal" menstrual cycle.
During this monthly pattern, hormones made by the brain and ovaries communicate, and an egg is released. Changes in the womb then cause you to have a period, explained Meg Wilson M.B.B.S., a consultant gynecologist at London Gynaecology.
The menstrual cycle runs from the first day of one period to the first day of the next, and for most people, this cycle happens every 21 to 35 days.
In the follicular phase, "the rising estrogen levels make the lining of the womb thicken," Wilson said. In the luteal phase, "hormones from the brain…gradually rise during this phase to
increase the estrogen and progesterone to develop a follicle [egg] in the ovary."
When no egg is fertilized, the process starts again.
How the menstrual cycle affects your whole body
The effects of the menstrual cycle go beyond the ability to reproduce every month, according to Ayanthi Gunasekera, a senior obstetrics and gynecology trainee at London Gynaecology. For example, prior to menopause, estrogen regulates cholesterol levels, which means women have a lowered risk of heart disease and strokes. But your menstrual cycle also impacts your mood, digestion and sleep patterns.
Mood swings are a normal part of your menstrual cycle. At the beginning of your cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels are lowered, which affects your brain chemistry. In fact, studies tie low levels of estrogen to low levels of serotonin, Gunasekera explained. Serotonin is the "feel-good" chemical that helps you feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier and calmer.
Estrogen levels are highest before ovulation, and progesterone also rises during this time, so you may experience an uptick in your mood and concentration as you near ovulation. Your mood may then decline the closer you get to your period. Knowing how your cycle impacts your mental health can help you to be proactive in managing these natural ups and downs.
Changes in digestion can also occur as you go through the menstrual cycle stages.
"It's very common for women to be constipated before their period and experience loose stools as their period starts," explained Anna Mapson, a registered nutritional therapist and the owner of Goodness Me Nutrition, based in Bristol, England.
She said a condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can make symptoms seem worse if you don't know how water retention and bloating change throughout your menstrual cycle and affect IBS.
"Knowing that you may be more constipated before your period could encourage you to eat fruit and drink water to avoid any worsening of digestive symptoms," Mapson added.
"PMS [premenstrual syndrome] can cause insomnia in the days before our period starts," said Hana Patel, M.B.B.S., D.R.C.O.G., a general practitioner in women's health in London.
She recommended eating at regular intervals to keep blood glucose steady, drinking enough fluids, limiting afternoon caffeine and reducing alcohol intake at specific times of your cycle to help you sleep better.
Period symptoms are so individualized, it can help to "chart how we feel during a menstrual cycle and try to come up with ways of managing these symptoms to not let it affect our quality of life," Patel advised.
Advantages of menstrual mapping
Narendra Pisal, M.R.C.O.G., a consultant gynecologist at London Gynaecology, outlined the advantages of being attuned to your menstrual cycle:
- Being able to predict your next period and plan your life
- Being able to predict your ovulation and plan for pregnancy
- Being more aware of cyclical symptoms, such as pain and PMS
- Monitoring the severity of your periods and period-related symptoms
He added that period-tracker apps can help with tracking and act as natural contraception, if that is of interest. If technology isn't for you, keep a diary or a calendar instead to look for patterns in your symptoms.
Ways to manage PMS symptoms
Gunasekera agreed that being more aware of when PMS symptoms start is beneficial. She advised these steps for managing symptoms:
- Take vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- Try evening primrose oil tablets
- Cut down or cut out caffeine
- Cut down on sugar and dairy
- Reduce stress with yoga and exercise
- Avoid stress at work and home
The most common way to deal with severe PMS or hormone fluctuations is by taking the combined contraceptive pill, Gunasekera added.
If the steps above, combined with being more aware of hormonal changes through menstrual cycle mapping, don't help, she recommended going to your OB-GYN for advice. They can take an assessment and order pelvic ultrasound scans to make sure there isn't an underlying condition behind troublesome period problems.
No one should have to endure excessive pain during their period. Menstrual mapping can help highlight issues that need to be addressed and teach you more about your body's natural rhythms.