Well Being

Beyond PMS: How To Care For Yourself, All Cycle Long

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period hormones PMS

When I was a teenager and my hormones absolutely refused to get it together, I suffered from a thing I dubbed “post-MS.” As in, PMS, but instead of happening before my period, it happened after. I was pretty sure something very wrong but, because it had to do with menstruation, which we ladies are conditioned to never discuss (heaven forbid an add for a panty-liner say “vagina”), I kept it to myself. Years later, I learned it's actually something a lot of women experience. Because your period doesn't just impact your body a few days a month–it's a cycle, after all. And there are ways to care for yourself every day of the month that can improve your health and wellness in a variety of ways.

Let's step back to rudimentary sex ed for a minute to reflect on what, exactly, the menstrual cycle looks like. WomensHealth.gov has a surprisingly good walk-through of it if you'd like a bit of animation, but basically, the first day of your flow kicks off the period party and gets the cycle going.

Week One – Your Actual Period

For the first five-to-seven-ish days, depending on how long your period is your hormones (both estrogen and testosterone, which yes, you produce) are at their lowest point, and being slowly to rise. That's why, for women who tend to operate at a pretty high hormonal level all the time may not be able to use low-dose oral contraceptives, like Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo–because the low level is just too low, and basically makes them have their periods all month. But for those who have a very low level of hormones all the time, this small dose is a much less dramatic change.

The rise of hormones is also why your period is generally what brings relief for PMS–or PMDD, which I think we're supposed to be calling it these days–because the production of estrogen, which takes a nosedive in the week before your period, starts up again, and makes you feel more like, well, like you. It can also make you tired, crampy, and more susceptible to the effects of alcohol, though–so don't be afraid to call it an early night when you're on the rag.

The slow climb or hormones also makes things smell and taste more enjoyable, which could be part of why you feel snacky during your period. Don't be afraid to treat yourself to a little something sweet–just don't go overboard to comfort yourself. Complex carbs (like potatoes and other good starches) and lots of calcium are your friend during this week, so also be sure to load up on whole grains and cruciferous veggies, like broccoli and kale.

During this time, your changing hormones may increase gum inflammation, which can make brushing and flossing a little painful. This is also the best time of the month to give yourself a breast exam, because, while they may be tender, your breasts are the least dense around day six.

Week Two – The Hormone Climb

Once your period subsides, your hormons continue to click upward. This is why some women experience what 14-year-old Hanna called “post-MS.” The rise in hormones can make cause some women feel overly-stressed, irritable…and hungry, which can lead to bloating and weight gain.

However, extra estrogen can make you feel more energetic, too–which makes the first week after your period a really good time to hit the gym or head to yoga class. The rising hormones during days seven through 14 also make you a little less sensitive to pain, which makes it a pretty good time to do things like get your brows waxed or visit that deep-tissue masseuse who makes you cringe (but feel amazing).

PMSWeek Three – OMG, Ovulation!

During the third week of your cycle (days 14 through 21, generally), ovulation gets going–and we all know how much people love to attribute to that. And while ovulation does often come with a host of new emotions, because your estrogen levels start pulling back again.

This is usually the part of the cycle where most women get, well, a little teary-eyed and emotional. Probably best not to go see a sad film or, say, catch up on the new season of Grey's Anatomy, unless you're really ready to cry your eyes out.

Ovulation is also kind of a weird time because, for women who are trying to conceive, it's really awesome. And for ladies who don't want/aren't ready to have kids yet, it's a little scary. If you're excited to ovulate, try adding some high-fat dairy, non-meat proteins, and iron supplements to give your fertility a boost. And if you're not? Double-up with whatever contraceptive you're using. This is a really good time of the month to invest in some contraceptive/spermicidal film, condoms, and other sperm-killing mechanisms.

And, contrary to popular belief (and a whole lot of unfortunate t-shirt slogans), for many women, ovulation week is actually the one where shopping, eating, and being a little grouchy hit their fever pitch.

Week Four – Sayonara, Hormones, Hello PMS

Ah, week four. This is the week when your hormones really hit the deck, which can leave with with a lot of, well, feelings. This is when many women experience moodiness, fatigue, and a generally not-good feeling–because their brain chemistry is missing some key serotonin-creating friends, like estrogen and progesterone.

During this week, it's a good idea to cut salt, nicotine, and even caffeine to low levels, because they can worsen symptoms like bloating and fatigue. Instead, eat lots of protein and take vitamin supplements rich in B vitamins, which can perk you up a little. Calcium can also help relieve some of the symptoms of PMS.

Working out during PMS is also a really healthy, smart way to boost your brain's feel-good juices, naturally. And while you may feel too blue to drag yourself to the track during your PMS week, a gentle yoga or Pilates class might be just the ticket.

Once your hormones are at their very lowest, your uterine lining (which has been building up in anticipation of pregnancy) will start to break down and shed. And, voila, it's your period and you're back to day one.

Images via Flickr user Hey Paul Studios, and Absolute Pop Art