This is a bit of a long winded post, but I wanted to share my story because this is a subject that I think needs to be discussed more and I know so many women in the same boat I was several years ago. Hope you enjoy!
Two years ago I was leaving a yoga class, when I saw a flyer titled "Harness the Power of Your Cycle." This intrigued me, so I grabbed a flyer. Basically this was a period class that seemed to include many more topics than my previous biology education. This class came at a good time because I had just been complaining to my mom about my mood swings, headaches, cramps, and all the things that came with my monthly visit. Little did I know this 4 week course was going to be one of the first steps to lead me on my wellness journey. I was going to learn that the magic that happens during a women's cycle is much more than biology.
The topics in the class were outlined as follows:
Week 1: Introducing the Seasons of Your Cycle and how to track your cycle from a mental/emotional/energetic perspective. Understand your mood swings in a whole new way.
Week 2: The mechanics/biology of the cycle – learn how your hormones change throughout the month and what that means for your mood and energy. Get an introduction to tracking and understanding your fertile window.
Week 3: Nutrition and the cycle – use food and herbs etc to smooth out your cycle and help with pms.
Week 4: Going deeper into menstrual cycle awareness and how tracking can help you maximize your life and connect to your deeper self and purpose.
I was in a group of about 8 women who were all interested in gaining knowledge and power using something that we had been taught to dread each month. There was only one problem with this class, most of the attendees were on hormonal contraceptives, including myself. It hadn't even crossed my mind that to harness the power of your cycle, you needed a real, unaltered, natural cycle.
This was my first glimpse into the story behind the pill. Every women in this class had a story. A story of why she was on the pill, and most of us didn't realize that there was an alternative path to take in this story. Many of us were put on hormonal contraceptives at an early age for cramps, heavy periods, endometriosis, etc. Most of us were under the impression that pumping these hormones into our bodies was the cure to our issues and we were completely uneducated about what was actually happening in our bodies. This was the first time that I understood that hormonal birth control keeps you from ovulating and the period I was having every month was not even a real period. When I learned about the intricate dance our hormones do throughout the month and the amazing things our female bodies are capable of, it didn't feel right suppressing all the things my body was meant to be doing. I found it very unsettling when I learned that the symptoms that I was treating by the pill were actually a wealth of knowledge. Cramps, heavy periods, headaches, bloating, these are all signs that can help us discover that something in our body is out of balance or not functioning quite right. In fact, a women's period is considered a fifth vital sign among blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate. So by using hormonal birth control for 10 years I wasn't treating the underlying issues causing my monthly symptoms, rather I was just putting a bandaid on my symptoms and blocking all of the information I could have been gathering from my 5th vital sign. Who knew?!
This class touched on the biology of the female body and all of the hormones that are hard at work throughout our cycle, but it dove so much deeper than that. We learned about the "seasons" of your cycle. This was super interesting, but once again something I couldn't truly embrace because with birth control, my cycle was on autopilot. There are four phases in a women's cycle menstruation, follicular, ovulation, and luteal. Each of these phases occur because of a change in your hormones and they offer different strengths. For example, you get a boost of energy and creativity in your follicular phase, this is your "spring." You can even try and coordinate life events around these phases to best utilize the strengths they offer. You can learn more about syncing your life with your cycle with the incredible Alisa Vitti, the author of Woman Code. She has even created a functional medicine period app for helping you track your cycle as well as the seasons you're in. Her app tells you what part of your cycle you're in, and gives you info on your emotional state, what you your love life looks like, food suggestions, and even workout suggestions that support you in that specific season of your cycle. She overcame PCOS just by following these regimens and offers programs to help others no matter what stage of life they are in. Check her out and download floliving!
After I finished the class I did not make any quick moves but assessed how I was feeling on the pill. About 6 months after taking the "Harness the Power of Your Cycle" course, I decided it was time to come off of my birth control. I definitely was not trying to have a baby, so I knew I needed to find another method. I took a course on FAM (fertility awareness method) and once again learned so much about my body. FAM is about being aware of when you are fertile, which is a very specific window of time. You track your BBT (basal body temperature) and other fertility signs to avoid pregnancy. I use the Kindara app and their BBT thermometer that automatically syncs with the app. You can learn more about Kindara and FAM here.
I have now been off the pill for almost two years. I would love to say it has been great and easy, but the truth is, it has been hard and a lot of work. The reason it has been so hard is because after being on the pill for ten years my hormones, gut, and cycle are completely out of whack. You can read more about the long term side effects of hormonal birth control here . That three day cycle that came the same day each month was not real and not my cycle. After two years, my cycle is still not regular and consists of some not so friendly faces. My cramps from high school are back and I also experience painful ovarian cysts every few months. I do not know whether some of the hormonal imbalances I am dealing with are due to being on the pill for 10 years or are what the pill was masking, either way it is time to get to the bottom of them and get my body balanced again. Though coming off the pill hasn't been all rainbows and flowers, there are some positives I have noticed. I feel that getting off the pill has had a major positive impact on my mental health. I am not nearly on such an emotional roller coaster before and during my period. I also definitely feel more in touch with my body and able to listen to it more. The hormone free path may be taking more work and is not as convenient, but I am so thankful I quit when I did. I am getting to know my body and cycle, and the not so great symptoms that came with ditching the pill are helping me discover what my body needs to get things regulated.
I'm sure now you're wondering, well if not the pill, ring, shot, iud, then what? I am a fan of the Fertility Awareness Method. It takes a while to get used to but is becoming a preferred method by more and more women. In fact, an app called "Natural Cycles" was just certified as a birth control method in the European Union. The effectiveness rate of "Natural Cycles" is 93 percent. The pill has an effectiveness rate of 99.7 percent with perfect use, but with "actual" use, it drops to 92 percent. There are many tools for FAM. Kindara and Wink (started in Boulder, CO), Ladycomp, Daysy, and Natural Cycles to name a few. I like FAM because you become so much more connected with your body and learn so much about your cycle. Of course it takes discipline and back up methods at certain times of the month. The woman I took my FAM course with told me about VCF. This is a Vaginal Contraceptive Film. It is a great backup method and a good alternative to condoms. Click here for more alternatives to hormonal birth control.
Please feel free to share your comments, stories, or questions!
Countless times I have given up on this journey. I figured, "Well, I feel okay, I just need to stop complaining" or "Figuring out how these foods affect me is just too hard." I have spent lots of money and years trying to find a resource to help me understand why I just don't feel that great while I am in my 20's. I have done all the fad diets and yo yo'd back and forth thinking at least if I was happier with my body things would be better. On an average day I would feel absolutely exhausted, bloated, anxious, light-headed, suffer from digestive issues, and headaches. I would try to tell the doctor about some of these symptoms but rather than leaving with answers, I would be offered a pill for a quick fix or nothing at all. I would meet with doctors, naturopaths, life coaches, basically anyone who would listen, and after every meeting, I would be let down. These countless failures lead me to start diving into the world of holistic health. Soon my bookshelf was filled with self-improvement books and books with prescriptions for food as medicine.
Through all of my trial and error I had found some things that seemed to help, but not the improvements I was looking for. I completed some elimination diets such as the Whole30, and although I would find things I should cut out of my diet, I would always fall into my old habits. When I did keep up with the healthy habits I had discovered, there were still symptoms or issues that would not budge. Every time I would not stay committed, I would beat myself up thinking I have no will power and would be left feeling like a failure yet again. The negative stories I was telling myself about "will power" and "failing" were just as bad as the healthy eating followed by sugar binges. This vicious cycle continued and more and more symptoms arose.
In an attempt to make more natural changes to my life I decided to go off the pill after 10 years in January of 2016. I was put on the pill, like many young girls, in high school for cramps. Little did I know the other impacts it has on your body. When I started learning more about the way it was affecting me, I knew I could not take it anymore. It took over a year for things to even start regulating, and symptoms that were masked by the pill, decided to reappear. Each month I was suffering from horrible cramps, migraines, and an unfamiliar face, ovarian cysts. I visited my gynecologist and felt even worse after leaving. I knew I needed to find a new doctor when she insisted I get back on birth control, and though I had no plans of having kids any time soon, she continually promised I would be fertile immediately after going off. (We all know that is not true) I was extremely discouraged with this visit and went on yet another search to find better support. A friend/nutritionist recommended a doctor who looked at the "whole picture", and that sounded like a good thing.
The "whole picture" was exactly what I needed. After experiencing a very difficult end to 2016 my symptoms went into overdrive. My tiredness had turned into absolute exhaustion and my anxiety morphed into full blown panic attacks. I decided to schedule an appointment with this new doctor and hope for the best. When I walked into my visit the nurse handed me a piece of wood with three subjects, mind, body, and spirit. Under each subject there was a piece of string with a bead hanging off of it. She asked me to give each subject a rating. This already was a breath of fresh air, a gynecologist asking me about my mental and spiritual health, who would have thought. When she walked in and saw my low ratings she dove in head first to taking the time to learn all about my health history. After an extensive consultation with her, I felt very comfortable and excited to move forward and complete the labs she recommended to see where I was at.
My labs came back with a direct reflection to how I was feeling, but this seemed like something she was very familiar with. I have now visited this doctor three times and finally feel that I am on the right path. We have discovered what vitamins I am deficient in, food allergies, and the cause of the other symptoms I would love to say goodbye to. I was extremely deficient in Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D, which supports your body and mind in so many different ways. I was also formally introduced to CANDIDA. I had heard of candida but did not know too much about it. When the doctor showed me the list of symptoms and the causes of candida, and everything seemed to align. Words caught my eye such as intense sugar cravings, brain fog, fatigue, digestion issues, and anxiety or depression. The causes that stuck out were antibiotics, birth control, sugar, and stress. I read through this list wondering how I had never learned more about this thing called candida. I left that day with a bag of supplements, a gluten, dairy and sugar free diet, and no disappointment at all. I didn't feel sad about cutting these things out for the next 2 months because I felt confident this would lead to positive changes. So this is where I am currently on my adventure to healing, two weeks in and hopefully on the road to recovery.
This wellness journey has been quite long and sometimes exhausting, but I can say I have learned a lot and know I will continue to learn even more. I have realized you absolutely have to be your own advocate. You need to do the research, you need to find providers you're comfortable with, and many times you may have to get a few different opinions. I have also realized that the systems of the body and every small thing we do in our everyday lives are more connected than I ever could have imagined. Ignorance is not bliss and being mindful of the products we use, activities we do, and food we eat is crucial to creating a happy and healthy life. I know that there are many people out there who have similar stories to myself and I hope that this blog can be way for us to explore and grow together!