Just a heads up to my readers, this is a pretty personal post. To my readers who do not have a menstrual cycle, you may not find this relevant. I nevertheless wrote this post because I think this stuff needs to be talked about more often.
Ugh periods, am I right? Cramps and bloat and mood swings and blood. How inconvenient! Like, come on body, don’t you know that I have crop tops to wear, miles to run, a life to live that is hard enough without “that time of the month”?!
Until recently, I didn’t fully realize how important it is to get your period. In the endurance sport community, amenhorrea (not getting your period) is the goal for some female athletes. Your cycle stops [or never starts] because your womb isn’t exactly ‘fit for child,’ usually because fuel stores and/or body fat % are too low. For some, it is seen as a measure of fitness, indicative of supreme leanness. And apart from comorbidities associated with the female athlete triad, I wasn’t aware of any long term consequences of amenhorrea until just recently.
My lab studies cardiovascular aging, and so the other day I was reading relevant literature until I found myself in a deep hole that led me to several shocking articles-
Estrogen is a seriously kickass hormone and protects us from cardiovascular diseases (CVD), which is why postmenopausal women are at a much high risk for CVD. In short, estrogen activates an enzyme that makes nitric oxide (NO). Sound familiar?? It should, because that’s what you get when you breakdown nitrate, found in beets and leafy greens. NO causes vasodilation in your blood vessels, which increases blood flow! Basically, your body’s natural production of estrogen is like eating a bunch of beets (maybe a hyperbole but you get the point). So why are we fighting our bodies from producing this super hormone?
[OK now that we have some of background information out there, let’s get to my own period story]
I was pretty underweight in high school (orthorexia/ disordered eating) and didn’t get my period until I was 18. But that was fine with me; it assured me that I was lean enough to be a competitive runner. Just one less thing to worry about.
When I did finally get my period (probably the only high school senior who didn’t know how to use a tampon), I immediately went on the pill because I wanted to control my cycle. I stayed on the pill for 2.5 years and then switched to the Mirena IUD because the burden of taking a pill everyday was annoying and all my friends loved their IUDs.
After the first couple months of adjusting to the IUD, I was so stoked. While some people still have a period with Mirena, I was psyched to not be in that category. No bleeding, no problem…right…?
Things changed for the worse early this spring. About mid-March, I started spotting; not a full-on period, but I was bleeding alright. And then it was mid-April, and I was still bleeding. At the end of April, I went to the college health center where they did blood tests and an internal ultrasound (10/10 would not recommend). My IUD was still in there all right, and they told me that my blood tests came back normal. Me being me and all scientific etc. of course asked for a hard copy of my test results. Pro tip- always get the numbers from your blood tests! Doctors will tell you everything is “normal” even if you are at the lowest end of the “normal” range. But they didn’t even look at estrogen and progesterone levels! They sent me on my way, and I just kept on bleeding.
Mid-May now, still bleeding. I went to see my primary care doctor when I was home in Maine, and she suggested that I start taking birth control bills. I was very anti that idea, because it seemed like such a bandaid, not to mention who ever heard of taking the pill if you have an IUD?! But when I was still bleeding at the end of the month, I was desperate enough and started taking the pill.
Spoiler alert- the pill did NOT help control the bleeding. It did help make me uncharacteristically moody, cry for no reason, and break out badly. I was at a loss and when I started the placebo week of the pill pack, I called up a naturopath here in Boulder. And that was the best idea I’ve had in a while. Finally, someone with ideas about underlying causes and a plan of action! An expensive appointment, yes, but if your health isn’t worth spending money on, what is?
Naturopath visit summary- Dr. Martin took a very detailed history and thoroughly explained how hormones function when everything is running smoothly. Despite their relevance to my life, I realized how little I knew about the menstrual cycle and birth control pills and IUDs. Dr. Martin explained that your period happens when progesterone levels dip and hypothesized that my body isn’t making enough progesterone/ progesterone receptors, causing me to chronically bleed. She put me on a 28 day “liver detox,” which involves taking a protein powder specifically designed to help a backlogged liver, a super potent antioxidant called glutathione, and probiotics specific to vaginal health (oh yeah, I know that’s just what you wanted to hear). The liver is responsible for synthesizing and pumping out your hormones, so the hope is to treat it extra well and help it do its job. I am also getting a thorough blood panel done in a week to check hormone levels, among other things. If this detox doesn’t help, I plan to take out my IUD. A long story yes, but I will continue to blog about this process. As a physiology masters student who knows very little about women’s health, I realized many women probably don’t know much about what’s going on down there. So I hope this helps!!
Congratulations if you made it through to the end of this post! You now know me on a much more personal level. Please reach out if any of this is relevant to you, I’d love to hear from you ladies (and gents…?!)!