Learn to ride the crimson tide and all other days of your menstrual cycle to your advantage.
That time of the month again? That sticky, icky feeling, cramps, mood swings… the list goes on. But it’s not all bad – your menstrual cycle has its ups, too. Research shows that different phases offer benefits such as a creativity boost and even an increase in your metabolism, which is the rate at which your body burns calories.
Besides triggering ovulation (the release of one or more matured eggs by the ovaries), and the thickening and breaking down of the lining of the womb, the various hormones that regulate your period can also have effects on your mood as well as mental function.
Here’s how to make the most of your menstrual cycle every day, with advice from women’s health experts.
Days 1 to 5: Hello and no thanks, Aunt Red
Phew, the worst of the crankiness is over and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) should subside. “During the early part of your menstrual cycle, the three main hormones that control it – oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone – are all at a low,” says Dr Christopher Chong, a urogynaecologist and obstetrician & gynaecologist from Chris Chong Clinic in Gleneagles Hospital.
The drop in hormone levels may explain your tiredness and low sex drive (sorry, honey, not tonight). Many women also get cramps, no thanks to naturally-occurring chemicals known as prostaglandins, which trigger contractions in the uterus to facilitate the shedding of the menstrual lining.
Do relaxing activities
Dr Chong recommends relaxing activities like taking a walk to break out of your mood rut or yoga (here, seven great poses to do). However, you might want to avoid inverted poses, like the Headstand or the Plow, when your flow is heavy. While not enough research has been done to confirm the link, some experts think inversions could lead to endometriosis that causes tissue that usually lines the uterus to grow outside it. That said, there’s no need to abstain from workouts during this time. Here are five convincing reasons to exercise while you’re on your bleed.
Studies have shown that heat can help to relax uterine muscles and ease cramps. For those still using a hot water bottle, upgrade to a handy heating pad like Menstruheat by homegrown company Pslove. Designed to last up to 12 hours (unlike winter heat pads which provide only short bursts of heat), Menstruheat can be used on the go: just peel and paste to apply heat around your abdomen.
Day 6 to 14: Bring it on, baby
Your oestrogen level rises as your body prepares itself to get pregnant, and this also ups the concentration of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Testosterone production is amped up during this time as well. “This is when you’ll have renewed energy and a heightened sex drive,” adds Dr Chong.
Get ready to shine at parties and social events
As you approach ovulation, the surge in hormones will also make you feel more attractive, says Dr Tan Thiam Chye, obstetrician and gynaecologist at O&G The Women’s Medical Specialist in Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre. You might subconsciously start wearing more makeup or flirty dresses too.
In a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 88 women were asked to draw pictures of outfits they planned to wear to a hypothetical party. Women in the fertile phase of their cycles were likelier to draw sexier, more revealing outfits – even when they were already in happy, long-term relationships. The authors speculate that committed women were “inclined to increase their attractiveness in order to remain competitive with members of the opposite sex for their mates’ attention”.
Your partner may be more drawn to you as well. According to research published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, men are more attracted to women at this time of the month. Other studies show that they find a woman’s dance moves, as well as her voice and smell, more attractive in the days leading up to ovulation, says Dr Tan.
Tackle important tasks
Oestrogen also improves your mental function. A study published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that women in the mid-follicular phase (around days six to 10) of their cycles were more verbally fluent than those in the late luteal phase (around days 16 to 28). “It’s a good time of the month to schedule your important assignments and presentations,” adds Dr Chong.
Days 15 to 20: Best. Self. Ever.
In an average 28-day cycle, a woman’s fertile window lasts about six days. “Ovulation is when a woman tends to feel her best,” says Dr Tan. Meaning to say, not only are you feeling at your peak, your body is ready for baby too.
A small-scale study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology also revealed that women get a creativity boost around ovulation. Plan your craft, writing or photography projects around this time.
Go easy during workouts
However, while you’re milking those positive vibes, be careful when playing sports. “Due to the surge in female hormones, ligaments are more lax during the ovulatory phase,” says Dr Tan. “Sports injuries are more common then.”
Research from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the US has also shown that women are nearly three times more likely to injure their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during ovulation than other times of their cycle.
Treat yourself to eye candy
During this phase, don’t be alarmed if you find yourself sneaking more glances at a buff colleague too. It’s totally normal as women tend to be attracted to manly types during ovulation, say scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles in the US. Researcher Martie Haselton suggests gravitating towards masculinity could be a lingering trait from female ancestors who equated stronger guys with better off spring survival. The feeling will pass once you’re out of your fertile window.
Kick a bad habit
Another upside: If you’ve been trying to break the habit, now’s also the best time to quit smoking. Researchers from the University of Montreal in Canada have found that it may be easier to overcome withdrawal symptoms now than at the start of your cycle. Cravings and urges are less intense, thanks to your elevated oestrogen and progesterone levels.
Days 21 to 28: I’m not mean, I just have PMS
When your body gets ready to eject the unfertilised egg, oestrogen and progesterone levels plunge, along with your mood, says Dr Chong.
Enter premenstrual syndrome (PMS), cheekily defined by www.urbandictionary.com as “a powerful spell women are put under about once every month, which gives them the strength of an ox, the stability of a Window’s OS, and the scream of a banshee”.
Anyone who has experienced the crazy mood swings, perpetual lethargy and backaches days before their period can testify that PMS is real. Though its exact cause is unclear, hormonal changes are a likely factor.
In fact, many women tend to feel their worst during the premenstrual period, says Dr Tan. “They may have food cravings, experience emotional depression and irritability, suffer from pimple outbreaks and become bloated because of fluid retention.” With a list like that, anyone’s bound to feel crappy. If you feel your PMS symptoms are becoming unmanageable, it could point to something more serious.
Keep working out
There is still good news though: Your body torches more calories during this time. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in the days leading up to your next bleed, your basal metabolic rate increases by about nine per cent. So even though you might feel lethargic, a good work out will get you out of your funk.
Eat more consciously
Don’t take PMS as a free pass to eat whatever you want. Instead of gorging on your favourite sugary or salty snacks, studies show that eating right can ease your symptoms. Bloating can be caused by salty foods, while spikes and dips in your mood could be due to your blood sugar. Aim to eat more fruits, veggies and wholegrains at regular intervals.
Also, try TCM herbs like yi mu cao tea or dang gui. The former is meant to be drunk just before your period comes, to help your womb recover as soon as possible during menstruation. The latter can be consumed once or twice weekly, to help with a better menstrual flow.