(How science can empower women and what we can do to feel great maneuvering beautifully through our menstrual cycles)
Female energy, whether that is Yin in YinYang, or Shiva in Shiva and Shakti, has the power to create: it can create babies in our wombs, sprout buds through the soil, generate ideas and instil creativity.
It may look and feel soft, but we are the protectors, brave warriors, leaders and peaceful fighters.
Once a month, until post-menopause, many of us are visited with a period.
It can sometimes be fatiguing, painful and sometimes debilitating.
Regardless, we show up like champs.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it seems like I get only one week of “grace period” per month where I feel like I can conquer all, do all, finish all. The rest of the month I’m made very aware that I am dealing with changing hormones. It gets worse with age, it is like my body is saying, “Hey, no baby this month, AGAIN?”
How does that make sense? Let me tell you.
For a week before the period I am PMSing.
For a whole week, I am either spotting or bleeding.
For a week after the period, I am recovering from having lost blood and getting ready for ovulation.
Then a week of “normality”, where I think, “Hey, is this how men feel ALL of the time?”
When we book our long distance races, my partner is able to book it for whenever he pleases. For me, I need to consult my manager: my period calendar on my phone, along with my personal and work calendars. And yes, sometimes I do say no when it is too close to my period or if it is close to a day of heavy flow with nowhere to hygienically empty and reinsert my cup, when I would feel shitty just by existing anyway.
I have tried many “tricks” and listened to advice coming from scientific research.
Little did we know that the current research is majorly based on male physiology, and only recently have we started taking into account the fact that female bodies are so different from the male counterparts. Therefore a lot of existing recommendations out there can be a huge miss for women.
Why were we excluded from research for so long?
Well, the world has been (and still is in many cases) white, cisgender, male dominated, with a lot of people actually believing that females were inferior therefore not fit for research.
Of course, since then a lot has changed in the research world, but we can’t disregard the fact that the world is still operating with the scientific evidence of research done on men.
You don’t believe me? Read on.
The world built for men
In this article titled The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes from The Guardian we can quickly recognize a few things that we find in our daily life that are rather dismissive or neglectful of women.
Here are some every-day things that are male-accomodated, male-centric, male-tending, which are not only uncomfortable but also can even pose danger to women.
Just to name a few,
Women are 47% more likely to be severely injured in a car crash. Car crash tests are done using average male size dummies. Considering women tend to have smaller frame, height and less muscle mass, car crash preventative measures and designs can actually do more harm to women than protect.
Bathroom queues. I sometimes go into the men's bathroom, given that there are no standing urinals in the open area outside the stalls, which could embarrass some people with my presence in their private space. I mean, sometimes I can’t hold it. Why should I suffer when there is a long line outside the women’s bathroom while only one dude comes out of theirs once in a while? It is about time we stopped chanting “All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom” (Everyone Nose by N.E.R.D) for fun and do something about it! Maybe make women’s bathrooms bigger with more stalls, or make the public bathrooms co-ed: first come first served?
So yes, currently scientific evidence is heavily based on white cis-cender male. Simon Hill’s recent podcast episode on The Proof with Dr. Stacy Sims, “Nutrition & Exercise tips for Women” talks about these issues. I found this podcast very informative and enlightening. I highly recommend you to check it out.
PMS is REAL
Women on period are not just “making it up” or being “soft”.
There is scientific proof that women are impacted by our menstrual cycle, which is NOT just 5 days of the month, but it impacts our entire month, entire year, entire life, even after post-menopause (in different ways though).
PMS, abbreviated for Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, is actual changes women experience 5 to 7 days before the blood-launch, the first day of their period. It affects us physically and also emotionally (e.g. mood changes). It is VERY real, despite what some of our high school classmates and mean boyfriends have told us; despite how the world made us feel “not-so-normal”, and “ashamed” for experiencing the mood swings.
Here is some evidence from the conversation between Dr. Sims and Simon Hill that verifies the validity of the Premenstrual Syndrome. About a week before our period starts, the following things happen:
There are changes in our neurotransmitters. That means, there is less density and activation of serotonin receptors. This causes us to feel more anxious.
Our progesterone level changes. This causes us to feel bloated.
There are changes in our central nervous system. This can make us feel less power during our physical training.
There is an increase in protein oxidation. This makes it harder for us to recover from training.
Our sleep architecture changes (e.g. less slow-wave sleep, less REM sleep). This means our sleep can be disturbed, giving us less quality and less quantity of a good night’s rest that our body needs. This causes us to be more tired which can affect our mood.
Parasympathetic response slows, therefore we are more sympathetically driven, which means we are more reactive and sensitive (aka “hormonal” - oh how I dislike this term).
Our bodies become more pro-inflammatory, and experience more fever response. That is because our bodies don’t want to fight off sperms, in order to create a friendly welcoming environment for them. As a result, we are less able to fight off viruses and bacteria, compared to pre-ovulation. (PS: women are so accommodating! 😛) This increases the likelihood of women getting sick more easily at this time.
PMS isn’t just a made up word to shame women.
It is REAL.
And it is OK to feel different during these times.
After all, this gives us the super-power to create and carry life inside of us for 9-ish months.
When male-science feels wrong
Here are some things from the podcast that confirmed my intuition about my own body:
No exercise at a fasted state. Dr. Sims mentions that when women train in a fasted state, we could observe a higher fat accumulation, higher cortisol or stress levels, greater inflammatory responses and even poorer sleep. Women perform better with some food in our tummies. The advice of exercising first thing in the morning on an empty stomach to burn fat and lose weight is ubiquitous. It might be true for men. But this never sat well with me. I felt energy-deficient and weak when I followed this advice. What works best for me is exercising in the evening. When all my work and eating for the day are done, I can burn off all the excess calories that I did not get to shed throughout the course of the day. You don’t necessarily have to wait to exercise in the evening. You simply need to get some food or smoothie in your stomach before you train in the morning. See my post on morning routines where I talk about including exercise in the evening rather than the morning.
Women don’t consume enough carbs. I love carbs. It gives me energy, especially earlier in the day. I eat carbs every day, and I feel great. I generally have not felt that the healthy carbs that I eat (fruits, veggies, rice, etc) made me gain weight or otherwise made me unhealthy. I do believe that carbs are good for us, and modern day humans are afraid of it because it was marketed as a foe. If you look at the staples around the world, carbs make up a vast majority: rice, bread, potatoes, just to name a few, are consumed at meal times as staples around the world. I guess our ancestors, of so many different cultures, knew a thing or two about a balanced diet, and what gives us energy. Carbohydrates are so readily available on our planet and relatively inexpensive. I believe that the natural availability suggests that we are meant to eat more of these crops that our mother Earth offers us. Likewise, I believe that more of these are offered because they are exactly what we need more of on our plates. The Universe (our mother, our Earth) already knows and gives us what we need.
My takeaways from the Podcast
Besides a lot of useful information and learning more about my menstrual cycle, I concluded the following.
Listen to your body. Science has long neglected women as research subjects. It is catching up but it will be a while until we will have more scientific evidence about our bodies and what works best for our physiology. As some of the things talked about in the podcast had confirmed my intuition for what works best for my body, I am glad that I listened to my intuition and my own body, rather than advice coming from elsewhere. Observing science and its evidence is important. Educating yourself and listening to others’ opinions with an open mind is important too. However, at the end of the day, no one else knows better than how you feel in your own body. So listen to yourself. Listen to your body and intuition, first and foremost. Gather your own data on yourself, and do what feels right for you.
Here is a question that has come up for me.
What about cold plunges? My intuition has always told me that keeping my body warm is the way to go for me. Maybe it is my body type, maybe it is because of the fact that I have a female physiology or maybe it is because I lived the majority of my life in countries that have many cold months. I am not sure. I love saunas, steam rooms, warm showers and massages. Things that help heat up my body and help the blood flow. Currently there are some studies done uncovering the benefits of cold plunges and ice baths. Are those studies also primarily done on men? Are they beneficial for women as well? I would love to know :) Because, as of 2023, I am still not a big fan of exposing myself to extreme cold for fun.
Now that we know that women do experience changes of hormones in the body and that our menstrual cycle does have an effect on how we train, how we live, how we schedule our lives and more, what can each of us do to help and empower women so that we don’t just survive our cycles but thrive in every aspect of our lives?
What companies can do:
Surprisingly, the two (and only) companies I worked for in South Korea did the best job in accommodating women when it came to work/life/period/baby balance. Here are some things I loved:
Period day-off Give women a day off every month, not to be deducted from their vacation days. Women show up like champs even with all these changes happening in our bodies at all times. Give us a bloody break (literally!). One of the companies I worked for in South Korea had this option, however, I never really had to use it, maybe because of the following option they offered:
Rest area If the office can afford it and provide it, this does wonders. My office had a sleeping area with blackout drapes, calming music and incense, where only women were allowed to enter. Since I felt energyless and dizzy a few days a month, this room became my best friend during the (2-hour) lunch break. Also great for pregnant female colleagues who need to get away from work and rest without being bothered.
Office temperature As we revisited earlier, office temperature is usually set to make our male colleagues comfortable. A few decades ago, the workplace was filled mostly with men. I get it. But times have changed, and these “optimal” temperature recommendations are outdated. Let’s raise the temperature in our workplace a bit more so that our female colleagues can feel more comfortable, get less sick, and thrive.
What can male-allies do:
Do not ever say “oh, you’re hormonal”. Even as a joke. It is not nice. It is not inclusive.
Instead of judging or looking down on us for “not being able to control our emotions”, please be more understanding.
Educate yourselves, and do not assume that what works for you will also work for your female friends.
What can WE do as women for ourselves?
First and foremost, get to know yourself. Grab your “Know-me-better journal”. It will only take you about 5-10 minutes. Once done, keep it where you can easily take a glance. It will provide you with insightful information about how to support yourself and prepare you for a rainy (or bloody) day.
What do you need? When you are struggling physically or emotionally due to your cycle, sit with it and ask yourself this very important question. What do you need at this moment? What can you do right now to support yourself? More often than not, you are your best person to take care of you.
Consult your manager - the period calendar. It will inform you (more or less) where you are in your cycle. Maybe try to schedule around your “lower energy” times. I usually mark with big letters, “PMS week” at the top of my weekly agenda so that I know not to over-load, over-schedule myself during that time, and be more conscious about getting plenty of rest.
It can be daunting, and can almost feel unfair at the workplace, in sports, or just in general ability to be clear headed in life.
It could seem like a set back, but you know what -
I am grateful that I have my period every month reminding me that I am healthy.
I am grateful that I am reminded every month that my body allows me to create life I choose to.
I am grateful that my body gives me a reminder every month to take it easy, put myself first, and prioritize rest and sleep.
I think it can be a fun thing, to get to know our bodies better and play around with our cycles when planning for training, diet, work and social life.
Jazz it up.
It is empowering.
This gives me a chance to take care of myself, and get to know myself better. That, for me, is much more important than training, working, excelling 24/7, 365 days of the year. I am not a machine. I am life. I am a woman. I am me. I am worth my time, my attention, and care.
PSM reminds me who I am, and it reminds me to tend to my needs every month.
I hope yours does for you too 🙂
Thanks for reading on -
With love, S