At LOLA, our mission is to provide this community with the resources you need to make empowered and informed decisions about your reproductive health. Whether you’re looking for information about natural period products, or expert advice on your irregular period, we’re here for you.
In that spirit (and in honor of Women’s Health Week) we recently asked our community to share the reproductive health questions that keep you up at night. We’re featuring those questions, along with answers from our team of medical experts, every day this week on our Instagram channel.
We’re spending day three of our Women’s Health Week series with Dr. Corina Dunlap. Dr. Dunlap is a naturopathic physician specializing in women’s health and a familiar face around LOLA — you may have seen her during our weekly Period Support Group! We received over 100 questions and have whittled them down to the most pressing ones for Dr. Dunlap to help us navigate the natural ways we can care for our bodies and minds during our cycles. Click here to watch the full interview, or read on for highlights.
I think understanding my cycle and the effects it has on my body would help me know what I should be doing to care for my body during each phase. All I know is PMS, menstruation and ovulation. Are there more phases?
Yes. An average cycle is about 28 days, but not everybody’s cycle is like that. A healthy range is about 25-35 days long, but your normal may be different. Day 1 to day 14 is the average time for ovulation and that first phase is called the follicular phase. Then we have this mid-cycle ovulation phase and that can change from day 10 or day 18 for some women. Typically from ovulation to when we bleed, that second half is called the luteal phase and then we have, again, our menses or period.
What is the impact on our bodies, like our appetites and skin, during the entire menstrual cycle?
You can think of the period as being a time of reset. Losing blood is a natural detox pathway for the body, so it’s kind of like a release. Typically most worries happen during the luteal phase. That’s when progesterone is the highest and when we talk about our skin, for example, progesterone can contribute to an increase in sebum and oil production which can cause more pores to be clogged and breakouts to occur. We also see the appetite rises in the luteal phase, right before the period. A lot of times when there are cravings for things or blood sugar irregularities, that ramps up during the luteal phase.
What foods should I eat during each phase? Is there anything to seed cycling?
Whenever I give dietary recommendations, it’s very individualized so I really recommend women talking to their doctors about their needs. Over the course of the entire cycle, I generally recommend a more anti-inflammatory type of diet. That may look different from person to person, but it generally involves whole foods, low refined sugar, and less caffeine. If you focus on a healthy diet all the way through your cycle, you might notice that you’ll have an easier time when you bleed or with any symptoms during that second half of the cycle. But we typically get away with less during that second half of the cycle, so if you really want to focus on what’s a healthy diet for you, focusing on that second half of the cycle is quite important.
Now seed cycling is something that comes up a lot and it gets wrapped up in a lot of natural medicine. Interestingly, it’s used more anecdotally, historically, and theoretically. When it comes to research, there isn’t a ton to support seed cycling. Although, I really like the idea of seed cycling because it promotes healthy food that follows the phases of the cycle. Seed cycling involves taking 1 tablespoon of freshly ground flax and 1 tablespoon of pumpkin seeds during the follicular phase. The idea there is that these can help promote healthy estrogen levels. The zinc in pumpkin seeds is claimed to promote progesterone during the second half of the cycle. These seeds are considered to be more modulatory so if your estrogen is too high, it helps to regulate it. During the second half of the cycle, the focus is 1 tablespoon each sunflower and sesame seeds. And the idea there is that the polyphenol and vitamin E in the seeds can help balance out healthy estrogen and progesterone levels. A lot of women do like doing this. They feel like they’re more in tune with their cycle and they feel healthier. But it’s hard to say if it’s effective for those reasons or if it’s because they’ve incorporated more healthy fats and proteins into their diet.
I’m struggling a bit with the transitions between phases and ensuring it goes smoothly enough that I’m not swinging too broadly, all while trying to be able to tell the difference between each of my phases.
Transitions can be interesting. Some people have more difficult transitions than others and a lot of it has to do with how sensitive our bodies are to these hormone fluctuations. So in the first half of the follicular phase, we start with low hormones. The FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) starts the rise and then the estrogen and LH (leutinizing hormone). Then we might start to ovulate or we might not. Then the second half of the cycle is more about progesterone growth and the estrogen starts to climb again but it’s not as high in the second half. Sometimes women don’t do well in the second half of their cycle and we can see this in the form of PMS, mood stuff, depression, anxiety, irritability, and this can be so debilitating. It can impact their self-esteem, relationships, and how they interact with the world. A lot of people during the second half of their cycle start to feel an inward pull, more introverted. To that, I say it’s on the healthy-normal side of things. But if you feel like this is really impacting your relationships, then you might have a difficulty with these transitions. It’s a very individual approach when we talk about how to support somebody with these transitions, but a lot of times I start with the diet. I’m looking to see if there’s any obstacles to their health, anything that’s causing inflammation in the body. What are their habits? Are they sleeping well? Are they staying hydrated? What do their vitamin levels look like? That can make a huge difference in how people cycle during the month. If they have any overt endocrine or hormonal disorders, like thyroid or PCOS, or maybe they’re not bleeding regularly, that’s a sign that something else needs to be worked on with the doctor or women’s health professional.
Any tips on helpful ways to manage intense cramps and bloating during menstruation, as well as menstrual migraines?
When it comes to cramps, the medical term for this is dysmenorrhea. There’s two types: primary and secondary. Primary means that it’s directly related to what’s going on in the body. For example, there might be more inflammation in the body that is causing more pain during your cycle. So you might work on your diet or you might need some topical support (which LOLA does and it’s great!), or they may need some extra vitamins through their diet. The more difficult one to treat is secondary dysmenorrhea and it can be caused by a secondary reason, like a structural or hormonal reason. Often with pain, we talk about something like endometriosis can be on the table as something to discuss with your doctor and it’s much more involved in terms of the care.
In terms of migraines, again I come back to the inflammation piece because I’m usually treating that through dietary support, gut health, and looking to see what the health of the GI system is. With our body and how it responds to symptoms, we really have to look at the gut and see how digestion is functioning and when we work on that, the other things can resolve itself. I personally have had menstrual migraines for a long time and then finally realized I had a gluten sensitivity. It’s not always that simple, but I’ve been there and I know how horrible it can be.
Do you have any suggestions on how to handle fatigue during your menstrual cycle?
My first recommendation here is to honor your cycle and honor the fact that when we’re bleeding, our body is doing a whole lot of work to get rid of that blood and it’s not the best time to go do crazy workouts or be as busy as possible. Really use that time to rest the body because if we rest, we’ll have much more energy throughout the rest of the cycle. When we’re losing blood, we’re also losing a lot of iron. Iron contributes a lot to energy, so if we have already low iron status or we’re anemic and we’re bleeding on top of that, we’re going to feel even more fatigued. So get your iron checked. Also things like B12 can make a difference, too.
I’m wondering how to maintain the best hygiene throughout my cycle. Douching or not? Lube or not?
[Laughs] I get a lot of questions about douching. I don’t recommend it typically. That’s because you can think of your vaginal cavity as a self-cleaning system of the body and it really maintains such a delicate microbiome — a balance of good bacteria to hopefully not as many unhealthy bacteria. We really want to maintain that microbiome because it does such a good job on its own without us doing things like douching. Having healthy gut flora will help us have healthy vaginal flora as well. If you’re douching for a reason like odor, that’s something you should address with your doctor. During your period, you can let your body just discharge. Letting your body discharge is part of what’s healthy-normal. But if you’re experiencing certain symptoms or change in odor or change in discharge after you’re done with your period, then you definitely want to talk to your doctor.
Lube is no problem, especially if it’s a lubricant that doesn’t shift the pH too much. A really clean lubricant like the kind LOLA offers is such a good one. We worked on that together, so I really love that one.
When I’m eating right and doing well, it seems that almost every time my PMS begins, it derails me and it’s hard to gain any momentum with eating healthy long term when the mood swings and cravings just override any good intentions or habits I have set. Any advice for not being derailed by my period every month?
This is probably one of those situations where the person is very sensitive to the transitions and they just need a little extra support. So whatever their baseline sensitivity is, we want to try to increase their resiliency and that’s something I work with patients all the time. It starts with eliminating any obstacles to health. So, what kind of habits are in their daily routine all cycle long? Getting started in the first half of the cycle and doing really well, then feeling like you lose track during the second half. If you’re having a lot of symptoms, then that needs to be worked on with someone. But if you’re not having a lot of symptoms and you’re just feeling bad about yourself because you’re feeling like you’re failing yourself, it’s okay. Don’t let perfect get in the way of doing great. It’s okay to have some chocolate on your period. But if your symptoms feel out of control and outside of what is normal for you, then definitely talk to someone about it. Look at your vitamin profile and there are some good botanicals to help you regulate the cycle so your cravings and acne aren’t as bad.
For more advice from Dr. Corina Dunlap, find her on Instagram @drcorinadunlap, submit a question on our Ask an Expert portal, and keep an eye out for her on LOLA’s Period Support Group on Friday’s at noon on IGTV.