I was reminded the other day how many people don’t know about all of the cheap and easy old-timey remedies that people used to rely on, like castor oil. Many of these remedies have been used for centuries, simply because they work. Castor oil is one such helpful substance that really does fix just about everything as well today as it did in it’s first recorded use 3000 years ago. Really, if it’s been working for 3000 years, chances are it’s going to keep working.
There are internal uses for castor oil, but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest them simply because this isn’t a gentle plant – it’s a kick in the pants (literally). Castor oil taken internally is a laxative strong enough not only to induce bowel cramping and diarrhea, but even to induce labor contractions in pregnant women. I actually used it to induce labor for myself recently and I can honestly say the castor-oil cramps were almost as bad as the labor pains. Eek! Not a lot of fun, but if you’re impatiently waiting for a baby it does work. The reaction is so strong that castor oil is even reputed to have been used by fascist mobs in Italy in the 1920s as a form of intimidation (I would be intimidated). Essentially these mobs would force feed their victims castor oil and turn them lose to have an agonizing and embarrassing bout of violent diarrhea. This, I suppose, made the victims then comply with whatever it was the fascist mob wanted in the first place. Ummm… Yeah. So don’t use it like that please.
While I’m obviously not a big fan of internal use in all but the most dire circumstances, topical use of castor oil is a miracle strong enough to make it a necessary part of every medicine cabinet. The uses for topical castor oil are threefold:
- Digestive – Castor oil over the liver and abdomen helps to treat constipation, inflammatory bowel, liver congestion, gall bladder disease, bowel adhesions, lymphatic congestion, hepatitis, liver cirrhosis and even infections in pelvic organs such as bladder and vaginal tract. For anyone looking to cleanse the liver or eliminate gallbladder sludge, this is a necessary.
- Skin – Topically castor oil can help with bacterial or fungal skin infections, rashes, acne, boils, abscesses, age spots, sebaceous cysts, warts, preventing stretch marks, ringworm, skin keratosis, swollen lymph nodes and eczema. It takes redness out of rashes through a strong anti-inflammatory action and softens even the most resistant skin, so it’s also a great natural beauty tool.
- Pain – Topical castor oil can also be used to mitigate or relieve internal pain and inflammation from many causes. This includes uterine cramping and abdominal pain related to the menses, joint pain and inflammation from arthritis, bursitis or tendinitis, muscle and ligament sprains, pain due to fluid retention in extremities, painful lymph nodes, even pain from appendicitis (although you still need to get to the ER post haste)
So – let me say this a different way. TOPICAL castor oil can help with:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Abdominal pain and inflammation
- Adhesions after surgery
- Lymphatic congestion
- Liver detox
- Gallbladder sludge
- Pelvic infections
- Menstrual cramps or pain
- Fungal infections
- Age spots
- Stretch mark prevention
- Joint pain and inflammation
- Muscle and ligament sprains and strains
- Painful lymph nodes
The reason for it’s dramatic success in so many areas is simply the size of the primary molecule, ricinoleic acid, which comprises about 90% of the oil’s volume. Ricinoleic acid is strongly anti-inflammatory and is a small enough molecule to penetrate into the deepest layers of the skin as well as into the lymphatic channels. This penetration and effect is even better if you use heat on the area being treated. I recently had to have a C-section to deliver my little girl (the same one that was induced with castor oil – as it turns out her head was bigger than my body could handle). Castor oil topically over the C-section scar has helped it to soften and heal and really helped with the initial post-labor pain.
The best news is that 8oz of organic castor oil will run between $5 and $10 depending on how fancy a store you like to shop in. That 8oz will last most of your natural life because there’s really only so much you can use at once. Stay tuned for instructions on how to do an at home castor oil pack – both the conventional instructions, and my own much lazier method. 🙂
The castor bean plant, also called Palma Christi, or Palm of Christ. Possibly because of its hand-shaped leaves, possibly because castor oil is as close to a miracle as I’ve ever seen.
PCOS is entering epidemic proportions with an estimated 6-10% of all women in North America potentially having PCOS. Not only that, but the consequences can be severe and life-threatening including infertility or sub-fertility, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression. Literally millions of women are struggling and really don’t have any information from their doctors other than “you have PCOS.” Let’s go over the basics about PCOS, which stands for polycystic ovary syndrome, and see what can be done about this frankly horrifying condition.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome sounds like it logically should be a situation where there are many cysts on women’s ovaries (that would make sense, right?) and in some cases that is correct, but actually a woman doesn’t have to have cysts to have PCOS. Go figure. We’re finding out now, that it can also affect men’s health – although there is no equivalent of a PCOS diagnosis for men – but they can still carry the genes and pass it on to their sons and daughters. Essentially this is a whole body condition that is partially caused by genetics and partially caused by environment. It typically starts with an imbalance in your levels of sex hormones, but ends up changing the way your body uses insulin, which can lead to diabetes. Because of this combination there can be cysts in the ovaries, higher than normal levels of testosterone, insulin-resistance, pre-diabetes or actual diabetes, weight gain, and fertility troubles.
Symptoms of PCOS
Not every woman has the same spectrum of symptoms, but all of these can be part of PCOS.
- Missed, skipped or no periods or super-heavy painful periods
- Easy weight gain and difficult weight loss – especially around the belly
- Extra hair growth on face or body
- Thinning hair on scalp
- Insulin resistance, pre-diabetes or diabetes
- Difficulty getting pregnant, difficult pregnancies or infertility.
- **PCOS is often mistaken for thyroid disease so if you feel like you’ve got all the symptoms of low thyroid, but your thyroid tests normal then this could be it.
What are the Conventional Medical Treatments?
Conventional medicine combines 4 drug therapies depending on your symptoms:
- Estrogen/progestin birth control pills to regulate your cycle, or progestin only if you’re at risk with estrogen use.
- Spironolactone (which is actually a diuretic) to decrease testosterone levels and help prevent some of the acne, hair growth and hair thinning.
- Metformin to help regulate blood sugars
- Clomid or other fertility inducers to help women get pregnant.
All of this is great – provided you’re the type of gal who responds well to medications and isn’t (like me) going to get every side effect ever heard of plus some new ones thrown in for fun. Also, all of these medications do have risks and some of those risks are pretty serious. This isn’t the format to talk about them but if you’re taking any of these medications do a little research on the nutrients they deplete as well as the long-term consequences please!
Natural Therapies for PCOS
This is an emerging field because so many women are unhappy with the way their situation is progressing. In the coming weeks I’ll do another full blog post on this particular topic because there are diet and lifestyle choices that can have a huge impact. These can include:
- Paleo diet
- Grain-free diet (but not fully paleo)
- Low carb diet
- Regular exercise and an active lifestyle
- Quitting smoking (smoking actually increases testosterone levels in women)
- Losing weight
- Eating small meals frequently
The biggest thing that I want you to understand is that PCOS is a serious diagnosis and if your doctor tells you that you have it and hands you birth control, please please start looking into it. Get to the point that you understand what is going on with your body and your health because the long-term consequences are huge.
Seed cycling for hormone balance is one of those things that seems far too simple to ever work, but work it does! It’s very gentle nutritional support that encourages your cycle to follow it’s natural rhythm and gives the hormones gentle nudges in the right direction. Best of all, it’s done with whole foods, not with supplements or drugs, so it’s entirely natural, simple, inexpensive and gives you a whole different way to keep in contact with your body. Not only that, it can be helpful in situations that you might not think of right away – like for women post menopause, and for men looking to boost fertility. Yup, men.
What is Seed Cycling?
Seed cycling is a gentle way to help your body balance your hormones naturally by adding different seeds into your diet at different phases of your menstrual cycle. Simply adding seeds like flax, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds to your diet at different times in your cycle can promote healthy hormones by encouraging your body to either produce or detoxify certain hormones. It is literally using foods to either promote estrogen detoxification, in the first half of your cycle, or to increase progesterone production in the second.
Seed Cycling for Hormone Balance – What Does That Actually Help?
Seed cycling for hormone balance helps your body to smoothly find it’s way to a more normal balance and therefore can help with almost any symptom related to hormones including:
- Irregular Cycle
- Infertility or sub-fertility
- Too light or too heavy bleeding
- Post-menopausal hormone symptoms like low libido or depression
- Irregular cycle
Now – having said that, seed cycling for hormone balance is NOT a quick fix – you’re working to re-establish the rhythms of your body and that takes time. Typically you will start noticing changes after 3-4 months (3-4 cycles) but the great news is that because this is simply using foods it is safe to combine with other therapies and can help to enhance their actions. If you have one of the more serious hormonal issues like PCOS, then probably seed cycling isn’t going to fix it, but it can certainly help other measures to work better and help your body to find it’s rhythm.
Quick Review of Your Cycle and The Moon (And Why Those Two Things Go Together):
At heart, you are all wild animals. You love to pretend to be civilized and to wear a veneer of the tame, but truly and deeply your body belongs to the forest. In the “wild state” of being you wouldn’t have been exposed to artificial light and so very powerful signals were sent to your brain by the changing light of the moon, and this was one of the ways your body kept rhythms, including your hormone rhythms. Women’s typical hormone cycles are 28 days, which happens to be the length of a full lunar cycle as well (actually 28 and a fraction days). This is not a coincidence! You are designed to be at peak fertility, meaning ovulation, at the full moon (coincidentally when nights are brightest and you’re more likely to enjoy the sight of a partner). Fertility is lowest, meaning menstruation, at the new moon when nights are darkest. Men’s fertility follows women’s in this scenario so that we’re all most fertile at the same time – it works best that way for the baby-making.
How Do I Seed Cycle?
This is literally eating different seeds for different parts of your monthly rhythm because they help to restore your body to balance. You’ll recall that for women our hormones change in a predictable way with our cycle. Men have fewer hormone fluctuations through the month, but their peak fertility still should match with women’s – and everyone’s peak fertility is typically at the full moon (we are wild animals underneath it all).
Day 1 – 14 (Follicular phase):
1 tbsp flax seeds
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds
Day 15 – 28 (Luteal phase):
1 tbsp sunflower seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
Eat your 2 tablespoons of mixed seeds every day according to your cycle. The seeds should be ground in a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder or vitamix and added to smoothies, soups, oatmeal, yogurt, cereal, salad or however else it’s easy to get them into you. Also of those four seeds try not to add them in other times as snacks because it makes things confusing- so snacking on sunflower seeds on your flax/pumpkin days is probably not going to help your body to find it’s rhythm.
If you feel like you need a little extra push in the right direction, then you can also add supportive oils to this picture. Fish oil, about 1500 mg combined EPA and DHA can be added to Days 1 – 14 and Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) can be added to days 15 – 28.
Why These Seeds?
The pumpkin and flax seed combo is a potent one to help your body detoxify the extra estrogen that can plague this time of the month (the lignans especially from the flax seeds bind to excess estrogen and help your body to eliminate it) High zinc levels in pumpkin seeds prevent the estrogen from converting to harmful forms of testosterone and also prime your body for progesterone production which will happen in the second half of the cycle.
The sunflower and sesame combo used in the luteal phase of the cycle has a much lighter dose of lignans from the sesame seeds, but is rich in zinc and selenium which helps progesterone production. These seeds are also a rich source of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid which can convert to gamma linolenic acid, which also helps the balance between progesterone and estrogen.
The seeds should be organic and raw if possible and ground fresh every day or two just because the oils in the seeds can go rancid if they’re ground for too long. You can add the seeds in anywhere that it’s easy for you and if you completely hate eating seeds you can mix them into a small glass of juice and gulp it down.
If you’re working on getting pregnant and need more information about how seed cycling and pregnancy go together then read this post – seeds are a tremendous support to your own little sprout. 🙂
The Big Picture of Seed Cycling
Also – if you don’t know the moon’s current phase, here’s that info. Thanks reader Zahra for reminding me that this isn’t here!
In light of breast cancer awareness month I’d like to talk a little bit about keeping your girls healthy and happy and cancer-free. The fact is that there are lots of simple things you can do to stay healthy and help prevent breast cancer. Simple changes can really add up – but don’t forget the most important thing you can do, which is monthly breast self-exams. As with any cancer, breast cancer is easiest to treat if you catch it early and take definitive action and so checking regularly is just great self-care. Here’s my favorite way to remind myself:
Keeping Your Breasts Healthy Naturally:
- Manage your estrogen – One of the biggest contributors to breast cancer is estrogen dominance, which means that your estrogen levels are too high relative to progesterone levels. We’ll talk about this in more detail because managing estrogen dominance is one of the most important considerations in keeping your breasts healthy naturally.
- Don’t take extra estrogen if you’re high risk – if you have genetic risk or a family history of breast cancer than just don’t use birth control or HRT that adds estrogen into your system. That means no birth control pills, no implants, no shots, no patch. If you really need a birth control method that isn’t condoms, then consider an IUD – the Mirena IUD actually secretes a small amount of progesterone and so would be very balancing for a woman who normally has high estrogen. The copper IUD lasts longer (about 10 years for one IUD) but can cause heavy bleeding. Talk with your doctor to find a solution that is right for you.
- Help your Breast tissue – dense or fibrocystic breasts are one of the precursors to breast cancer and also make early detection more difficult. Dense, disorganized or cystic breast tissue may indicate an iodine deficiency. Iodine helps your tissues to grow smoothly and in an organized pattern and so when tissues start to form nodules or changes in density patterns it’ may be an indication that iodine levels are low. Iodine deficiency can also affect thyroid and other hormone levels so this can be a complex problem. It’s really important to check with your doctor or practitioner if you have thyroid problems before you start taking iodine. GLA, the beneficial fatty acid from Borage or Evening Primrose Oil can also be extremely helpful for fibrocystic breasts and for keeping your breasts healthy in general. Breast tissue can change and soften with the right nutritional influences and this will help you with both prevention of breast cancer (which is more likely to appear in fibrocystic breasts) and also easier detection. Also for some women caffeine consumption contributes to breast density, sensitivity and nodularity and so limiting caffeine can be beneficial.
- Limit the estrogenic chemicals in your life – cut out the phthalates (the chemicals that make plastics soft), the BPA in hard plastics (and if you don’t know about the horrible substitute they’re using called BPS then read up here), the chemical cleaning products, the pesticides and herbicides. All of these chemicals mimic estrogen in your body and so have the same potential cancer causing effects. Switch to organic foods when you can, especially in meat, milk, butter and eggs. The reason these categories are so important is because antibiotics and hormones are not permitted in organic meat animals or organic dairy animals, but are widely used in conventionally raised animals. If you’re high-risk then this is especially important but I believe every woman should protect herself and her children.
- Exercise – This really does make a huge difference in every aspect of your health, especially your risk for chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. In terms of keeping your breasts healthy, exercise increases circulation, increases the rate of lymphatic detoxification in breast tissue and also reduces the total estrogen burden.
- Breast self-exams – Breast self exams, as explained by the hunky gentlemen in the previous video who really just want to take care of your breasts (thank you god), help you to ensure that no lumps pop up quickly. You can use circular motions to feel the whole area of breast tissue, including under your arms on both sides. Look for lumps or knots. Also make sure you look at your breasts in the mirror – dimpling, puckering or inverted nipples can indicate a problem – especially if it starts suddenly. Also watch for sores or ‘bug bites’ that don’t go away – it is much more rare but there is a form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer that just looks like a sore or an itchy rash-like spot on the breast that doesn’t heal. Although, I’d suggest watching the video a few times to ensure you have it right. 🙂
- Lose Weight – I know. I say that like it’s simple, right? The issue with carrying extra weight is that fat tissue generates its own estrogen and so carrying extra fat means you are also dealing with extra estrogen – and extra estrogen is the biggest and most important risk factor for breast cancer outside of the BrCA gene.
- Eat your veggies and cut down on the meat and dairy – a more plant-based diet helps to reduce your risk and protect your body from many types of cancers, including breast. This diet gives you higher fiber (which helps detoxify estrogens) and more antioxidants and complex polyphenols that reduce your risk even further.
- Screening – mammograms are suggested for women over 40 and although there is some radiation exposure they also help with early detection so talk with your doctor about what is right for you. For women who are truly high risk having a thermogram, or thermal imaging, of the breasts done yearly can be extremely helpful. Thermal imaging will show problem areas far before you would be able to feel a lump or find anything on a mammogram, although if a spot shows up you will still need to get a mammogram to pinpoint the exact location. Thermal imaging essentially acts as an early warning system that shows you what to watch. It also gives you the opportunity to take more aggressive steps if something does show up to prevent it from growing into cancer.
Managing Your Estrogen and Recognizing Estrogen Dominance
Estrogen in women is responsible for all kind of issues and generally it promotes cell growth, weight gain, and moodiness if it’s out of balance or present in high doses. Estrogen dominance is one of the major factors in breast disease including fibrocystic breasts and breast cancer. Keeping your breasts healthy means recognizing estrogen dominance when it is happening and working to reduce your estrogen burden. Some of the symptoms or indicators that you may be prone to estrogen dominance include:
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Breast tenderness and heaviness
- Water retention in hands and feet
- Irritability, mood swings
- Uterine fibroids
- Severe cramping
- Heavy bleeding and clotting
- Family history of breast cancer
- Breast cancer
Reducing your estrogens:
30-50 g fiber daily
Exercise – at least 10 minutes daily
B complex supplement
DIM or I3C
Lots of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale
Reduce calorie intake or portion sizes to help yourself lose weight
Boost your water intake to flush out excess estrogen.
Broccoli, cabbage and kale may seem like a strange step, but there is a supplement with the active ingredient from cruciferous vegetables taken out and concentrated. You can find it under two different names. One is DIM (Di-indole Methane) or I3C (Indole 3-Carbanol). These are essentially the same thing, just at different points in the metabolic pathway. Cruciferous vegetables and both of these supplements are powerful estrogen “chelators”, which means that they bind to estrogen to help your body eliminate them.
Fiber and water are both important for this elimination pathway as well because estrogen binds to fiber in your digestive tract which stops it from being reabsorbed. Water helps to flush everything out of your system, estrogen included. Fiber and water are two of the most important steps towards keeping your breasts healthy naturally.
Losing weight is one of the most important steps you can take to balance your estrogen, simply because your fat tissue makes it’s own estrogen. How terrifying is that? In both men and women, fat cells actually make estrogen.
All of these seem like small steps, and it’s true they won’t change your estrogen levels overnight, but sadly, nothing will short of drugs like tamoxifen that are used in breast cancer. Still, taking these steps for three months will produce noticeable results in your PMS, mood swings, estrogen related weight gain and cycle. Also, if you happen to be using tamoxifen then it is imperative that you read this article about preventing tamoxifen resistance using melatonin.
Take care of your breasts ladies – it’s incredibly important. These days it seems like everyone knows and loves someone who has been touched by breast cancer. We all have mothers or aunts or sisters or friends who have faced this beast, but together we can help to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Make sure your friends know how to take care of themselves, raise your children doing breast self-exams and practicing good eating habits. It is never too early or too late to start keeping your breasts healthy naturally.
Everyone knows that if you’re tired, sluggish, gaining weight or can’t lose weight, depressed and losing hair that you have thyroid problems – except that in reality it could also be undiagnosed PCOS. So frequently I have women come into my office who are concerned that they have thyroid disease but the blood tests come out normal – even optimal. This can be so frustrating, because these women aren’t finding help and while they’re searching they continue to gain weight, have irregular menstrual cycles, have a hard time getting pregnant and inch closer to diabetes and heart disease. An estimated 50-70% of women who have PCOS remain undiagnosed, making this a silent killer.
What is PCOS?
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and is the most common endocrine disorder in women, affecting between 5-10% of the female population. Nobody is really sure why PCOS exists, although there seem to be both genetic and lifestyle contributors, similar to obesity or type II diabetes. PCOS affects only women (we being the ones with the ovaries), although men can carry the gene and notice some symptoms. Because of the genetic link if someone else in your family has it, you are more likely to have it too. This is considered a multi-endocrine disorder because it changes levels of your sex hormones, but can also influence thyroid function and has a strong effect on your insulin. This means that PCOS and other hormone diseases like thyroid conditions or blood sugar issues go hand-in-hand. There is no one test for PCOS, which is part of the reason it is so commonly undiagnosed.
You Should Be Checked for Undiagnosed PCOS If:
- Other women in your family have PCOS
- You have low thyroid symptoms but your thyroid tests normal
- Your menstrual cycle is irregular, you frequently skip periods, have more than 35 days between periods on average, or have abnormally long periods with either very heavy or very light flow.
- You have had a hard time getting pregnant
- Your hair is thinning, especially in a more typically male pattern
- You have signs of masculinization or excess testosterone including facial hair growth, excess body hair in general, severe acne, deepening voice, or even excessive muscle development in a woman.
- You are a woman diagnosed with diabetes or glucose intolerance between the ages of 20 and 50 (because according to the PCOS foundation, 40% of the women who meet those criteria have diagnosed or undiagnosed PCOS.)
- You have easy and excessive weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- You have non-specific symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or pelvic pain
- You have blood sugar issues including insulin resistance, type II diabetes, or hypoglycemia (meaning if you get overly hungry you get tired, shakey, angry, irritable, sad, or sick feeling).
- You have strongly decreased or strongly increased sex drive
- You have other unexplained symptoms such as sleep apnea, skin tags, and darkened skin patches.
Can Men Get PCOS?
Technically no – because you guys don’t have ovaries, but you can still carry some of the genes for PCOS and pass it on to your daughters. Also having some of the genes may increase your risk for things like early male-pattern balding, high blood sugars, metabolic syndrome and acne. So even though you don’t have ovaries that can become cystic you may still have some of the features of PCOS.
Low Thyroid vs. PCOS
If I Suspect PCOS How Should I be Evaluated?
If this sounds like it might be you, the best thing to do is talk with your gynecologist. They will want to ask you about your menstrual history, probably do hormone and blood sugar testing, and may do an ultrasound to see if they can see any cysts on your ovaries. PCOS is manageable if you know you have it, but undiagnosed PCOS can be frustrating and is easily confused with other conditions, like low thyroid. Getting the diagnosis right is a big deal, so try to give your doctor the most accurate and complete picture of your symptoms possible. Keep looking back in the next few weeks for information about what you can do naturally for PCOS.
Breast cancer is a big deal, and if you have it then you want to do everything to make sure the treatments you’re taking are actually working, so here is a simple, effective way to prevent tamoxifen resistance – please tell every woman you know! Nobody knows if this will prevent resistance 100%, but according to this study published in the journal Cancer Research, not adding this one simple step can make the drug ineffective, and it’s something that seems harmless. Nobody would ever think this would make such a big difference for breast cancer, but it does so spread the word to your girlfriends – because the killer might be sleeping with your lights on, even a small amount of light under a doorway might cause tamoxifen resistance.
If you know ANY woman with Breast cancer who is using Tamoxifen as a treatment make sure she knows this one simple step. You can help to save her from Tamoxifen resistance. Tamoxifen resistance happens when melatonin levels are too low, and that can be triggered by tiny amounts of nighttime light. Make sure women taking Tamoxifen are also taking melatonin at bedtime and sleeping in TOTAL dark.
It’s completely crazy that this might make such a huge difference, but the research is clear. Exposure to even small amounts of light at night can shut off melatonin production and if there isn’t enough melatonin then the breast cancer is rendered completely resistant to Tamoxifen. Researcher David Blask explains the mechanism this way:
“High melatonin levels at night put breast cancer cells to ‘sleep’ by turning off key growth mechanisms. These cells are vulnerable to tamoxifen. But when the lights are on and melatonin is suppressed, breast cancer cells ‘wake up’ and ignore tamoxifen,”
This has huge implications for women who work night shifts, women who sleep with a TV or computer on in their room or even women who have LED lights or even alarm clocks with lit faces. Also for women who have poorly regulated sleep to begin with or who may not produce adequate melatonin. To me, the simple solution is to include melatonin into the protocol for every woman undergoing breast cancer treatment. Especially since melatonin has it’s own anti-cancer benefits. The standard starting dose for melatonin is 3 mg at bedtime, but in cancer research doses of 20 mg have been shown to have potent anti-cancer benefits, especially for solid tumors like those in breast cancer. If you currently have cancer please talk with your doctor about this and make sure your doctor is aware of the research because this is a new development. Make sure all your lady friends know too because we want to save the ta-tas.
This study was conducted at Tulane University School of Medicine.
Natural fertility is a growing concern – although rates of infertility fell in the last few years from 8.5% of couples in the U.S. to 6%, there are still staggering numbers of people who are struggling to get pregnant and especially to have natural fertility. Many couples are experiencing “sub-fertility” which means that they can technically become pregnant, but are having a hard time doing so. Also many women experience irregular cycles, skipped ovulation and general hormone wackiness that makes planning for fertility more of a challenge. I genuinely feel that part of the issue with fertility is that women have come to see the rhythms of their bodies as inconvenient, painful, embarrassing or a nuisance. There is a huge disconnect between the powerful things that happen in our bodies and our perception of and regard for them.
In light of all of the emotional, lifestyle and financial burden of infertility there is a movement towards improving fertility naturally, which sounds great, but this whole issue can seem daunting and overly complicated. Don’t worry – we’re going to make it as easy as possible. There will be many posts on the subject, but we’re going to start with the basics. The first step is to actually begin to understand what is happening in your body during the different phases of your menstrual cycle and why those things are so important. In this post we’ll talk about the whole reason for your cycle, more the spirit behind the thing. In subsequent posts we’ll talk about the hormone changes in more detail, fertility tracking and general steps towards boosting your fertility naturally.
Step One to Natural Fertility: Honoring Your Menstrual Cycle
Anyone who has ever known a woman can tell you that a woman’s cycle is a powerful driving force in their lives. This is a huge part of what makes the experience of being a woman entirely different from the experience of being a man. We have a rhythm and that rhythm dictates when we are the most sexual, the most vulnerable and for some women the most emotionally labile. To begin with, let’s take a look at a picture of all the things that are happening in your cycle. Remember “day 1” is counted from the first day you bleed each month:
First off – I just want to stop for a moment and appreciate just how much is happening here. Your body is doing all of this without any particular input from you – it is following it’s own rhythm. To me, that seems like an awesome kind of miracle and a tremendously beautiful part of being human. Strong natural fertility is in our blood, or psyche and our DNA. Your body does this – on it’s own – with no conscious direction. That is completely mind blowing. To me, this is a natural cycle that must be honored in our daily lives. Your natural fertility and the tides of your body can be made into an almost spiritual awareness of the way life itself moves within you.
Understanding the Phases of Your Menstrual Cycle
Natural Fertility Week 1: Eliminating the not-needed and selecting the best hopes for the future. (Follicular phase)
This first week of your cycle is the section that most women stay connected to, simply because it’s the most obvious. This is the week you bleed, the week you shed the uterine lining that you built up last month because there was no fertilized egg to nourish with those tissues. In this season, the spring of your four-phase cycle, you are doing two things. One is the literal spring cleaning that you might think of – the sloughing off of the cushy landing spot that your body made for last month’s egg. Clearly the egg didn’t need it so you are free to release that tissue so that you can start the process over again and build a fresh place for the next egg to land. Simultaneously you are selecting the healthiest follicle from those which are starting to mature this month – you’re selecting your best egg, so to speak. This is a literal process of letting go of what is no longer needed and selecting the best starting place for your path forward – this is the death and rebirth phase of your rhythm. Emotionally too this is a wonderful time for self-reflection. Using the week of your menses to actually look at your last month, to see what has been serving you in your life and what might be eliminated. Typically this is a more inward time for women with less desire to be out in the world and more time for quiet and inner peace.
Natural Fertility Week 2: The ripening (Follicular phase)
This week of the cycle is the one I hear most women report as their most peaceful, when energy is building and it is easiest to turn out towards the world – culminating with our social peak at ovulation. Your body is ripening the chosen follicle to become a healthy viable egg. You can see on the menstrual graph that all of our hormones take a sharp rise right before ovulation, when you are at your peak of fertility as well as your peak sexuality. This is the ripening phase of your cycle when your body is literally preparing to bear fruit – this is your summer. Your physical, sexual and creative energies are all increasing and most women are more likely to focus more on their outward appearance during this time because our hormone drives are pushing us to be more desirable to a mate.
Right around Day 14 of your cycle (which often corresponds with the full moon – we’ll get to that in another post) your body’s energy builds, your hormones peak, your sexual drive reaches it’s highest point – according to market research this is the time when women are most likely to dress provocatively, to be more socially active and to buy sexy lingerie. The end result is that your body releases a fertile egg, and gives you the drives to do something about it. Some women feel the ovulatory release with a sharp pinching or stabbing pain on the ovary that is releasing an egg (called middleschmertz – great word!!), some women have a dull ache over that ovary and some women don’t feel ovulation at all.
Week 3: Letting Down (Luteal Phase)
During this week the frantic energy that happens around ovulation begins to dissipate, and the ruptured follicle where your egg was released turns into the corpus luteum, which secretes progesterone. If fertilization occurs, then in this week the fertile egg journeys through the fallopian tube to implant in the uterus around day 21. In this week the uterine lining fully matures so that it is at it’s peak for implantation. This is the fall of the cycle, the journey to find a place to settle down. This is a more calm time in your cycle and many women feel a continuing stability from week 2 (with that brief, frantic ovulation instability in the middle).
Natural Fertility Week 4: A Look at What Needs to be Let Go (Luteal Phase and Possibly PMS)
This final phase of your cycle is when your body either transitions into viable pregnancy, or switches gears accepting that a pregnancy hasn’t happened and so prepares to shed the uterine lining for another cycle. The Uterine lining is now fully mature, and if implantation doesn’t occur then we see an over-ripening in preparation for break down. Clearly the winter of your own personal cycle, this is when a lot of women begin to look back at what might not have worked this past month or dealing with any sadness, losses and irritations. It is the time when emotions can run closest to the surface and the premenstrual hormone shifts only amplify what is already there. Just like actual winter, this is a great time to notice the issues that are coming to the surface – contemplate and reexamine in preparation for the next cycle (or the next spring fresh start).
This is perhaps a little bit different way of looking at your menstrual cycle, which we often dismiss as annoying or irritating or inconvenient. If you are working to normalize your hormone balance or to boost your fertility naturally then it’s time to start maintaining a daily awareness of the vast changes that are going on in your body every day and the staggering number of things your body is doing to help you prepare for the possibility of a baby. By bringing some awareness to this process every day you are making a conscious shift towards valuing this part of you as a woman, to actually honoring your menstrual cycle for the miracle of natural fertility that it is. Today, say thanks for your natural fertility. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman of reproductive years, if you’ve already had your babies, or even if you’re a man and this is the first thought you’ve given to a women’s menstrual cycle – you are still connected intimately to this cycle that occurs in the human world. Today is the day to give it some thought, to pay a little bit of attention to a truly awe-inspiring human phenomenon.