Go With The Flow: Your Period, Your Body, And Your Dancing

I’m sitting on the floor right now. In my rattiest Jump Dance Convention sweatpants. In tears.

On hold with American Airlines.

Every time that commercial about abandoned dogs comes on the TV I start sobbing. I just became irrationally angry that the Brita water pitcher only had enough water left for 1 glass (am I the backbone of this household?!).

All I want is a jar of peanut butter, but instead, I’m drinking mint tea.

And the idea of putting on a leotard and tights for ballet tomorrow sends me into a deep, dark place of self-loathing.

Needless to say, I’m in a mood.

Irritated. Irrational. Snippy. Ready to cry. Bloated. Craving fatty, sugary foods.

Sound familiar?

I’m sure most of you ladies have already figured out that it’s the week before my period. If you haven’t, let the huge zit comfortably housing itself on my face assure you, it’s coming.

I’m a mess emotionally, physiologically, and physically.

For 2 weeks every. damn. month. these are my PreMenstrual Symptoms (PMS).

In general, I pride myself on being logical. Relatively chill. Smart with my food choices. And overall, body confident and body positive.

But the week before my period and the week of my period, when PMS sets in, I’m a nightmare.

I’m not trying to be a downer right now, and of course, I realize there are a million women who have it way worse.

But as a dancer, the last thing I want to do tomorrow is put on my Yumiko and tights and stare at myself in the mirror.

However, I’m gonna.

In the same sense, I don’t want to stand on the scale, like I do every morning, tomorrow.

I know I’m going to weigh at least 5 pounds more than I did last week. This happens every month.

Start of my period vs. 9 days later.

This particular month, there was almost 10 lbs difference.

Sometimes I can fluctuate up to ten pounds! Talk about a head trip.

You may have a similar experience.

I’m here to tell you exactly what I’ll tell myself tomorrow:

It’s not fat. You’re not fat. You are human. Better than that, you are a woman!

PMS varies for every woman, but common symptoms can look like: cramps, bloating, sore boobs (this is a new one for me, but it’s so fun), acne, mood swings (I legitimately always cry over something stupid), food cravings, lack of appetite, depression, diarrhea, nausea, passing excessive amounts of gas, extra sore jointsand muscles, and the list goes on.

In all honesty, it took me FAR TOO LONG to fully understand what was actually happening to my body when I experienced these symptoms.

Seriously, I was a junior in college before I became informed of the physiological processes that were underway in my body.

So here’s the breakdown for the average woman’s 28-day cycle.

DAY 1-2: Your Period Starts

The first day of your period, the day you start bleeding, is actually considered the “start” of your cycle.

This means you have extra low estrogen which can mean low energy and fatigue. Those cramps that accompany your period? No, you’re not being punished for failing to conceive a child, it’s actually uterine contractions as the lining of your uterus begins to shed away. Yum.

Some gentle stretching, light exercise, or even a warm bath or heating pad can help reduce these symptoms. Be nice to yourself today.

DAY 3-7: Your Period is Ending

The worst part is behind you. You survived another one, congrats! Your estrogen levels will begin to increase which means you’ll feel human once again with increased energy levels. On these days you’ll be able to resume normal activities like the gym, intense dancing, or running if that’s your thing. Additionally, this spike in estrogen can lead to feeling… well, sexy.

Obviously, discuss this with your partner, but having sex while on your period has been shown to decrease negative symptoms. Just put down a towel.

DAY 7-10: You’re a Dime

Estrogen is beginning to peak. Oddly enough, your face may seem more symmetrical, you’re no longer bloated, and you’re probably at your physical hottest on these days. With the increase of estrogen comes a rush of testosterone, meaning you can’t be messed with in the gym or in the studio.

You’ll likely feel your most mentally sharp and physically strong.

Like I said, you’re a dime.

DAY 11-13: You’re Your Most Fertile

Ayo, peak estrogen is here. You’re  probably the most optimistic and social you’ll be all month. (A few days a month? Sounds about right.)

Your body is at its most fertile. If you’re keeping track of your vaginal mucus , it will be thin, runny, and similar to  an egg white (yeah, that’s the sexiest sentence you’ll read today). This is good news in regards to your sex life – orgasms will be their most intense and attainable here. Just remember you’re also at your most fertile, so depending on you and your partner’s goals, be smart.

DAY 14: OVULATION

Some women feel GREAT during ovulation, other women feel “bleh.” During this time of the month, an egg is released from an ovary  (it alternates sides each month). You’ll find your body temperature rises at this time. You may feel a slight pain in the side from which the egg is being released or even experience some spotting during this time. Should the egg remain unfertilized, it dissolves.

DAY 15-18: You’re a Moody Bitch

Go ahead and apologize in advance to everyone you once loved.

You’ll cry about cat videos online. You’ll snap at your roommate for using your phone charger. You’ll walk into a room and completely forget why you walked in there. It’s normal. Oh, and because the hormone progesterone is starting to increase during this time, estrogen levels are starting to go back down, so you’ll likely feel fatigued.

DAY 19-22: Estrogen has Vanished

Bummer, dude. Testosterone and progesterone are surging though. This hormonal imbalance likely means you’ll experience acne or breakouts during this time.

Feel like there’s a melon in your belly? You’re not wrong.

DAY 23-25: Progesterone (the devil hormone)

Why are you bloated? Progesterone.

Why are you sad? Progesterone.

Why are you so sluggish? Progesterone.

Why don’t you feel sexy? Progesterone.

Why do you feel unmotivated? You got it, progesterone.

Take note of these feelings, understand that you’re not dying. Buy some lady supplies in preparation because your body is giving you all the signals that Aunt Flow is on her way.

DAY 26-28: You are Woman, Hear You ROAR

Even though your body is in disarray because of these crazy hormones, know that you are ultimately in control of how you feel. Get in a good, hard workout. Take your favorite dance classes. Live like it’s your last day! 😉

REPEAT!

Yeah, this fun 28-day cycle goes on for about half of your life, but the good news is it’s a lot more manageable if you can understand why you’re feeling a certain way because of where you are in your cycle.

This is, of course, assuming you have a “regular” cycle.

But in reality, many dancers and athletes don’t even get their periods

or may not get them regularly– unrelated to any sort of birth control.

For the longest time this was actually something I, with a twisted mindset, aspired toward.

“If I can just get my bodyfat low enough then I won’t have to deal with this.”

I repeated this mantra on more than one occasion.

Personally, I never got to that point. But I have many friends who would lose weight for a tour and not get their period for the duration of that show. They would undergo such vigorous rehearsals that they may be weeks or months late getting their period.

This, my friend, is not something to aspire to.

Although it does happen to professional athletes, due to low body fat or high stress (many female olympians and professional ballerinas can attest to this), a missed period is a sign that something is wrong and out of balance within your body.

So, should you be worried?

It depends.

If you’re a younger dancer still in training and all your friends have it but you haven’t yet, you may just need to be patient.

I recall a classmate of mine bringing cupcakes to the studio when, at age 17, she got her first period. Some of us are just late bloomers.

After your initial period though, you should see a doctor if it’s been six months since your last period. However, periods are generally pretty irregular for the first two years after puberty, and that’s perfectly normal.

It’s also possible to miss a period due to stress, which is fine as long as it doesn’t become a regular problem.

Okay, but why does this happen?

Amenorrhea, or the lack of a period, has a few contributing factors, which I alluded to previously.

Hormonal imbalance, oftentimes related to the thyroid or pituitary glands, or a problem with the reproductive system.

Genetics also play a role. Ask your mother or grandmother about the frequency and flow of their periods. It’s a REALLY fun conversation. Okay, maybe not always, but it’s important nonetheless.

Low body weight. This is usually the recurring theme with my clients. When an athlete is about 10% under the normal body weight for her height and/or at a very low body fat percentage,  periods may stop.

Whatever the cause, not having a regular period could mean that the woman is not healthy enough to maintain a pregnancy (the whole reason we have periods) and that she may be at increased risk of injury.

If you find yourself in one of these categories, there are a few ways to “fix” it, and that solution doesn’t necessarily have to be through gaining weight.

Obviously, maintaining a certain level of body fat is important for estrogen synthesis, so building some muscle, increasing caloric intake, playing with meal timing, and experimenting with meal frequency can be effective.

In the end, you may just need to speak with a doctor who may then recommend a hormonal additive, contraceptive, or birth control to help regulate your cycle.

So what is a dancer to do when she gets her period?

Unfortunately, everybody is different, so what works for one person may not work for another.

But here’s what strategies I’ve found to be most effective in dealing with Aunt Flow.

  1. Drugs

Caught ya off guard with that one, huh? Listen, we live in the 21st century. If you’re in pain, there’s no point in suffering.

For instance, I know if I can take a nonprescription menstrual product (not mentioning product names, but it rhymes with “Di-mol”) 6-8 hours before I actually start, therefore “getting ahead” of it, I can reduce my symptoms like cramping, nausea,  fatigue, etc. dramatically.

Other drugs like diuretics, things that make you pee, increase the rate of urine production, thereby eliminating excess fluid from the body tissues. This means you’ll likely look less bloated.

And be honest, that’s half the battle this time of the month.

2.Cut down on caffeine

I know, you’re dragging when you’re PMS-ing or at the start of your cycle, but caffeine is not the answer. While it fills a temporary need, especially at the most sluggish time of the month, in the long run, caffeine often hurts more than it helps. Caffeine can constrict blood vessels and for abdominal muscles that are already cramping, this may just exacerbate the problem.

3.Hydrate like a boss

Drinking water may not shorten your period, but it can definitely make it more comfortable. I know you’re thinking, “I’m already bloated, and you’re saying I should drink MORE water?” Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

The more water you drink, the more easily you will eliminate the water building up in your body plus hydrated muscles are happy muscles.

4.Eat well, be well

Honestly, there are times when I’m in such devastating pain or I’m so sick to my stomach because of PMS that I forget to eat. Solid food just may not be a priority when you’re on your period. But nutrient rich foods should be.

If you’re like me, I’d suggest utilizing liquid foods like “loaded” protein shakes.

Shakes filled with fruits, veggies, something green, some fats, and protein won’t take up as much space in your belly or leave you feeling any more uncomfortable.

If shakes aren’t your thing, try to stick to your normal eating schedule. High protein, high fiber, lots of fruits and vegetables.

5.Choose the “better” binge.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I don’t crave peanut butter cups and Ben & Jerry’s when my week hits. But even one day of “Well I’m on my period so I can eat whatever” can undo an entire month’s work.

Make a “better” swap. Halo Top or Enlightened ice cream rather than Haagen Dazs.

A chocolate and peanut butter protein shake instead of an entire bag of mini Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Obviously, try to prioritize better snacks like fruit, carrots, celery and hummus, and other nutrient-rich snacks

Listen, everyone has something they’re more comfortable with when it comes to period protection. But finding something that is safe, sanitary, and leak-proof – especially if you’re still trying to dance or workout- can be the ultimate challenge.

The “sport” tampons or “active” tampons actually work. But pay attention to your flow and get the appropriate size.

6. Try alternative forms of period protection

The downside to tampons, is leaking and falling out. Falling out or being “forced” out because of a heavy lift is not uncommon.

Newer alternatives like the Diva Cup or Thinx panties are also great alternatives, especially in the gym where creating internal abdominal pressure can force a tampon out of its place. #GirlProbs

In certain states, tampons with small amounts of THC are available and, while they won’t get you high, they have been proven effective in reducing problematic symptoms. But you do need a prescription for these particular products.

7.Go lighter

While we’re on the subject, when in the gym on the first few days of your period remember that a. you won’t have the testosterone you usually do so your energy levels will be lower and because your uterus is physically larger than it is at other times of the month you won’t be able to “brace” your abs as hard as you usually would.

This can leave you susceptible to back injury if you’re not aware.

The same goes for in the studio.

Be aware that you physically may not be able to engage your abs to their fullest and you may find yourself unable to balance or feel your low back aching.

Lower your weight in the gym, lower your leg in your arabesque, and give yourself a break.

8.Get friendly with your doctor

Every woman should be familiar with what’s going on during their cycle and be able to articulate what is happening and why with her gynecologist. More often than not, if a problem is not well -expressed, a doctor will prescribe medication- usually in the form of birth control.

I have a lot of strong feelings regarding birth control.

I’ve seen women and friends become very ill because they were on unnecessary birth control or the wrong kind of birth control.

I know individuals whose lives have been impacted so negatively they almost lost their careers because of the side effects of birth control while I also know other individuals who now have manageable, regular periods because of their birth control.

Ask your doctor as many questions as you can about whatever they are prescribing and contact them if something “feels” off or extreme.

If you find yourself asking “Is this normal?”, it’s probably a good time to reach out to your gynecologist.

9.Track Your Cycle

The best way to know what’s “normal” for you body, is to follow its patterns. Cycle tracking apps like “Glow”, “Flo Period Tracker”, “My Menstrual Diary”, or “Virtual Nurse” all offer a variety of great tracking options. They help you stay attuned to the length of your cycle, changes in body temperature, changes in weight, appetite, mood, and even sexual activity. In addition to these symptom tracking options, they also offer a community forum where you can post questions to other women or read what others are experiencing.

At the end of the day, knowing wtf is going on with your body is the most empowering thing you can do for yourself as a woman.

Give yourself a break when PMS strikes. Understand that what you’re feeling- why you’re irritated, moody, or sad- may actually be due to the hormonal changes your body is undergoing.

You’re not a nut. You’re not losing your mind. You’re not a bad person. And you’re definitely not a bad dancer or athlete because you may not be able to perform your best during a certain time of the month.

I encourage you, and every woman, to become more vocal about what’s happening with our bodies every day of every month and start normalizing the conversation- especially within the dance community.

Afterall, half the population is experiencing this.

I hope this gives you some insight as to why womanhood is amazing and fascinating and crazy.

Xox Amber

Below are some sources for this article, great resources, and “Am’s Recommended Reading”.

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/womens-health/in-depth/menstrual-cycle/art-20047186
https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/menstruation-and-menstrual-cycle
http://www.dancespirit.com/what_you_need_to_know_about_your_period-2326034550.html
https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/sclark109.htm
https://www.t-nation.com/training/hormone-cycle-and-female-lifters

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Interested in having me COACH YOU?

Reach out below!

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