Your cycle yourself

wellness solutions

welcome it or dread it, your monthly menstrual period serves as an indicator of your overall health. Those searing CRAMPS, the erratic spotting and hard-to-pass clots could be signs that something else in your life is awry — maybe you're' sleep-deprived or over-stressed; maybe you've got poor circulation; maybe you've been exposed to environmental toxins through your diet.

It can be tempting to just pop a couple of ibuprofen and put on your game face — after all, our culture places a distortedly high premium on sanitation, freshness and perpetual good cheer during our "monthly visit." Don't do it, suggests Melissa McCarty, N.D., a Seattle-based naturopath who specializes in women's health: "Overuse of these drugs may have a toxic effect on the liver and kidneys."

A better tack would be to pay closer attention to the nuances of your cycle and create holistic solutions for your particular brand of menstrual discomfort. Go ahead and seek gentle treatments to relieve your symptoms now, but also incorporate longer-term preventative approaches, such as yoga, dietary changes and supplements. You'll improve your period and — likely — your overall health.

We talked to seven experts and got their best advice for cultivating a smoother cycle.
If you suffer from ? cramps

These painful contractions — which affect half of all menstruating women — are a side effect of the uterus squeezing out the endometrial lining that builds up each month in anticipation of pregnancy. Some sensation is expected, but incapacitating cramps (aka dysmenorrhea) are abnormal. Luckily, there are some very simple and effective solutions for dealing with severe cramps. If you can't find relief here, work with your health care provider to rule out serious conditions that may be triggering your cramps, such as infection or endometriosis, a painful condition caused by uterine-lining cells growing outside your uterus.

* Take cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), an antispasmodic herb that can help decrease menstrual cramps. "Start it the day before your period and take it through your most painful days," says McCarty. She recommends taking the herb in tincture form, one dropperful several times a day as needed. It's particularly effective for cramps that translate as lower-back pain (often made worse by a "posterior uterus," one that's positioned very close to the back muscles). Try: Gaia Herbs Cramp Bark Extract ($40 for 4 ounces, organicpharmacy.org).
* Apply warm heat, in the form of castor oil packs (flannel soaked in castor oil, placed directly on the belly with a heating pad or hot water bottle on top), to improve menstrual flow. According to Randine Lewis, LAc, Ph.D., and author of The Way of the Fertile Soul (Atria Books/Beyond Words), warm castor oil packs help the lymphatic system eliminate internal toxic buildup that can accumulate due to congestion of liver qi — a common cause of menstrual cramping, she says.
* Use pycnogenol Derived from the bark of the maritime pine tree, pycnogenol is the new shining star of cramp relief. A recent study in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine linked pycnogenol with a significant drop in menstrual pain. New York-based OB-GYN Jennifer Ashton, M.D., CBS News medical correspondent and author of The Body Scoop for Girls (Avery Trade), says it's her new favorite remedy for patients who suffer from uterine cramps. "It has anti-inflammatory properties, but minimal side effects," she explains. Ashton suggests taking 30 milligrams to 60 milligrams daily a few days before your period is due, and continuing throughout your period. Try: Bluebonnet Pycnogenol 50 milligrams ($45 for 60 Vcaps; herbsmd.com).

If you suffer from ? IRREGULAR CYCLES

Irregular cycles — characterized by inconsistent bleeding, spotting between periods, bleeding for longer than a week or bleeding more often than every three weeks — have strong links to lifestyle, especially stress levels. "Stress can detract from the quality and amount of progesterone the body makes after ovulation, which can lead to irregularity," explains New ' York-based integrative reproductive endocrinologist Sami David, M.D. Find a way to unwind, and consider increasing your sleep, minimizing alcohol and caffeine, and choosing only nourishing foods. These healthy lifestyle changes will help you restore ' the nervous system and replenish the internal organs, setting the stage for a normal, healthy menstrual cycle.

* Try a deep-breathing exercise, such as this one, which Lewis often recommends to her clients as a way to recognize and release stress: Sit in a comfortable position, breathing deeply. On each inhalation, clench your jaw, fists, stomach, butt and leg muscles. Hold as long as you can. During exhalation, release the jaw, fists, then muscles of the lower body. Each time this exercise is performed, the body tends to give a little more priority to the release over-the clenching, which reinforces the "letting go" response.
* Seek out organic produce and protein sources The preservatives, pesticides and hormones found in conventional produce, meat and dairy all have a cumulative effect on the endocrine system, says Feiecia Dawson, M.D., a holistic gynecologist in Atlanta. "Pesticides in particular act like xenoestrogens in the body, creating a condition of estrogen excess that can disrupt the monthly cycle," she explains. Protect yourself by eating free-range meats, hormone-free dairy, and organic fruits and vegetables whenever your budget allows.
* Consider chaste tree berry (Vitex) to reset dysfunctional hormone patterns. "Chaste tree berry has action on the central hormone system called the hypothalamic-pituitary axis," McCarty explains. "It increases luteinizing hormone and levels of progesterone, which can.be the key to regulating monthly cycles." Some women respond very quickly to this remedy, she notes; others may need to try it for at least three months to see good results. Take 200 milligrams of chaste tree berry extract daily. Try: Vitanica Chaste Tree Berry Vitex Extract Plus ($15 for 60 capsules; vitanica.com).

If you suffer from ? HEAVY PERIODS

Technically referred to as menorrhagia, heavy periods typically mean bleeding that's prolonged (more than seven days) or excessive (soaking through a tampon or a pad every hour). Once you have ruled out miscarriage, fibroids, anemia or endometriosis, it makes good sense to explore different herbal supplements to help staunch the flow and compensate for the loss of blood.

* Keep shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) handy, suggests herbalist Susun Weed, author of the Wise Woman Herbal book series. "Midwives proclaim that shepherd's purse turns off uterine bleeding as dramatically as turning off a faucet," she says. "1 tell women to put it on their night table when they are bleeding, and take a dropperful every couple of hours." An astringent herb that constricts blood vessels, thus reducing blood flow, shepherd's purse also has a well-deserved reputation for making periods less depleting. Try: Herb Pharm Shepherd's Purse Extract ($11 for 1 ounce; luckyvitamin.com).
* Replenish your body's stores of iron If you are losing a lot of blood each month, you could be drifting toward anemia. Make sure you are replenishing your iron levels, says Ashton, "by taking it separately from your multivitamin — most don't contain enough." She suggests taking 28 milligrams of iron daily as the lowest dose, and increasing the amount up to 70 milligrams a day (with a prescription supplement, such as Chromogen Forte) if the iron deficiency is severe. Try: True Organics Iron ($13 for 60 18-milligram tablets; vitacost.com).

What problematic periods say about your health — and 12 natural ways to get yourself back in the flow
Develop a regular yoga practice

"A regular yoga practice can help with a number of period issues, including cramps," says Bobby Clennell, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher and author of The Woman's Yoga Book: Asana and Pranayama for All Phases of the Menstrual Cycle (Rodmell Press). "Standing poses align the pelvic organs and strengthen the pelvic floor, and restorative poses and forward bends lengthen the muscles and promote relaxation. The more you do yoga, the happier the pelvis is." She recommends practicing Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound-Angle pose), a restorative pose that's especially effective for relieving abdominal tension. To learn how, visit naturalhealthmag.com/pelvispose.

PHOTO (COLOR): A little heat can relieve pain and get blood flowing.

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By Elizabeth Marglin

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