Why am I so bloated during my period?
During our menstrual cycle, hormones ebb and flow. The fluctuations in our hormones before our period can contribute to bloating and can make our bowel movements more sluggish. Swings in our emotions can also play a part, as can fluid retention, stress and processed foods.
The link between hormones, digestion and emotions
Hormones and digestion are inextricably linked. It's possibly even a chicken and egg sort of scenario, which came first? Yes as we saw above, hormone levels naturally fluctuate during our menstrual cycle. But when our digestion is suffering, for any number of reasons, this too can cause our hormones to go even more out of balance, causing even more bloating! (1)
There is also a huge connection between our digestion and our emotions, which is backed up by science and also by the butterflies we get right there in our tummies when we are nervous/excited. (2)
Of course, premenstrual syndrome shows up for many women in the form of emotional upheaval, outbursts of anger, irritability, dishes thrown across the room and then collapsing in tears under a pile of laundry (maybe that last one's just me!) So of course the emotions associated with PMS can add to the digestive discomforts like bloating that many experiences before and during menstruation. (3)
Natural solutions for period bloating
As a naturopath, I always approach healing from a holistic perspective. To facilitate healing we need to address the root cause of the issue, while also making the journey easier by addressing the symptoms in a way that does not suppress them. At the end of the day, our body gives us symptoms like bloating to let us know that something is out of balance. It is a great opportunity for us to address our health and feel better from the inside out.
1. Keep a food diary and keep pooping!
It can be really helpful to keep a food diary if you are experiencing symptoms of bloating. Keep note of what you eat and when your bloating occurs. This way you can see if any foods are triggering the bloating and you can see when exactly the bloating occurs. Bear in mind that a food that doesn't bother your body during the rest of your cycle may prove a beast to deal with in your pre-menstrual week. Once you track this it can be easier to know what foods are good to avoid in the premenstrual days in order to reduce the bloat.
It can also be helpful to note how often you pass a bowel movement. At least one poo a day is considered healthy; and, if you are not doing a number two every day, this is a great indicator that you need to eat more fibre, drink more water, and move more to get those bowels moving. If you are constipated it means you won't be able to excrete the extra oestrogens that could be contributing to your bloating and PMS, and they will get reabsorbed instead. The result will be more oestrogens circulating, which can make symptoms of PMS, like bloating and heavy bleeding, worse.
2. Track your menstrual cycle
This can be a really helpful way of building awareness of what your body needs throughout your cycle. One of the wonders of menstrual cycle awareness and cycle mapping is that it gives us very clear feedback about when we need to rest more. Many apps and downloaded charts are available online to track your cycle; and books like Wild Power and Womancode are great resources.
I really like using the seasons to understand our cycles better. Inner spring is the follicular phase after our period finishes and the days around ovulation equate to inner summer. After ovulation, in the luteal phase of our period, which equates to autumn and during our inner winter, while we bleed, we need more rest, even hibernation. Just like we see in nature, the activity of spring and summer calls for a quieter winter. Flowers grow and bloom and then the energy goes deep into the roots while the plants rest during winter. We are cyclical beings and our bodies need this too.
When you start to acknowledge these cycles in your own body you begin to see how important it is to plan time for relaxation during these premenstrual days and while your period is here. Things that bring excitement during your inner spring and summer can often cause more stress during inner autumn or winter. Acknowledging and honouring these cycles can help to ease a lot of symptoms of PMS, including bloating.
3. Minimise salt and sugar intake and stay hydrated
I know better than anyone that salt and sugar cravings often strike premenstrually. If you are prone to bloating though, these foods are going to make it worse. Often when we are craving salty foods we are actually thirsty, so make sure you are well hydrated. A woman who weighs about 70kg needs about 2.5litres of water a day, more if you are exercising or breastfeeding, or if the weather is very hot. So that is more than the 8 glasses that many people think they should be drinking. And besides, some people have very small glasses! It is worth checking out an online calculator to make sure you are getting all the hydration you need.
Drinking enough water will also help with any fluid retention that is contributing to the bloat. When we don't drink enough the body thinks there is a drought and it holds on to water. A good indicator for if you are retaining fluid is if you have marks on your legs after you take your socks off. Whenever you see this, it's a good idea to measure how much water you are drinking and up the water of need be. I have a glass litre bottle of water which I drink out of throughout the day so it makes it really easy to know how much I drink in a given day.
Eating a diet high in sugar and salt can also have a detrimental effect on your microbiome, causing you to have more of the unhelpful bacteria. This in turn can cause more sugar and salt cravings and more bloating. The good guys in our microbiome help to metabolise oestrogens, converting them into the form that can be more easily excreted, so eating a diet high in prebiotics and probiotic foods can help. Molkosan is a wonderful prebiotic supplement that can help too.
It is important to chew your food all cycle long, but if you are prone to bloating premenstrually this can be a game-changer. If you don't chew your food well enough, you might get away with it some of the time but feel the bloat when your bodies are less able to handle the load before and during our period. When I was living in an ashram in India, training to be a yoga teacher, one of our teachers recommended a little rhyme to be sung in our heads while we chewed each mouthful. It goes to the rhyme of row, row, row your boat: "Chew, chew, chew your food, gently through your meal, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!" It seems silly but give it a try, most of us don't chew our food nearly enough!
5. Try Agnus castus to help balance your hormones
Agnus castus is a wonderful herb that has been used traditionally by herbalists for PMS. It is particularly helpful for PMS associated with high levels of oestrogen, which includes a heavy bleed and a short cycle. It is a slow-acting herb so needs to be taken daily for at least three cycles for it to start taking effect. It is suitable to take long term and can help balance many of the symptoms of PMS, including bloating.
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6. Take bitter herbs to support digestion and liver supportive herbs such as Milk Thistle
Milk Thistle Complex is a wonderful remedy that supports the digestive system and the liver in particular. It contains milk thistle which nourishes the liver and bitter dandelion and artichoke which improve liver function and support digestion. During our menstrual cycle, our body needs to process all those hormones as well as the food we eat and any toxins that we are exposed to. That is often why we get spots around our period. All those extra hormones are putting pressure on the liver, and the skin needs to take over some of the detoxification process - cue period spots! This extra pressure on the liver can also contribute to bloating so the milk thistle complex is a great addition.
7. Take time for pleasure and relaxation
It is also important to remember that stress can also harm our digestion. When we are stressed we release a hormone called cortisol which gets the body into fight or flight mode, prioritising organs needed for running away from a tiger, not those needed for digestion. We need to make a conscious effort to take time for rest and relaxation, and when we do, we reap the benefits emotionally and physically. Herbs like Passiflora, Avena sativa, lemon balm and valerian are wonderful for helping to support the body when you are stressed.