When I was first prescribed the pill at sixteen, I wasn’t yet having sex and I was too young to even begin to understand what was going on inside my body. Like the fifty-eight percent of women who are on hormonal birth control for reasons other than for use as contraception, it was given to me because my period was irregular.
Being a teenager, I was at an age when I wanted to cover up any bodily abnormality at all costs, whether it was via a padded bra or a little pink tablet that would make my period come every 28 days, just like everybody else. But birth control soon became a mindless part of everyday life. And like a lot of people, I ended up staying on it for over a decade without giving it a second thought.
Two years ago though, when I started seeing a naturopath endocrinologist for my Hashimotos, I was told that I would never be able to fix the root cause of my hormone imbalances while pumping artificial hormones through my bloodstream.
After experiencing violent withdrawals when I finally went off, I realized how stupid I was to put a Bandaid on my issues for so many years. What most traditional practitioners who prescribe the pill don’t do a good enough job recognizing is that these symptoms are not necessarily being caused by the absence of the pill. They’re simply evidence of the problems that were lying in wait all along.
As Dr. Christine Northurp writes: “Giving birth control pills and other medications to women to regulate their periods, improve their fertility, or enhance their sex drive is akin to putting a piece of tape over the flashing indicator light on the dashboard of your car and pretending you have addressed the engine problem, rather than looking under the hood and dealing with the underlying issue.”
Unfortunately, a lot of my friends who go off and experience this same wild hormonal ride, decide to go back on the medication shortly thereafter. If you’re in the same boat, or are someone who’s chosen never to go off, trust me—I get it. Terrible skin, missing periods, irrational rages, tummy troubles—who would want that waiting for you on the other end?! Plus, after a decade, you become so hooked on the convenience of the pill that any irregularity and pain is doubly hard to endure. And of course, then there’s the question of contraception.
I know you’re used to coming here for food, so it may be a rude awakening to scroll down and see me talking about sex, periods and other things that you don’t even particularly like discussing with your Gyno. But our wellness would be an incredibly incomplete picture without getting down with this type of body literacy. And that’s what the internet is for, right?
One area that I’ve seen so many women in my life struggle to wrap their heads around is hormones. From dealing with thyroid problems, I’ve already become intimately acquainted with how the endocrine system rules my body. But it wasn’t until I read Alisa Vitti’s book Woman Code that I was able to map out how different aspects of our lifestyle impact every level of our endocrine system.
Luckily, I’ve already addressed some of the big culprits that cause hormone imbalance—chlorine in the water, endocrine disruptors in beauty products, pesticides and antibiotics in our food, just to name a few.
But this month I want to put all those pieces together and better understand how I can fuel my life, love, and desires according to my cycle. Part of that is learning to chart my fertility according to the Female Awareness Method. Thanks to technology and some amazing new apps, this is now easier than ever. The second part though is about getting in-tune with my flow; exercising and eating according to my moon time to promote healthy balanced hormones.
I have a ton of amazing resources below, so read on and I hope that all of my moon sisters will join me for a month of getting more acquainted with our natural womanly selves! As a special treat, Alisa Vitti herself will be joining me for a Wellness Wednesday chat on August 19th!! More details on that to come.
And BTW, because the universe is hilaaaarious, I’m sitting here writing this feeling like a bloated crampy mess. Of course.
From one healthy hedonist to another,
p.s. the rad picture above was actually taken with my iPhone through the view finder of a crazy telescope at the Mind Body Green Revitalize retreat! How beautiful is the moon?! One of the coolest things I’ve seen with my naked eye. The picture below is an ovarian gang sign! I copy-catted the model on the cover of the awesome book Sweetening the Pill (more on that below).
I’d never heard of FAM until I attended a fertility event this past April. It was lead by natural beauty expert Jessa Blades and prenatal bodyworker Katinka Locascio, along with a panel of badass women (and one awesome guy!) leading the natural birth control movement and spreading awareness about women’s bodies.
Ever since then, I’ve been charting my cycle through the app Kindara. If you have no idea what charting, FAM or natural birth control is, I highly recommend watching this 9 minute short film. It’s extremely entertaining and informative, and saves me from having to say the words “cervical fluid” several times in this post. You can also browse these GIF’s while getting the Buzzfeed cliff’s notes version here.
The basic concept though is you take your temperature every morning before getting out of bed. The apps help you keep track of your patterns, and coupled with the patterns of your cervical fluid (there, I did it), you can predict your windows of fertility and practice protected sex with your partner accordingly. Your chart is also a wealth of knowledge about what’s actually going on with your hormones. You can diagnose a thyroid disorder or PCOS simply from looking at this data!
Please note that this is not the rhythm method. Trust me, it takes more work. But if done correctly, it is extremely effective—more effective, in fact, than the pill.
* Besides Kindara (which has a ton of info about charting, and is coming out with a wireless thermometer that links to the app at the end of the year!), other great apps include: My Moontime and Clue.
*The book Sweetening the Pill is what’s on my bedside table right now, and so far it’s a must read about the myths around hormonal birth control. Ricki Lake just launched a Kickstarter to make it into a documentary! You can support it here.
*For general info on fertility, the seminal text is Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler.
2. Eat and exercise according to your cycle.
“Few women understand how their bodies function, so most don’t know how to make informed decisions about how to treat hormones when they’re on the fritz,” writes Alisa Vitti. “Pills may temporarily (albeit chemically) regulate your cycle so you experience fewer symptoms. However, if your estrogen levels are not managed properly, those symptoms will always come back.”
One of the most interesting parts of Alisa’s book Woman Code is how she maps out tailoring your lifestyle choices to the flow of your cycle. It’s a lot to keep in your head. But after last month’s insane exercise experiment, I thought it would be a good time for me to find some balance in the movement department by letting my energy levels at different times of the month dictate my practices.
Here’s a basic run-down of how your four fertility phases match up with your diet and exercise schedule. There’s a lot of ingredient info when it comes to food, so I chose some of my favorites to focus on:
1. The follicular phase transitions you from menstruation to ovulation. This is when your estrogen levels begin to increase again and you feel a surge in energy. It’s a good time to eat dense grains and nut butters, and lots of sour, vinegary or fermented foods like citrus fruits, kimchi, pickles and saurkruat. Try these peking chicken lettuce wraps with kimchi pickles!
2. The ovulatory phase is the hardest to pin down, but the biggest indicator is the presence of egg-white-esque cervical fluid. If you’re charting, a sharp rise in your morning temperature marks that ovulation has in fact occurred. Steer clear of estrogen-heavy foods and stick to lean protein and fresh, raw veggies. This Grilled Shrimp Salad with Ginger Dressing is a great option, as avocado helps support the transition to ovulation.
3. The luteal phase lasts from ovulation until your next period. It begins the second half of your cycle that’s all about slowing down. Since your estrogen dips, it’s a good time for complex carbs like brown rice, or vegetables with a good concentration of natural sugars (like squash, sweet potato, or other root veggies). Try roasting them to bring out their natural sugars! This Roasted Root Veggie and Quinoa Salad is a great option.
4. Finally, the menstrual phase. Hopefully you won’t have trouble identifying that one! Foods that support this phase also support and replenish the blood and kidneys. Sea vegetables, tamari and miso are particularly good to incorporate during this time. These kelp noodles are great, or you can treat yourself to a sushi dinner! Chocolate is also a plus, so indulge in something healthy like this beauty bark.
For exercise, during the first half of your cycle (the follicular and ovulatory phases) your energy is soaring, which means you can take on high impact exercise like running, kickboxing, spinning and other intense cardio. The second half (the post-ovulation luteal and menstrual phases) causes your energy to go down and turn inward. It’s a great time for pilates and yoga, more gentle practices that emphasize the mind in addition to the body.
Have you struggled with the question of whether to use hormonal birth control? Or have you ever struggled after making that decision one way or another?
I would love to hear your experiences in the comments section. The decision to go off the pill certainly wasn’t easy for me, and I’ve had to read a lot of books and intellectualize a lot of info to become at peace with other options.
The Wellness Project is a year-long blog series (and upcoming memoir) about how to find the balance between health and hedonism. To find out more about the inspiration behind the project and to get the monthly theme schedule, click here. To read up on past experiments and get more tips from the trenches, click here.