Go with the flow – A guide to heavy periods
Menstrual flow is different for everyone. Some people find periods a breeze, whilst others experience heavy bleeding and discomfort from the get-go. You may also find that at different ages and stages period flow can change. Let’s look at what causes flow changes and what is going on when you find yourself with heavy periods all the time.
Period flow – age and stage
Often periods can change in their regularity and flow at times of hormonal change. For instance, when teenagers first start their periods, their flow may vary month to month. This is because your brain is setting up communications with the ovaries so they release hormones, and it can take a year or so to get lines of communication and hormones into balance.
Similarly, after a pregnancy, periods can sometimes be heavier initially, but then settle down. Sometimes women who had heavy periods might find that their cycles actually get lighter.
It is also very common that women will start to get heavy periods before they hit menopause. This is called perimenopause and is a time when hormone levels begin to change again, as our ovaries start to slow down hormone production.
Always had heavy periods?
Some people, unfortunately, have heavy periods from when they start menstruating and this becomes normal for them. It can be hereditary, and your genetics can dictate that you might be more prone to heavier cycles. This does not mean that nothing can be done. Diet and lifestyle can have a great influence on how our genes play out.
Some common conditions can lead to heavy cycles such as endometriosis or PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). These can be medically diagnosed, so should be explored with your healthcare practitioner.
Onset of heavier bleeding
This may occur at times of hormonal change or for no apparent reason. Common causes are related to changes in the uterus. For example, with fibroids, benign growths in the uterus that can cause heavy bleeding. There are other small growths called polyps that can cause continuous heavy bleeding.
Another reason for heavy cycles can be thyroid function. Low thyroid function can lead to heavy cycles and thyroid issues affect 5% of women in New Zealand.
If you do experience a heavier change to your normal cycles, go and see your health practitioner to find out what is going on.
How can I work out if my flow is heavy?
If you are wondering whether you have a heavy flow or bleed too frequently here are some guidelines to help you work it out:
- Bleeding exceeds 80ml – or if you need to change your tampon or pad after less than 2 hours or you pass clots large clots.
- Needing to use double sanitary protection to manage period flow.
- Bleeding occurs more frequently than every 21 days or regularly continues for more than 7 days.
There is also an option to use period underwear as your main protection or as a backup for people with a heavy flow. AWWA has a great online tool that helps you select the right product for your flow, but also gives you an idea of how heavy your cycle is.
What can we do about heaving heavy periods?
Our period regularity and flow are affected by our two main hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Oestrogen is predominant in the first half of our cycle and then progesterone kicks in halfway through our cycle. This is because one of the main jobs of progesterone is to hold the lining of the uterus in place in case we fall pregnant. Problems arise if progesterone levels drop as this can lead to mid-cycle spotting and shorter cycles (for example around 21 days). This is very common in perimenopause when hormone levels are changing.
Progesterone ideally wants to be in balance with oestrogen for things to run smoothly, so if progesterone is low, by contrast oestrogen is too high. This can lead to heavier periods and other symptoms like mood swings, fluid retention and breast tenderness.
Also, some people are naturally prone to higher oestrogen, due to their genetic makeup and the way their liver processes their hormones. This is why supporting the liver is so important when supporting normal periods.
Lifestyle changes for an easier flow
Things for moderation
- Caffeine – most people are aware that too much caffeine can get us buzzing, but did you know that caffeine is processed in the liver by the same pathway as our hormones? This means too much coffee processing can lead to too little time to process our hormones and can lead to imbalance. Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, and energy drink, so stick to a max of one or two cups a day if you want to smooth out your menstrual cycles.
- Toxins – like caffeine any time your liver must spend processing other things, means less time with your hormones. Toxins include alcohol, household or garden sprays, smoking or vaping and drugs recreational and pharmaceuticals.
- Xeno estrogens – These are chemicals from our environment that mimic our own oestrogen and can cause the same problems as excess oestrogen. They are often found in plastics, cleaning products, nail polish and sprays to name a few things. To help reduce them avoid heating plastics (microwaving in plastics), plastic water bottles, choose natural cleaning products and beauty products.
Things to enjoy more of:
- Phytoestrogens – these are found in plants and have a similar structure to our own oestrogen. They can help get detox our oestrogen when we have too much of it. This means we can enjoy these types of food and help our hormones at the same time. Phytoestrogen-rich foods include soy, tempeh, legumes like edamame, peas, beans (black bean, kidney beans etc) and seeds.
- Brassicas – These are a group of vegetables from the cabbage family and include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, kale and bok choi. These vegetables are not only rich in minerals and vitamins, but they are also used by the liver to detoxify the body and are very helpful with healthy oestrogen balance.
Iron-rich foods - iron levels are often low when period flow is heavy. Signs that you are low included feeling permanently tired, breathless, have brain fog, brittle nails, feel cold and look pale. If this sounds familiar, then get your iron levels tested. Also, increase iron-rich foods such as dried fruit, green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, red meat and eggs.
If you are very low, you might need an extra boost from an iron supplement. Many people avoid iron products as they affect digestion, but Clinicians Iron Boost is gentle on digestion, suitable for vegans and is easily absorbed to support healthy iron levels.
In general, your liver will love a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables. Try to keep processed and packaged foods to a minimum.
Natural health solutions for better periods
Diet and lifestyle make a world of difference to our hormones, but when things get out of balance there are several natural health solutions that can offer support.
Chaste tree (Vitex-agnus castus) – This herb is a must for any naturopath’s tool bag. It has the amazing qualities of supporting the normal balance of our key oestrogenhormones oestrogen and progesterone. This makes it helpful for those with heavier cycles and for irregular periods. It is also a lifesaver around perimenopause to support this natural hormonal change. Chaste tree can be found in Clinicians PMT Cycle Balance, along with other vitamins, minerals, and milk thistle for the liver to support period comfort, regularity, mood and fluid retention.
DIM (Diindolylmethane) or sulforaphane – these ingredients are found in the brassica family which we looked at before. They support healthy oestrogen levels that can affect our flow. Clinicians Women’s Hormone Support contains concentrated levels of DIM to give extra support for those who struggle with a heavier flow.
It is important to remember that heavy or irregular cycles can affect your life enjoyment. Make sure you find a health practitioner to find out what is going on. If you would like to discuss natural health options for support Clinicians offer a 15-minute chat with their naturopaths free of charge, which you can find out more about here.