As a child, I recall vivid memories of hot water bags hanging in the bathroom of every woman’s house. There would be a box of Massengill stuffed in the corner of the tub, medicine cabinet or under the counter. I didn’t know what they were, but I was sternly told to never touch them. In school, I was shown a video that illustrated how the egg leaves the ovaries, travels up the fallopian tubes into the uterus where it is fertilized or discharged through the vagina. My teachers reinforced the feminine hygiene tips my mother taught me: always wipe from front to back; change your pad every time you use the bathroom; roll it up, place it in the plastic bag, put that in the wax bag in public bathrooms or in toilet paper at home, and throw it away. I eventually learned what the douche and hot water bag were, and thankfully, that those were no longer sanitary means to cleanse the vagina.
I reached my menarche at the early age of eleven. My menstrual cycles were horrendous. I had cramps that felt like metal clamps gripping my fallopian tubes. The pain made me irritable and fatigued. I lived through it; I worked through it. It couldn’t be used as an excuse not to go to school, participate in gym or get out of chores. I suffered in silence thinking it was just the curse of Eve. That’s what my mother did, and I guess that’s what my grandmother did too. It was normal. All women must go through it, right? Wrong. The most important thing I learned as an adult is that health care is supposed to improve your quality of life. That means that we are not supposed to suffer. Woman have a lot of hormones that we need to balance by eating healthy, staying active and investing in Midol. Those are great practices passed on to us from our mothers, but now we have to recognize that there is a science to our menstrual health. Seeing a gynecologist when our periods are abnormal may be the solution. I love going to my gynecologist. That’s crazy, right? If you think so, you haven’t met my gynecologist, Dr. Diana Bitner. She’s taught me so much about myself and how my crazy hormones affect all other aspects of my life. Here are three things she taught me that I wish I knew right from the start.
1. Control your belly fat, and you’ll stay in control of
Weight control is key to staying healthy. This is because your weight determines hormone production, including estrogen. Estrogen controls our reproductive system. If you have too much fat, especially around the belly, your body will not produce enough estrogen to work effectively. That’s why overweight women experience heavier periods. If you don’t have enough body fat, your body may stop producing estrogen altogether. This can cause fewer periods because your body isn’t ovulating. Estrogen production remains an issue for women even after menopause. That’s how I met Dr. Bitner in the first place. Hot flashes. Whew!
2. Getting the right nutrients balances your body chemistry.
Body mass is not the only thing you have to think about. What you put into your body is important. Dr. Bitner stresses the importance of micronutrients. Most of us think of macronutrients when we’re meal planning. That’s your complex carbs, proteins, and fats. Micronutrients are minerals that are in our food but not enough to make you function at your peak. Dr. Bitner recommends a daily vitamin, calcium and vitamin D to help strengthen your bones and immune system. This will help regulate your menstrual cycle and lessen the painful symptoms.
3. You need to have a close relationship with your gynecologist.
Make a list of concerns to discuss with your gynecologist before your visit. There are a lot of issues associated with your hormones that you don’t think about: Your mood, your memory, and every other factor of your life is impacted by reproductive organs. Don’t feel ashamed to talk about loss of interest in sex, sexually transmitted illnesses and even vaginal odor. Your gynecologist can help you identify changes in your body that can protect you from cancer not only in your reproductive organs but in your breast, pancreas, and colon as well. This is especially important for high-risk populations like African-American and Latina women who have gaps in health care treatment for various reasons. You deserve the best life possible, ladies. Go see your doctor.