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Guest blog: Katie Pande, Senior Herbal Advisor at Pukka Herbs.

Why is a healthy fertility cycle important? Well, the answer is quite simple – it’s the source of new life. The fertility cycle guides a woman through her natural life cycles from adolescence through to the menopause. Maintaining a healthy cycle and hormonal balance will impact upon a woman’s whole body health, vitality, wellbeing and general feelings of ‘wellness’. We are all familiar with the term ‘PMT’ or pre-menstrual tension; this is just one indicator of how a woman can feel when hormones can become even slightly tipped out of balance. Maintaining a healthy fertility cycle determines a woman’s ability to endure a pain-free, hassle-free menstrual cycle, to conceive and give birth successfully and to experience a stress-free menopause.

Interestingly, the ovaries are linked to the brain and nervous system through the flow of hormonal signalling that occurs throughout a woman’s cycle, so it’s easy to see how the menstrual cycle can affect emotional as well as physical wellbeing. The technical side of how this works is closely linked to two hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. During menstruation and the build up to it, levels of oestrogen are low. These low levels of oestrogen also influence low levels of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin which can cause feelings of reduced motivation and a general ‘slowing down’ resulting in feeling less mentally alert, more fatigued and less sociable. As oestrogen levels then begin to rise during the follicular phase it brings back our physical and mental energy levels, as the levels of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin also rise.  Keeping levels of oestrogen balance, as you can see is really key to a happy and healthy menstrual cycle.

Let’s start with some nutritional tips. There are many different pieces of information available on what you should and shouldn’t eat before, during and after your cycle; it’s all a bit confusing. To make it simple, there are set food groups that will help to balance oestrogen, so let’s concentrate on them.

  • Cruciferous veggies: Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower Brussel sprouts and cabbage contain several powerful nutrients that help metabolise oestrogen. Broccoli sprouts 50-100g/day are a good way to get this.
  • Healthy fat-rich foods: These are foods that are rich in saturated and omega-3 fatty acids. It includes plant based fats such as coconut oil, hemp seed oil, extra virgin olive oil and avocados. Raw nuts (other than peanuts) and seeds contain oestrogen balancing plant sterols that are also supportive of inflammation and pain associated with specific uterine conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids.
  • Allium family: The alliums include garlic, onions, scallions, chives and leeks. These are all rich in quercetin which helps the liver detox whilst also reducing the production of oestrogen.
  • Mushrooms: All mushrooms regulate oestrogen levels (especially the really tasty ones such as shitake).
  • Lentils: All lentils contain appreciable amounts of phyto-oestrogens that help to balance oestrogen-progesterone levels. Soy is also well known for this but all pulses are helpful.

So, there are few tips that are easy to incorporate in your day-to-day diet. But, we mentioned the word ‘phytoestrogen’. Phytoestrogens have a lot of bad press. Let’s get this issue straightened out: First, let’s look at the meaning behind the word:

  • Phyto = plant
  • Estrogen comes from estrus (period of fertility for female mammals; derived from the name of an ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess, Oestre) meaning to initiate or generate

But, what do they do and are they safe?

Phyto-oestrogens are plant-based oestrogen like chemicals which are integral to a plants growth, reproductive maturity and seed bearing cycle. Where there is excessive oestrogen in the body, phytoestrogens act as antagonists, blocking oestrogen sensitive receptor sites and prevent oestrogen from binding. Where there is too much oestrogen the phytoestrogens compete with the endogenous oestrogen and take up oestrogen receptor sites, diluting the effect of oestrogen in the body.

Phyto-oestrogens are also 1000 times weaker than endogenous oestrogen, and are safe to take alongside hormone replacement therapies, including HRT and the Contraceptive Pill.  All in all, phyto-oestrogens help maintain hormonal balance by reducing the activity of hormones when they are too high and raising their functionality when levels are too low.

So, the next question is, ‘what should I avoid’. Essentially, foods that are more difficult for the body to digest means that they take longer for the body to break down, putting more pressure on organs such as the liver which are vital to hormonal health. In short summary, heavy, sticky and fatty foods that are highly processed or refined will congest the liver. Organic diets can result in us ingesting synthetic chemicals that can alter our body’s metabolism and efficiency at producing and synthesising hormones. So, it’s always best to stay organic where possible and eat food in its most natural and fresh state.

Sometimes, just diet isn’t enough, and we need to give our body a ‘kick-start’ with some herbal help. Here are a few general tips on what to look out for:

  • Oestrogen balancing herbs & phytoestrogens: Green tea and Licorice specifically balance oestrogen levels, whilst Red clover is a natural phytoestrogen. There are many herbal teas incorporating all three of these nourishing herbs and it is a really easy way to incorporate them into the diet.
  • Antioxidant-rich herbs: Fragrant, herbs such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage and turmeric are loaded with volatile oils that promote liver detoxification and will support hormonal balance. These can be taken a fresh herbal teas, or incorporated into the diet. You can easily recognise them as they are often a bright colour and smell great!

But, there are also a few herbs that are real herbal heroes for the menstrual cycle.

  • Shatavari Asparagus racemose, is a tonic to the female reproductive system and specifically the uterus. It is a naturally nourishing, cooling and moistening herb that provides the required nourishment and strength to support conception, fertility and a healthy reproductive system. It contains natural hormonal precursors which help to balance hormonal irregularity. Shatavari also stimulates the production of prolactin which enhances the libido.
  • Aloe Vera, Aloe barbadensis, both the gel and juice directly affect the flow of blood and clear the liver, regulating menstruation and the uterus. It is a wonderful tonic for the female reproductive system. Its cooling and unctuous properties make it very effective for treating the hot and dry symptoms of the menopause. Aloe vera is also a blood tonic and is excellent when there is excess bleeding or clots.
  • Rose, Rosa damascena, has a calming effect on the emotions and the heart which is complemented by the aphrodisiac effect of this plant. Rose is indicated in excessive menstrual bleeding, vaginal infections and inflammation. It clears heat from the uterus and blood and is used in dysmenorrhoea, metrorrhagia, endometriosis and fibroids. Its can also help to alleviate PMS symptoms associated with irritability, emotional sensitivity and heat and also enhance libido and fertility. It’s cooling and drying qualities have made rosewater and excellent solution for menopausal hot flushes.

Last but not least, let’s take a look at how our environment can affect us. Although there are many factors that can have a direct influence upon us achieving a balanced hormonal state, the biggest environmental factor is what’s known as endocrine disruptor chemicals or EDCs.

  • Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals (EDCs) are groups of chemicals and toxins that we become exposed to in the outside world. This may be through inorganic cosmetics, agricultural pollutants, household cleaning products for example and even conventional medications. When our body becomes exposed to unnatural chemicals it can take time for it to figure out how to process them efficiently; this can disrupt hormonal balance and put strain on the liver. Wireless and radiation from computer monitors has also been found to impact on our levels of internal toxicity, so be aware of your working environment too.

The top tip here is, once again, stay as natural and organic as possible not just with your diet but also with femcare products and keep your intake of natural antioxidants high to protect you from unavoidable free radical damage in the work place.

One final golden tip to ensure a healthy cycle (which is also a great excuse to treat yourself!) is to have regular professional or self-massage using warm organic oils. This helps support pelvic circulation and encourage a healthy menstrual flow.