Why do I Always Get Sick During My Period?
If you often curse your monthly cycle for making you feel crampy and crummy for a full week straight (or more), you are not alone nor being unreasonable. Our menstrual cycles not only bring on heightened emotions but are also frequently accompanied by general feelings of uneasiness and sickness that we’d rather not deal with.
You’re not just imagining it, our periods do wreak havoc on our whole system on a monthly basis. This is because our menstrual cycles have very close ties to our hormone levels, which regulate and affect pretty much everything in our body, including our immune system.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll just have to give in and succumb to the monthly mental & physical rollercoaster. Though we can’t change how our bodies work physiologically, we can seek to understand it and work with our bodies to support its natural patterns.
The Relationship Between Our Cycle and Immune System
Our period is intrinsically tied to our monthly menstrual cycles, which involve constant changes in our hormone levels in order to help us reproduce healthily. Every month (roughly), hormones in our bodies trigger the release of an egg from our ovaries and create a protective lining for our uterus. When we don’t get pregnant, this lining is then shed during our period. As levels of hormones, like estrogen, change throughout our monthly follicular and luteal phases, our body’s inflammatory response and immune function change with it.
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Beginning of Cycle – Follicular Phase
The follicular phase is the time between the first day of your period and the day you ovulate, which spans roughly half of our menstrual cycle. This is when our body releases hormones that stimulate our ovaries to produce follicles (hence the name), each of which contains an immature egg. From this, one (or sometimes multiple) eggs will mature and wait to be fertilized by sperm. This process causes our estrogen levels to rise which thickens the lining of our uterus.
This increased level of estrogen interacts with our immune cells, which increases our inflammatory response. Though the word “inflammation” has gained a negative connotation as of late, this is generally a good thing for our health. Our body depends on inflammatory responses to fight pathogens and prevent infection, so a stronger inflammatory response corresponds to a more sensitive and alert immune system. However, if we are fighting something, our symptoms will be much more obvious and unpleasant. This may be why we often feel sick during our period.
Middle of Cycle – Ovulation and Early to Mid-Luteal Phase
The luteal phase refers to the second half of our menstrual cycle. This begins after ovulation, during which our body releases a mature egg to be fertilized. Our estrogen levels drop rather quickly, and our progesterone levels begin rising to help our uterine lining hold onto fluid and produce mucus, which creates a healthy area for our fertilized egg to be implanted.
The increased progesterone levels is connected to a suppression of our immune system and decreased inflammatory responses. This means that our bodies are much more susceptible to diseases and infections, despite us not feeling as many symptoms with the decreased inflammation.
End of Cycle – Late Luteal Phase
The late luteal phase refers to the few days before your period as well as menstruation. This is often when our cramps start creeping in and we can feel our chronic symptoms worsen. Even though our estrogen levels are low, menstruation is considered an inflammatory event, which translates to stronger inflammatory responses
Why This Happens
We don’t know exactly why certain changes happen yet, as scientists and researchers are still trying to get a full understanding of our menstrual cycles. But there are theories on how these changes in our immunity actually do help us get pregnant.
One theory is that because we can’t get pregnant during our follicular phase, our body increases our immunity in order to keep us as healthy as possible. Our immune cells are on high alert to attack foreign cells whenever it is needed. However, when the time does come for us to get pregnant, starting with ovulation, our bodies ramp down our inflammatory responses to give us the best chances of getting pregnant. It tries to prevent our immune cells from attacking too many things, like a fertilized egg before it has the chance to get implanted properly, for example.
Our immune system is strong during the first half of our cycle and it drops off as our body goes into “getting pregnant” mode around ovulation, leaving our bodies more susceptible to infection.
You might then be wondering why we feel sick during our cycle, i.e. when our immune system is supposedly at its best? This might be due to the fact that most infections have an incubation period, so we don’t usually feel the symptoms until a period of time has passed. But, once our body ramps up its inflammatory response at the beginning of our cycle, we’ll feel every little thing that’s wrong with us.
How to boost your immunity
Though we can’t control how these cycles affect us, the key to a better relationship with our cycle is to learn how to optimize our immunity throughout. Here are some tips on learning to live with your monthly cycle, not against it.
- Understand your menstrual cycle by tracking it
Tracking your cycle is easier than it sounds, especially because technology has made it so simple and powerful. Do a quick search and you’ll find a plethora of period-tracking apps that come with multiple options for tracking PMS symptoms, fertility and other information that can help with understanding your health. More importantly, you’ll know exactly when your follicular and luteal phases begin and end.
- Supplement with zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C
Armed with a better understanding of the different phases of your cycle, the next step is to support your immune system by supplementing your diet. Give your immune system a healthy boost with zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D in the later stages of your cycle. Zinc is great for fighting infection, while vitamin C supports the cellular function of our immune system and vitamin D helps us prevent respiratory infections.
- Take it easy
Once you’ve done the groundwork in supporting the monthly changes your immune system goes through, all that’s left to do is embrace your cycle and let it do its thing. Let’s face it, you will probably still get sick and still feel the pains of inflammation during your period, but you’ll be much better equipped to understand what’s going on beneath it all and take it all in stride.
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