Women’s health and fertility expert Emma Cannon on why periods need a rebrand and how frank conversations around fertility can make us all healthier
I grew up in a household of women - I’m one of five sisters so someone always had a period in our house. I am now mother to two daughters Lily, 23, and Violet, 17.
My mother told us that having five girls was the greatest achievement of her life, while at the same time telling us NOT to get pregnant. I, like many women, grew up confused about what being a woman and being fertile meant. The only cautionary tale we had about being fertile was the teenage mum pushing her baby in a pram who’d been excluded from school and seemingly life and any sort of a future. Being a woman was something to be overcome rather than be celebrated.
As an acupuncturist and fertility expert I have spent the past 25 years listening to women's stories and supporting them on their journey to motherhood. I have come to realise that we are all confused and conflicted about what makes us happy and fertile. Perhaps in striving for power or perfection we lost some precious ingredients: time, connection and meaning.
For many years women have handed the responsibility of fertility over to a doctor but thankfully now we are reclaiming our bodies and realising that we can play a really active role in improving our own wellbeing and in turn the wellbeing of our loved ones. This does not mean that we reject medicine but we embrace all forms of medicine and learn to nourish our life at the same time.
I believe that if you look after your fertility early in life, you will be going a long way to taking care of your health, both now and in the long run. It’s a question of getting to know your body so that you can tweak your lifestyle and then just relax and encourage nature to play her part. Of course not everything is within our control but the way we choose to live our lives may help us to support our fertility and have a better relationship with ourselves overall. With that in mind, this is what I teach my children.
Periods are a positive
Periods have had a bad ‘rep’ for far too long now and it’s high time they had a serious re-brand. Periods represent becoming fertile and this is a truly magnificent thing. To be a woman and to have the ability, if you so chose, to carry a child and become a mother is something to be cherished. I encourage my children and the young women who come to my clinic to engage with their menstrual cycle and to read the ‘signs and symptoms’ so that they may understand what it all means in terms of health and emotions. This is vital knowledge for any women and coming from such a female dominated lineage as I do I have always been amazed that intelligent and brilliant women have often neglected or punished their bodies their entire life until they decide to have a baby. It is never to early to understand what it all means.
Seek medical advice if your periods become irregular
See a gynecologist if you have problems with your periods ; abnormal bleeding , lack of periods and painful periods are all worth getting checked. Not having periods is NOT a healthy sign. You should be having a minimum of three periods per year.
Take steps to ‘protect’ your fertility
I explain to my children that their fertility is a precious gift and that it does not last forever. I think that my generation in particular ignored the inconvenient truth about the declining nature of our fertility. I think that this came about not out of ignorance but because we did not place a value on it. Once you respect your body you are more likely to cherish it and take steps to protect your fertility where possible. Of course, this is not always within our control, but there are steps we can take.
Be vigilant when it comes to STDs
Protect yourself and get checked regularly - it is estimated that a quarter of all fertility problems are caused by the effects of STDs. Infections such as chlamydia can go completely undetected, with no outward symptoms, yet lead to damage of the fallopian tubes and uterus. This can lead to infertility due to pelvic inflammatory disorder. Using a barrier method such as condoms is the best way to protect yourself against STDs and regular tests will mean that, if you have contracted anything, you can get early treatment which might help a prevent any potential condition developing into something more serious.
Keep time in mind
Inform yourself with the facts about the declining nature of our fertility. Although all women are different, current medical statistics state that our 20s and early 30s are the optimal time to conceive. That said, according to NICE research, in women under 40, more than eight out of ten couples will conceive within one year if they have regular intercourse, and nine out of ten will be pregnant within two years. 82-92 per cent of couples will conceive within 24 menstrual cycles.
Have a one to one with your mum
Understand your mother’s menstrual history and gynecology as it can hold clues for your own. For example did your mother have premature menopause?
Don’t worry about what your vagina looks like
Chances are you’re perfectly “normal”. By the same coin, you don't need to use perfumed feminine products to keep "clean" - they can disrupt the delicate balance of your vagina.
Smoking has been shown to increase your ‘fertile age’ by around ten years. Overall smokers are three times more likely to take more than a year to get pregnant and smoking can affect ovarian function, interfering with the release of an egg and also causing the womb lining to become thinner over time. In addition smokers go into the menopause on average three years sooner than non-smokers and have lower fertilisation rates in IVF.
Be aware of BPA
Swap tinned vegetables and pulses for glass jars and tetra packs. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of plastics including food and drink containers and used in metal food cans to strengthen the lining. There is evidence suggesting BPA is an oestrogen -like substance and is considered a potent reproductive toxin. France has banned BPA in all food packaging, containers and utensils and in California food and drink containers using BPA are required to carry a reproductive warning. It is possible to shop around for BPA-free packaging although do so with some caution as BPA alternatives may be just as harmful. To reduce your BPA exposure choose vegetables and pulses in glass jars or tetra packs or choose tins that state they are BPA-free. This is particularly important for tomatoes as the acidity of tomatoes may increase the risk of BPA leaking from the lining particularly when tins are damaged.
Reassess the ‘work hard, play hard’ narrative
When we are young we think that we are going to live forever and that nothing will go wrong. Our 20s are often spent finding our way in life, drinking too much, working hard and playing hard too. It is unlikely that this is going to change anytime soon, however it is important to develop a responsible attitude towards drinking especially. Also a reliance on drugs, both prescription and recreational, is a growing problem in society. There are some studies looking into the links between street drugs and fertility with some evidence that drugs can impact on both male and female fertility, so think twice about using them.
Eat good fats and oily fish (with a caveat)
Prioritise good fats such as olive oil, ghee , butter, goose fat or coconut oil for cooking and those found in nuts and oily fish. Avoid larger, older fish such as swordfish and tuna that have higher levels of mercury. If you are trying to conceive I think it is worth minimizing your exposure to mercury as much as possible.
Ensure that you attitude to food is as balanced as your diet
Eating a balanced diet and sourcing nutrients from a wide range of food groups is vital. There is so much misinformation on social media about diet, often posted by people without qualifications or clinical experience. Be selective about where you get your information from and do not be tempted to follow every diet trend going. Work with professionals if you have issues around food and don’t try to ‘self-medicate’ in this area.
Maintain a healthy weight
To conceive you should ideally not be either too slim or overweight. Hormonal balance depends heavily on optimal body fat. If you are struggling with maintaining a healthy relationship with food consider contacting Overeaters Anonymous for support and advice.
Don’t overdo it in the gym
I see countless young women in clinic who have gone hell for leather on the exercise front and whose periods have stopped altogether. It isn’t only the amount of exercise that is important, it’s also the amount of food that’s being consumed to support the exercise you’re doing. Restricted diets and over exercising too often go hand in hand and it can cause issues with fertility for many years.
Don’t ‘compare and despair’ on social media
A dependence on technology is increasingly becoming a lifestyle problem too as more and more we turn to technology to dictate how we live our lives, and it can negatively affect our sleep too. Of course technology is not bad - it gives us information at the click of button and access to expertise on a global scale, but like all good things it can become problematic and when we become overly reliant on it and it can cause us to disconnect from something important – our intuition. For example, you can gain support from others by way of technology but don’t apply their lives to yours or compare yourself - from a fertility point of view there’s a lot of bad advice around that may impact your long term fertility.
Look after your mental health
It might not be immediately apparent that our emotions can influence our long-term fertility and the link between stress physical health has yet to be scientifically proven. That said I am a big believer that emotions and our physical bodies are not separate and that long-standing or acute emotional disturbance can affect our delicate hormonal or adrenal systems.
Problems starting in childhood or adolescence can persist throughout our lives. It is important to find ways to process our sometimes difficult emotions and develop strategies to support our mental health and wellbeing. There might be times that our emotions are too overwhelming to understand alone and seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
This March, Emma Cannon introduces ’ The Fertile Hub’ – a new look website and content hub for her future forward fertility advice. Launching on Mothers Day 31st March 2019 Emma will also share a free seven day Mother’s Gift, a series of emails over one week consisting of daily exercises, recipes and mediations sent direct to your inbox from the 31st March. The Mother’s Gift celebrates all women regardless of whether they are a mother, on a journey to become a mother, or wish to be a mother one day.