From getting a new piercing to eating all the crisps, there are some things best avoided during the first week of your menstrual cycle. We asked a selection of top health experts for the lowdown.
It's the most wonderful time of the month... said no woman ever about her period. However, the rise of menstrual cycle tracking in recent years indicates that we are trying to better understand our periods and work with them, rather than allowing them to dictate or disrupt our lives. (Jessica Ennis's Jennis app, for example, helps map your training schedule according to your cycle and is well worth a look if you're looking to maximise your sporting performance.) When it comes to week 1 of your cycle (ie the Netflix and chocolate binge phase), did you know there are many things that could actually be making your period worse? We spoke to doctors, gynaecologists, nutritionists, personal trainers and assorted experts about what is best avoided when you're on your period.
1. Don’t make a major life decision
As tempting as it might be to tell your boss to shove their job where the sun don’t shine or tell your partner some serious home truths, week 1 of your cycle is not the greatest time to make life-altering decisions. “Oestrogen and progesterone are both at low levels and some evidence suggests more impulsive decision-making during periods of low oestrogen,” says Dr Aishah Iqbal, a doctor with a special interest in women’s health. “Low progesterone can cause anxiety, irritability and low mood. With all this in mind, making any big decisions during this time can be influenced by the biological impact of these hormonal changes. Ask yourself: would you make the same choice later in your cycle? It's best to wait where possible so you can be sure you aren't driven too much by your emotions.”
2. Don’t choose that week to go vegetarian
If you eat meat and fish, now is not the moment to cut them out of your diet. “Many women can be low in iron when they have their period so try not to avoid red meat, which is rich in iron,” says Pippa Campbell, a functional nutrition practitioner. “It can be very useful at this time and help prevent dizziness and fatigue.” Don’t miss out on fish either, especially oily fish, like salmon and mackerel. “Painful periods are less common in women who eat oily fish regularly as the omega-3 essential fatty acids they contain have a beneficial effect on the types of prostaglandins produced, reducing muscle spasms,” says medical nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer.
3. Don’t get your ears pierced
“Studies show that women are consistently more sensitive to pain in the run-up to their period and during their period,” says GP Dr Sarah Jarvis. So it’s maybe not the best moment for that cartilage piercing. And the same advice obviously also applies to tattoos and any beauty treatments on the more ‘ouchy’ end of the spectrum, such as bikini waxing and anything involving needles.
4. Don't forget your magnesium supplements
We tend to associate upping our magnesium intake with better sleep but it can help menstrual cramps too. “Magnesium supplements taken for six cycles help to reduce period pains – especially on the second and third days – due to its muscle relaxant effect,” says Dr Sarah Brewer. To bolster magnesium in your diet, you should eat “beans (especially soy), nuts, whole grains (these lose most of their magnesium content when processed), seafood and dark green, leafy vegetables,” adds Brewer.
5. Don’t smoke (not that you should any other time of the month either, obviously)
Of course, none of you actually smoke…. unless maybe it’s midnight, you’re at a party with your naughtiest friends and you are four cocktails to the wind. If you do insist on the occasional cheeky fag, aside from its other health-ruining horrors, be warned that nicotine can make your period worse. “The results of 24 studies involving over 27,000 women found that smokers were 1.45 times more likely to develop painful periods (dysmenorrhea) than non-smokers,” says Dr Sarah Brewer. “Nicotine has a powerful constricting effect on blood vessels and lowers the oxygen content of blood which may account for this finding - reducing blood flow and oxygenation to uterine muscles.”
6. Don't skip meals or fast
If follow you one of the many intermittent fasting diets or favour time-resticted eating, it’s important to have a break during your period, says Kelly Mulhall, nutritional therapist and founder of hormone balancing programme The Natural Balance. “For many women, especially those who have heavy periods and experience a lot of blood loss, energy levels can drop when menstruating, due to the loss of iron which transports oxygenated blood around the body. In order to ensure energy and blood sugar levels don't drop, it's best to get three proper meals a day, two litres of water and snack on some fruit if energy is low.”
7. Don’t be a slave to your workout schedule
Your monthly cycle, especially the week of your period, can have a huge effect on your physical activity. “Adjust your training schedule depending on how you feel and listen to what your body is telling you," says Rachael Penrose, trainer at nationwide exercise studio F45 Training.
Avoid prolonged, strenuous activity such as high-intensity workouts, long runs or sprint training. “High-impact exercises use excessive amounts of your energy, which you usually lack when on your period,” says Rachael. “A great alternative would be a walk instead of a run, or a lower-impact gym class. But if you feel lightheaded, exhausted and your body is saying no, you should stop. Have a nice warm shower and read a book - your body is doing a lot of work down there and you can always catch up on your workouts another day.”
8. Don't go upside down
Unless you do yoga, this probably isn’t on your to-do list anyway. But if you do, you might want to skip inverted postures such as shoulder stand, headstand and handstand, says rocket yoga teacher and GTG editorial director Victoria Woodhall who teaches on Instagram and Zoom. “There’s no evidence that inversions during your period are harmful, they don’t create a risk of endometriosis in healthy people, as is sometimes said,” she says. “However, on the first couple of days of your period, it’s good to support what your body is trying to do – ie get rid of things, so go with gravity not against it. If I really want to do an inversion, I wouldn't hold it so long. Remember your balance might be a bit off on your period too."
Go easy on strong crunches and core work, too, she adds. “You don’t want to be adding extra cramping to that area.” Instead, focus on poses that give your abdominal area space at this time such as cobbler's pose. "Lying down, bend your knees and place soles of feet together and then let your knees drop out to the sides," she says. "And instead of shoulder stand, try lying with your legs up the wall."
9. Don’t over-wash your vulva
It can be tempting to pay extra attention to down-there washing when you’re on your period, but steer clear of over-zealous cleaning. “Overwashing your delicate lady parts can disrupt the level of the vaginal microbiome," says Kelly. "Gently bathing in just warm water should be enough to stay clean and fresh. Even intimate soaps can be too harsh and disruptive of the natural bacteria down there and can cause a reaction. If there are any unpleasant smells it may be worth investigating for bacterial or fungal overgrowths such as thrush or BV .” We recommend Gallinée's Perfume Free Cleansing Bar, £10, which is rich in lactic acid to support your vaginal microbiome.
MORE GLOSS: All the V-care brands we're getting intimate with
10. Don't have too many coffees (sorry)
A good coffee can be one of the greatest joys in life, but go easy on caffeine when you’re on your period, advises Tania Adib, consultant gynaecologist. “Caffeine can make your cramps worse as it can constrict your blood vessels.”
MORE GLOSS: How to have a healthy relationship with caffeine
11. Don’t get your breasts checked
We all know the importance of really knowing our boobs so we can notice changes, but during your period is not the best time to check them. “It’s best to wait until after your period to get a breast exam as they might be lumpy due to changes in hormones,” says Dr Tania Adib.
12. Don’t have unprotected sex
We all heard the rumours at school that you couldn’t get pregnant while on your period but it’s not true. Don't have unprotected sex on your period if you're trying to avoid pregnancy.
“You can still get pregnant on your period, especially if you have irregular periods because you might be experiencing mid-cycle bleeding and be ovulating at that time. Just because you're having a bleed it doesn’t mean you're not fertile during this time,” warns Dr Tania Adib. “And blood is a good transmitter of infection so it’s a good idea to protect yourself during this time.”
13. Don’t leave your tampon in too long
Leaving a tampon in for longer than four hours runs the risk of developing toxic shock syndrome (TSS ), a rare but very serious condition "This is when toxins from the staphylococcus aureus bacteria start to seep into the bloodstream and can cause life-threatening reactions," says Kelly Mulhall. "You may begin to experience fever, rash, dizziness and vomiting. If you suspect you may have TSS then seek medical advice asap."
Regularly changing your tampon may seem like a no-brainer but it's worth flagging to women who have light periods. “We generally advise women to change their tampons every four hours,” says Dr Tania. “Don’t leave it any longer due to the risk of bacterial infection. This isn’t as much of a problem for women who bleed heavily but women with lighter periods need to make sure they remember to change the tampon even if it’s not finished.”
14. Don’t stay up too late
Binge-watching your favourite show late into the night? Put the remote down and head to bed advises Dr Tania. “Make sure you get enough sleep as you still need your rest during your period even though PMS and premenstrual symptoms have dissipated. Try and get enough rest so that you feel on top form.”
15. Don’t reach for the rosé
There’s nothing better than a nice glass of wine at the end of the day (or over a boozy lunch) but alcohol consumption isn’t always wise when you’re on your period. “Alcohol is commonly viewed as a way of relaxing but it’s is actually a depressant and can make both depression and anxiety worse,” cautions Dr Sarah Jarvis, who is working with Livia, the pill-free period pain reliever. “Alcohol tends to have more profound effects on your mood in the run-up to your period – so it’s worth avoiding situations where you could be drinking more just before your period.”
16. Don’t hide indoors
It’s tempting enough to stay holed up inside during winter, even before you’re ailed with period pains but getting outside is key. “Nature has been found to help with soothing our mental health and with some of us experiencing elevated levels of anxiousness on our periods, getting out for a quick stroll can be of real benefit to boost your happy hormones,” says Naomi Gale of Ohne.
17. Don’t eat too much salty or sweet food
Very salty foods can worsen cramps and add to the water retention that some women experience during their periods, warns Dr Tania.
Sweet food isn’t much better either, which is bad news when all you’re craving is a Kinder Bueno. “Sweet food (as well as caffeine and alcohol) create chemicals in your body that increase your pain receptors making you feel worse. Trying to be conscious of eating lots of fruits and vegetables, plenty of water or herbal tea and regular meals will go a long way to reducing period pain and PMS,” says Kelly Mulhall.
18. That said, don't feel you have to skip cake if it'll make you happy
“Your hormones are running riot and your pain threshold is at its lowest,” says Jodie Hughes endometriosis research advisor and founder of Endometriosis South Coast, who works with period patch brand Beyou. “If you want that piece of cake, eat it! If you feel the need to cry all day and purge your feelings, do it. Do whatever comes naturally without judgement and be kind to yourself. Pain during periods is so high it can cause all of the emotions and feelings to come to the surface. Sit with them and look on them with acceptance.”
MORE GLOSS: Why your period could be causing your sleep problems