A pretty significant proportion of the world’s population menstruates. But despite this, and also in spite of the rise in activism around menstrual rights – with issues like the “tampon tax” raised, and people who menstruate talking about their periods more openly – periods are still shrouded in shame, and surrounded by expectations and myths. It’s no wonder, then, that most women feel pretty out of touch with their menstrual cycles, feeling like they’re battling their bodies for at least a week each month.

But what if we could approach the dreaded time of the month (and the rest of the month, too) from a different direction? What would it be like to feel in harmony with your body, rather than fighting against it? The answer is: a better relationship with your body, a greater sense of connection with its cycles and nuances, and a sense of empowerment.

Here are a few of our best tips to really get to know your menstrual cycle – to understand your body, and no longer feel ashamed of this very natural bodily process.

Track your period

Whether you prefer to do this manually in your weekly planner, or take advantage of one of the wealth of period-tracking apps out there, keeping tabs on your cycle means that your period will be less of a surprise. You will also begin to see patterns – how long your cycle is, what external factors affect the length of your cycle, and how long your periods typically last. This has the added benefit of being able to tell when something isn’t quite right.

Tracking apps like Clue also allow you to track things like mood, cravings, pain, and even sleep quality. You’ll be guided to a way of thinking where you look out for signs of where you are in your cycle, like difficulty concentrating or muscle pain. To add to this, Clue is also carrying out unprecedented research into sex, menstrual cycles, and cultural attitudes to both. We think that’s pretty awesome.

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Experiment with sanitary products

This is not as weird as it might sound. Most girls are handed a pad when their first period starts, and bar maybe upgrading to tampons, most women don’t think too much about what they’re using to deal with their period. But it really is worth figuring out what works best for you, and making a specific choice about the sanitary products you use.

It’s also worth trying a menstrual cup. While they might sound a little weird to the uninitiated, and might not be the right choice for some, they do have a lot of benefits. They’re reusable (read: good for the environment and also for your bank balance), don’t contain any of the dangerous chemicals found in other more traditional sanitary products, and can also radically change the way you interact with your period blood.

Many women have a preference of menstrual cup as each brand varies in size and shape, but other alternatives, such as sea sponges, also exist.

Think about other influencing factors – and your birth control

Are you taking hormonal birth control? Do you take medication for other conditions? Is your diet balanced? While these and other factors can impact the way your menstrual cycle manifests itself, the most significant is probably birth control. Many women forget that that little pill they take each day has such a massive effect on the body, completely overhauling hormonal balances and most likely creating a shift from your “natural” cycle.

Being aware of the way in which your chosen birth control might be affecting your period is also important in understanding the cycle your body is perpetually going through. The pill and other hormonal options might replace your period with a withdrawal bleed once a month, or stop your periods full stop; meanwhile, a copper IUD can affect the heaviness of your flow as well as PMS symptoms such as cramping.

Know what your body needs

Many tell-tale PMS symptoms can be reduced or completely got rid of through lifestyle choices made with awareness of your cycle. Being aware of your cravings is also useful, as they can tell you what your body is crying out for.

Magnesium supplements, for example, can help with muscle cramps, improve sleep, and offer a multitude of other benefits. Craving chocolate can often indicate that your body needs a top-up of this mineral, as cocoa is high in it. Reaching for other sweet foods can also indicate magnesium deficiency.

Meanwhile, craving salty food indicates a deficiency in electrolytes; stocking up on foods high in B-vitamins, such as seeds, nuts, and leafy greens, can remedy this.

Be kind to yourself – and know when to ask for help

Being on your period can be pretty rough, even when you do take care of yourself and listen to your body. There’s nothing wrong with asking friends or family to help out if you’re feeling particularly grim, and speaking openly with the people close to you about periods is an important step in acknowledging it as something natural and normal.

Be kind to yourself if you feel tired, can’t focus, or need a bit of a cry. Tuning into your body comes into play here too: if you’re feeling exhausted or achy, have an early night in or snuggle up with a hot water bottle instead of forcing yourself to be stoic.

On a more serious note, it’s important to know what feels normal for your body, so that you can be aware if something is going awry. Don’t be embarrassed about going to your doctor if you feel like your period is more painful than it should be; for some, PMS can tip over into the more severe and debilitating PMDD (pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder). If anxiety, depression, extreme lethargy, and more extreme forms of other “normal” PMS symptoms precede your period, it’s worth taking a visit to your doctor.

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