I first went on the pill as a barely sexually active 16-year-old, dutifully popping the tiny tablet every evening since, without thinking much of it — until last July, when I discovered that quitting a 20-year stream of hormones wasn’t without its side effects.
I stopped refilling my prescription shortly after my wedding, hoping to prepare my body for getting pregnant in the near-ish future.
By all accounts, it should have been a perfect summer: My husband and I got married at a farmhouse in Rhode Island, close enough to the ocean to feel the sea breeze, and then road-tripped around Maine bingeing on lobster rolls before returning to Brooklyn as newlyweds with killer tans. Life was good — better than good! — but for reasons I didn’t fully understand, I was flooded with anxiety. It was as though my internal compass had gone haywire; I felt lost, even though everything was seemingly in place.
Over that Labor Day weekend, I filled in my new sister-in-law on how I was feeling. “You just got off the pill? Your hormones must be all out of whack,” she said after a teary late-night chat. A wave of relief rushed over me — finally, here was an explanation. A few days later, a copy of the book WomanCode by Alisa Vitti, was delivered to my door from my sister-in-law’s Amazon account.
I’d never thought of self-help books as my thing, but for the sake of my sanity, I dug in, reading up on my endocrine system and the factors that can cause hormones to fluctuate. Vitti, I learned, isn’t just an author; she’s also a period coach (or, as she calls it, a “FLO coach”). For $49 an hour, she pledges to guide clients through lifestyle adjustments to ease all their menstrual woes — heavy cramping, bloating, mood swings, irregularity, et cetera.
Vitti, who founded her company FLO Living in 2002, is part of a growing industry of period coaches looking to help women better understand their cycles. Nicole Jardim, who goes by “The Period Girl,” also takes on women looking for natural ways to address issues like irregular periods and acne. “My clients are resourceful women who want answers,” she says. “They’ve tried medication and haven’t gotten the results they’ve needed, so they start googling.”
Typically, period coaches start with a consultation where they ask about your experience when you have your period, but also what’s happening in your life more broadly, including stress levels and sleep patterns. From there, they’ll usually make lifestyle change recommendations and check in with your progress in follow-up sessions. For example, “I always start with food because we can control what we eat,” says Jardim, who helps her clients use diabetes glucometers to detect which foods cause blood-sugar spikes.
In addition to her coaching sessions, Jardim offers more affordable group classes, which many of her clients prefer. “It feels like a sisterhood,” she says. “We support each other and celebrate wins, like when you get your period back after being on birth control for a long time — that’s a big one.”
It all sounds a little woo-woo, but research does suggest that in some cases, diet and lifestyle tweaks can make for less miserable periods. Greens high in iron and vitamin B, for example, can help with fatigue; calcium-rich foods and calcium supplements have been shown to ease symptoms of PMS; and exercise can soothe cramps.
But women should not assume their menstrual issues can be treated with diet and supplements alone. “Diet is a tool, but some women need additional interventions,” says Anna M. Barbieri, an OB/GYN at Mount Sinai, including “certain uterine fibroid situations, thyroid abnormalities and definitely women who are diagnosed with pre-cancerous conditions or uterine cancer.”
For less serious issues, though, period coaching is a phenomenon that seems to be gaining steam at just the right time. Over the past several years, women have lobbied against the tampon tax and used “free bleeding” to protest the stigma surrounding menstruation; in turn, the women’s health space has grown exponentially, with the creation of apps that track cycles and an explosion of period products like organic tampons and period underwear.
“I’ve seen a real shift in the energy around this conversation,” agrees Vitti. “There’s so much appetite for it … [Women] have let go of so many taboos.”
This is also evident with the creation of places like LOOM, a community center that provides services around pregnancy, parenting and reproductive empowerment, that opened in Los Angeles last year.
Originally, LOOM’s focus was solely pregnancy and parenting, but at the last-minute co-founder Erica Chidi Cohen, a doula and health educator, added a class about sex, body, and the menstrual cycle for women who aren’t mothers and don’t necessarily want to be. To her surprise, it became one of their most popular. Cohen soon noticed that many of the women in class were discussing their period issues and began working on a period coaching program that launched this March.
Cohen also used to deal with difficult periods, but says that through diet and lifestyle adjustments she now has easy cycles.
“The information is available in a lot of naturopathic and medical textbooks,” she explains. “But as women, we have such little access to that information and are walking around with very little knowledge about our bodies.”
LOOM has a resident OB/GYN who’s reviewed their program, and both Vitti and Jardim emphasize that coaching should happen in tandem with advice from your gynecologist. “I look at women’s health care as a triangle,” says Vitti. “The patient is on top; one corner is her OB/GYN, and the other is her [coach].”
Barbieri, meanwhile, has tried to integrate some holistic period coaching practices into her own work as a physician. She believes many menstrual issues, such as painful, irregular or heavy periods, are the symptom of a certain hormonal state and dietary adjustments can help manage them. “More than a third of our patients are using supplements and complementary methods of healing, so the interest is rising in the conventional medical world,” she says.
As for period coaches: “For any of us to change we need ongoing support,” Barbieri says. “But once you learn practices that lead to optimum health in general, a regular period should be a side effect.”