5 Women's Reproductive Health Tips From a Doula

Welcome to The V, our weeklong series devoted to all things sex and reproductive health. This is a safe space free from "taboos," because there's no reason women should feel awkward talking about their bodies. That said, we'll be clearing up any misinformation on the subject, starting with this huge misnomer: The "V" in this case doesn't refer to the vagina, but the vulva, which is the anatomically correct term for external female genitalia (including the opening of the vagina). Stay tuned all week for need-to-know guides on birth control, tips for taking your orgasm to the next level, real-life stories about endometriosis, and everything in between.

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Women's reproductive health is a topic still shrouded in convoluted information and, quite frankly, misogynistic messaging. The fact is that it affects half of the population, and it's taken us this long to start talking about it. Endometriosis is a chronic, painful disease that is often misdiagnosed. Toxic ingredients still exist in our (taxed) tampons. That's not even to mention the group of (largely) white men in Washington, D.C., who seem determined to police female bodies. The list goes on. And as a woman, it's terrifying to know that shame, deep-seated stigma, and general apathy toward women's reproductive rights and education not only still exist but have a collection of people fighting for their permanence.

With that in mind, I reached out to holistic doula for her thoughts. She works as a birth companion to assist women and their families before, during, and after childbirth. "A holistic doula provides non-medical support and resources to help empower women around their reproductive health, be it through birth, postpartum or in non-birth outcomes like a miscarriage or abortion," explains Cohen. I wanted to know five important tips she felt it was necessary for women to read on internet—even if they don't have access to affordable healthcare or proper sex education. Naturally, she obliged. Below, Erica Chidi Cohen, a holistic doula and author of Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood, and Trusting Yourself and Your Body ($13), lays out her most valuable tips and resources.

1. Track Your Cycle

"Your period provides a monthly update about how your entire body is functioning. Why? Because it's a result of a nuanced conversation between your brain and your ovaries," explains Cohen. "You don't need to be trying to conceive to track your period; it's ideal to start way before that in order to have a better understanding of your period. How long is your typical cycle? What color is your flow—dark red, bright red, or pink? Are there clots? These are all characteristics worth noticing. Ideally, an optimal period will run on a 21- to 35-day cycle, last about four to five days, look bright red in color, and be pain-free (yes, it’s possible). Clue is a great app to use—give yourself at least three cycles to get the hang of it and start noticing a pattern."

2. Get Pricked 

"Regular acupuncture (ideally weekly or biweekly sessions) can help balance the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, which controls all your major reproductive hormones," notes Cohen. "When this axis is working optimally, it can lead to regular ovulation and predicable, pain-free periods."

3. Try Magnesium

"Magnesium can be a boon for PMS-related concerns like migraines, restlessness, irritability, mood swings, and intense cramps. It can also reduce inflammation and regulate cortisol (your stress hormone)," says Cohen. "Most people are deficient in magnesium, and food sources are not a sufficient source, due to industrial farming practices depleting the mineral content in soil. Taking 250 milligrams per day of magnesium glycinate 30 minutes before bed can improve all of the above ailments and help you sleep. Alternatively, you can put two cups of Dr. Teal's Epsom Salt ($5) in a bath, and soak for 20 minutes a few times a week. Or you can topically apply magnesium oil to your skin—though, the oil isn't a traditional oil, it is saturated concentration of magnesium chloride and water.

4. Get to Know Your Body

"Learn to discern the difference between cervical fluid, arousal fluid, and general vaginal moisture," recommends Cohen. "The first step? Simply slide your finger over your labia, or stick a clean finger inside your vagina—you'll notice some moisture similar to the inside of your cheek. This vaginal moisture is not cervical fluid. Vaginal moisture feels damp (versus stretchy, thick, or slippery like cervical fluid)."

"When you're fertile," Cohen continues, "your cervical fluid is white and sticky. During menstruation, you might not see any because it mixes in with your period. But after your period, it’s more sticky, with a lotion-like texture. Can't tell the difference? Take a sample of the fluid on your finger, and dip it into a glass of water. Vaginal moisture will dissipate into the water, while cervical fluid will remain slippery on your finger."

"Arousal fluid, on the other hand," Cohen notes, "is the fluid that shows up when you're turned on; it feels very similar to fertile cervical fluid. It's slippery, clear, and may stretch an inch or two between your fingers. However, unlike cervical fluid, arousal fluid will usually dry up and disappear within an hour or so."

5. Cultivate a 70/30 Policy

"Often times, we can adopt an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to taking care of ourselves," says Cohen. "Though, this can lead to more stress and restriction. My recommendation is this: If 70% of what you're putting in your body (or participating in) feels nourishing and supportive—awesome. The other 30% of the time, give yourself a break and let loose a little bit. Break your routine, eat something you wouldn't usually eat, take a nap, and throw out your schedule."

This story was originally published on September 21, 2017.