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I still remember the moment I started my first period. I was 12 or 13-years-old, and I was in the shower.

For some reason unbeknownst to me, I was overcome with a wave of exhaustion so intense, that I had to sit down right there in the middle of the shower. As I watched the water streaming away from me toward the drain, I noticed that some of it was tinged pink.

I wouldn’t say that I panicked (my mom had thankfully been preparing me for a while for this moment), but I did immediately stand up, turn the water off, towel off, and go find my mom in something of a hurry.

From then on, my life seemed punctuated by my cycle—perhaps that’s why they call it a “period.” My period was irregular at first (which, by the way, is common). In addition, every few cycles left me with some combination of headaches, cramps, exhaustion, or irritability around the same time each month. I was assured by everyone that this was normal, and that unless I wanted to go on birth control, there were really no solutions for it. So I accepted my new reality, which by the time I was in high school included needing to be picked up from school every few months for cramps and/or headaches so severe that I had trouble focusing in class.

As I got older, my period problems only seemed to get worse, now occurring with every cycle instead of the occasional one. Headache and migraine-prone even as a child, I could count on a migraine creeping a day or two before my period like clockwork. I also began experiencing increasingly intense cramping and heavier bleeding on the first few days of each period. And then a new symptom showed up in college: multiple days of brown spotting once the bleeding had lightened up. But because I had been told that all of the other symptoms were simply “normal” (and because unlike the other symptoms, this one didn’t affect my day-to-day quality of life), I didn’t think anything of the brown spotting, and certainly no doctor ever asked me about it. So I continued missing class occasionally for what I assumed was “typical PMS stuff,” and then after graduation, I started missing work for the same reasons, too.

When brushing it under the rug doesn’t work anymore

After ten years of dealing with these symptoms, as a 23-year-old newlywed, I experienced infertility.

It wasn’t until I was finally able to start treatment with a Natural Procreative (NaPro) Technology doctor for my infertility, that all of the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I learned that all of the PMS symptoms I’d been living with since age 12 were not, in fact, normal and were actually symptoms of an underlying issue with the balance of my hormones—namely, estrogen and progesterone. And, as it turned out, the brown bleeding I was experiencing (coupled with all of the other symptoms), was a tell-tale sign of luteal phase defect. My NaPro doctor (the only doctor who ever asked me if I was experiencing such a thing!) was able to treat it with the help of other vital information gleaned from fertility charts I’d kept of my past cycles.

With the help and treatment of my NaPro doctor, I saw not only my PMS symptoms dramatically improve (seriously: no more PMS headaches, significantly reduced cramping, lighter bleeding, and better mood), but my husband and I were finally able to get pregnant, too.

This was not a quick journey by any means. We began trying for a baby in October 2014, began treatment with a NaPro doctor in September 2015, and conceived our son in June 2016. But with each month that passed after starting NaPro treatment, just the fact that my periods were suddenly, drastically more manageable, was enough to give me hope that something was changing in my body—and definitely for the better.

Paying Closer Attention to PMS

I think that too often young women are conditioned to see PMS as "our lot in life” as women. For many women (myself included), it can stop us from getting the help we need—or even admitting that we need help in the first place. Naturally, this can have profound implications for our health. Later on down the line, untreated PMS symptoms can be signals of a serious underlying cause—as was the case with my infertility.

Fortunately for me, my period issues stemmed from a hormonal imbalance that is remedied by a healthy diet, vitamins specifically geared toward supporting a woman’s cycle, and supplemental progesterone. But for other women afflicted with underlying conditions like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, which can take years to properly diagnose, the damage caused by the disease can be much more severe and much more invasive to treat—especially when the disease goes unchecked for years. Too often, women who exhibit early symptoms are not offered real treatment but are put on hormonal birth control, which only hides symptoms but leaves the underlying disease progressing.

As someone who has experienced PMS symptoms and has since become a fertility awareness educator, I encourage women not to shrug off PMS symptoms, especially if they notice them worsening, or if they are seriously affecting their quality of life. I also advise women to opt for Fertility Awareness-Based Methods to chart their cycles (which serves both health management and family-planning purposes) instead of band-aid treatments like the Pill that don’t treat the underlying cause(s).

Women deserve better than getting by with a life constantly punctuated by debilitating PMS. And we deserve to start the path toward healing now or whenever we start experiencing these symptoms rather than only when we want to start families later in life. It’s time we start demanding it.