Q&A with Maisie Hill, author of Period Power: Harness Your Hormones and Get Your Cycle Working For You
Maisie Hill is a women’s health expert and practitioner, and author of Period Power: Harness Your Hormones and Get Your Cycle Working For You, which was published in May 2019.
Described as “the handbook to periods and hormones that will leave you wondering why the hell nobody told you this sooner”, Period Power provides a really fascinating insight into a normal, natural part of our lives that many of us still know shockingly little about.
We spoke to Maisie about the importance of women tracking and understanding their natural hormone cycles, and what to do if doctors aren’t taking your period problems seriously.
How did you first get interested in tracking your cycle?
Like a lot of women I had a really naff time on the pill, which I was on in my late teens. I came off it when I was 21 and was intrigued about the difference I felt from being on the pill to coming off it – most notably an improvement in mood, and sexual desire as well.
At the same time, a friend of mine was trying to conceive, and I just happened to pick up a book in a bookstore called Taking Charge Of Your Fertility. I read that, and learned about how you can chart your cycle using basal body temperature and monitoring cervical fluid, and I was absolutely blown away at the knowledge that was in that book. It made me really intrigued about my body and curious to get to know it in this way. But I also felt really angry that no one had shared this information with me before. So that was really the start was using fertility awareness as a method of contraception for a long time, very successfully.
I also had horrific period pains, so I was on a real journey to try and stop that and get to grips with it. When I saw my GP I was just given the choice of going on the pill to stop having periods – and therefore period pain – or a laparoscopy to investigate if there was anything behind it like endometriosis, but I just didn’t feel like either of those approaches were suitable paths for me to go down.
Both of those things led me to try different types of treatments and therapies, and I got really interested in some of them and went on to train in acupuncture and a few others. I was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship with Alexandra Pope, one of the co-founders of Red School. That’s where I learned about the four seasons, which they kindly allowed me to use in the book, and that’s when things shifted again and gave me a more emotional understanding of the cycle. But it also gave me a great framework to apply my knowledge of hormones and the scientific side of things.
Why do you think we as women are generally so clueless about our cycles?
There’s a distinct lack of information for most of us, all the way through our lives – from conversations in the family home to education at school. And there’s just a general feeling of embarrassment, shame, even disgust. I think those things are changing, but they take a long time to shift, and often we’re just going through the same patterns that our other family members did as well. There’s a lot of beliefs that take a while to shift. But I do think those attitudes are changing, really largely due to the development of online conversations and people being more willing to speak out.
Why is it so important for us to be more in tune with what’s going on with our bodies?
Well, for me it’s a no-brainer. It just makes life much easier. Whether you’ve got symptoms that are quite debilitating, that you need to be able to plan around as much as possible, or whether you just want to take advantage of what your hormones are doing in each phase of your cycle.
I think generally speaking, as women, we’ve got a lot of things counting against us – like the pay gap, or the orgasm gap, or the lack of affordable childcare options. All of those things and more can make it harder for us to get what we want out of life, whether that’s advancing in our careers or having families, or doing both of those things, so I think it’s important that we use what we’ve got available to us.
For me, the menstrual cycle is a really easy way of doing that, especially when it comes to improving mental health, how we feel about ourselves and the way that we talk to ourselves. If you know that day 26 of your cycle is when your hormone levels are really low and it’s possibly hard to feel good about much going on in your life, then you can talk to yourself with more kindness instead of putting yourself down and thinking that you’re being pathetic and useless because you’re unable to summon much interest in things and just want to lie down and watch Netflix instead.
How often do you find that clients come to you because they’ve been dismissed or not taken seriously by their GP?
The NHS is amazing, and I always encourage people to start off with going to see their GP, reporting their symptoms and finding out what options are available to them. But sometimes GPs are unwilling to run certain tests, or don’t place much emphasis or value in the symptoms that women are describing. Sometimes even if a test comes back positive the GP doesn’t have the resources to treat the issues that it’s flagged up, so they might just not bother doing the test at all because it’s not going to make much difference in terms of what they can offer.
I really get that it’s a frustrating place to be for a lot of medical professionals. But so often women are coming to me and they’ve tried everything that’s available to them through the NHS, or they’re still undergoing options through the NHS. Usually they’ve had longstanding issues and then they’re amazed by how relatively quickly those things can shift, just by having a better knowledge of their bodies, and by making small changes that are usually accessible to most people. It might be choosing different things to put in their shopping trolley, or adjusting what a 24 hour cycle through day and night is like for them – just small shifts here and there, not big radical changes.
What advice do you give to women whose doctors aren’t taking their period symptoms seriously?
By tracking your cycle you have really good data to take to a doctor, so that’s always a good idea – taking note of what happens on what day, the severity of the symptoms, things that they might be linked to. Then, when you go to a doctor, it’s helpful for them because they are getting a really accurate idea of your experience and your symptoms. But also if they are slightly disbelieving or dismissive of things, you’re able to point out that what they’re saying doesn’t match up with what you’re telling them. Some GPs really are great and really do want to help women, but some GPs are even embarrassed to have these conversations about women’s issues. If you’re really not getting what you want out of the GP then ask to see someone else, and give the GP surgery feedback on what their experience has been like.
Through every aspect of women’s health there are people not having great experiences, and we can’t expect them to change if we don’t actually give feedback on how things are going. That goes for everything from having cervical screening tests through to getting hormones tested on the right day of the cycle, to how HRT is framed, and it’s through all the reproductive years. We just need to be giving feedback and asking for better.
From a feminist perspective, is it possible to talk about how our hormone fluctuations affect us throughout the month without giving credence to the idea that women are hysterical slaves to our cycles?
It can be a really tricky topic because undoubtedly there are women who have a really full on experience of their cycle, either because they have really extreme pain or because they experience really severe mood changes. Some reproductive and hormonal conditions are really under-diagnosed, so through tracking then perhaps we can improve the diagnosis of those conditions and hopefully get more funding into research and treatment options. I think that’s one side of it.
But we also tend to think of tracking as focusing on the negative experience of the cycle, and actually a lot of it is realising that, for most women, there are really just a few days in a cycle that might be particularly tricky for them. On the whole, all of the rest of them are really, really positive. It’s just about getting to know what those positive aspects are, and how to use your particular experience of your cycle to improve your health, or your relationships, or your career – however you want to use it. Because there’s such a lack of focus on women’s health issues generally, when we talk about cycle tracking, everyone jumps onto the negative experience.
In media depictions of hormonal issues we’re often positioned as being really horny around ovulation – unable to control our desire, jumping on anyone, and wearing red lipstick – or we’re hot messes before our period is due, and incapable of leaving the house without bursting into tears. It’s just such a binary view of our experience of the cycle and I’m far more interested in all the grey areas in between. We need to look at things in a more balanced view and see that often the way hormonal imbalances are depicted in the media aren’t accurate in terms of what the research tells us or what women are telling us.