The female body is a temple of strange worship.
From irregular periods to UTIs, our post-puberty years are perplexing, a spelunking mission to unearth all the subterranean treasures of womanhood. Our bodies hold the keys to the mystery of life and sometimes it feels like they won’t shut up about it (here’s a menstrual migraine; remember, I exist!) throwing all manner of self-congratulatory parades to celebrate their achievements. And fair enough: props to the uterus, the ovaries, those neglected fallopian tubes — they deserve it.
The latest discovery in my own reproductive smorgasbord is the ovarian cyst. In the past six months, I’ve had two ruptures: the first during sex, which resulted in muffled screaming on the floor of my boyfriend’s parents’ basement as he hovered over me in just a T-shirt, under the adorably mistaken impression that his penis had somehow punctured a kidney; the second after horseback riding. To the uninitiated, an ovarian cyst rupture feels a bit like a puppy is using your ovary as a chew toy. It is a sudden, wild pain. Just like an orgasm, you’ll know it when you feel it.
These small, fluid-filled sacs develop during the course of a period, and are incredibly common. It’s estimated that almost all women who menstruate will have one or more asymptomatic cysts over the course of their lifetime. Most are functional, formed as part of a menstrual misfire: either the ovarian follicle that usually breaks open to release an egg fails to do so (the resulting fluid forms a follicular cyst), or the follicle doesn’t dissolve after releasing the egg, causing additional fluid build-up that then becomes a corpus luteum cyst. (Other cysts, including growths on the outside of the ovaries or excess endometrial tissue cysts, are less widespread.)
Most women won’t know they have a cyst unless it has grown to a size where it is causing secondary issues, such as bloating or pain during sex, or if it is discovered during a routine pelvic exam or ultrasound. They typically dissolve on their own. Sometimes, however, they cause an ovarian torsion that can cut off blood supply to the ovary (very bad) or a sudden rupture (also very bad) resulting in severe pelvic pain (see above) and/or infection.
While one or two small cysts is nothing to worry about, multiple instances can be a sign of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an androgen imbalance that not only causes many cysts to grow each cycle, but also irregular periods, excess body hair, acne, weight gain and potential fertility issues. PCOS usually needs to be managed with medication.
Unfortunately, because women’s health research is perpetually underfunded, ovarian cysts are subject to the same generalized medical *shrug* that accompanies PMS or irregular cycles. If you’ve struggled with cysts, you’ve likely been given the following advice: go on birth control to regulate hormone levels, exercise, eat “a balanced diet.” My own primary-care doctor told me I had “highly follicular ovaries” and sent me on my way, a uniquely frustrating experience. I don’t relish the thought of another rupture, but more importantly (more humiliatingly, or vulnerably, or shamefully), I want to start a family soon, and at the ripe old age of 33 (near geriatric, in baby-making years), I’m extra cautious when it comes to health issues related to fertility.
As such, I went to see Tiffany Wyse ND RH, a naturopath and doula in Toronto. “While ovarian cysts are not uncommon, they are definitely something that has become more prolific in recent times,” she said. When it comes to reproductive health, she advocates a deeper intimacy with your body and cycle through methods such as a period journal or app, and believes in treating cysts holistically, as a potential symptom of overall health.
(Important: If you think you might be suffering from ovarian cysts, go see a doctor! The following suggestions are all rooted in traditional healing, but talk to a medical professional before beginning any alternative treatments if you’re concerned.)
Insulin regulation. Increased insulin production has been linked to a disruption in fertility hormones. Wyse advocates regulating your blood sugar through diet and exercise, namely by avoiding refined carbs and sugars. Try small, regular meals throughout the day that are high in protein and healthy fats (avocado, nuts, full-fat dairy).
Liver stimulation. Your liver is responsible for eliminating junk from your system, and while anything that claims to help “flush” toxins is generally bunk, you can work with your liver to praise its good works. Warm water with lemon first thing in the morning is a super easy way to do this; Wyse also suggests castor oil packs, which are said to help stimulate your lymphatic system. Apply castor oil directly to your abdomen or to a warm flannel before wrapping yourself up like an adorable burrito in plastic wrap and an old shirt your shitty ex left behind. Hug a hot water bottle to your overworked ovaries and watch some Grace and Frankie.
Anti-inflammatory diet. Inflammation (caused by an excess of white blood cells) can cause auto-immune issues and other reactive conditions. Anti-inflammatory foods may help reduce pain and can signal your body to chill. Try lots of dark fruits and veggies, beans and legumes, fermented foods, and happy warming spices like turmeric and ginger.
Omega-3s. These fatty acids both reduce inflammation and assist in regulating hormones. Wyse recommended a delightfully witchy combination of flax or pumpkin seeds for the first 14 days of your cycle, followed by evening primrose and fish oil supplements for the following 14. If your cycle is irregular (like mine), you can follow the 28-day moon cycle.
I’m slowly incorporating Wyse’s advice into my lifestyle, and reaching out to all the women in my life (and on the internet, hello!) to ask if they’ll share their experiences with cysts. Ultimately, we are not defined by what our bodies can or cannot do; what feels like treachery is simply biology — ungovernable, uncooperative, miraculous all the same.