Everything You Need to Know About Your Period
Aunt Flo. That time of the month. Your period has probably been on the receiving end of quite a few nicknames, and when it comes, it can be a tough experience.
The truth is, the female body and reproductive system are both intricate and kind of cool.
For example, did you know:
There’s even a campaign underway to get more employers to recognize “menstrual leave,” so women can take time off during their periods
(which makes sense, since one report estimates that menstrual symptoms lead to 100 million lost work hours in America every year!).
Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines all allow for time off, FYI.
So, let’s get some technical details out of the way.
Your period (or what your seventh-grade sexual education teacher called menstruation) is just a term for the monthly bleeding women experience, usually for 3 to 5 days.
Your period is actually part of a menstrual cycle: the hormone estrogen rises as an egg matures and then leaves the ovary (ovulation) to travel through the fallopian tube.
As your cycle continues, hormone levels continue to rise and thicken the lining of the uterus.
If the egg is fertilized by a sperm cell, it will attach to the uterine wall, and that’s how a pregnancy starts.
If it’s not fertilized, the egg breaks apart, your hormones drop back down, then your body sheds the lining of the uterus. Blood from the lining comes through the cervix and then out your body.
And then you plant yourself face-first into a pint of ice cream while crying through the cramps. (Just me?)
There are plenty of normal and common side effects that women experience, especially right before their period actually shows up (PMS), that usually aren’t a sign of trouble and can be managed fairly easily:
Yoga and swimming are two activities that not only don’t usually make cramps worse – they can actually help them go away!
It’s gentle exercise that gets the blood moving without requiring a lot of twisting, bending, or weight lifting that can sometimes take an already painful midsection and send it into overdrive.
I also love to use a small heating pad or take an Epsom salt bath.
I get hormonal headaches fairly easily, so my period often has me running to the medicine cabinet to take a pain reliever (ibuprofen works best for me in this case). You can also try cutting back on salt – it may help!
The worst, right? I find that constricting bras (like a tight sports bra or something with underwire) make the pain worse, so I keep a few bras in my drawer that can help, especially at night.
Even if you’re not nursing, look at the nursing bra options. They don’t have underwire and are usually more supportive, even without tight material.
Seltzer water is my favorite thing to have during the day – I just like it better than the flat stuff! But the bubbles can cause big problems,
so you may want to trade out anything fizzy or carbonated for a few days if you do find yourself getting bloated. I love to drink some hot water with a bit of apple cider vinegar and honey.
And I’m such a big fan of yoga pants with high waists – they are so much more comfortable than pants that snap or zipper around the areas that swell up and bloat during that time of the month!
Truth be told, I don’t mind a moody night or two. I put on some Adele, pour a glass of wine, and let myself just wallow. But when I’m really irritable, I just try to remove myself from stressful situations that might trigger my temper.
(So fun, right? You can blame your hormones for all of this – the causes of PMS are not totally proven, but doctors believe your surging hormones lead to a roller coaster of emotions and physical symptoms.)
You often don’t know exactly when your period will come, so here are a few things to keep in your survival kit (throw it in your purse or car!):
- A few tampons or pads
- Some makeup or tinted moisturizer to cover up any hormonal breakouts (they sneak up on you!)
- A small bottle of ibuprofen to treat any headaches or aches
- A change of underwear (I know it’s a weird thing to have in your purse, but if you get your period and can’t get home for a while, you’ll be glad you have it!)
- Essential oils – I love to put some (diluted!) peppermint oil on my temples or sniff the bottle to help with headaches and mood swings
But there are some more serious issues to look out for, which can have fertility and hormonal consequences. And I have some personal experience with that, so I’m particularly passionate about empowering women to know more about their bodies.
Amenorrhea is the lack of a period, either because you never got one or haven’t had a period for 90 days. Of course, pregnant women experience amenorrhea, but for women who are not pregnant, a missed period is worth checking out.
Some of the causes of amenorrhea:
- Pregnancy (so if you miss a period, take a test!), breastfeeding, or menopause
- Some medications like birth control pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs), or injectable contraception
- Chemotherapy or radiation
- Scar tissue that has built up in the uterus, sometimes after a caesarean section or treatment for a miscarriage or uterine fibroids
- Genetic problems that prevent a period from occurring naturally
- Excessive exercise, eating disorders, or extreme physical/psychological stress
In my case, I experienced something called secondary amenorrhea due to overexercising and under-eating. In order for me to get pregnant when I wanted to,
I had to work with a reproductive endocrinologist to measure and adjust my hormones, track my monthly cycle to try to time my ovulation, and more. It worked and I have two beautiful babies,
but I wish I’d taken better care of myself in the first place. While I never had a full-blown eating disorder, I did have some disordered behavior toward food and exercise – like so many young women,
I counted calories and ate too little, given my activity levels.
The quest to get skinny almost ruined my much bigger and more important quest to have a family, and I never knew that it could lead to such troubling side effects.
What else can cause period problems? Stress. It actually affects the part of the brain that controls your hormones, and since they really are the key to the entire menstrual cycle, you need to get your head straight to have everything work properly.
A hormone imbalance like polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, can cause hormones to get and stay too high, which will disrupt a cycle. Thyroid issues, a pituitary tumor, premature menopause and structural issues with your body itself are all worth looking at, too.
When should you see a doctor? My advice is to make an appointment even if you’re just curious about your cycle, or if you are having trouble getting pregnant. But certainly go if:
- your period suddenly stops for 90 days or more
- your periods suddenly become irregular, very heavy, or painful
- you develop a fever after using tampons
That last bullet, by the way, is a truly serious one. You know that scary-looking instructional pamphlet that comes in every box of tampons?
It lists a very rare but potentially deadly complication that starts with a bacterial infection. Toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, can affect anyone – even men, kids, and women who are post-menopausal and not using tampons.
In the past, it was most commonly associated with the use of superabsorbent tampons.
But because so many products linked to TSS have been pulled off the market, less than half of cases today are linked to tampon use (it can also happen when you are burned or after surgery).
Even so, TSS can be deadly, so make sure that you change your tampons often and consider using pads at least some of the time.
(Tampons are inserted inside your vagina, using a cardboard or plastic applicator, and they soak up the blood before it leaves your body. Pads, or sanitary napkins, stick to the inside of your underwear and collect the blood after it leaves your body.)
And if you get a fever, nausea, have a seizure, or experience anything else that just doesn’t feel right after you’ve used a tampon, please seek medical assistance.
Snicker all you want – I am a proud period owner. I fought hard for mine, missed it when it was gone, and thanked it for helping me create my children. So, ladies, let’s celebrate our bodies and how special they really are!