Hertility’s Menstrual Cycle Basics: What is your period trying to tell you?
Welcome to the final blog in our Menstrual Cycles Basics series with Hertility. As Hertility says, ‘periods can be a bloody pain, but they’re a great indication of your reproductive health’. So, here they tell you 6 questions to ask yourself during your next period to help you tune in to your reproductive health, know what to watch out for and when to take action.
1. When was your last period?
We’re asking this to get you thinking about whether you have an irregular menstrual cycle. First, let’s get clear on what we mean when we’re talking about your period versus your menstrual cycle. Your period starts on the first day of your menstrual cycle and describes the days that you bleed (enough bleeding that you need to use period products such as pads, tampons or cups). Whereas your menstrual cycle is the time between the first day of two consecutive periods.
Menstrual cycles usually last between 21 and 35 days. So, if you have cycles that are either shorter or longer, then they would count as irregular. This is even the case if you have periods that happen at the same time intervals (every 40 days on the dot, for example). So, why are we making such a song and dance about irregular menstrual cycles?
Well, having an irregular menstrual cycle as a one-off occurrence is nothing to worry about because our menstrual cycles are easily influenced by things like stress, diet, exercise, sleep schedule and falling sick. But if you’re constantly noticing that you have a long, short or unpredictable menstrual cycle, it could be a sign that you have issues with ovulation(the release of an egg during each cycle). One of the most common conditions associated with ovulation issues is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal and metabolic condition affecting at least 1 in 10 women and individuals who were assigned female at birth. Some symptoms of PCOS include irregular, infrequent or absent periods, excessive facial and body hair, oily skin and acne, thinning of scalp hair and difficulty losing weight.
Aside from PCOS, consistently irregular menstrual cycles could also be a sign of an underactive or overactive thyroid, excessive levels of the hormone prolactin and Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (a condition commonly seen in athletes, dancers and models where periods go AWOL because of hormonal imbalances caused by the extreme stress intensive workouts and/or calorie-restrictive diets on the body).
Other symptoms to keep an eye on alongside irregular periods are hot flushes, painful sex and vaginal dryness, as these usually happen around menopause (thanks to fluctuating oestrogen!). But whilst we tend to push menopause to the back of our minds, reserve it for when we are older, in fact, 1 in 100 of us will experience premature ovarian insufficiency (POI) before the age of 40- a condition where the ovaries don’t function properly and so can’t make enough hormones. So, it’s crucial not to ignore symptoms, wherever you’re in your reproductive journey.
So, what should you do? As a first step, it’s a great idea to start tracking your cycles so that you can start to pick up on patterns. If you notice your menstrual cycles are irregular for more than three cycles, it’s best to get them checked out.
2. How long does your period last?
We get it. Periods are not generally a barrel of laughs, somehow, they always seem to catch you unaware (and desperately searching the bottom of your bag for a forgotten tampon) and almost always feel like they are overstaying their welcome, but for most people, their periods will last between 2 to 7 days.
If your periods are longer than 7 days, we would call it heavy menstrual bleeding (heavy periods) even if you find your blood flow during this time isn’t particularly heavy. Heavy bleeding could be a sign of fibroids, endometrial (uterine) Polyps or endometriosis, so it’s best to investigate. Left untreated heavy periods could increase the risk of anemia.
3. How many period products do you use?
The term period products refers to whatever you use to collect the blood from your period, whether that’s a pad, tampon, cup or a pair of period pants. If you find that you’re needing to change your period products every 1-2 hours, empty your menstrual cup earlier than recommended, use two period products at a time (e.g. a tampon with a pad) and often bleed through your clothes or bed sheets, then it will come as no surprise to know that you have heavy periods. Until now, you might have just accepted this as the norm for you (and this could be the case!), but we would recommend checking in on what’s going on, just to be sure.
Other signs of having heavy periods are passing big blood clots (larger than a 10p coin) and needing to wake up at night to change your period product. Heavy periods are actually determined by the impact on quality of life rather than the volume of blood loss, so if your periods are negatively impacting your quality of life, then it’s definitely time to take action, no matter how long your periods last or how many period products you use.
Whilst around half of the cases of heavy periods do not have an underlying cause. Heavy periods can be a sign of fibroids - non-cancerous growths in or around the uterus, which affect at least 1 in 5 people. Polyps (growths of the lining of the womb) can also cause heavy periods as well as endometriosis and PCOS.
4. Did you see any blood clots?
Don’t worry, passing a few blood clots is nothing to worry about. Clotting is a normal bodily process that takes place to make sure you don’t lose too much blood.
But as we’ve mentioned before, if you notice any blood clots larger than a 10p coin (or a bottle cap) then it could be a sign that you’re experiencing heavy periods and so are worth looking into to make sure fibroids, endometrial (Uterine) Polyps or endometriosis are not the cause.
5. How bad were your cramps?
During your period, a chemical called prostaglandin helps the muscles in your uterus to contract so the inner lining can be shed. This process can cause you to feel some pain. Now, while experiencing a little pain during your period is normal, regularly having period pain that can’t be managed with home remedies (like a hot water bottle and over-the-counter medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen) and that interferes with your day-to-day life is definitely not something to put up with.
As well as being heavy, periods that are painful could be a sign of underlying health conditions such as endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids, polyps and even PCOS.
Endometriosis is actually a relatively common condition, affecting 1 in 10 women and those assigned female at birth and happens when cells similar to the lining of your womb are found elsewhere in your body. As well as painful and heavy periods, other common symptoms include pain while peeing or passing bowel movements, pain during sex, pain in the lower back and bloating..
6. How are you feeling emotionally?
We all dread PMS (premenstrual syndrome). As if the backaches, sore boobs and angry skin weren’t enough, we also have to deal with an absolute roller coaster on the emotional front. This is usually because of the dip in important hormones that control our cycle, oestrogen and progesterone, in the week or two leading up to our period..
In some cases, people might experience a very severe form of PMS known as PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder.) Although it’s not known exactly why this might happen, it’s believed to be due to an abnormal reaction to the usual hormonal changes that happen with each cycle. PMDD symptoms can be so severe that they might negatively affect people’s daily life including school, work, and relationships. You can read more about it here.
Did the questions flag any watch-outs for you? Check-in on your menstrual health today with Hertility's at-home Hormone & Fertility test, using code SISTER10 at checkout to get £10 off. Get to the bottom of any hormone imbalances, identify your egg count and warning signs of infertility and screen for 18 reproductive health conditions, all in just 10 days. We know it can be daunting but don’t worry, you’ll be assigned your own personal gynae to review your results and streamline you to specialist care should you need it.