The period, the ‘time of the month’, the red scourge; whatever you choose to call it, menstruation affects us all. Yes, even men suffer through them. Of course you guys don’t actually suffer it first hand, but I think it’s safe to assume most of you have been the unfortunate recipient of a hormone-fuelled rant at one time or another.
An amusing, yet tragically accurate Buzzfeed article provides some brilliant descriptions of a period. Here is one of my favourites:
“Periods are awful, inconvenient, dirty, uncomfortable, excruciating, exhausting, and you aren’t supposed to talk about them, which only makes it worse because you have to live your life pretending you aren’t constantly sweating, farting, expelling fluids from your vagina, and in so much pain you can hardly breathe. I’m not exaggerating.”
Despite the fact that every single woman in the world will experience a period, many of us don’t understand them very well. What actually happens during a period? What causes all of the symptoms? Why do periods vary so much from person to person?
I’m here to break the silence and answer some of your questions. If you are wondering about something I don’t mention in this article let me know in the comments section below, and I’ll write a special article just for you!
It’s about to get pretty frank in here.
Brace yourselves guys.
Are you ready?
Let’s start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start).
What is a period?
Menstruation begins at puberty, when the body changes from a child’s to a woman’s. The cause of these changes is hormones, which are responsible for pretty much everything to do with your period. Like a great dictator, they can be brutal and their rule is absolute. The only thing I can say in their favour is that they allow for guilt-free chocolate munching once the cravings hit.
Once puberty begins, hormones run riot all over the body. They cause many, many changes, one of which being that they bestow upon women the ability to reproduce. In order to prepare the body for the development of a foetus, hormones encourage menstrual processes to begin within a woman’s reproductive system. Unfortunately the repercussions of this aren’t as magical as they could be.
Once a month, the lining of the womb thickens in preparation for the release of an egg (known as an ovum). When an egg is released from an ovary (ovulation), if it becomes fertilised by sperm it sticks to this thickened wall and develops into a foetus. If an egg is not fertilised however, it breaks down and the uterus sheds the thickened lining; this manifests as a period. Let’s revisit that Buzzfeed article again to look at how one woman describes this process:
“Like someone is grinding my insides into liquid and they’re leaking uncontrollably out of my vagina.”
Sadly, that is literally what is happening.
The events described above make up the menstrual cycle – the cycle begins on the first day of menstruation and continues until the day before the next period begins. It is a pretty complicated process and there are no hard and fast rules about how and when different events within the cycle should occur. Hormones trigger all of the events throughout this process and your hormone level can have a big impact on how you experience the menstrual cycle. Although the average length of a cycle is approximately 28 days (NHS, 2014) some women have a long cycle (i.e. a longer time between periods) and some have a short cycle – both are completely normal and healthy. Ovulation usually occurs half way through a cycle, approximately 10-16 days before a period begins.
To get a more accurate picture of your menstrual cycle, check out Clue, a great app which tracks your symptoms and can help you predict where you’re at. They also use your data for research which is pretty neat.
What causes the symptoms of a period?
Alongside menstrual bleeding, there are a variety of symptoms of a period. These can include migraines, sore breasts, menstrual cramps, mood swings, low energy and spots. Not much fun. I’d like you boys to take a minute and imagine what this is like. Remember, this happens every 4 weeks. For a quarter of the year the women you know are experiencing these problems. I think the least you can do is give us a foot rub.
Although many of the symptoms listed above are very common, a lot of women do not understand what causes them. Understanding a little more about your body and how it works may help you to deal with some symptoms a little more effectively. As such, here are some explanations for the more common symptoms of a period.
Most women experience some cramping (dysmenorrhea) during their period. This manifests as a tight, knotting sensation in the pelvis and lower abdominal area, and can also radiate into the legs and back. It is caused by the walls of the womb vigorously contracting to encourage the lining to shed.
The contractions limit the blood supply to the womb as blood vessels lining the area are compressed. Oxygen cannot reach the womb, and as a result a chemical which triggers pain in the body is released. It all sounds pretty gruesome and it isn’t great to experience, but for most women it doesn’t last for more than a few days at a time and there are ways to help ease the pain; exercise, a hot water bottle, lying down and painkillers are all effective. A loving man with massage oil might also not go a miss.
Some women experience painful or tender breasts (mastalgia) both during ovulation and during menstruation. Although the pain can be experienced as sharp or stabbing, the sensation is often described as an extreme heaviness. In this case removal of the bra should be done with extreme care – sudden loss of support is quite unpleasant!
The pain, along will our other symptoms is caused by our little friends, the hormones. Two hormones in particular rule over the golden globes; oestrogen and progesterone. Oestrogen, typically known as the ‘girl’ hormone, causes milk ducts and glands to swell which traps fluid around the breast tissue, leading to pressure and pain. Low levels of progesterone can also lead to breast pain. A balance of progesterone and oestrogen is ideal, which is why progesterone creams are sometimes recommended for mastalgia if too much oestrogen is present.
One good thing about leaving your teenage years behind you the beautiful, clear skin your parents have been promising you for years. Sadly, those pesky hormones aren’t always on the same page as your well-meaning mother. For many women, spot outbreaks around the chin and jawline are a regular occurrence and, because they are due to hormones, regular spot treatments aren’t always effective.
As hormone levels rise, they promote an increased production of sebum, an oily substance which can block pores. Regardless of how regularly you cleanse your face, if you have very high hormone levels you can expect to see at least one or two spots during your period. The hormones will always win that particular war.
In order to feel like you’re at least winning some of the battles however, try using products which contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. These ingredients are common in many acne treatments and may be more effective than standard over-the-counter medicines. Of course, do nothing without speaking to your GP!
Ah yes, the dreaded mood swings. Everyone’s favourite symptom. There’s nothing like regularly feeling anxious, depressed and irritable for absolutely no discernible reason. Mood swings are arguably the most difficult symptom of a period to deal with. They affect not only you but others around you and are much less easy to treat than other symptoms.
Again, fluctuations in hormone levels are at play here. Changes in levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which can regulate mood and increase happiness, may also play a role. In fact, research has suggested that an interaction between certain neurotransmitters and the typically ‘female’ hormones of progesterone and oestrogen can increase the severity of mood swings.
Stress, poor diet and lack of exercise can all contribute to more debilitating mood swings, so it is important to keep happy and healthy if your emotions are particularly affected by your menstrual cycle. What is important to remember is that the emotions triggered by your period are just that and nothing more; they do not necessarily reflect reality. Try not to let your emotions rule your behaviour, but at the same time, don’t get too hung up about your outburst during the dinner party at the in-laws. It wasn’t really your fault, after all.
If you are particularly prone to mood swings, try and ensure you have a good support network around you. Let them know that you might bite their head off for breathing too loudly (they’ll probably appreciate the heads up) but that you’d love their help in keeping your spirits up all the same.
It’s pretty clear – periods suck. There is an awful lot more to them than I have discussed here. As I mentioned in the beginning, please ask me if you have any questions about the menstrual cycle. This is only a very basic overview of a complicated process, and I’m sure there are more things you want to know!
To my female readers, I hope this article has given you a clearer understanding of what might be going on in your body and how you can cope with the changes you’re going through.
To any men who’ve made it this far, I hope you now have a healthy respect for the women in your lives – this period lark ain’t easy. Nevertheless we also have a healthy respect for you – you’re trying to understand us, and we appreciate it!