All That You Must Know About A Menstrual Cycle6 minute
As much as you dread your “time of the month”, periods are equally scary when they don’t show up. So embrace them, own them and wear your period like a trademark of being a woman.
Even with countless “sex education” seminars in schools and colleges, there are still so many unanswered questions that need to be attended to. Females grow up with periods and aren’t even fully aware of the things that happen in their own bodies. The lack of knowledge leads to a rise in doubts. Doubts convert to fears. And guess what? These very fears revert back to hormonal changes that (drumroll) messes with their period!
This article aims to cover all those unanswered questions about having your period in a concise “all you need to know about a menstrual cycle”.
Menstrual Cycle and ‘The period’ - Explained
Even though it might sound correct to use the words ‘period’ and ‘menstrual cycle’ as synonyms to one another in conversations, they don't actually mean the same.
While ‘a period’ is that part of a menstrual cycle when a female bleeds from her vagina for 2-7 days (on an average), a menstrual cycle is the time from day one of a female’s period to the day before her next. Depending on hormones, a new menstrual cycle begins every 28 days although some women’s cycles could last anywhere between 21 and 40 days.
It is important to note that girls are taught these as ‘facts’ in biology textbooks at very young ages and panic when their periods don’t live up to such accuracy. Reality: For the first few years of a young female starting her period, it is very normal for her period to come irregularly and stabilize in a couple of years.
What actually happens in the female body during a menstrual cycle?
First things first. At the start of a menstrual cycle, ovulation takes place, when the levels of a hormone called estrogen starts to rise and signals for an egg to be released from a female’s ovaries. You get your period after the ovulation.
During the process of estrogen rising, progesterone (another hormone) also rises and signals the wall of the uterus AKA ‘the womb’ to thicken. This is like signaling the uterus to be prepared to receive a fertilised egg. The egg travels from the ovaries through the fallopian tubes and right into the (now ready) uterus.
Under normal circumstances, two things can happen here on. One, is that the egg gets fertilised by a sperm which in turn, leads to a pregnancy. In case the egg doesn’t get fertilised by a sperm (within approximately 24 hours) then the egg gets reabsorbed by the body and everything else reverses. Levels of estrogen and progesterone fall back, the womb lining breaks and leaves the body through the female’s vagina - hence ‘the period’.
Periods are usually heavier on the first 2 or 3 days, during which the colour of the blood is red. As it lightens, the blood may become pink, brown or even black. (again, totally normal)
Periods usually last between two to eight days. The average age for a female to start her period is 11 years old, but of course, some start earlier and some later than this too.
Menstrual Cycle- Signs and Symptoms of Periods and PMS
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the very purpose of menstruation, let's get into the visible changes that occur in your body before and during your period.
If it were just the lining of your uterus flowing out as blood through your vagina, it would probably not affect your body and mental health as much. Maybe just an occurrence of physical changes in your body and that’s about it. But since this sadly isn’t the case, and changes much larger such as rising hormones (estrogen and progesterone) take place a couple of days before your period starts, females do experience symptoms - both physical and mental.
There are close to a hundred known symptoms attributed to menstruation and these might differ with each cycle and gradually even change over a period of time. Some women experience close to no symptoms, while some sadly experience too many and all at once.
The most common symptoms of a period include:
- Tender breasts
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain
- Trouble sleeping
- Bloating/Fluid retention
- Abdominal cramps
- Lower back pain
- Low energy/fatigue
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Weight gain
PMS (Pre-menstrual syndrome)
Since most hormonal changes in your body occur even before the egg enters the uterus, it is natural that changes start to take place in your body before you start to bleed i.e, before you get your periods. Most women get at least some signs of the arrival of their period (tender breasts and food cravings), but some suffer from rather severe symptoms or Premenstrual syndrome. The symptoms are similar to those of a period with added emotional and behavioural signs such as anxiety, depression, anger outbursts, mood swings, forgetfulness, loss of focus and feelings of overwhelm.
Given an option to unsubscribe from this monthly catastrophe that pops up like a calendar event - a lot of girls would cheerfully opt out. But that’s not how the female body works, is it? So it’s best to be prepared for something that you’re going to witness month on month.
Dealing with Periods and PMS Symptoms like a bawse:
There are a lot of known ways to manage your periods and reduce the pain and mental stress that come with it. Some of them that seem to work for most women, (and what you can do too) are as follows:
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes. Fun Fact: women who are sedentary and do not get regular exercise typically have heavier and more painful periods.
- Eat healthy meals consisting of whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Contradictory to popular beliefs of ‘giving in to your cravings’ and ‘pampering your taste buds’ during your period, eating a balanced diet helps with more than just fixing your mood at this time of the month.
- Hot showers and hot water bags do wonders to calm those abdominal cramps, even if it's just for a little while.
- Try tea therapy - Chamomile to relax your mind and peppermint to help with period bloating.
- Avoid alcohol, smoking and salt.
- Although this should be your last option (if all else fails), try over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen and be sure to follow the dosage instructions as mentioned on the label.
- Lastly, get enough sleep. A lack of restful sleep reduces your pain threshold and this is not what you want when you already have cramps attacking you in the middle of the day.
For more such interesting period hacks you can check out this article.
How do you know when there’s a possibility of a problem:
Normally, all the discomforts associated with getting your period should be manageable enough that you’re able to carry on with normal day-to-day activities. However, some females experience severe symptoms that make it difficult for them to carry out even the most basic tasks.
Even though most of these symptoms might seem normal, it’s better to consult a GP in case things seem to go out of hand:
Although mild pain caused by periods is normal, the kind that gets in the way of your daily life should be consulted with a GP. Period pain can be relieved with the help of exercise, taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol. If it’s the kind of pain that is intolerable, it might be a cause of concern (dysmenorrhea) and should be looked into.
Some women naturally have heavier periods than others, but for periods so heavy that they impact daily life, a GP should be consulted to investigate further into the abnormally heavy bleeding.
Irregular periods can be common during puberty or before menopause and can consist of a variation between time of periods (arriving early or late), the amount of blood lost (heavy/light), and the number of days a period lasts.
Stress too, acts as a factor that messes up your period cycle. A lot of women have been experiencing this now more than ever given the current COVID-19 situations and the nation-wide lockdown. If you’ve been experiencing the same, this pandemic might be taking a negative toll on your monthly cycle here.
Most of the time, irregular periods are nothing to worry about, but it’s best to get yourself checked nonetheless.
This is a very painful condition that occurs when tissue that is similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places like the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Not all women who have endometriosis have serious symptoms but it could impact heavily on some females’ lives by causing painful periods, pelvic pain, pain while passing urine/excretion, nausea or depression. Although there is no cure to endometriosis currently, treatments are available to manage symptoms.
Problems that seem normal (but might not actually be)
Sudden changes like periods lasting longer or getting lighter, bleeding between periods, bleeding after having sex, or bleeding after the menopause NEED to be consulted by a doctor. There might not be anything wrong, but it should be investigated to rule out an infection, abnormality or in rare cases, cancer.
The Menstrual Hygiene War: settled once and for all
Sanitary pads, tampons, menstrual cups - which of the three is the better option for you? Although no single answer could be true for every situation, weighing the pros and cons of all these menstrual hygiene products can sure help you pick what personally suits you best.
The oldest of the three, sanitary napkins have evolved so much in the past years to become slimmer, get wings and turn liquid to gel to help you have an easy, stain-free period. Although they have a variety of pros such as no painful insertions (or any insertion at all), no risks of Toxic shock syndrome and no stains - because they happen to be the most absorbent of the three - pads have their own usage restrictions.
For one, you can't wear a thong, so bye-bye favorite party skirts. Swimming too, is really uncomfortable with a pad on. But besides this, sanitary pads are a cause of concern for many other reasons:
- Pads contain bleach that could increase the risk of cancer
- If not changed regularly, you’re at risk of developing an infection
- If you happen to be active, the constant chafing between your legs can give you a rash
- Pads take about 500 years to fully decompose(!) so they’re basically horror stories for the environment
Females who would rather suffer the initial discomfort on insertion if it means not having to feel a diaper stuck to them for 5 straight days, usually opt for tampons.
Again, tampons too have their pros and cons. It allows you to wear what you feel like (you can literally grab the most body-hugging dress in your closet with nothing to worry about), keeps the blood from getting outside your vagina, and is so discrete to carry around.
But just like pads, tampons come with a bundle of problems associated with their usage:
- Because tampons have the ability to soak up your vagina’s natural lubrication, there’s a risk that they may lead to TSS or Toxic Shock Syndrome
- Tampons, much like pads, contain bleach that could lead to cancer
- Inserting discomfort, or general discomfort associated with first-timers is an unavoidable problem (especially with societal stigmas like ‘loss of virginity’ stuck to them)
Beating the cons of both pads and tampons, more and more women are moving toward using menstrual cups in an attempt to go eco-friendly.
There’s no risk of TSS, it's a hundred percent chemical-free and requires very few changes. Menstrual cups are non-messy and don’t pose a threat to the environment like pads and tampons do, so they’re clearly in the win here.
If you are a new owner of Menstrual cup and are not sure how to use it, watch a few instructional videos on youtube, and you’ll be good to go.
We vouch by OrganiCup’s in-depth instructional video How to use a menstrual cup
Our favorite Youtuber Dolly Singh’s real take on Menstrual cups, in case you don’t want to do it the normal way: Dolly Singh's views on the menstrual cup
The only con of using a menstrual cup (besides the fact that some women might resist insertion) is that the cleaning of one is a little cumbersome considering it has to be sterilized after every change to avoid any chance of infection.
Now that you know the pros and cons of each of these menstrual hygiene products, making a choice is relatively easy. Although menstrual cups seem like they should be the winner, it's not a widely accepted product yet. People are still trying to find their ways to get comfortable with inserting something that is literally called a ‘cup’ into their vaginas and this switch is going to take time. Besides, if you’re already suffering from an infection, insertion of a tampon or a menstrual cup - not a great idea. In such situations, a pad is an ideal option.
Whatever you choose, place your comfort before any other factor. After all, there’s enough discomfort caused by your periods itself, so the products you use must be ones that make your period more bearable.
More on menstrual hygiene
FAQs on Menstrual Cycle
1. When do periods stop?
The menopause is when a woman stops to have periods and naturally becomes unable to get pregnant. Until this period of menopause, periods continue. (Bummer, right?)
The average age of menopause is 51, however, some women can reach menopause earlier or later than this (as early as 30s or as late as their 60s). Periods may become less frequent over a few months or years or may stop suddenly. 1 in 100 women experience premature menopause and will reach menopause before the age of 40.
Not all women experience menopause in the same way but many common symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, difficulty sleeping, low mood and anxiety, reduced sex drive and problems with memory and concentration.
A GP can offer treatment and suggest lifestyle changes for severe menopausal symptoms that affect day-to-day life.
2. What are the reasons for a missed period?
However, some women will not have periods for many complex and diverse reasons. Just a few examples may be because of medical issues, some may undergo early menopause (when a woman stops having periods and becomes unable to get pregnant naturally), some may have had a hysterectomy (when the uterus is removed for medical reasons), some may be transgender, or some through complications because of eating disorders.
Stopped or missed periods: Some common reasons for why a woman may miss her monthly period include pregnancy, stress, sudden weight loss or gain, extreme over-exercising, an eating disorder, hormonal problems, pregnancy, breastfeeding and reaching the menopause, though there may be many more reasons also. Speak to a GP about stopped or missed periods.
3. Can I get pregnant if I have sex during periods?
It’s highly unlikely that you could get pregnant if you had sex during your period. Although, there's a small chance that the sperm survives in your body for 5 days. So it’s safe to say that it’s risky business to have unprotected sex towards the end of your period since you might be ovulating a couple of days after the end of your monthly cycle.
4. What are the benefits and drawbacks of period sex?
Unless it causes you discomfort or pain, there’s no reason to avoid having sex during your period. It's safe for both partners, although it can sometimes get messy. It is important to understand that while it is fine to have sex during your period, you would still need to use protection. You’re more vulnerable to STDs, and pregnancy is still on the list of possibilities. Respect your body and stay safe with your partner.
Pros of having sex on your period:
Reduced Menstrual Cramps: A natural way to get rid of that period pain as opposed to painkillers is having an orgasm. When you orgasm, the muscles of your uterus contract. Then they release. This brings relief from period cramps. Orgasms can also release endorphins that make you feel good about yourself. Boy, did you ever think sex was the answer to all your problems? Well, it is.
Natural Lubrication. When you have period sex, blood acts as a natural lubricant and is one of the biggest perks of having sex while on period.
Shorter periods: Having sex during your period can shorten its duration. (It’s true!) The contracting of your uterus during an orgasm could speed up the shedding period of your uterus lining.
More pleasurable sex: You’ve probably already noticed a change in your libido around this time of the month, so you might as well put it to good use!
Cons of having sex on your period:
Things can get (pretty) ugly: When you have sex while on your period, things could get messy real quick. There’s a chance that blood could get on you, on your partner, and the sheets. There’s also the fact that period blood can emit an unpleasant smell. So if you’re the kind of person who’s going to be living in constant worry of this ugliness, you’re probably not going to enjoy sex as much.
Possible risk of an STI: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having sex on your period could increase your risk of getting or transmitting an STI, such as HIV. The virus may be present in your period blood. For this very reason, doctors strongly recommend that you use a condom to decrease the risk.
5. Will my hymen break if I use a tampon?
Tampons work just as fine for girls who are virgins as they do for girls who have had sex. And although using a tampon could occasionally cause your hymen to stretch/tear, it doesn’t cause you to lose your virginity because only having sex could do that.
6. Is clotting during periods normal?
Women often worry when they see clots in their menstrual blood, but it’s perfectly normal and very rarely a cause for concern. These blood clots are nothing but a mix of blood cells, tissue from the lining of the womb and protein in the blood that helps regulate flow.
7. What is PCOS?
PCOS or Polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition that affects how a female’s ovaries work. The three prominent symptoms of PCOS are irregular periods, excess facial/body hair due to high levels of testosterone or ‘male hormones’, and polycystic ovaries where the ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles). There is no cure for PCOS, although symptoms can be treated.
8. What is Toxic Shock Syndrome?
Toxic shock syndrome is a sudden, potentially fatal condition caused by the release of toxins from an overgrowth of bacteria called staph, which is found in many female bodies. Toxic shock syndrome primarily affects menstruating women, especially those who use super-absorbent tampons.
While instructions on a tampon box encourage women to change their tampon at least every 8 hours, sometimes people forget to change them or occasionally even tend to lose them. Leaving a tampon in for longer than 8-12 hours increases the risk of infection or possible TSS.
With this, it’s also important to note that the availability of free information on the internet today does not necessarily give it a credibility stamp. A lot of it circulating might be false and misleading. Some of the facts put out on content websites are a result of age old myths that have existed but are utterly absurd! Some of these myths have passed on for generations and people just happen to blindly believe them. You can read all about these popular myths that are believed to be true even today on PMS myths & Period Myths
Be sure to look for information (especially) relating to women's health and menstruation only on credible sources to avoid ridiculous rumours that are only here to hoodwink you.