What is a period? This may sound like a silly question on the surface. Don’t we all kind of know what a period is? We know that it’s painful. We know that our hormones feel out-of-whack. We know it has to do with our menstrual cycle. We know that it rears its ugly head every month or so. We know that it begins around puberty. We also know that it involves bleeding (sometimes a lot), it’s uncomfortable, and can be, at times, a little bit embarrassing. So, we do know what a period is. So, a better question would be: how much do we know about periods?
Most women would tell you they don’t know a whole lot (other than the obvious information talked about above) about their periods, or how their bodies respond and change during their menstrual cycle. But, shouldn’t we know more? Something that is so absolutely commonplace and continually occurring in our lives should not only be talked about but understood deeply. So, in order to spread a little knowledge (a little period cheer), and help you be more deeply informed on the subject, we wanted to take a moment and delve into the interesting, complex, and oftentimes disorganized world of the period.
Our hope is that, by the end of this article, you’ll not only have a deeper knowledge of your body’s inner workings, but you’ll be better equipped to manage your monthly gift, in a position to make corrective lifestyle changes, and educate those around you (including friends and family members) so they too can own their time of the month.
Because “The Period” is a rather extensive topic, we wanted to narrow our focus to a few, key pieces of information. Those that will not only help you build a positive foundation, but will answer the key questions that women everywhere ask.
We’ll cover what happens to your body during your menstrual cycle, how long do periods last (and how much blood is lost during your period), what’s considered a heavy period, and more period-related advice that will help you be more prepared to cope with life while on your period.
Ready? Let’s dive in, head-first!
WHAT IS A PERIOD, EXACTLY?
Your period refers to the menstrual cycle part of your hormonal cycle. Your body has additional hormone cycles that happen throughout the month, but this one in particular is more visible because of the blood your body produces.
Each month, your body prepares for pregnancy. The egg will leave the woman’s ovaries, travel through the fallopian tube, and enter into the lining of the uterus, also known as the endometrium. When the body recognizes there is no fertilized egg, no pregnancy occurs. Your body naturally strips away the lining of your uterus, making room for a new lining to form. This nutrient-rich tissue, along with its accompanying blood, is flushed out through your vagina.
In short, your period occurs to prepare your body for a healthy birth each month. Regular periods are typically a sign of good health.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR BODY DURING YOUR PERIOD?
In addition to the blood and pain that mark your period, your body also undergoes a handful of small changes that can affect mood and overall wellbeing.
For example, because of blood loss, your body loses water and begins to bloat in order to stay hydrated. Additionally, your iron levels decrease as blood is a major carrier of iron within the body.
Your hormones also begin to fluctuate, producing larger amounts of progesterone and estrogen during this time, which manage your cycle. Because of the plethora of activities happening within your body during your period, it’s easy to feel fatigued, irritable, emotional, or even physically sick. But, understanding what you’re losing (water, iron, and more) what sort of exercise your body needs, and how your hormones are acting, can go a long way in successfully managing your period.
HOW LONG DOES A PERIOD LAST?
This can differ for everyone, but the average girl has a monthly menstrual cycle that can last anywhere from three to five days, from start to finish. You may be wondering: “is my period within a normal range?” A period is considered normal if the duration is anywhere from three-eight days.
The easiest way to ensure that your menstrual cycle is normal (or abnormal for that matter) is to track your menstrual cycle length, the days it starts and stops, your flow rate, as well as any symptoms you are experiencing that are associated with your periods. Some women choose to do this in a journal, but there are also a handful of great apps that can help you track this information digitally.
After you’ve had several periods, and tracked each of them carefully, you’ll learn what’s normal for you, since each girl is a little different. If you begin to feel like your period doesn’t match that of your friends or the women around you, you may be experiencing an irregular period or irregular cycles, but it’s never a bad idea to talk to your gynecologist. Something they may suggest to help with regulating your period is hormonal birth control, birth control pill, or another type of birth control. They deal with these things all day every day and can be a wonderful resource in your monthly, uterine battles.
HOW MUCH BLOOD IS LOST IN A TYPICAL PERIOD?
Before we answer this question, let’s quickly define the word “flow.” This is a commonly-used way to refer to the amount of menstrual blood that exits your vagina during your period. You may hear the phrases heavy flow or light flow used to indicate the amount of someone’s menstrual bleeding. Although these are pretty self-explanatory, we should still explain that heavy flow means large amounts of heavy bleeding, and light flow means small amounts of bleeding.
Now, that we’ve defined flow, let’s tackle the question at hand: how much blood is lost during a typical period? Or, better said, what sort of flow can I expect during my period? This question is asked quite a bit, possibly due to the wide variety of flows experienced by women.
Although every girl’s period is a little different, most girls release about a half cup to a cup of fluids over the course of the menstrual cycle (3-8 days).
It’s also very normal for the first day or two of your period to flow heavier than the last couple of days, then the flow will typically get lighter towards the end of your period. These differences in flow have more actionable meaning when choosing which sizes of tampons, pads, or cups to use. Most women tend to use 2 or 3 different sizes of period protection products, bigger sizes for heavier flow upfront, then smaller sizes on the back end for lighter flow.
This also shows why it’s imperative to track your periods. You’ll know exactly when you’ll need to change sizes and which size you need to change to.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY PERIOD IS HEAVY?
Because periods are so different, it may be difficult to know where your period lies on the spectrum. So, we’ll give you some guidelines that will help you measure if your period is heavy, normal, or light. Too many girls take their periods at face value, assuming that all girls are going through the same thing. For most, this is true, but for an unfortunate few, they could be experiencing worse-than-normal periods that should and can be dealt with.
A “heavy period” is typically defined by some pretty specific symptoms. If you experiencing any, or all, of the following symptoms, you may be having a period that is more severe than normal:
- Are you bleeding for more than seven days?
- Are you soaking through one or more sanitary pads or tampons every hour for several consecutive hours?
- Are you needing to use double sanitary protection to control your menstrual flow?
- Do you have to wake up in the middle of the night to change sanitary protection?
- Are you passing blood clots larger than a quarter?
- Are you restricting or canceling daily activities due to heavy menstrual bleeding?
- Do you feel symptoms of anemia, such as tiredness, fatigue, or shortness of breath?
If you have answered yes to any of these symptom questions, then you are experiencing heavier-than-normal periods or abnormal bleeding and should consult your doctor about this. These symptoms can be a sign of other medical conditions that will need to be addressed with your physician.
WHAT ARE SOME SYMPTOMS OF NORMAL MENSTRUATION?
Now that we’ve defined what symptoms give us clues to diagnose a heavy period, we can now delve into what menstruation should look like. Keep in mind, this should be what most girls experience.
Ideally, other than a slight twinge-like feeling in your uterus, you shouldn’t be experiencing symptoms during your period, or the week leading up to it. It is not “normal” to have the symptoms we described above, but it is more common for girls to feel other symptoms like cramping, tender breasts, moodiness, lethargy, etc.
These symptoms are signs that you may be experiencing a hormonal imbalance such as estrogen dominance and/or progesterone deficiency, which can be caused by nutritional deficiency, excess stress, and/or inflammation.
Hopefully, this will be the extent of your menstrual cycle symptoms. These can be supplemented and even dealt with through proper nutrition, exercise, hydration, and sleep. Isn’t that great to know that you can glide through your periods with ease?
WHAT IS THE TREATMENT FOR PAIN AND OTHER PERIOD SYMPTOMS?
If you’re not as fortunate as the group described above (or if you’re in the group above and just want to be completely free of pain and discomfort), there are natural ways to deal with period symptoms.
However, to understand how to deal with the pain, you need to understand what causes the pain in the first place. Ready for some science?
Before you have your period, the endometrial cells that form the lining of your uterus produce lots of prostaglandins. These prostaglandins are released when the uterine lining breaks down and sheds during menstruation. Now, these prostaglandins have a very unique job to do during the time of menstruation: they are designed to constrict blood vessels, specifically the blood vessels that make the uterus contract. This uterine contraction is necessary to expel the dead tissue and blood, but it can also bring about the painful side effect of cramps along with it.
Women who have period cramps have higher levels of these prostaglandins in the uterus lining than those women who experience little to no period pain. The more prostaglandin your body makes, the more period cramps you’ll get, and the worse they will be. Additionally, too-high levels of prostaglandins can also wreak havoc on other parts of your body, extending your period’s symptoms to other additional discomforts like vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches.
So, the key to controlling cramps is to support your body to make LESS of the prostaglandin (we can all breathe a sigh of relief, now that we’ve reached the explanation). You can support this by lowering your stress levels, making sure to get enough healthy omega-3 fatty acids into your diet by eating foods like salmon, sardines, sunflower seeds, and flax, avoiding vegetable oils, (especially canola oil), and reducing your intake of red meat and dairy.
Remember, your body is an incredibly touchy machine. Give it the correct fuel and it’ll run to near perfection. But, once you start clogging up the works with substances and foods that it doesn’t like, and your machine will begin to break down, producing excess or too little amounts of what it needs to run well.
WHAT SHOULD I EAT WHILE I’M ON MY PERIOD?
First of all, did you even know that there is a recommended, period diet? There sure is!
Now, before we delve into what you should be eating, let’s quickly talk about what you shouldn’t be eating… Honestly, you probably already know the answers already, because they are the same answers you hear all the time:
- Processed Sugars
- Vegetable & Canola Oils
- Dairy and Red Meats
These foods wreak havoc on your body (even when you’re not on your period). They’ll even set you up for a pretty bad period (have you ever partied too hard one week, then had a worse-than-normal-period the next week?) It’s because these foods play with your hormone levels.
Now, imagine for a moment, your body is right in the middle of your menstrual cycle. What’s happening to it? It’s losing key nutrients like crazy, water by the bottle-full, and your hormones are running amok. All it wants is some good, clean food. But, your brain is craving sweets and treats. So, you eat a bunch of those processed, yet calming, sugars, and maybe have a sip or two of your favorite alcoholic beverage and now you feel better mentally. But, now your poor, period-wracked body has to try and figure out how in the world it’s going to use that ice cream to replenish its suffering stores. And how is it going to hydrate your cells with liquor?
Do you see the problem? You’re not helping your body out at all by giving it these terrible rations, especially during its time of need. Point made? Good.
Let’s talk about the foods that you should be eating:
- Water (and a lot of it!) and other electrolyte heavy beverages (go for the less sugar-packed options).
- Iron (every you bleed, your iron resources deplete). Good sources of iron come in all shapes and sizes: beans, leafy greens, dark chocolate, nuts, and other seeds. Go get your iron!
- Potassium. Potassium helps muscles function and relieves cramping. So, grab a banana, potatoes, leafy greens, or other vegetables.
- Omega 3s and 6s. Healthy fats help fight inflammation and go a long way to support your body’s various functions.
- Antioxidants. These oxidation and harm-fighting superheroes allow your cells to stay strong and combat dangerous environmental side effects.
It looks like a lot, and it might be. But, if you start filling your diet with foods rich in these important nutrients, you won’t have much room to indulge in the more harmful food groups.
But, we’re also saying not to indulge. Indulge if you must, sweetie, but just make sure you’re also giving your body what it needs!
SHOULD I STOP PLAYING SPORTS OR SWIMMING WHILE ON MY PERIOD?
Like we’ve discussed in other sections, your period shouldn’t be debilitating! And, consequently, having a period shouldn’t keep you from doing anything you want to do. Ever!
If you are having healthy periods, your period should simply show up each month, and, because you’re taking care of yourself, you shouldn’t be experiencing any debilitation symptoms that would cause you to want to skip out on playing sports, swimming, or having fun in general. Again, if your period is that debilitating, please consult a healthcare professional.
If you are and can be active during menstruation, the best thing you can do is to choose to wear the right feminine protection while participating in these activities. For playing sports wearing a pad, tampon or menstrual cup will do. Honestly, you can choose either or any, it all comes down to personal preference. For swimming, you may find that using a tampon or a menstrual cup will provide you with the most confidence.
If you need a little more information about feminine products, check the section below:
WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT TAMPONS, MENSTRUAL CUPS, AND PADS?
Period care comes in all different shapes and sizes. What you choose to use really should be about preference. So, we’ll go through what each one is, and allow you to make an educated decision.
A period pad is an absorbent, fabric-like pad that sticks to the crotch of your underwear and catches your period flow as it comes out. Many like the simplicity and non-evasive effectiveness of this particular product. There are different sizes of pads that change based on flow amounts.
A tampon is period protection that fits inside your vagina to absorb the flow before it comes out. There are also lots of different sizes of tampons. Large sizes are good for heavier period flow. Smaller sizes are best for lighter flow. You should be aware that leaving a tampon in for too long (you should change your tampon every six-eight hours) can lead to something serious called toxic shock syndrome. So, just be vigilant, and you shouldn’t have a problem!
A menstrual cup is a small cup made from flexible and body-safe plastic, which you insert into your vagina instead of using a tampon. It sits just below your cervix and collects any blood or lining you lose for up to 12 hours. The main difference between a tampon and a period cup is that the cup collects your blood, whereas the tampon absorbs it.
Pads, tampons, and cups are all safe and effective to use, even for your first period. The most important thing is to know how to use them properly and safely, so be sure to read the instructions on the packaging of each product. Then, choose the one that best fits your personal preferences and lifestyle.
So, how do you feel? Empowered? Educated? Overwhelmed? Maybe a nice combination of all three? That’s perfectly fine. The female body, as well as a menstrual period, can be a complicated thing. However the more we know about them, the better we can manage, alleviate, and have power over them.
Although this look into your monthly menstrual cycle was lengthy, we learned some important things: like, what is a period? What happens to our bodies during our periods? What is considered a normal vs. a heavy period? How do we best manage our periods with lifestyle and nutrition decisions? And what should/shouldn’t we do while on our periods? Are all crucial to understanding as we confront our monthly gift from mother nature.
We are under the staunch belief that the fabulous world of womanhood shouldn’t be scary! And you definitely shouldn’t have painful periods. Sure, there are a lot of natural things that come along with being a woman, but understanding what these things are and why they occur can not only give us clarity but an easier way to deal with them. As long as we can educate ourselves, others, and the world around us, we can grow stronger and more capable to deal with anything our bodies throw at us.
Our mission at Mixhers is to not only help women feel empowered over their periods, but to give them tools, nutrition, and platforms to help them overcome this beautiful, natural cycle.