6 things you didn’t know about your periods
They’re a fact of life for all women, but how much do you really know about your menstrual cycle? Dr Sujata Gupta clears up some of the confusion.
1 The ‘average’ period doesn’t actually exist
While every period follows the same biological process, there is so much fluctuation between individuals that it isn’t possible to define what a standard period looks like for every female body – for one woman, a period every 21 days is typical, but for another each cycle takes 41 days, and both are perfectly normal. What’s important is that you have a grasp of your average period and get used to monitoring it, so that if your cycle changes, you’re quick to notice. Fluctuations in your periods can be a sign of reproductive or hormonal issues, so I’d recommend always to see your doctor if things change.
2 Skipping them is OK
Women are often surprised to learn that there’s no medical benefit to having a period, unless, of course, you’re trying to get pregnant. Which means, on the flipside, there’s no scientific downside to choosing not to have periods if skipping them improves your quality of life. When it comes to the modern contraceptive pill, the dose of hormones it delivers is very low which makes it safe to take back to back – and forego a period altogether. Particularly for women who have heavy, painful periods, or a hard time knowing what to expect from an irregular cycle, this can provide a welcome break; just speak to your doctor first.
3 Pain shouldn’t be part of the package
Far too many women put up with debilitating premenstrual syndrome (PMS) every single cycle with a grin (or should that be grimace?) and bear it attitude. Why? Because they believe it’s inevitable – an inescapable fact of having a period – which, unfortunately, is too often supported by doctors and other professionals who simply chalk it up to poor luck and recommend taking over-the- counter painkillers to help manage the pain. But any pain, caused by periods or otherwise, that stops you performing daily tasks or affects your quality of life should be flagged to your doctor and proactively treated. However, significant period pain isn’t as rare as you’d think – 10 per cent of women are affected every cycle, and one in four women I see in my clinic report severe pain. It can hit days before your period begins and put you out of action throughout. My advice? Seek out specialist help.
4 It’s not always a period
We’re often too quick to assume that bleeding, especially if it comes around the time we’re expecting it, is definitely a full period, but it’s worth exercising more caution if you’re not looking to get pregnant. Indeed, technically you can’t fall pregnant by having sex during your period, but I’d argue that there’s always a risk the bleeding you’re experiencing isn’t a normal or full period – it could be bleeding triggered by a hormonal implant, or just spotting, in which case pregnancy is a possibility. The best way to protect yourself from an unwanted pregnancy is to use contraception, whether you think you’re on your period or not.
5 Tampons are all about the ‘how’
The oldie but goodie option of menstrual maintenance, tampons are chosen by at least 50 per cent of women to manage bleeding at some point during their cycle. Although they sometimes get a bad rep, largely for their link to toxic shock syndrome (a bacterial infection that can be fatal), it’s important to remember this condition is very rare and shouldn’t put the average woman off using tampons. Whichever type you prefer – the big brands or newer natural and organic varieties – it’s crucial to use them in the right way; choose those with the least absorbency you need, so you’re sure to change them often enough (never leave them more than six to eight hours) and wash hands before and after.
6 Eating clever can ease any aches
We know that what we eat, and how that food impacts our biological make-up, can interfere with hormone levels, and as such affect the regularity and intensity of our periods. Carrying excess fat can increase oestrogen production (which affects periods) as can high caffeine intake, so it’s a good idea to maintain a healthy weight and keep tabs on the amount of coffee and tea that you’re drinking. Equally, alcohol has an inflammatory effect on our cells, so toasting your time of the month with too much of your chosen tipple is likely to ramp up pain. There are also certain nutritional compounds that have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing symptoms of PMS, particularly any stomach cramping. While the research comes from small samples rather than large randomised controlled trials, vitamin B and turmeric have both been flagged as possessing anti-inflammatory effects that may help make even heavy periods more bearable.
Dr Sujata Gupta is a consultant gynaecologist at the BMI The Alexandra Hospital in Manchester.