I was recently having a conversation about menstruation with a male friend of mine. My last period was particularly painful to deal with and he could see me being irritable and unwell, which is what led to him curiously asking me about period pains, mood swings, menstrual cycle etc. and while I didn’t mind explaining the topics to him, I did wonder why his knowledge was so scarce on the subject. And then I realized — it is because our education system doesn’t extensively explain to us what menstruation really is, and most importantly — why does it occur?
Sure, we were taught the basics. We mugged up the definition of menstruation and wrote it down exactly as it was in our board exams. But do we really know what goes on inside our reproductive system during periods? Maybe women do, but do men properly understand these things?
I remember how, back in my 8th grade, we girls were secretly ushered into the school auditorium to watch a documentary about menstruation. The experience was odd and exciting at the same time, and we were later given two things — first, a sanitary pad to keep on us at all times, and second, a lecture about keeping the entire event a secret from the boys in our class. As obedient students, we all listened to our teachers and never talked about it with the boys, lying to them that the girls were specially taken to the auditorium to watch a random movie.
Now as a fully grown adult, I realize that was not only problematic but also harmful. Because of such taboo attached to the topic, men around us grew up to be ignorant about the ordeal that we women go through every month. Menstrual cramps, irregular periods, and PMS are just words to them, as they aren’t aware enough to empathize with us during the painful cycle.
So here I am, back to the basics of menstruation to enlighten people who are unaware of what periods are really all about.
Being a 22-year-old woman, I have had probably hundreds of periods until now, and I have to say — it is not something I look forward to every month. And yet, I cannot deny that it is a unique experience we women go through. You don’t agree with me? Well, you will after reading this!
We’ll go through the chief elements of menstruation one by one.
But first, what is menstruation?
In simple words, menstruation is normal vaginal bleeding or discharge that occurs as part of a woman’s monthly cycle. The discharge is partly blood and partly tissue, and it passes out of the body through the vagina. The period lasts for 2 to 7 days.
Menstruation, or periods generally start at puberty, between age 11 and 14 and continue until menopause (age 50 to 55). Women go through these monthly cycles for about 40 years. Imagine bleeding for a week every month for half of your life and still managing to rock your life! Isn’t that unbelievably fantastic?
Not only that, periods come with a bunch of painful, unavoidable symptoms called PMS that start a week before the bleeding even begins. Some of those premenstrual symptoms are: abdominal pains, lower back pain, bloating and sore breasts, food cravings, mood swings and irritability etc.
It’s intriguing, isn’t it — to go through all of this every month? But for what? Haven’t you ever wondered — what exactly is the purpose of this?
Why does menstruation occur?
Let me tell you!
Our miraculous bodies prepare themselves for pregnancy every month through menstruation, and this is called the menstrual cycle.
In the first part of the cycle, one of our ovaries prepares to release an egg, and produces an increasing amount of a hormone called estrogen. The estrogen helps grow and prepare the lining of our uterus (the endometrium layer) for a potential pregnancy, so that the fetus can be safe and sound in there.
At the same time, the ovary produces another hormone called the progesterone, which also helps prepare the uterus for a possible pregnancy by keeping the endometrium layer stable to receive a fertilized egg.
Then comes the next part of the cycle — the ready egg travels through a thin tube called a fallopian tube and into the uterus. By this time, if the egg is fertilized by a sperm, it attaches to the wall of the uterus, where over time, it develops into a baby.
But if the egg is not fertilized, the levels of estrogen and progesterone start to drop. This drop in hormones prepares your endometrium layer to shed, as it is of no use to the body anymore. The shedding of the lining is what causes our period.
It makes sense now, doesn’t it? As the popular meme culture has rephrased — our uterus gets mad at us for not giving it a baby every month. So, it sheds down the wall it worked so hard to develop over the month, in turn making us bleed and giving us periods.
It is a complex and well-developed process, if you think about it. Our bodies are naturally given the ability to prepare and un-prepare itself for an event of procreation. Now whatever you say — that, to me, is extraordinary!
Sometimes though, our bodies hit a snag. There have been times when I have missed my period without getting pregnant or just that my period has been late. The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long. If women don’t get their period on the 28th day, her period is officially considered late.
Most women panic whenever this happens, but there are different reasons for this sudden change. Let us go through them one by one.
Reasons for late or missed period:
1. The first one is obvious — you’re pregnant! If you have been sexually active and have missed your period, there’s a good chance your egg has been fertilized. Just to be on the safe side, get a pregnancy test done ASAP.
2. Fluctuating body weight: it doesn’t matter if your weight has increased or decreased, any sudden change in your weight can have a massive impact on your menstrual cycle.
3. Excessive workout: of course, regular exercising is healthy for your body, and even helps regulate your periods. However, excessive exercise could lead to lower levels of estrogen, which can imbalance your menstrual cycle.
4. Chronic stress or anxiety: a little stress is normal but chronic stress or anxiety can seriously affect your periods, up to the point that it can induce amenorrhea (an abnormal absence of menstruation). Try regulating your stress by participating in mindful activities like yoga and meditation.
5. Sleep disturbances: if your sleep schedule suddenly changes or you get less sleep than usual, it can also push your menstrual cycle off the track.
6. Medication: one of the reasons for irregular or late periods can be if you’re taking a new medication. The side effects are usually written on the medicine or explained by the doctor prescribing them.
7. Thyroid disorders: thyroid disorders such as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be one reason for your disturbed menstrual cycle. The thyroid is responsible for producing hormones that are essential in your body’s processes and can easily cause a missed period.
8. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): not much is known about what causes this syndrome. It primarily causes an unexplained hormonal imbalance in your body, leading to several missed periods and other symptoms.
9. Breastfeeding: even after your baby is born, you may not get your period for a while. This is considered normal. If you are breastfeeding, it is likely you will miss a few periods.
10. Perimenopause: if you’re entering or about to enter menopause, you may start to notice infrequent periods. This is completely normal as your body is trying to adjust to this new stage it is entering.
Again, it is mind-boggling to know and understand that so many things are directly or indirectly linked to our menstruation. But as many girls will tell you — it only sounds amazing, it is a difficult process to go through every month, especially for those who have particularly painful periods. I am one of those people, and I can’t explain how many times I have begged for the pain to stop and how many times I have asked — WHY?
Why does our stomach/abdomen hurt during periods? Why do we get those cruel menstrual cramps?
During our menstruation when our uterus contracts to help expel its lining, hormone-like substances called prostaglandins are released. These are involved with pain and inflammation and trigger the uterine muscle contractions. Higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with more-severe menstrual cramps.
Menstrual cramps involve symptoms like: intense throbbing or cramping pain in your lower abdomen, dull and continuous ache in lower body, and pain that radiates to your lower back and thighs.
I know it sounds scary, but once you start menstruating on a daily basis, periods will become a normal part of your life, something that makes you feel more connected to your body. And if you are one of those lucky girls who don’t have menstrual cramps, congratulations! You are God’s favourite child!
What we need to remember here is — menstrual cramps are normal but only to a certain extent. If you get cramps that are unbearable to go through, something else might be going on. It is time to see a gynecologist if your cramps are not soothed even after placing a heating pad on your abdomen and taking pain medication.
As a woman, I have always been back and forth about my feelings for periods. On one hand, I hate going through them and want them to stop, and on the other, I appreciate the unique, natural process and freak out if they are ever late or missed. Let’s just say I have a bittersweet relationship with them. Having said that, it’s crucial to include the topic of menstruation under the category of our well-known subjects. Every single person should be educated on them, either because they go through them, or because they are supposed to be supportive of people who go through them. But most importantly — because we need to normalize talking about it in a safe space.
I hope the next generation of girls and boys get to sit in their school auditorium together, learning about periods and discussing them without any shame. Periods should be talked about openly, not hushed!