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Your Menstrual Cycle Explained

Whenever we discuss menstruation or anything to do with menstrual health, the general “flow” of the conversation will usually turn towards all the negative things that we associate with the experience. And considering that for many people periods come with the unwelcome baggage of pain, mood swings and cravings, it’s certainly understandable that seeking out the positives is not at the top of most people’s priorities. 

However, as much as most of us dread the thought of an oncoming period, many women’s health experts agree that period symptoms or period blood itself could help women understand a great deal about their health. Not only can paying close attention to your menstrual cycle help uncover things about your health that you may not have been aware of, but it also can aid in providing a more positive outlook on the experience; viewing it as something that is insightful and educational, rather than a burden. 

Take it easy: what is Amenorrhoea? 

As far as pleasant surprises go, you might feel relieved when you’re counting the days till your period is due and Auntie Flo doesn’t come knocking after all (although, where pregnancy is a possibility, a missing period can also be a cause for alarm). A missed period in a woman of reproductive age which does not occur due to pregnancy is known as amenorrhoea. This can in some cases be indicative of high stress or related health problems. 

For those that menstruate, having a regular menstrual cycle is a sign of a functioning, healthy and working body. Therefore, if your period doesn’t come at all, this could be a warning sign that something is not quite right. Amenorrhoea can occur due to various medical factors, including hormone imbalances or more serious health conditions, but lifestyle factors should also be taken into consideration. 

Changes in diet, exercise or an increase in stress can all have a significant impact on your mental and physical health and your menstrual cycle is one of the ways in which your body could be telling you that it’s time to make some changes. Stress in particular is often taken for granted in terms of how much impact it has on our bodily functions. Mental stress can temporarily alter the functioning of your hypothalamus — an area of your brain that controls the hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle.

While prolonged amenorrhea should be taken seriously and checked by medical professionals, if you  miss one period, it may be worth analysing and adjusting some lifestyle choices in order to allow your body to function the way it is supposed to. 

What should you know about PMS?

The lack of a period is not the only way that your menstrual cycle might be trying to tell you that you’re under too much stress. The cultural norm of a stressed out “hormonal” woman on her period is so ingrained in our collective psyche that it’s easy to forget that stress doesn’t have to be a regular part of the menstrual experience. In fact, some experts such as reproductive acupuncturist Kirsten Karchmer, have stated that PMS is almost like the ultimate stress test for your body. 

While it is true that your hormonal fluctuations put extra stress onto your body prior to menstruation, the severity of your PMS symptoms should give you a clue as to how well your body is functioning while the hormonal fluctuations are happening. In other words, severe symptoms such as nausea, insomnia or anxiety are all signs to look out for that your body is not working up to its full potential.

Each severe symptom is usually linked in some way to a more underlying problem in a particular part of your body. For example, cravings or digestive changes could be signs of a generally weak digestive system. Any irritation, whether it be mental or physical could be indicative of your body is not detoxing the extra hormones after it has finished with them. 

It is very easy for many women to simply accept countless negative PMS symptoms as part of the menstrual package, when in fact, it is perfectly possible to have a PMS-free period under the right conditions. 

Could you have Endometriosis?

Pain or discomfort, just like stress and cravings, is just another menstrual or PMS symptom that goes unnoticed or unchecked by so many women. Period cramps (or Dysmenorrhea) is a perfectly natural part of the menstrual cycle that many women experience. However, these should only last 2-3 days and should never be extremely severe. 

Unfortunately —because so many women are still under the false impression that even severe cramps are a normal occurrence —more severe conditions such as Endometriosis often go unnoticed and untreated. Even though it is one of the most common gynecological affecting women, endometriosis can take years to be properly diagnosed. 

If left untreated, endometriosis can lead to severe complications, including fertility problems or in some cases, cancer. If your periods are causing you consistent and severe pain, it is always safer to check your symptoms with your doctor rather than suffer in silence. 

How big is your flow?

You can learn a great deal about your health and your body by taking a closer look at your mental and physical symptoms. But if you really want to get up-close-and-personal with understanding your body, then the volume and composition of your actual flow can tell you a great deal about your bodily and menstrual health. 

For example, a heavier than normal flow (one that requires excessive changing of sanitary products on a regular basis), while nothing to be frightened of, could be indicative of some sort of health problem. Common causes for heavy bleeding (or menorrhagia) could be a hormonal imbalance where an excess of oestrogen causes an excess in uterine lining build up. Other more serious causes can include dysfunctional ovaries or uterine fibroids. 

Of course, a heavier flow is no reason to immediately panic and assume the worst. However, if you do notice a change in your regular bodily functions or the heaviness or your flow is excessive enough that it interferes with your daily activities, then you should listen to your body and seek medical advice. 

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Our bodies are complex and interesting and a lot better at giving us clues than we may give them credit for. Luckily, with so many period apps and tracking options available to women, taking note of your bodily functions doesn’t need to be an endless cycle of marking the calendar and taking notes. 

Listening to your body isn’t an exact science and it should not be anxiety-inducing, or a chore. Simply learning to be in tune with yourself and taking notice of anything that feels uncomfortable, unusual or just different to your normal routine can be a good first step. Once you have an understanding of what is usual or unusual for you, you can then begin to assess your findings and perhaps even discover new things about your body that you never knew before. 

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