I am going to start off by saying that I am not a doctor or a medical professional. The information I am sharing I have acquired from my biological studies as part of my Bachelor of Health Sciences (Dietetic and Nutritional Medicine) and Maisie Hill who is a Woman’s Health Expert and Practitioner. Maisie was a guest on the ‘Deliciously Ella Podcast’ a couple of weeks ago. She was sharing insightful information about periods and women’s health. She recently released a book titled ‘Period Power’ that I think will soon become the go-to bible for women wanting to understand what is going on inside of them from week to week. The podcast was extremely eye opening to me and I think that women in general will be very interested in what she had to say about periods.
“If men could menstruate, clearly menstruation would become enviable, boastworthy masculine event. Men would bray about how long and how much, sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free, of course. Some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as ‘Paul Newman Tampons’, ‘Muhammed Ali’s Rope-a-Dope-Pads’, ‘John Wayne Maxi Pads’ and ‘Joe Namath Jock Sheilds’ for those light bachelor days.” – Gloria Steinem.
I laughed fairly hard when I read this quote (no disrespect to any male readers). I didn’t even know that a period existed until health class in year 7. Not to embarrass my mum too much, but when I was younger I thought her pads were nappies. I couldn’t understand why I had to always go to the toilet and she just got to wear a nappy. I thought it was adult privilege… not quite.
In year 7 on our first day of Health our teacher told us all to put our heads down on the table and raise our hands if we had our period. I didn’t know what it was at this point so my hand stayed down. Looking back now the embarrassment of even having a period was embedded into my education. It was a private thing to ask people. After a term or so learning about it I can honestly say that I didn’t truly understand what was going on until I studied it at university last year (at age 23). That is insane! Now I am not going to say I know everything about it but I do understand it much better now.
So before I open up and share my first period experience I am going to answer the fundamental question, what is a period? According to Maisie Hall we get our “period” when our bodies have detected that no pregnancy has occurred during this cycle. It is the process of shedding the endometrium (the lining of the womb) ahead of the next cycle when the lining of the endometrium will develop again awaiting a potential pregnancy. There is obviously a whole lot more to it but that is the general gist.
I was a bit of a late bloomer. Year 7 and 8 went by and I had absolutely no sign of anything. Mum would encourage me to wear a liner in case it came (which I never did) but there was still nothing. I pretended I got it a couple of times to mum to gage the kind of reaction I would get but to be honest I didn’t even know what I was waiting for. Was it just going to just be there, was I going to get cramps, was I going to have intense chocolate cravings? On my first time there was none of that. I remember it happened in the middle of year nine (I think I was about 14) and it was recess at school. For some reason that day I decided to wear a liner (thank God). I went to the bathroom with a friend and there it was (it was a tad anti-climactic if I am being completely honest). I ran out and told my friend who was so excited because I was the last one of my friends to get it! I rang mum and she was so happy. I think the person who was most excited was my nonna. In fact, she was so excited that she rang her relatives in Italy and a week after my period had come she presented me with a pair of red rose studs sent from Italy to celebrate me “becoming a woman.”
In high school I just remember it being really heavy all the time. I was super uncomfortable. I particularly despised it coming in summer because our dresses were white. Personal story – I remember one day it actually got on my dress and I thought the world was going to end then and there. I quickly wrapped my jumper around my waist and ran to the bathroom. God bless my beautiful friend for coming with me and helping me clean it. A reminder that there are genuinely kind people out there!
Even at an all-girls school, my friends and I still found the need to find a discreet way to discuss it. We had various ways of referring to it – “I am on my rags”, “I am painting the house red”, “the painters are in.” My favourite by far (and the one that is still used to this day) is “Tina.” Why you may ask… well when my sister got her period she named it “Tina” and it just seemed so perfect – “Tina is coming to town”, “Tina is being so annoying”, “Tina won’t go away”, “I think I lost Tina” and the list goes on and on.
My period was something I found to be an inconvenience when I was younger. I felt like it would always come if all my friends were going to the beach or the pool (I was terrified of tampons… a blog post for another day), it always came when I had exams and if I had planned on wearing white. I took for granted this incredible thing my body was doing until it disappeared on me. When I was going through my eating disorder between 2014 and 2015 (when I was around 21) she took an 8-month holiday. At the start it was great because it was summer and I could go in the water. I soon realised this was a problem. When I went to my GP to find out what was going on he told me that if I didn’t gain back the weight I had lost that my period would not come back and I wouldn’t be able to have children. It was in that moment that I truly appreciated just how much of a blessing having a period actually is. I think I practically chucked a party the day that she returned!
Now enough about me, I want to talk about a few things I think most people would be really curious about. Before I do that, however, I just want to make clear that we are all unique. Every woman has a cycle that is individual for them. Many factors such as our age and lifestyle influence the duration and experience of having a period. If you are concerned about your cycle the first point of call is a GP and if you want to further investigate there are a number of Gynaecologists and Allied Health Professionals that can be really useful.
For me, my number one question was ‘what is the duration of a normal cycle?’ The menstrual cycle commences on day one of your period and goes until the first day of the next period. Factually speaking (and what you will be told by most practitioners) is that a normal length menstrual cycle is considered to be between 21 and 35 days. Maisie likes her clients to have cycle that is between 26 and 32 days because she believes that 21 days is a bit too short and 35 is a bit too long. I am sure that most people have read that 28 days is the “average.” You may be comforted by the fact that only about 12.4 per cent of people who menstruate have a 28-day cycle. So you are not alone.
Our period can be broken down into four phases. In this post I will be talking about the ‘28-day cycle’ as it sits somewhere in the middle of the “normal length.” I will be talking in a more general sense about feelings and if you want me to discuss each actual phase in scientific detail I will do that in a separate post. This is more of an introduction.
The Four Phases
Winter AKA The Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5): The Menstrual Phase is the phase in which we bleed. I would probably say that this is the more ‘memorable’ part of the cycle because we can physically see it. Hormone levels are very low at this time. Maisie characterises it as a time that we will often feel quite fatigued and not very interested in the world. She recommends that if possible at this time to ‘lay low.’ It is a good opportunity to rest and recalibrate to rebuild energy. It isn’t all doom and gloom though, for a lot of women oestrogen kicks in on day three of their period so there is often a change in energy and more positivity.
Spring AKA The Preovulatory Phase (Days 6 to 13): During this phase there is an upsurge in energy. We suddenly become more interested in the world again. Maisie noted at this point that if you are continuing to feel fatigued at this time to go and speak to a GP. There may be hormonal imbalances or nutrient deficiencies (such as iron) that may need to be addressed under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Spring is the time for creativity. It is a time where we get new ideas and come up with solutions to any issues we may be dealing with. Maisie recommends not diving right into these ideas at this point, just dip your toes in to make sure it is something you want to pursue. It is also a great opportunity to work in a team and be social because there is a new level of curiosity and playfulness.
Summer AKA The couple of days before Ovulation and Ovulation Day (Day 14): If you are part of the 12.4 per cent of women with a 28-day cycle then you will generally ovulate on day 14. Ovulation occurs when you release an egg and this only happens on one day. This does not mean, however, that there is only one day that we can get pregnant. Even though we only ovulate one day in the month, there are actually a few days we can conceive in. Sperm are able to survive in the female reproductive system for up to five days in the presence of cervical fluid (which is produced in the lead up to ovulation). Sperm can hang out in the fallopian tubes and wait for ovulation day. There are generally 6 to 7 days in this phase where you can possibly conceive. It is important to consider your own individual cycle because it will vary on a shorter or longer cycle. Regardless if we want kids or not, oestrogen is peaking at this time and this often increases our sexual desire because evolutionarily speaking we are here to reproduce. This Summer phase makes us want to be out and about doing things to be social. It is a great time to schedule team meetings, engage in public speaking and many women also become very ambitious at this time.
Autumn AKA The Postovulatory Phase (Days 15-28): The duration of this phase varies the most out of the four phases. It is largely dependent on our levels of self-care, our work life and our relationships. At this time our digestive transit time slows down so that our body has more time to extract nutrients in case we are pregnant (how unbelievable is that!). For most people this presents as constipation. In terms of those pre-menstrual cramps you may be experiencing, Maisie said that this is often caused by our Prostaglandins. Prostaglandins help our blood vessels to constrict so that we don’t lose too much blood on our period. This can cause pain and that message of pain can spread to the uterus and digestive tract (which may suddenly give you the urge to poo).
Maisie discussed cramps in a bit of detail. Everyone talks about getting them so I thought it was just an element of having a period. She said that “cramps are common but they are not normal”. The body is communicating that something is not right. Feelings of bloating, breast tenderness, digestive issues, fibroids and endometriosis are massively related to hormones (mostly oestrogen). When we produce too much oestrogen and it is hanging around the body we start getting these symptoms. This hormonal imbalance is often seen in teens and women who are peri menopausal (because you are not necessarily ovulating in every cycle). Often in those times we are not producing enough progesterone to help balance out our oestrogen levels. Again this is a time to seek advice from a healthcare practitioner.
Maisie Hill finished her discussion on the ‘Deliciously Ella Podcast’ with four recommendations:
Chart your Cycle: Do it with a pen and paper or download an App so you get to know your experience and your cycle. Write down the days you feel pain, experience any bloating and changes in mood. This can be used when you see a GP or healthcare practitioner so that you can really explain what is going on for you. It will also help you to understand your behaviours and your feelings.
Look at what you are Eating: It is really important that we are getting enough protein and healthy fats in our diets. Healthy fats are particularly important for making hormones. Having lots of fresh vegetables is really important for fibre intake which largely impacts on our cycle.
Have Sex or Masturbate: Maisie actually professionally recommends having orgasms. They can be really useful particularly if you are prone to insomnia pre-mensurally. She also recommends masturbating as a way of getting to know our bodies and being able to notice any change or abnormalities that may need to be looked at.
Read her book, ‘Period Power’: I know that listening to Maisie’s conversation with Ella has definitely made me want to go out and read her book.
I have only just scratched the surface of this really important topic. I know that it is something that needs to be spoken about more and that it is an area that is constantly being researched. I think that the more we are in touch with our bodies and our cycle the more gentle we will be with ourselves. We won’t push too hard at the gym, we will eat more mindfully and we will understand why our motivation levels sometimes plummet. There are so many more specific topics I want to discuss regarding ‘Women’s Health’ so I have decided that this is the first post in a mini-series. I hope I can write one a month for you.
If there is something specific you want me to look at, please let me know and I will bring that to you. Lastly I would love to encourage you to check out the ‘Deliciously Ella Podcast’ episode with Maisie Hills titled ‘Period Power’ and encourage you to go out and get the book (I know I will be diving straight into it when these exams are over!).