It’s easy to look at your period as a signal for pregnancy (or lack thereof). But menstruation represents so much more. Your period provides a medley of signals that reports on the latest news inside your body.
“A woman’s period is helpful for understanding underlying pathology,” says Dr. Jenny M. Jaque, MD, division chief of General Obstetrics and Gynecology, associate residency program director, and assistant professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Southern California. Since the processes that rule menstruation are linked to all our other biological functions, this telling relationship is no surprise. Basically, our menstrual cycles are our body’s way of communicating from the inside out. The question is: are we listening properly?
01. HOW STRESSED YOU’VE BEEN
Stress is a normal part of life. Everything from work duties to relationship changes can cause it. Some stress is healthy and expected, but when it gets out of hand, our body is the first to notice. For women, it’s likely to manifest through menstrual irregularities.
“When you’re super stressed, all aspects of your health are affected,” Dr. Jaque says. “This includes the hormones that are responsible for your period.”
The Women in Balance Institute shares that our menstrual cycle is directed by the hormonal relationship between the brain’s pituitary gland and ovaries. More specifically, it comes down to the equilibrium of two major female sex hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Together, these two determine our period flow.
Stress can also increase prostaglandin, a hormone responsible for period cramps and digestive issues. The International Journal on the Biology of Stress notes that prostaglandin upsets the cycle, making symptoms more pronounced and uncomfortable than usual.
Sleep deprivation, a common byproduct of stress, can also shake our menstrual cycles up. The International Journal of Endocrinology states that lacking sleep messes with how our bodies express menstrual hormones, resulting in a disrupted cycle.
So if you’re experiencing wonky bleeding, missed or lighter periods, or stronger cramps, your body might be asking you to take a break. Make room for self care and de-stressing activities, such as meditation or exercise. Even a few minutes a day can help get your mind and body back in balance. Give yourself permission to sleep when you’re tired; your body needs the rest.
Besides taking breaks and sleeping well, there are many other ways to handle stress in healthy ways throughout your day. This might mean cutting back on caffeine, alcohol, and compulsive spending. Instead, opt for a creative outlet, eat those veggies, and drink lots of H2O. By being more mindful of your daily activities, you can reduce stress and get your menstrual cycle back on track.
02. WHETHER YOUR DIET IS GOOD FOR YOU
Much like stress, food is an outside factor that can impact everything on the inside. It comes down to our lifestyle choices. After all, what you eat determines how well your body performs vital biological processes. “Maintaining a healthy diet is key to keeping your periods regular,” Dr. Jaque says. “Even small changes in weight can increase or decrease your menstrual flow.”
An unhealthy diet can make you—and Aunt Flo—downright wonky. When your body is void of essential vitamins and minerals, there’s a good chance she’ll act up. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that processed and refined foods are more likely to increase menstrual pain than whole grains. This means that foods like white pasta, rice, and bread should be swapped out with there healthier alternatives. Likewise, foods high in saturated and trans fats, such as fried meals and commercially-baked goods, can also amplify period pain.
Aim for a well-rounded, wholesome diet full of folate and fiber. These two nutrients lower the risk of missed periods, according to the Public Library of Science and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, respectively. Both are found in whole grain foods, while fiber is abundant in fruits and vegetables.
Another study by the AJCN also shares that consuming healthy fats, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids, decrease chances for irregular periods. PUFAs, also known as omega-3 and omega-6, are found in foods such as avocados and salmon. These healthy fats are associated with a lower chance of increased testosterone, the main male sex hormone, which women also have in lesser amounts. Testosterone throws off our menstrual flow when present in high levels, resulting in very irregular cycles.
Monitoring your alcohol intake is also crucial. According to the AJCN, testosterone increases with every alcoholic drink. While the occasional cocktail won’t hurt, frequent consumption can lead to period disturbance over time. Instead, aim for the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation of one alcoholic drink per day.
03. HOW YOUR THYROID IS FUNCTIONING
Because hormones rule almost every single biological process, it helps to look at the head honcho when problems arrive: the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located just under the Adam’s apple. It controls virtually every single cell function in your body. Talk about some serious responsibility.
Along with estrogen and progesterone, thyroid hormones (TH) lend a hand in menstrual cycle regulation. If your thyroid isn’t producing enough TH, hypothyroidism develops. This condition, indicated by low TH levels in the blood, leads to heavier, more painful periods.
The opposite is known as hyperthyroidism. This occurs when an overactive thyroid gland produces too much TH, resulting in high blood levels. Menstrual flow is lighter and missed periods are common.
Either situation can be confusing. Additional symptoms can also help your physician determine the appropriate tests and exams. Paying attention to what's normal to your menstrual cycle is one of the best ways to stay updated on your thyroid health. In fact, women are five to eight times more likely than men to develop thyroid problems according to the U.S. Office of Women’s Health. This proves just how useful periods can be for shedding light on this small but important organ.
04. UNDERLYING CONDITIONS THAT HAVE GONE UNNOTICED
It’s possible for some illnesses and conditions to develop without additional symptoms except for a wonky period. It’s also easy to mistake some signs and symptoms for something less serious, like PMS.
“A change in blood flow may indicate that you have an underlying anatomical problem,” Dr. Jaque says. For example, fibroids are noncancerous uterine growths that commonly develop during a woman’s childbearing years, according to Mayo Clinic. These growths occur in three out of four women and can lead to frequent pain, urination, constipation, and even back and leg aches. Dr. Jaque mentions that fibroids may cause heavier, longer periods. This is just one example of why keeping tabs on your period regularity is vital to revealing or understanding any health issues.
Polycycstic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is another sneaky condition that can interfere with your cycle. This develops as a result of low estrogen and progesterone, along with high levels of luteinizing hormone (LH helps regulate our menstrual cycles and egg production). Clusters of cysts form on the ovaries, which may or may not be painful. The hormonal imbalance often prevents egg release (ovulation), causing a missed or late period and possibly making it tricky or difficult to conceive.
Like thyroid issues, you can uncover other hormonal and anatomical conditions just by paying attention to your period. Keeping a watchful eye can help you and your doctor determine whether what is going on in your body is all good.
While our menstrual cycles can tell us so much about our bodies, these four facets of your health are a great place to start to prove how wise Aunt Flo is and why we shouldn't write her off. Without her healthy visits, learning about your overall health would be that much harder. So pay attention to what she has to say about your body; you deserve to be in the know.
Photo Credit: Eleanor Rask