Periods are considered to be one of the most taboo topics to talk about, but they can reveal a plethora of information when it comes to your health. Whether you last publicly learned about menstruation in fifth grade or during a junior high school sex ed class, it’s time to unravel what Aunt Flo and your hormonal health have to do with one another. Look before you flush not only when it comes to your urine or poop, but also your period, and find out the six things your monthly visitor can tell you about your health from what’s normal to what’s not at any age.
1. Period Pain
Dysmenorrhea, the medical term for menstrual cramps, causes pain due to the shedding of the uterine lining during your period. It happens to 50 percent of women and is the result of excessive amounts of prostaglandin — a hormone involved in pain and inflammation. Severe, disabling cramps felt in the lower abdomen, however, can indicate a more serious health problem: endometriosis. Women with the disorder have uterine tissue growing outside the uterus, typically in the pelvic area. As the tissue begins to shed away, the blood has nowhere to go. Between seven to 10 percent of women suffer from endometriosis.
2. Color of Your Period
Although it may not be an aesthetically pleasing sight, knowing the color of your period can reveal a lot about your hormonal health. Hormones are continuously changing during a four-week cycle, which can impact the color and consistency of your menstrual cycle. Women will typically experience one of the three color patterns during their period: frozen mashed-up blueberries, strawberry jam, and cranberry juice, said Alisa Vitti, a holistic health counselor and functional nutritionist, on The Dr. Oz Show.
Periods that resemble a “frozen blueberry” texture and color are usually an indicator of higher estrogen levels, which can lead the lining of the uterus to thicken when this hormone is in excess; it is typically seen in heavier cycles.
For women who shed a “strawberry jam,” or one with a light pink appearance, it's usually a sign that estrogen levels are too low, which can lead to vaginal dryness, low libido, hair loss, and even fatigue. With women who have low estrogen levels, they experience patchy periods that come here and there, and are frequently late.
Lastly, periods that have a nice saturated and red color — “cranberry juice” — are “normal” and tend to start and end on time. However, women with these periods should always be on the lookout for premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Although many women think having PMS is normal, it’s not. PMS is one of the first signs that the body may be on the path toward a hormonal imbalance.
3. Flow of Your Period
While it may seem that you’re losing gallons of blood during your monthly cycle, the average period only releases less than a cup of blood, says the Iron Disorders Institute. However, this is not to say women can’t experience heavy bleeding. A prolonged time of heavy bleeding during your period could cause anemia or could lead to: fertility-threatening fibroids, growths on the uterine wall; polyps, tumors in the cervix or uterus; or endometriosis. These conditions are more prevalent in women after the age of 35. Women who experience severe blood loss during their period have menorrhagia — a condition that causes enough blood loss and cramping that it becomes difficult to maintain usual activities.
Women who experience a lighter flow on their periods could either be going through hormonal changes, poor nutrition, or stress. Light menstrual periods are often seen in women who are entering perimenopause, or menopause, or those who take hormonal birth control methods that result in reduced blood loss and lighter periods. Abnormally light periods could also be an indicator of autoimmune disorders, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or Asherman's syndrome.
4. Frequency of Your Period
The frequency of your menstrual cycle is a good indicator of how your health is doing. According to the Mayo Clinic, menstrual flow might occur every 21 to 35 days and last two to seven days, with menstrual cycles shortening and becoming more regular as you age.
If you experience irregular periods past your teens, whether you spot between periods or have a period that lasts more than seven days, this may be due to extreme weight loss, stress, pregnancy, or the use of certain drugs to treat conditions such as uterine cancer. In addition, irregular periods could be brought on by drinking too much alcohol. Excessive drinking can cause damage to the liver and disrupt how it metabolizes both estrogen and progesterone. It’s normal for women to experience an irregular period from time to time, as they are not dangerous in most cases, but it’s best to consult a doctor to identify the cause of the irregularity of your abnormal flow.
5. Bleeding After Your Period
Just when you think you’re done with your period, you begin to experience breakthrough bleeding afterward. Bleeding after your period is normal for women who take birth control pills, which leads to small amounts of staining and cramps throughout various points in a woman’s cycle. However, women who do not take birth control and still see bleeding after their period should consult their doctor.
Medline Plus suggests that vaginal bleeding could be due to cancer or precancer and should therefore be evaluated immediately. In other cases, it could be a sign of a vaginal infection, a hormonal imbalance, or a polyp.
6. Absence of Your Period
When a woman has a missed period, the first thing that comes to mind is pregnancy, but there are many reasons for having a late period. Secondary amenorrhea —due to some cause other than pregnancy — occurs in about four percent of the general population and is classified as when a woman who has normal menstrual cycles stops getting her periods for six or more months. This can occur in women who take birth control pills or who receive hormone shots. However, women who are obese, exercise too much and for long periods of time, and have very low body fat (less than 15 to 17 percent) are more likely to experience this.
Other health causes for this condition may include brain (pituitary) tumors, overactive thyroid gland, or a reduced function of the ovaries.
Women, remember: You can use your period as a tool to help you check up on your health.