Shark week. Girl Flu. On The Rag. We have a dozen different nicknames for our periods— and a dozen different sweet and salty snacks to accommodate them.
But how many of us actually know what’s going on when it’s “flooding down south”? In honor of Women’s Health Month, here are 10 things every woman should know about her menstrual cycle—and how to get through that TOTM (Time of The Month) with ease and confidence.
1. Forget shame.
A veil of secrecy often surrounds our periods. And why? Your menstrual cycles are an intimate and special part of who you are. They’re vital to your sexuality and a critical part of your fertility. Indeed, they’re a sign of your power; after all, they enable you to bring life into the world! And what could possibly be more potent than that?
2. Celebrate its earthly connections.
Women’s periods have long been associated with the lunar cycle. Back in the day—as in pre-modern science—women’s cycles were believed to be due to the moon’s phases rather than the natural rhythm of their hormones.
While we’ve come a long way since then, many still believe that an essential connection remains. Dr. Christiane Northrup affirms “that peak rates of conception and probably ovulation appear to occur at the full moon or the day before.” Pretty cool, isn’t it?
3. Know that there’s no one “regular” cycle.
Friends of yours may menstruate for no longer than four days; your daughter, however, may have her period for a week. While typical textbook cycles are 28 days long, rest assured that cycles vary greatly from woman to woman.
That said, menstruating only a few times a year (ruling out certain birth control methods) should prompt you to see a gynecologist: Some conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, can impair ovulation—and, subsequently, menstruation.
4. “Hormones” aren’t relegated to angsty teens.
From volatile thirteen-year-old girls to glum teenage boys, we’ve all used “hormones” to describe the unpredictable mood swings of adolescents.
But hormones also play a fundamental role in all of our functions—including our menstrual cycles.
The main female hormones that drive your menstrual cycle are estrogen and progesterone. Secreted primarily by your ovaries, estrogen is dominant in the first phase of your cycle. Known as the follicular phase, this is when follicles in your ovary mature in a process that preps your female organs to be more hospitable for sperm. Progesterone becomes dominant in the luteal phase, or second half of your cycle.
5. …and an imbalance in those hormones can engender PMS.
Premenstrual Syndrome? More like Pour Me Some M&M’s and Cue the Meg Ryan flick. From weepiness to water retention, PMS can be a real heartache to handle.
While common, PMS is related to imbalances in the very hormones that enable you to conceive. The good news is that you can naturally support the diminishment of symptoms before and when they arrive. Regular exercise, a healthful diet, restful sleep—all can potentially impact the severity of PMS. In other words, be smart with your health all month long and those days leading up to menstruating won’t require a doctor’s note—or a handwritten apology to your partner.
6. The struggle is
Menstrual cramps may have gotten a bad rap for becoming an oft-used excuse in gym class, but, ladies, we all know the discomfort our periods can cause is very real—and, at times, pure agony.
Those contractions happen because your body is doing its best to expel your uterine lining, otherwise known as the endometrium. A hot water bottle can potentially offer relief, while certain yoga poses may weaken the aches you’re experiencing. Or settle your cat on your tummy: The warmth can help those spasms subside in no time (and provide you with some snuggles while you’re at it).
7. Your weight impacts your period.
That number on the scale does more than dictate whether you’ll be reaching for your skinny jeans: Restrict your caloric intake too much and you may face amenorrhea: an absence of your menstrual cycle due to insufficient estrogen levels.
Sound tempting to skip your monthly visitor and fit into your LBD (little black dress) at the same time? Think again: Amenorrhea can lead to infertility and osteoporosis, to say nothing of the health risks involved with being underweight.
8. Pads and tampons aren’t your only options.
Where we were once restricted to tampons and pads, terrific solutions for naturally supporting your period are now available.
Chief among them? The Diva Cup—a cup-like device that’s inserted into your vagina to collect blood flow. It’s removed once to three times a day—depending on your flow—and then washed out and reinserted.
Besides the fact that it’s a boon for the environment—Diva Cups can be used for years if properly cared for—they’re a superb choice for sporty women, particularly those who spend time in the water. There’s rarely any leakage, the cup is comfortable, and they can potentially keep you clean no matter how many laps you’re swimming. Indeed, a friend of mine claims the Diva Cup saved her scuba diving trip in Palau—a shark sanctuary and marine conversation area in Micronesia. (Yes, I said sharks.)
Keep in mind, however, that these genius inventions aren’t always convenient, and they may take some time to master. But, hey, if you’re proficient at fastening a bra behind your back with one hand while brushing your teeth with the other, certainly you can conquer this too, can’t you?
9. …but if you do go with conventional feminine products, choose wisely.
In 1998, the FDA banned manufacturers from employing harsh chemicals to bleach the cotton (or rayon) used in tampons and pads. The new process, however, still contains trace elements of dioxins, which can be potentially damaging to your pelvic organs (and your overall body). Given that most women go through as many as 12,000 feminine products in their lifetime, it’s best to be prudent about your exposure.
Opt instead for unbleached, organic products, or give Glad Rags a try. Reusable and eco-friendly, this excellent alternative keeps refuse out of our landfills while keeping your fragile parts away from irritating synthetics.
10. You needn’t approach your menstrual health alone.
Beyond the assistance of a gynecologist, consider enlisting the aid of a naturopathic doctor for overall menstrual health.
He or she can steer you in the right direction of herbal and nutritional supplements that can help encourage menstrual health, including natural remedies that can organically support the duration of your cycle and your liver’s breakdown of hormones (which may lead to lighter periods). Herbal and nutritional therapies can also naturally bolster nourishment of your pelvic organs and provide ovarian support to promote more robust hormones.
Because while Aunt Flo isn’t always invited—hello, honeymoon!—you might as well make her stay as painless as possible.