I first got my period when I was 11 – one month before I received any information about what a period actually was. I remember it clearly. It was August, and I was on holiday with my family in Wales. Thanks to some secretive Googling, I was vaguely away of what was happening to me – but I wasn’t sure what to do or how to talk about it. So I hid the evidence and waited for my mother to confront me when I got home. She gave me a pack of sanitary towels and sent me on my way – and I’ve been merrily having periods ever since.
Recently, however, I realised that although I’ve been having periods for 10 years now, I still don’t really know anything about them. Sure, I know that once a month (or once every two months if I run two packs of my contraceptive pill together), I bleed from my vagina, get a bit of back ache, and sometimes cry because I’ve dropped my pen. But biologically speaking? I know nothing.
So I decided to fix my ignorance and discover what the hell goes on with my body every month – and since I’m sure many other women and people who have periods are in the same boat as me, I thought I’d share my findings with the world.
What actually are periods?
According to the NHS website, a period is ‘the part of the menstrual cycle when a woman bleeds from her vagina for a few days.’
Which, I mean, I knew. Obviously. I am a woman and I have a vagina and it starts bleeding roughly once a month.
So I did a little more digging and discovered (or rather, re-discovered, because I’m pretty sure my Year 9 Biology teacher did tell me this once upon a time), that the reason a person with a vagina bleeds for a few days during their menstrual cycle is because their uterus is shedding its lining.
Basically, the female reproductive system assumes that every month it’s going to start harbouring a living, soon-to-be-breathing human child. So the lining of the uterus starts to get thicker, to prepare for the fertilized egg; and then, if no fertilized egg prepares, it sheds that lining and starts the whole cycle again. Which seems a little wasteful, if you ask me, but I guess it’s nice to know my body is always prepared for pregnancy, even if I’m not.
What the fuck happens to your hormones during your period?
As every sitcom and misogynistic man will tell you, women are emotional – especially when they’re on their period. And whilst the old stereotype is irritating, misogynistic, and just down right rude, it also rings true for a lot people. Turns out there’s a very good reason for this: hormones.
Hormones are chemicals in your body that control everything, hunger, to reproduction, to major bodily functions, to emotions. The reason your mood can fluctuate and change so much throughout a month, for seemingly no reason, is because your hormones themselves fluctuate and change throughout a month, altering your biological chemistry and your mood.
In the week before your period, your oestrogen and testosterone (yes, women have testosterone too!) levels plunge, and this is why your mood jumps all over the place. As your oestrogen levels drop, the serotonin levels in your brain also drop; and as your serotonin levels drop, so too does your mood.
Your plunging oestrogen and serotonin levels also account for the migraines and general achiness you often experience before your period, so no, you’re not falling apart – your hormones are just ganging up on you.
Once your period starts, your hormone levels start to rise again, and bad moods are banished (unless you know, bad shit happens or you suffer from a mental illness).
How can you relieve period symptoms?
So, as we’ve established, around your period your hormones go wild, leaving you feeling emotional and achy and like an all round hot mess. Add to that the cramps you get from your uterus contracting (yup, just like when you go into actual freaking labour), and you can see why a lot of women struggle with their period.
There’s a lot of information out there about what you can do to relieve period symptoms – exercise, hot water bottles, pain killers, chocolate – but really, the best advice I can give you here is just learn what works for your body.
Every body is different, and every person reacts differently to their period. For some it’s a walk in the park (literally), for others it literally leaves them unable to function for a week. Find what works for you – even if it goes against all the sage advice you’ve read in Cosmo and stick it.
Most importantly, however – listen to your body, and if in doubt, consult a doctor. If you think you’re bleeding a lot more than normal, or your symptoms are totally unmanageable, consult your doctor as soon as possible. Chances are, there’s absolutely nothing wrong; but the old mantra ‘better safe than sorry’ definitely rings true.
And if you find your doctor is dismissive of your pain and problems, and tells you something is ‘normal’ when you know that it’s not normal for you or your body, keep pushing. You know your body better than anybody else.