The average woman will have about 500 periods in her lifetime, beginning around the age of 12 until about 51 years of age. Having our period is supposedly what changes us from a girl into a woman. But other than a few black and white overheads we are shown in our school-age years, just how much are we actually taught about this supposedly life-changing experience so unique to the female sex? The truth is, not a whole lot.
That is why we have composed a guide to understanding this wondrous cycle of the body, complete with information you might find particularly useful if you are considering becoming pregnant.
How It Works
Menstruation refers to the monthly shedding of the lining of the uterus (the womb), released through the vagina. The menstrual cycle begins the first day a woman bleeds – in other words, the first day of a period. Most periods last between 3 and 5 days, although anywhere between 2 and 7 days is still considered normal.
But what causes the uterus to shed its lining in the first place? Interestingly enough, it all begins in the brain. A gland called the hypothalamus (also responsible for the regulation of our thirst, hunger, sleep and sex drive) sends a chemical messenger to another gland in the brain called the pituitary. The pituitary then secretes a follicle-stimulating hormone and a leutinizing hormone that cause follicles in the ovaries to mature. This is called the follicular stage and it usually occurs between day 6 and 14 of a menstrual cycle.
These follicles then release oestrogen, causing them to ripen in preparation for ovulation. Within about seven days, the oestrogen will have caused the lining of the uterus to become sufficiently thickened for the pituitary to release more of the leutinizing hormone, triggering the follicle that is most developed to release an egg (ovum). This stage is called ovulation, and it usually takes place between day 10 and 14 of the cycle. (The birth control pill works by blocking the final release of the leutinizing hormone, in turn preventing the release of an egg.)
Although the average duration of a menstrual cycle is between 21 and 28 days, a woman can be normal and healthy and only have 3 or 4 cycles a year. Of course, missed or irregular periods should always be referred to a health care professional, since they could also be the sign of a more serious underlying problem.
More About Ovulation
When a baby girl is born she is already equipped with all the eggs she will ever use (and then some – 450 000+). They are then stored in her ovaries until she reaches puberty, at which point the eggs are sufficiently matured to begin ovulation. In other words, she can now become pregnant.
As we have already learned, it is the circulation of hormones present in the blood stream that causes an egg to mature. Once this has occurred, this egg will shoot down the ovaries through the fallopian tubes, and down into the uterus, where the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) has been thickened and is ready to receive it. If the egg is fertilized (meaning if it has united with a sperm), it will then grow into a fetus. If is it not, the lining, along with some blood, will be discarded through the vagina (in other words, a period will occur).
In rare cases, the fertilized egg will implant itself outside the uterus, in the fallopian tubes. This condition, called ectopic pregnancy, can be life-threatening and should be immediately referred to a medical specialist.
Can You Feel Ovulation?
Some women may experience certain signs of ovulation, such as slight abdominal pain or minor bleeding. In general, however, ovulation is not accompanied by any uncomfortable symptoms.
More commonly, women will notice an increase in watery, vaginal discharge, which is secreted by the cervix just before ovulation. This discharge is what helps to carry the sperm towards the egg. Therefore, women wishing to become pregnant may use a mucous monitoring system or a speculum to determine when this is most likely to occur.
However, women who plan their sexual intercourse around their ovulation as a means of natural family planning should be aware that ovulation is not the only time a woman can become pregnant. Because sperm can remain alive inside the uterus for up to 7 days (though it is commonly thought that the majority only survive 3 to 5 days), having unprotected sex a few days prior to ovulation can still result in a pregnancy. Once an egg has been released from the ovaries, though, it only has a 24-hour window during which it can be fertilized.
What Causes Discomfort During Menstruation?
Some 85% of women report some emotional or physical changes around the time their period occurs. Nearly half say they experience cramping during the first few days of their cycle. The release of prostaglandin, a substance that causes the muscles of the uterus to contract, is thought to be responsible for this.
Some other common symptoms of menstruation include bloating, diarrhoea, swollen and tender breasts and headaches. Emotional symptoms such as general moodiness (including depression), irritability or food cravings are also widespread. These are all side effects of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), which is brought on by rising and falling hormone levels just before the period begins.
What You Can do to Relieve Your Symptoms
There are many things women can do to limit their PMS-related symptoms, such as:
- Avoid caffeine. Coffee, teas, colas and chocolate (as tempting as they may sound) should be avoided. They all contain caffeine, which constricts blood vessels, causing tension. Red meat, refined sugars, dairy and high-fat foods are also common PMS enhancers.
- Eat lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains for added iron and fibre. A balanced diet can help with everything from limiting your PMS symptoms to increasing your ability to become pregnant.
- Increase exercise. This will help to improve the circulation of blood and oxygen, which may relieve painful cramping.
- Reduce stress: Meditate, get a massage, or take a bubble bath; whatever you do, reducing your stress levels will help to relax tense muscles.
- Keep your abdomen warm. Use a heating pad or hot water bottle to ease your cramping.
When You Should See Your Doctor
You should consult a physician if you experience any of the following:
- Your period lasts longer or is heavier than usual
- Your period stops suddenly
- You have severe abdominal cramping
- You experience significant bleeding between periods
- You are concerned you might be pregnant (or your period is more than five days late)
- You have stopped taking birth control and have not had a period within six weeks
- You feel sick after using a tampon
- You have any other concerns about your period or the possibility of becoming pregnant