From Girl to Woman - Menstruation
Beginning with Menarche
Menstruation is a major point in puberty for girls with menarche - that very first period - marking another event in the transition from child to woman. This is the point when all the parts become a whole - the reproductive system has matured. In some cultures, a very big deal is made of menarche. Girls are treated royally for the day or week and they join the ranks of other women in their community who have transitioned into womanhood. Regardless whether everyone or no one celebrates this rite of passage, a young girl knows she's changing. And, like a lot of other changes that come along with puberty, menstruation can be confusing. To take away the mystery, read on.
Puberty usually begins around age eight and it is the time when hormones stimulate new growth in the body and a girl's mind goes through some interesting changes. New physical development such as breast budding occurs and about two years or so after the beginning of breast development, she'll have her first menstrual period. Often, about six months prior to the first period there may be an increase of clear vaginal discharge, which is nothing to worry about unless there is a strong odor or it causes itching or irritation.
The Female Reproductive System
The organs of the female reproductive system include the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus. The oval-shaped ovaries sit on either side of the uterus in the lower abdomen. They are filled with hundreds of thousands of eggs (ovum). The fallopian tubes are two long, thin tubes that attach to the top of the uterus and open over the ovaries in order to catch a mature egg when it is released by an ovary every month. The uterus is a pear-shaped muscle that will become the place where a fertilized egg will implant, grow and develop into a baby. This incredible muscle has the power to expand with the growing baby and to contract in order to expel the baby when it is time for birth.
How Hormones Direct Menstruation
A very complex interaction of glands within the brain and body cause the release of certain hormones to instigate menstruation. Two of the glands, the pituitary and hypothalamus, are in the brain. The thyroid gland is also implicated in the process in terms of release of thyroid stimulating hormone. If there is too much of this hormone released, it affects the ability of a woman to hold a pregnancy - often leading to miscarriage. Back to menstruation ...
The hypothalamus gland releases a hormone called gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) which triggers the pituitary gland to release follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) that stimulate the ovaries to produce estrogen. The estrogen encourages the uterus to build a lining for the reception of a fertilized egg. The luteinizing hormone from the pituitary gland causes the ovary to release one mature egg into the fallopian tube. This process is called ovulation. After ovulation, progesterone is released to thicken the uterine lining even more. If the egg is not fertilized by a sperm cell, then it does not remain in the uterus. Progesterone and estrogen levels fall and cause the lining of the uterus to slough off and menstruation occurs to clear the uterus in order for the entire process to begin again the following month.
The Timing is Different for Each Person
Puberty can begin for some girls earlier than it does for others. The same holds true for menstruation. Some girls begin menstruating as early as ten years old while others don't start until they are 15. A menstrual cycle, which is the number of days between the first day of bleeding and the next period, can range in time from 21 days to 35 days. Each person will have their own cycle and, as long as the cycle is regular, it is right for you. It usually takes a couple of years after menstruation begins for a cycle to be fully developed. Until then, menstruation may be a bit erratic. It is nothing to worry about, it will be fine. However, it is a good idea to keep a record of menstruation so there is a general idea of how it will unfold.
The other part of menstruation is the number of days of blood flow. As surprising as it sounds, the actual blood loss is about two or three tablespoons - even though it seems like a lot more. A period can last from just two or three days to seven days, with the heaviest flow being at the beginning of the period.
Cramping and PMS
Cramping and emotional upheavals are common around the time of menstruation, thought to be caused by prostaglandin, the hormone that causes the uterus to contract. Cramping can be a dull ache or sometimes more intense. Very severe cramping needs to be checked by a medical professional. There may be a problem that can be rectified if it is diagnosed early.
Just prior to the onset of menstruation there may be a few days where everything is wrong and nothing seems right. Crying at the drop of a hat, impatient, upset, and feeling sad are all part of the emotional impact of hormones. Along with this, there may be swelling of the breasts, bloating and a general feeling of blah. It's all part of the process called premenstrual syndrome. Many women experience it to varying degrees. Be kind to yourself, get a lot of rest, eat well, and know that this too shall pass.
The menstrual cycle is a natural function of the female reproductive system. This section has information to help you understand the various changes and challenges that can arise.