Menstruation

Menstruation has been described as the womb weeping for the pregnancy which did not happen. That’s only one of the many bizarre things which have been said about women’s monthly periods over the ages. The many myths and superstitions which surround menstruation still persist, and even today it’s not always clear as to what is fact and what is fiction. The average woman will probably experience about 400 periods in Her lifetime. They spell misery to some women each month – heralded by stomach cramps, depression and headaches. To others they are a welcome confirmation of feminity and womanhood – and well worth any minor inconvenience.

Why do emotions influence a woman’s period so much? A woman’s periods are governed by a sort of ‘menstrual clock’ located in the hypothalamus which is deep inside the brain. This control centre receives coded messages from the rest of the body and in turn feeds information to the pituitary gland which influences all the different production centres of the menstrual system- the ovaries, Fallopian tubes and the womb. The pituitary hormones and the two ovarian hormones oestrogen and progesterone regulate the entire process – and there’s not a day when a woman is not subject to the ebb and flow of these hormones .

Given its location and the fact that it receives information as well as sending it out, it’s hardly surprising that the hypothalamus will be affected by changes – both physical and mental – in the body. Illness, anxiety, fatigue, emotional disturbance, excitement- even changes in the weather-can all temporarily upset the hormone rhythm. It’s a two-way process, with hormonal levels influencing emotions (notoriously in the form of pre-menstrual tension) and emotions also affecting hormone production.

The connection is well-established, but the exact nature is not clearly understood. What seems to happen, though, is that our conscious thoughts and actions relay impulses via the cerebral cortex in the brain to the hypothalamus. If the impulses are sufficiently intense, they can stimulate the hypothalamus to such an extent that the normal menstrual cycle is disrupted- as well as other body functions like sleep or appetite. In some cases, periods can be delayed, in others brought forward. So it’s quite common for a young girl to find that her period starts on the same day as a big event she’s been looking forward too – like a party or dance- or for another girl who fears she may be pregnant to find that her period is cruelly late in putting in its appearance. Because all the hormone glands are very closely interrelated, a disturbance in one can result in a change in the normal menstrual rhythm. The adrenal glands, for instance, are concerned with the body’s natural defences against disease, as well as with the ‘flight or fight’ mechanism which stimulates the body’s response to danger. A fright of some kind can affect periods – but so can a serious illness. Usually, once the cause for concern or excitement passes, the cycle returns to normal.

Emotions can affect periods more indirectly, too. Anorexia nervosa is a very common cause of loss of periods in adolescent girls. This ‘wilful pursuit of thinness’ through self-starvation seems to have a lot to do with a desire to negate their sexuality – in other words they are trying, unconsciously, to avoid growing up. Compulsive eating, often undertaken for similar motives, can have the same effect (in such cases, too much oestrogen is absorbed by body fat).

A woman can have an anovular period at any time of her life, but it is most common for them to happen at the two extremes of her reproductive-years. When a young girl first begins her periods, the ovaries are not yet ready to release their eggs. However, they are still capable of producing hormones which will cause the development of breasts, pubic hair etc., as well as building up the lining of the womb, but there won’t be enough of | the hormone to cause ovulation.

It can be quite difficult to pinpoint exactly 5 when a young girl does begin to ovulate, though a few women do experience a sharp twinge in midcycle (around the 14th day after the last period) which coincides with the egg bursting-out of the ovary. This is rarely strong enough to detect unless the woman is used to it, and usually the only clue for adolescents is that their periods start following a more regular pattern.

There is a theory that these anovulatory cycles are nature’s way of protecting” a young girl from becoming pregnant before she is physically or mentally ready. Even so, it’s not something to rely on, and any adolescent embarking on a sexual relationship should always have adequate contraception.

Nature also seems to intervene in this way by stopping eggs from being released when women approach the menopause. Although their supply of egg cells (of which there are over 200,000 at puberty), will certainly not be exhausted they will certainly not be in prime condition either — and accordingly the chances of foetal abnormality are much higher.

But there are other times when a woman may be having periods, and still be infertile. There may, for instance, be some basic physical fault with the ovaries or a blockage of the Fallopian tubes, but also it may be due to some emotional disruption – often leading to a delayed period.

What has usually occurred in such cases is that no egg has been released because the appropriate hormone messenger(LH) hasn’t been discharged . What may have happened is that the hypothalamus – under stress – has failed to respond to the oestrogen signal, and so the oestrogen continues to stimulate the womb lining, but the egg stays in the ovary.

What is the normal pattern of periods?

Although all women have periods for the same biological reasons, this does not mean that all periods are the same. The process of the uterus shedding its lining in the form of a monthly bleed is not confined to the same time span for all women just as the amount of blood lost varies from individual to individual.

It’s a mistake to assume that just because a 28-day cycle is average it’s always the case. Perfectly normal, healthy women have cycles varying between 20 and 36 days.

Not only that, but the cycles may vary in one woman. Some have shorter cycles at certain times of the year (often in the warmer summer months) others notice that a short and long cycle alternate.

The bleeding may last for two days, or continue for seven. It may even stop or decrease for a day or two – and then start up again. It may be heavier at the beginning of each period, or it may start with only slight bleeding and gradually increase.

The amount of blood lost will be just as variable; it may be very slight, barely marking one sanitary towel – or it may be so heavy that it soaks three towels in an hour. There’s absolutely no truth in the belief that if blood loss is scanty, it’s because the blood is accumulating somewhere inside – ready to poison the body or be lost in one heavy haemorrhage. Nor does a heavy period mean you’re losing too much blood. Most women quickly make up the loss, provided they’re on a good diet- but if in any doubt, ask your doctor.

Even colour will differ – it may even change from day to day. In the first day or two, it’s often pink and watery, but it could just as well be bright red, dark red, or almost black.

Yes. The menstrual flow is not just composed of blood, but also contains mucus and degenerated cells from the lining of the womb. You may notice dark shreds or even whole pieces of dark red membrane. Another difference is that menstrual blood is blood that has previously been clotted. The blood forms clots in the womb, then, to pass through the vagina and out of the body, the clots are dissolved and the blood is reliquified. Occasionally, though, you may see small clots of bright red blood.

Not all women suffer from painful periods, some just sail through, as they would at any other time of the month, while others experience stomach aches, sickness, cold sweats, constipation and diarrhoea.

It is thought that hormones known as prosta-glandins may be responsible since there are large increases in output just before menstruation. The sickness and diarrhoea, it is thought, may be caused by a particular prostaglandin which affects the muscles the gut and the womb.

If pain is severe, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as headaches, depression or lethargy, it could be due to an oestrogenpro-gesterone imbalance- as is pre-menstrual tension. This may occur a week before and during the first two days of the period. Both PMT and pain during periods can sometimes be helped by hormone treatment, and it’s well worth consulting your doctor.

There is no truth at all in the belief that it is dangerous to collect menstrual blood in the vagina. Providing tampons are inserted correctly, they are a safe, trouble-free and comfortable way of dealing with periods. Many women prefer them to sanitary towels which can chafe, although for heavier days they may not give adequate protection.

Young girls just starting their periods might encounter a little resistance when first trying to use tampons, and a little petroleum jelly or a similar lubricant may help. There is no mystique involved with inserting them correctly and relaxation is usually the key to success. It is often the case that to begin with the hymen is not elastic enough to accept a tampon, but a few trial-runs when the flow is at its heaviest, or using towels for a few months until the cycle has had a better chance to establish itself, will both contribute to final success.

There are many different sanitary wear products on the market, all claiming to be more absorbent, hygenic or ‘sweeter-smelling’ than their competitors. Finding what suits you best is a matter of trial and error. Some women like to use a tampon and a pad during the heavier days of their period, while others will opt for a super absorbent product, either way it’s best to change them very regularly – and at least twice a day.

Think carefully before choosing a super absor-bent tampon, particularly if your periods aren’t very heavy. You may think that you are saving yourself money by reducing the number of times you need to change them, but there is a possibility that the larger tampons may damage the superficial walls of the vagina.

Deodorized tampons are pointless. Menstrual blood has no odour until it comes into contact with the air. As tampons are worn inside the body, ones which boast the benefits of being perfumed are simply a marketing ploy. Indeed, the chemicals in these products have been known to cause allergy and may kill off the vagina’s protective bacteria, allowing harmful bacteria to flourish.

If you have a vaginal discharge between periods don’t use a tampon to absorb it because you could also be absorbing the vagina’s natural secretions which are there to fight disease.

Always remember to remove your tampon when your period comes to an end. If a tampon is forgotten it can lead to a very offensive vaginal discharge and even to infection.

Menstruation is shrouded in myths and legends. For a long time it was regarded as something one didn’t speak about- it was darkly referred to as the ‘poorly time’ when women would shut themselves away with smelling salts and cold compresses, to emerge five days later having ‘recovered’. Even now with a greater social acceptance and scientific understanding, some bizarre beliefs concerning the subject still persist Some are borne out by scientific investigation, others are mere superstition and their existence only serves to inhibit women from feeling easy about their periods.

The idea that the moon and a woman’s cycles are linked has long been a favourite with old wives, but it has also found scientific credibility. A study in America revealed that more women ovulated during a full moon and menstruated during a new moon than at other times. This theory was further tested when women with irregular periods were asked to sleep with a light on during the nights of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth days of their cycles (when ovulation should occur in a regular cycle) in an attempt to ‘bring on’ ovulation by mimicking a full moon. Most of the women who took part in this experiment did find that they achieved a regular cycle by this method.

Another interesting theory which is receiving scientific attention is that of’synchronized periods’. It is quite usual for twin sisters to start their erioas at exactly the same time and it’s common nowledge that women who live together or girls sharing dormitories also find that their menstrual cycles adjust to each other.

It is still not certain what causes this, but it seems very likely that the sense of smell has a lot to do with it. It seems that the body gives off which have a faint odour of which we are not consciously aware but which the brain “| Two taken with a hot drink will bring some relief. 2 By preventing ovulation also stops a build up of prostaglandins, the hormones responsible for painful periods. 3 very hot baths, these tend to make the blood flow more copious. 4 foods like watercress, liver and eggs will help to combat tiredness and that more general feeling of being run down which a heavy period can sometimes cause.

E| which helps to improve blood circulation and relax muscles will make stomach cramps less likely.

Vegetables and bran; this will ease constipation which often aggravates menstrual cramp.

Registers. This odour is given off by each woman and may influence the hormone patterns of her friends.

For each theory which has a factual basis, there are many others which have none at all, but which have been passed down through the generations. Primitive tribes believed that loss of blood was the same as loss of life, it was therefore thought that a menstruating woman would have a dire effect on anything that was growing.

During her period she was kept away from crops and cattle, even from pregnant women. Even today some people still believe that a menstruating woman has the power to turn milk sour.

It’s possible that all these theories stem from the fact that women who suffer from PMT (pre-menstrual tension) may be more irritable or haphazard at these times – so that their work suffers. Other common fallacies suggest that it is inadvisable to wash your hair during a period, or that a sexual relationship during menstruation is somehow wrong. Neither is true and, in the latter case, because of changing hormone level it is common for a woman to feel an increase in sexual desire during this time. Orgasms may even be a way of relieving painful periods for some women, because they increase the blood flow which reduces the pressure of pelvic congestion.

Current research, though, does indicate that women are more vulnerable to infection during menstruation, possibly due to the hormone link with the adrenal gland which is involved with the body’s defence system.