My period has been stalking me on a Kim Kardashian level for the past year. I feel like I have been bleeding every other day ... Aunt Flo is like the period paparazzi ... and I am worried.
Rightfully so, said Stephanie Bird, MD, Medical Director of Gynecology, Brigham & Women’s Fish Center for Women's Health in Brookline, Massachusetts. “It’s important for women to pay attention to their baseline because not all bleeding is a period. Any abnormal change that extends beyond one menstrual cycle is cause for concern.”
I recently went in for several tests: thyroid check, transvaginal ultrasound, endometrial biopsy, blood work, and, thankfully, after lots of co-pays, I got clean results (so far). For me, the stress of being the primary caregiver for two family members with cancer, working full-time, and remaining calm and upbeat for the kids was too much at once. It gave me the never-ending period from hell. Looking back, the change in my menstrual cycle did reflect how I was feeling inside.
So, what can you look for when you get your period to give you some insight into your health?
“Regular cycles are between 21-35 days, lasting up to 8 days,” said Bird. “I recommend women keep a menstrual calendar and mark which days you bleed. You can jot down an H for heavy, L for light, S for spotty, C for clots to give yourself and your doctor valuable information.” There are plenty of apps you can download to track your period if you prefer your smartphone.
Extreme weight loss, pregnancy, and stress can all affect the frequency of your period. Irregular periods can also occur if you drink too much alcohol as it can disrupt how the liver metabolizes both estrogen and progesterone.
Women who are obese, exercise too much, or have very low body fat can start skipping periods. Pregnancy is not the only reason you may miss your period.
“The menstrual cycle is so indicative of the general health of the female body,” said Maya Carlet, L.Ac, owner of Centered Medicine in New York City and Vermont. “Menstruation should be painless and accompanied by minimal pre- and post-menstrual signs and symptoms.” Dysmenorrhea, the medical term for cramps, causes discomfort due to the shedding of the uterine lining during your period ... and it can be cause for alarm. Between 7 to 10 percent of women with painful cramps suffer from endometriosis, a fertility-threatening condition where the uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. Other women have excessive amounts of prostaglandin, a hormone involved in inflammation and pain.
It’s important to look before you flush down information that can give you a gauge of your hormonal health. While it’s not pleasant, taking a peek at your period is a must. “Menses should be of sufficient volume,” said Carlet. “It should be a rich, fresh red color (think of cranberry juice) instead of a darker or brownish color. Normal menstrual blood should also be fairly free of clots.”
Heavy bleeding -- which occurs when you pass clots larger than the size of a quarter or have to change your pad or tampon less than every two hours -- can cause anemia. It can also be a warning sign of fibroids, polyps, or tumors in the cervix or uterus. Heavy bleeding affects more than 10 million American women each year. A CDC study found that bleeding disorders were diagnosed in nearly 11 percent of women with heavy menstrual bleeding.
A lighter flow than your normal cycle can point to hormonal changes, stress, or poor nutrition.
Breakthrough bleeding should not be ignored as it can be a sign of cancer or pre-cancer. It can also be indicative of a polyp, vaginal tear, infection, or other non-cancerous conditions, so do not panic. If you take birth control pills or other hormonal contraception methods, they can cause staining throughout your menstrual cycle. Missing a pill can also cause breakthrough bleeding.
Both Bird and Cutlet, practitioners of Western and Chinese medicine, respectively, stress the importance of knowing what a normal period looks and feels like for your body. Any variance in your regular period that lasts more than one cycle should be shared with your doctor.
Have you dealt with changes to your period?
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