In honor of the incredible Women's Marches that occurred around the world last month, and International Women's Day approaching next month on March 8th, this post is all about menstrual health. Periods impact half of the world's population twelve times a year for four decades of their lives - that's approximately 2,400 days of bleeding (and that doesn't count the things we experience during the rest of our cycles) - and yet we can still be reluctant to talk about them. (This is a great piece about the TV show Broad City, period stains, stigma, and not being ashamed.) Read on to gain a better understanding of what happens in your body during your cycle, learn about alternatives to pads and tampons (that you may actually want to use), and read and watch some hilarious pieces about the period experience.
And men, if you made it this far, good for you. For the sake of better understanding and supporting the women in your lives, I highly encourage you to read on, too!
Everyone's cycle is slightly different, but in general, a normal period cycle is from 23-35 days and goes something like this:
Understanding Your Cycle
Stage One: Follicular phase, aka preovulation, approximately days 1-14. Estrogen levels rise.
Day 1: The first day of bleeding, when your uterus begins to shed its lining because no egg was implanted the previous cycle (aka you did not get pregnant). It is triggered by estrogen and progesterone hormone levels dropping at the end of the previous cycle.
Days 1-7 (approximately): Bleeding. These are the days we refer to as our period. Many women bleed from 3-5 days.
Days 7-14 (approximately): Fertile days prior to ovulation.
Day 14: Ovulation. Ovulation is the time in your cycle when an ovary (usually one each month) releases an egg. It then has up to 24 hours to be fertilized by sperm - or not. If you have unprotected sex within that 24-hour window, or during the week before!, you can become pregnant. If the egg is not fertilized, it will be shed with the lining of the uterus - your period. In order to have an accurate idea about when you ovulate, you can track things like cervical discharge and BBT (basal body temperature).
Stage Two: Luteal phase, aka post-ovulation, approximately days 15-28. Progesterone levels rise.
In 2017, the easiest way to get familiar with YOUR cycle is to track it with an app. I spent the last six months entering my data into a handful of apps in order to recommend the ones I think are actually worth using. I recommend downloading a few and trying them out; you may find specific symptoms you prefer to have the option to track, from acne to sweet cravings and everything in between. These are the best free options I found - if you have one you prefer, please comment below!
- Flo: This one is the winner for me! It syncs with my Fitbit for exercise and lifestyle, tells me clearly on the calendar which day of my cycle I am on (which is helpful when doctor's ask the first day of your last cycle), and allows for easy symptom tracking, including the heaviness of menstrual flow, mood, sex drive, vaginal discharge, basal body temperature, and more. Plus, it's easy to use and aesthetically pleasing, with options to customize your background. Flo also includes the option to set up birth control and other pill reminders.
- Clue: Clue has a simple, appealing design that shows right where you are in your cycle at first glance, including your period and fertile windows, your current cycle day, and how many days until your period is likely to begin. There is also a calendar, analysis of previous cycles and averages, as well as the option to choose which symptoms are important for you to track, including vaginal discharge and heaviness of flow. You can set up birth control reminders, and Clue will also sync heart rate data from your Fitbit.
- Spot On: This app is worth checking out. The bubble-like symptom selection was off-putting for me personally, but it is still a clean and efficient design. It includes mood, body, action, and period sections, including heaviness of flow. Notably it is missing an option to track cervical discharge, and if you want to track ovulation in addition to your period it may be missing some key features. Spot On is Planned Parenthood's app and includes links to resources some people may find helpful.
- Moon Cycle: There are many apps that allow you to track the cycle of the moon (the actual moon). Some women find it helpful to become familiar with the moon cycle and how it relates to their own "moon cycle." While there is no scientific evidence linking the lunar cycle and menstrual cycle, increasing awareness of natural rhythms can lead to interesting self-realizations.
Managing Your Flow
Knowing when to expect your cycle is a good start, but then you have to actually deal with all of that blood. Tampons and pads have their place (I do encourage organic products; putting chemicals into one of the more sensitive places in our bodies is less than ideal), but odds are you already know about them. There are two alternatives I love that are easy, re-usable, and comfortable. While they may cost more upfront, in the long term they can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
- Thinx period panties: I honestly could not gush about these enough (pun intended). Whether you want to free flow, you need something to wear on days when you might start, or you just don't want to deal with uncomfortable and long-term expensive panty liners, they have a pair for you. I have four that I wash and use throughout my cycle. I do not have any affiliation with Thinx, but if you use this link to buy a pair, you and I both get $10 off! Extra bonus - they really truly do not smell or stain. Magical.
- Menstrual cups: These are a harder sell because there can be a bit of a learning curve and they put you face to face with your blood. That said, I have a heavier flow and I love mine because I only have to change it 2x a day - when I wake up in the morning, and before I go to bed at night. Going from changing a tampon every couple of hours throughout my day to wearing a cup and a pair of Thinx has been life-changing. I use a Diva cup, and there are other brands that may work better for different bodies.
Supporting with Supplements
What if your periods are painful, or irregular? These are some supplements that can make a difference. As always, talk to your doctor before beginning any new treatment, natural or otherwise.
- For cramps: magnesium and turmeric are worth a try. Magnesium relaxes muscles and many people do not get an adequate amount from their diet. You can try taking magnesium glycinate at night (side benefit: it can help with constipation) or baths with 1-2 cups of epsom salts. Turmeric is anti-inflammatory and can be used like a natural ibuprofen; you can also try it as tea.
- To support progesterone for cycle regulation and PMS: vitex (aka chastetree berry) is one of my favorite herbal supports. It can be taken daily for ongoing support, three a day for a few symptomatic days before your cycle begins, or specifically for two weeks, beginning on day 10 of your cycle, in order to reign in excessively long cycles. Some women find it helpful for treating infertility and endometriosis.
Periods are a social issue, too:
- This is How Homeless Women Cope With their Periods: there are 50,000 women living on the streets nationwide
- Uninhibited Chinese Olympic Swimmer, Discussing her Period, Shatters Another Barrier: athletes and cultural issues
Just for Fun
Because laughter makes everything better:
- 31 Jokes That are Way Too Real for Anyone Who's Ever Had a Period: including "People who exercise in order to get rid of period cramps are the ones surviving the apocalypse."
- Guys Prove They Have No Idea How to Buy Their Girlfriends Tampons: iMessage photos
- I Got That Flow: music video
- Mother and Daughter's Text Thread About Trying to Buy Tampons: smash the patriarchy
- Whoopi Goldberg launches line of pot products for women with period pain