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What can your periods tell you? Is it a vital sign?


Would you find it strange/ irrelevant to discuss your period with your general physician as you go in for your yearly check-up?


How do you think you would react?






Actually, it shouldn’t be strange at all as this is THE question to be asked if you menstruate, according to new-age experts. Why? Because more and more studies are affirming that our menstrual cycle can be a good indicator of our overall health status.


Well, this fact is not very surprising because, on average, a woman menstruates for about 7 years of her life. In fact, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology considers the menstrual cycle critical to overall female health -- as we like to call it, “the fifth vital sign”.


Rightly so, we think. Come on, no one anticipated the recent reports on unusual menstrual patterns reported worldwide after COVID-19 vaccination. This is evidence enough for us to acknowledge that period can signal changes (due to internal or external reasons) in the body.


Let us decode why menstruation is given this ‘special status’ as a vital sign.


So what are vital signs?


Let’s back up a bit to understand what the other four vital signs are. Vital signs assess the status of your essential body functions and hence overall wellbeing. They help put together the story your body is telling you.


The four widely used and universally accepted vital signs are your pulse (heart rate), body temperature, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Monitoring the vital signs is important as (we have seen in diseases like COVID-19) it can help prevent misdiagnosis, detect symptom-less medical problems, and encourage us to take better care of our health.


What can our menstrual cycles tell us about our health?


Your menstrual cycle actually represents more than just reproductive health and offers a unique window to peek into your overall health.


The length of period, colour of discharge and pain you might experience during your period should not be ignored. It can help doctors identify signals that may indicate a broader issue affecting the body.


That being said, the most important thing to remember is, perhaps, that every woman’s menstrual cycle is different. An adolescent girl might have longer periods than someone older. According to the Mayo Clinic, the menstrual flow might occur between 21 to 35 days and last two to seven days. Painful periods can signal conditions such as endometriosis, even PMDD, or fibroids.




What can light/no periods indicate?


Light or no periods can signal changes, such as pregnancy or menopause, and even detect certain medical conditions underlying abnormal physical changes (for instance, being seriously underweight due to an eating disorder or having sudden weight gain or loss, extreme stress) or being on birth control.


What can long/heavy periods indicate?


Heavy periods can signal a wide variety of abnormalities and disorders and hence should not be ignored. While ‘heavy’ is a very subjective term, the thumb rule is to look for abnormally high flow or longer periods than one’s usual.


If it is accompanied by unbearable pain, it must all the more be considered a matter of concern and addressed medically. Painful periods can signal conditions such as endometriosis, even PMDD or fibroids.



This can be due to hormonal imbalance, which can be caused by an array of simple or serious underlying reasons (stress, PCOS, ovarian dysfunction, etc). Other reasons can be growths in the uterus, such as polyps and fibroids, or even changes in the lining of the uterus (adenomyosis/ endometriosis). Certain medications (even non-hormonal), blood disorders or even kidney and liver diseases can result in heavy bleeding during menstruation.



In some women, the fluctuating hormones during perimenopause can cause heavy bleeding. This is something to keep in mind.




Not just the length and flow, but even period frequency matters!


Did you know? Both physical (excessive exercising) and mental stress can interrupt your menstrual cycle. Strategies to manage one’s lifestyle greatly help in setting things right in such a case.


Sometimes, intrauterine devices (IUDs) can also lead to changes in period frequency. You can discuss with your medical consultant about alternatives that suit your body better.


Importantly, irregular periods might also indicate chronic health conditions, including diabetes, PCOS, hormone and/or thyroid issues and liver problems, or even an untreated sexually transmitted infection.


Further, it can help you understand your unique mental or physical health patterns as well. For example, mood swings, as well as certain other symptoms like migraines, might make more sense when tracked.



If you are on contraceptives, it is important to know how they interact with the menstrual cycle.



Depending on the hormonal component(s) in your prescribed contraceptive, it can affect your menstrual cycle in a few different ways:

  • Thicken the cervical wall to prevent sperms from entering

  • Interrupt the thickening of the uterine lining so that the fertilized cannot attach and grow effectively

  • Prevent eggs from maturing in the ovary (ovulation)

A missed period while on the pill or other contraceptives may also be due to other reasons: stress, change in diet, or excessive exercise.



Contraceptives in midlife and menopausal transition


While on contraceptives (which basically are synthetic hormones), it is not possible to assess the natural hormonal i.e. (peri)menopausal status of a person .

The only way to know for sure is to stop contraceptives and monitor the natural cycles/ associated symptoms.


However, certain contraceptives may be prescribed to ease routine-disrupting or extreme symptoms caused by hormonal fluctuations that happen during the perimenopausal years and maintain a regular hormonal cycle.


Note: As certain types of pills can worsen the perimenopausal symptoms, always consult your doctor for a prescription or a change of it, if you notice any abnormal changes in your cycles or experience severe symptoms.



Why should you track your cycles?


  • Period tracking can help you understand your unique cycle pattern, identify when things are not alright, and even boost your self-confidence as you can plan your activities around it.


  • Being in the know is better than being regretful or panicking unnecessarily. For instance, perimenopause is a natural phase when the cyclic hormones fluctuate over a few years before menopause. This is usually accompanied by variations in the menstrual cycle.


  • Sometimes, it might not be entirely possible to prevent illnesses from occurring, but it is a good idea to monitor your flow and track your cycle and your symptoms which will make it easier for a medical professional to help you find answers. The possible reasons can be hormonal, lifestyle, dietary or medical in nature.

  • Further, it can help you understand your unique mental or physical health patterns as well. For example, mood swings, as well as certain other symptoms like migraines, might make more sense when tracked.


  • Menstrual blood has the potential to be used as biomarkers to predict disease or tell us about our health status with products like Tulipon.


Importantly, it gives you the power to not compare your cycles with those of menstruators around you. Remember, no two bodies are the same.


How should you track your cycle?


There are many ways to track your menstrual cycle. Firstly, you can track it manually via the traditional pen and paper method. Then, there are period tracking apps, such as Maya, Clue, and Flo that can help track your periods and more related symptoms.



Depending on your needs you can use either a period tracking app, a wearable tracker or a device to get track your cycle as well as predict your fertile days or track your overall health and well-being.


Recently, wearable trackers, such as Fitbit, and Garmin, have included period tracking. Besides these, specialized fertility trackers, such as Ava and breathe ilo are also available in Europe.


You can also monitor the colour and flow of your period using a menstrual cup such as the ASAN cup. The light/medium flow cup holds 25 mL, which is more than adequate for users with moderate flow. The heavy flow cup is designed specifically for those menstruators who tend to run through several pads or tampons a day.


With everything getting smart, the future looks exciting with the possibility of smart menstrual cups, such as the Looncup. Innovative companies like Galsbio have even come up with a Tulipon, a disposable, biodegradable, vaginal platform used like a regular tampon with an applicator that collects period blood to monitor and screen menstruators for diseases and can be seen as an internal wearable device.



What should you do when the cycles seem abnormal?


  1. Learn when to raise a red flag (Refer to the chart above)

  2. Report and discuss any abnormalities with the medical professional you are consulting

  3. Go for a second opinion if you are not convinced with the explanation or if the problem persists after a course of action


Last but not least, listen to your body and trust your gut.


You’ve got this.

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY FOR ANSWERS

 

We put together a list of different tracking apps and tools for you.


Depending on your needs, you can use a period tracking app, a wearable tracker, or a device to get track your cycle, as well as predict your fertile days, or track your overall health and well-being.



Which one do you like? Let us know in the comments below.


 



Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.



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