While periods can be a pain (quite literally), they can also tell us more than we may realise about our overall health and wellbeing. Learning about your cycle can be a great way to get to know your body. It may also give you the permission you need to give yourself a break during your time of the month. There’s a lot happening hormonally and we’re here to break that down.

Periods normally start at around the age of 12 after other physical bodily changes have happened (like developing breasts). A regular period happens every month or most commonly, every 28 days. Anywhere between 24-38 days is considered a normal cycle though. Bleeding normally lasts for 4-8 days.

Different things can affect how regularly you have a period and how heavily you bleed. If you’re a lower-than-average weight or exercise a lot, this can make your periods lighter, more irregular or they might disappear altogether. This is called amenorrhea.

There are also lots of health conditions that can affect your periods and if you take hormonal contraception (birth control), this usually changes your periods too. You can read more about this here.

Many of you will have had period cramps and/or heavy periods and there’s lots you can do to make them more comfortable and less inconvenient. With today’s range of period products, there’s loads of options to try, so you can find the one that suits you best. Always see your healthcare provider if periods are affecting the way you live your life, as they should be manageable and there are several treatment options for painful, heavy periods.

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Recap of the basics

Re-cap of the basics

If you’ve ever had periods – or lived with someone who has – you’ll probably have some idea of how hormones can affect you at different times of the month.  But first, let’s start at the beginning for a quick re-cap of the basics:

  • Periods are when you bleed from your vagina as part of the menstrual cycle.
  • Each month, the lining of your womb (uterus) will begin to thicken.
  • It does this to prepare for a possible pregnancy.
  • If no pregnancy happens, the lining sheds away.
  • This is what your period is – the lining of your womb leaving your body each month through your vagina in the form of blood.
  • Every person’s period is different, but typically, periods happen every 28 days.
  • This pattern is what we call a ‘cycle’.
  • If a period happens anywhere between every 24 to 38 days, it’s considered a ‘normal’ cycle.
  • However, as we mentioned above, lots of things can impact how regular your period is and does not mean your period is abnormal.
  • Period bleeding generally lasts for 4-8 days on average, with most of the bleeding happening in the first 2 days.
  • When a period is ‘heavy’, this means the blood is bright red and there is more of it.
  • As the period becomes lighter it could look more pink, or be a darker brown or black in color.

When do periods start?

Periods normally start in our mid-teens and usually happen after other stages of puberty (such as growing breasts, pubic hair etc.). Most people get their first period at around the age of 12, but this varies, and it can happen earlier or later too.

Other things can also impact when you start your periods. For example, if you are a lower body weight or you exercise a lot, you may find your periods start at a later age, and are less regular or lighter in flow.

What happens in a typical menstrual cycle?

Day one of your cycle is when your period starts.

The mid-point of your cycle is when an egg is released. This is called ovulation and normally happens around day 14 of your cycle.

The end of your cycle is the day before your next period starts (usually day 28).

The first 2 weeks of your cycle are called the follicular phase. It’s called this because follicles grow in the ovaries. Follicles are small sacs of fluid in the ovaries where eggs develop.

After ovulation your estrogen levels drop, and you enter the luteal phase which is the last 2 weeks or so in your cycle.

During the luteal phase, progesterone increases. Its role is to help develop a pregnancy or break down the thickened uterine lining which leaves the body as your period.

Living with periods

Periods are a fact of life for over 50% of the population. They are the key marker of the start and the end of the ‘reproductive phase’ of life when you can become pregnant.

Some cultures celebrate when the first period arrives so remember that periods don’t just have to be thought of as a pain and inconvenience. Our periods are amazing at letting us know when something might be wrong in our bodies.

Having periods isn’t ‘compulsory’ for everyone. There are medications you can take, like birth control, that mean your periods will most likely stop altogether. So, if you really hate having periods and don’t mind the thought of taking hormones, find out more about your choices on how to stop them.

There are loads of period products designed to help you cope with bleeding. In addition, some companies have been making a big effort to be more environmentally friendly and are now making products that cause less waste and damage to our planet. For a long time, we really only had the choice of disposable sanitary pads or plastic-based tampons, but now there are period pants, reusable pads, organic tampons and menstrual cups to choose from.

Choosing the right period product to manage your bleeding is very individual. And now that we have more choice, if a product isn’t working well for you – try something else!

The most important thing to think about is whether the product you’re using is comfortable and only needs changing/cleaning as often as suits you. Some people find tampons painful, others hate the sensation of wearing a pad – whatever you prefer is totally OK. There’s no better or worse period product to use – it’s all about finding what’s right for you.

If you are not able to afford or access essential period products there may be local charities, nonprofits or community health clinics that can help provide free menstrual products.  Some schools and universities provide free period products in the restrooms or through student support services so it’s worth checking out the local services or contacting the school’s administration department to find out what’s available.

You are not alone in experiencing period poverty and there are an increasing number of organizations campaigning to make period products accessible so please don’t feel embarrassed and ask for help if you are struggling.

Millions of women track their periods using apps to help them know when to expect their period. Tracking helps you to monitor your cycle, know when to have period products on hand, or potentially plan a pregnancy.

Irregular periods

When we first start having periods, it’s usual for our cycles to take a while to become established and it can actually be a few years before our periods get into a regular rhythm. For some women, a pattern to their period is never really experienced and they learn to live with period ‘surprises’ on lots of occasions!

Irregular or missed periods can however, be a sign of a few different things happening in your body. These include:

  • pregnancy
  • perimenopause
  • stress
  • chronic disease
  • certain conditions like endometriosis, polyps or fibroids
  • variations in your hormone levels caused by conditions like PCOS or a
  • thyroid problem
  • being very underweight
  • a heavy exercise regime
  • some types of cancer

Some types of birth control can also cause spotting or something called a withdrawal bleed. This is not the same as a normal period but might be confused for one. If your periods change or become irregular it’s not necessarily because of any of the things above or a cause for concern, but it is still a good idea to talk to your OB-GYN.

Period cramps

Some pain around the time of your period (particularly during the first 2 days) is common. Pain during your period happens because the muscle layer in your uterus is contracting to help get rid of the uterine lining. This is what we call cramps.

Lots of women take over-the-counter pain relief like Tylenol or Advil to help. A heating pad, or a warm bath can be helpful to relieve cramps. Some people also find gentle exercise actually helps too, even if it’s the last thing you feel like doing when you have your period.

Period Help

1 in 3 women say their periods are heavy, so it’s not unusual. And it’s not always possible to know why you have heavy bleeding.

Periods may be called heavy if:

  • blood soaks through a period product and onto your clothes
  • there are clots (lumps) in the blood
  • you have to use two period products at the same time, or change them a lot throughout the day
  • it stops you from doing your everyday activities.

Most of the time, a heavy period is nothing to be worried about. But some health conditions are also the cause of heavier periods.

Here are some reasons why you might get heavier periods:

Endometriosis

Cells that normally line the uterus (endometrial tissue) grow and attach in other places causing pain and heavier bleeding.

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

Infection in the uterus, ovaries or fallopian tubes but it’s easily treatable with antibiotics.

Fibroids

Growths in and around the uterus that vary in size but aren’t cancerous.

Adenomyosis

Endometrial tissue grows into the muscular wall of the uterus.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

A condition where the ovaries produce more androgen hormones than expected, causing cysts on the ovaries.

Thyroid problems

Too much or too little of the hormone thyroxine is produced by the thyroid gland.

If your periods are impacting your life, make an appointment to talk to your OB-GYN about them, especially if you avoid leaving home during the days your period is at its heaviest.

Remember, there are different treatments available for heavy periods. Some hormone treatments help make your periods lighter and more manageable, or they can stop you from having periods all together. You can also buy or have prescribed stronger painkillers if you need them.

Your doctor may want to check your iron levels if you have heavier periods. This is because losing blood can lower your iron levels.

Everyone’s period is different, and, in this sense, there’s no such thing as a ‘normal period’. There are a few things to look out for that could mean you should book an appointment with your OB-GYN. Your doctor can talk to you about any concerns you have and may want to run some tests to check there’s no other health concern that’s impacting your period.

See your OB-GYN if:

  • you have painful periods that mean you’re unable to do your daily tasks
  • you feel worried that your period products are not able to stop leaks,
  • you stay at home when your period is at its heaviest
  • you need to change your period product every hour or so
  • you bleed in between your usual periods
  • you bleed after you have sex
  • you bleed after menopause
  • you’re over the age of 16 and have never had a period.

Periods should be manageable and not stop you from doing what you want to in life like going to work, school, days out, and holidays. A wide range of help and support is available to you and there’s no reason to feel embarrassed about asking for help.