The relationship with your period is complex, she’s your faithful friend who turns up every month, plays havoc with your hormones, makes your breasts feel like bruises and treats you to spotty skin. She turns you into an emotional rollercoaster; then leaves forever one day in a menopausal fanfare. We spend hours talking about our periods in our teens, stop them with pills in our twenties and relax into their stride as we get older. Here’s a peep at the delights you can expect from each stage of the journey.
Your Period Journey
Period Phase 1: IN your Teens
Most girls start their periods between the ages of 10 – 15 years, and whether yours came early and you spent time hiding sanitary towels in your schoolbag, or it came late and you felt like the odd one out of the secret girls club, it is undoubtedly something that dominates the early teenage years.
Unpredictable teenage periods
Just like labour starting, no one can predict what day the first period (or menarche) will arrive, (although it’s usually around two years after breasts start to develop), and the unpredictable patterns continue. Sometimes after the first period, girls have a six-month break, periods can range from very light to embarrassingly heavy and cycles can be all over the place, stopping and starting at will. Not great for the school swimming team or the white shorts you love.
Changes in your period
Bodyweight rather than age, is a major factor for when your first period starts; American Scientist and fertility expert Rose E Frisch was the first person to link low bodyweight to a delayed first period and cited girls needed to acquire at least 17 per cent body fat for periods to start and later, for pregnancy to happen.
This of course can have an impact for serious athletes or girls who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia. Thankfully during the latter teen years, periods should start to regulate, and will be easier to predict and manage – no more embarrassing stains on your favourite jeans, (but do keep your old greying ‘period pants’ for a while yet).
How to help your cycle
Adjusting to having your period each month may take a bit of getting used to, but arm yourself with everything you might need; carry sanitary products with you for unexpected arrivals as well as spare pants, manage your pain with hot water bottles (and Netflix) or try drinking ginger tea.
You may crave fatty foods during your cycle but eating things like grilled salmon gives you the right amount of omega-3 fatty acids and is much better for you than munching on crisps. Some studies have shown women who eat oily fish during their cycles can experience less menstrual pain. *I will most certainly be testing this theory…
Period Phase 2: Your Twenties
Your twenties are an odd age for your periods, on one hand they’ve calmed down from the embarrassing teen years, but plenty of women report having more painful stomach cramps and a heavier period at this age. Add this to life changes like exams, the start of careers, serious relationships and house moves, and you’ve got a whole lot of stress – something which can throw your period out of sync.
Birth control and your periods
It’s also the age you’re most likely to start methods of birth control, something of a relief for those with heavy periods as most methods result in a lighter flow or no period at all. There are many methods to choose from, from daily pills to monthly injections, implants and all that’s in-between; do your research thoroughly when deciding what’s right for you.
Can you remember to take a daily pill, or are you better at having a one-off injection and forgetting about it? Do you want methods that contain hormones (and will sometimes lighten your flow), but can have side-effects, or opt for no hormones at all? Do you plan on getting pregnant soon, or is it in the distant future? All these factors are important in ensuring you find the right method that fits not only your body but your period management too.
How to help your cycle
Birth control methods and stress will likely change your cycle completely, but if you still experience PMS symptoms, don’t forget the three factors which have a positive impact on your period health: plenty of sleep, a healthy diet and exercise – not things which go hand-in-hand with your twenties, but worth keeping in the back of your stress-heaped mind.
Period phase 3: Your Thirties
Predictable, consistent, regular… your thirties bring a sense of calm to your monthly cycle. Your period flow will likely be lighter and cycles stable and manageable. However, there’s a catch; the average age for women to have babies in the UK is 28.9 years, so your thirties will probably see most of the childbirth action – something which has a huge impact on your periods.
Periods after Childbirth
After quite the holiday, your periods return four to eight weeks after you’ve given birth – that is, unless you’re exclusively breastfeeding, in which case they won’t return for a while longer. This is because the hormone prolactin responsible for breastmilk production also inhibits the return of your period.
Once it returns, it could be heavier than pre-birth periods, because your uterine cavity has expanded during pregnancy, so there’s more lining to shed.
Changes in your period
Don’t worry, there is some good news: plenty of women report their menstrual cramps improve significantly, sometimes stopping all together post-birth. This may be down to the process of labour; the same hormones that stretch the uterus and dilate the cervix, also play a role in menstrual cramps and while no-one is quite sure why it happens, we’re happy to say goodbye to that nagging pain we’ve experienced since our teens.
Causes for concern
Heavy bleeding and painful periods can also be an indication of fibroids or polyps – growths in the uterine wall. See your GP if you notice changes in your menstrual cycle, you bleed between cycles, tummy or back pain or pain during sex.
Period phase 4: Your Forties
With whisperings of menopause on the horizon, you’ll be forgiven for thinking the end of your period’s journey is a decade away – you’re right, the average age for women to experience the menopause is 51 years old. However, during your forties, your body starts its perimenopausal hormone fluctuations which is basically prep work for the big event; usually about 8-10 years before it happens. It’s ironic really, just when your body has started to get the hang of a lighter flow and regular cycle, it’s all change!
You may start by missing the odd period or noticing a heavier or lighter flow than normal. As hormone levels ebb and flow, you may experience hot flushes and night sweats (oh the joys!) as well as breast tenderness, headaches, a lower libido, vaginal dryness and heightened PMS symptoms.
Of course, some women experience mild symptoms, but studies show more than 60% of women will experience symptoms, so it’s best to prepare for what’s in store.
How to help your cycle
All is not lost! Small lifestyle changes can stop you feeling that perimenopause symptoms will overwhelm you. A healthy diet, yoga and mindfulness can help (there are loads of mindfulness apps which provide daily sessions, such as Clarity) exercising, stopping smoking and reducing alcohol can all help.
Talking (and laughing) to friends about what you’re experiencing will help you the most, just like when you were in your teens and whispering about your period on the bus home and can make the changes much more bearable.
How to help yourself
If you are finding symptoms too much, talk to your GP about HRT, or what else might be available to you such as acupuncture. And don’t forget, women can get pregnant right up until their last period happens, despite everything else being erratic.
Period phase 5: Your Fifties
It’s tricky to know for sure whether you’re having your menopause, especially as an actual diagnosis is retrospective; only made 12 months after your last ever period. Most research points to women following very similar trends to their own mothers, so if possible, quiz your mum on when she first experienced symptoms. Interestingly, when I quizzed my mum, she said she regretted not writing anything down at the time – keep a diary to track the changes in your cycle. It will be useful as you head towards the end of this journey, but also handy if a daughter ever asks what might be in store for her.
Whatever age you are, remember your period is essentially a snapshot of your overall health – track your cycle (there are loads of apps you can use) and see a doctor if you think anything is unusual, has changed suddenly or you need some help with period symptoms. Trust your instincts, you’ll likely have your period for almost forty years, so embrace the love/hate relationship you have with it.