Aunt Flo, Red Wedding (any Game of Thrones fans out there?), Time of the Month, Code Red, Leak Week, Girl Flu (as opposed to the man flu … don’t even get me started), Shark Week, monthlies … the list goes on. If you have even had one period, you’ve probably heard these lovely nicknames. But, do you know what menstrual cycles are, why they happen, when they will stop, and the signs and symptoms leading up to that point? Well, consider me your Menstrual Cycle BFF to the rescue. You’ll be an expert in no time. Put on your goggles and lab coat, I’m about to get all sciency up in here. But trust me! You’ll appreciate being educated, empowered, and unleashed to take charge of your reproductive health.
Note! If you are a parent or a person who influences teenagers and wants to alert them about the final phase of the reproductive journey—menopause, check out our eBook: “How to Talk About Menopause With Teens.”
The Basics of Menstrual Cycles
What Are Menstrual Cycles?
What’s the science involved with having a monthly period? According to the resourceful researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, “Menstruation is the monthly shedding of the lining of a woman’s uterus (more commonly known as the womb). Menstruation is also known by the terms menses, menstrual period, cycle, or period. The menstrual blood—which is partly blood and partly tissue from the inside of the uterus—flows from the uterus through the cervix and out of the body through the vagina.”
In less technical terms, it’s when you shed the lining of your womb out your hoo-ha.
What Is a Normal Menstrual Cycle?
Menstrual Cycles are the sequence of events that occur within a woman’s body as it prepares for the possibility of pregnancy each month. The start of a menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period. The average cycle is 28 days long. However, cycles can range anywhere from 21 to 35 days. (Irregular menstrual cycles are like unruly puppies; they’re unpredictable and frustrating, but they certainly keep life interesting!)
When Does Menstruation Typically Begin?
Children with uteruses start menstruating, or having periods, typically by the age of 12. However, those assigned female at birth can start menstruating as early as 8 or as late as 16.
When Does Menstruation Typically End?
On average, by the age of 51, most U.S. women have entered menopause, or the time when they are no longer having their periods. A heads up that it might happen earlier than your mid-40s or later than 51. No need to be alarmed, though, because all bodies are different!
According to the National Institute of Aging, “menopause is a point in time 12 months after a woman’s last period. The years leading up to that point, when women may have changes in their monthly cycles, hot flashes, or other symptoms, are called the menopausal transition, or perimenopause.” If you want to know more about menopause, congratulations, you’re in EXACTLY the right place on the internet!
What Are the Phases of Menstrual Cycles?
Just like the moon and that period in junior high when you tried out being goth, preppy, and then joined the AV club for a week, your period goes through many phases. Here are all of the menstrual cycle phases as outlined by the Cleveland Clinic:
- The menses phase: This phase, which typically lasts from day one to day five, is the time when the lining of the uterus is actually shed out through the vagina if pregnancy has not occurred. Most women bleed for three to five days, but a period lasting only two days to as many as seven days is still considered normal.
- The follicular phase: This phase typically takes place from days six to 14. During this time, the level of the hormone estrogen rises, which causes the lining of the uterus (called the endometrium) to grow and thicken. In addition, another hormone—follicle-stimulating hormone—causes follicles in the ovaries to grow. During days 10 to 14, one of the developing follicles will form a fully mature egg (ovum).
- Ovulation: This phase occurs roughly at about day 14 in a 28-day menstrual cycle. A sudden increase in another hormone—luteinizing hormone—causes the ovary to release its egg. This event is called ovulation.
- The luteal phase: This phase lasts from about day 15 to day 28. After the egg is released from the ovary it begins to travel through the fallopian tubes to the uterus. The level of the hormone progesterone rises to help prepare the uterine lining for pregnancy. If the egg becomes fertilized by a sperm and attaches itself to the uterine wall, the woman becomes pregnant. If pregnancy does not occur, estrogen and progesterone levels drop and the thickened lining of the uterus is shed during the menstrual period.
What Are the Symptoms of Menstrual Cycles?
Aunt Flo sure does bring a lot of baggage when she arrives. Here are some of the items in her PMS suitcase:
- Breast tenderness
- Food cravings
- Trouble sleeping
Aunt Flo is kind of like my real-life Aunt Jenna. I’m glad when she arrives, but I also can’t wait for her to leave. I bet you can’t wait to say “peace out” to your Aunt Flo during menopause, right?!
When Should You Be Concerned With Your Menstrual Cycles?
Wondering whether you should be concerned about your periods? During the first stage of menopause (perimenopause), your, estrogen and progesterone levels in your body will rise and fall. During this time, you might experience irregular periods. Your periods might be heavier, lighter, longer, shorter, or skipped. If any of those occurrences start to happen, then you might be entering the menopausal transition.
If you are not to the perimenopausal age frame yet and depending on your body and previous menstrual cycles, you will want to consider calling a healthcare professional if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- You have not started your period by the age of 16.
- Your periods stop suddenly.
- You are bleeding for more days than usual.
- You are bleeding more heavily than usual.
- You experience severe pain during your periods.
- You have bleeding between periods.
- You think you might be pregnant.
- You feel ill after using tampons.
- Your period has not started within three months of stopping birth control pills.
Moral of the story: Trust your gut. (In this case, we’re being pretty literal, the uterus isn’t far from the gut.) If you feel like something is off or something doesn’t feel right, get help and talk to a professional.
Menstrual Cycles and Menopause: How Are They Connected?
What Are the Stages of Menopause?
Did you know that people who possess a uterus will go on a magical menopausal journey which includes three exciting stops? Let’s break ‘em down, The Big Three:
- Perimenopause is the first of three stages of menopause. During this stage, estrogen and progesterone levels in your body will rise and fall. As an added bit of drama, they will fall … unevenly. During this time, you might experience irregular periods. As ovulation becomes more unpredictable, the length of time between periods may be longer or shorter, your flow might be heavier or lighter, and you might even skip periods. If you have a space of 60 days or more between periods, then you’re most likely going through perimenopause.
- Menopause occurs when a woman hasn’t menstruated in 12 consecutive months and can no longer become pregnant naturally. It usually begins between the ages of 45 and 55, but can develop before or after this age range. You can officially say “peace out” to Aunt Flo!
- Postmenopause begins when you hit the year mark from your final period. In other words, No Period For One Year = Postmenopause. Once that happens, you’ll be referred to as “postmenopausal” for the rest of your life. There’s no going back, but who’d want to? After all, you’ve survived all those symptoms, came out on the other side stronger, AND no longer need to worry about bleeding through your jeans. Goodbye stains, helloooo crisp white pantsuits!!
You might be thinking, “What’s the phase before all of this fun stuff begins?” That phase is called premenopause, meaning before menopause. During that phase, you’ll be having your monthlies and won’t experience any menopause-related symptoms. There’s also premature menopause (or early menopause). Early menopause can be induced by medical treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy.
How To Know You Are Menopausal?
How will you know when you’re approaching the menopausal transition? It might start with a visit from Aunt Flo, although that customary visit may not be what you’re accustomed to. That’s right, most people first notice the frequency of their period becoming less consistent (yay!) as the flow becomes heavier and longer (nay!).
Aside from the menstruation changes, other menopause symptoms may include (brace yourself, it’s about to get like a camper living in the woods: in tents):
- Vaginal dryness
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Decreased libido or sex drive
- Dry skin, mouth, and eyes
- Increased urination
- Urinary incontinence
- Sore or tender breasts
- Racing heart
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Reduced muscle mass
- Painful or stiff joints
- Reduced bone mass
- Less full breasts
- Hair thinning or loss
- Increased hair growth on other areas of the body, such as the face, neck, chest, and upper back
The good news is that you’ve got this, and you’re not alone! Menopause is 100% manageable and you’re in good company. And hey, at least you know the next 2-15 years of your life won’t be boring!
How Will I Know If Changes in My Period Are Related to Menopause or to Something Else?
Irregular periods are common during perimenopause. However, other conditions can cause abnormalities in menstrual cycles leading up to and during perimenopause. Be sure to contact a professional during your perimenopause-to-menopause journey if:
- Your periods are changing and become heavy (even maybe have blood clots).
- Your periods last several days longer than usual.
- You spot or bleed after your period has ended.
- You have spotting after sex.
- Your periods arrive closer together.
Now it’s time for advice that rhymes: When in doubt, get checked out.
What If I Experience Periods During Postmenopause?
As a friendly reminder, postmenopause happens when you’ve gone 12 consecutive months without a period. Bleeding or spotting after this point is called postmenopausal bleeding (PMB). To be very clear, I know I’m all about normalizing menopause, but IT IS NOT NORMAL to bleed or spot 12 months after your last period. If you bleed after your last period, then you need to contact a healthcare professional. It can be an early sign of a more serious disease.
What Causes Bleeding During Postmenopause?
Bleeding during postmenopause is rarely a cause for concern. However, it does need to be investigated. I read that “in about 90 percent of cases, a particular cause for bleeding after menopause will not be found. This is not a cause for alarm, if there is a serious problem it will be identified through investigations.” About 10 percent of the time, post-menopausal bleeding is linked to cancer of the cervix or uterus, so it is very important to have it investigated.
Typically, postmenopausal bleeding can be caused by:
- Inflammation and thinning of the lining of your vagina (called atrophic vaginitis)
- Thinning of the lining of your uterus
- Growths in the cervix or uterus (called polyps) which are usually not cancerous
- Thickened endometrium (called endometrial hyperplasia) often because of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- Abnormalities in the cervix or uterus
These are generally not serious problems and can be cured relatively easily. Just be sure to contact your healthcare professional to discuss treatment options.
It’s a Wrap!
Before we get to the glory days of postmenopause, we need to go through the monthly battles of YOU vs. PMS. Menstrual Cycles are the sequence of events that occur within a woman’s body as it prepares for the possibility of pregnancy each month. The start of a menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period. The average cycle is 28 days long. However, cycles can range anywhere from 21 to 35 days.
During the menopausal transition, you’ll go through premenopause (when you’re living that normal monthly life), perimenopause (when you might experience irregular periods), menopause (when you go 12 consecutive months without having a period), and postmenopause (when you are period-free and your hoo-ha says whoo-hoo!). You might even go through premature menopause if medically-induced. If you have any concerns about your lovely monthlies during any of these phases, be sure to contact your healthcare provider.
So, there you have it. A little anatomy lesson on everything you wanted (or maybe didn’t want to know) about our lovely menstrual cycles. Don’t you feel ready to conquer the menses world now? I know I am! Right after a nap.
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