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Your menstrual myth buster

Got questions about your period? Join the club. So, we spoke to a top gynaecologist to get you answers to the things you really want to know.

Shark week. The Big Red. Time of the Month. For all its elusive aliases and synonyms, periods remain a taboo topic of conversation, eliciting giggles at school and raised eyebrows in  the office. But in the safety of our friendship groups, the questions start to flow (pun entirely intended). 

Why do we get such random and intense symptoms, and is there anything we can do about it? Is that myth a friend said back in secondary school actually true? Why is it we still feel embarrassed to ask questions about our bodies? 

We decided to pose some of your questions to Dr Caroline Overton, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and get the answers to the mysteries we discuss over a glass of wine once and for all – and about bloody time, too.

Why do I get headaches/migraines during my period, and how can I alleviate them?

Headaches and migraines are common  symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.  This is the group of symptoms that occur in the days before your period starts.  Types of symptoms include psychological symptoms such as mood changes and irritability, physical symptoms such as breast tenderness and bloating and behavioural symptoms such as reduced visio-spatial ability and clumsiness.

We know that many people who menstruate can experience headaches caused by changes in their hormones and often people notice it is linked to their period.  A ‘menstrual migraine’ is most likely to develop in either the 2 days leading up to a period or the first 3 days during a period.  This is because of hormone changes with a progesterone dominance and a drop in oestrogen levels.

The Migraine Trust says it’s worth keeping a diary for at least 3 menstrual cycles to help you check whether your migraines are linked to your periods. If they’re linked, a diary can help to pinpoint at what stage in your cycle you get a migraine. This can also be good to show your GP.

The NHS have some top tips for relieving hormonal headaches are:

  • Eat small, frequent snacks to keep your blood sugar level up. Missing meals or going too long without food can trigger attacks. Have a small snack before going to bed, and always eat breakfast. 
  • Have a regular sleep pattern, and avoid too much or too little sleep. 
  • Avoid stress. If this proves difficult, find ways to deal with stress, such as regular exercise and using relaxation strategies. 

 Is period syncing an actual thing? 

We know that anecdotally many people feel their periods sync with their friends or colleagues if they spend large amounts of time with them, such as living or working together. There have been a few studies looking into menstrual syncing. Martha McClintock in 1971 was the first to suggest that room-mates and close friends living in a college dormitory synchronized their periods.  A study of 186 people living in a dormitory in China suggested that “women do not sync their menstrual cycles” and suggested that the previous finding was due to chance.  In 2017 period tracking app Clue teamed up with Oxford University to speak to 1,500 people who menstruate. They found that it’s unlikely that people disrupt each other’s menstrual cycle by being around each other.  While scientifically a link hasn’t been proven, syncing is still very much up for debate.

Why do I get so hungry the week before my period? 

Again, this is another very common symptom of premenstrual syndrome.

You may feel hungrier and/or get food cravings before your period and that’s completely normal. There are a number of reasons why this could be, including changes to your hormone levels, mood, and metabolism. 

In the NICE guidelines – which are referred to by healthcare professionals in diagnosing premenstrual syndrome – ‘food cravings’ is a recognised symptom.

Why do my symptoms fluctuate month-to-month?

Each month a whole new process of hormone production starts again, with oestrogen being the dominant hormone before ovulation and progesterone being the dominant hormone after ovulation.  As this is a biological process, there isn’t an exact formula and there will be natural differences from month-to-month.

People who menstruate should not suffer in silence and we’d advise anyone experiencing severe symptoms that are affecting their daily life to seek advice from their GP as there are several treatment options available. There is this handy diary to help you keep track of your symptoms which can be useful to show your healthcare professional.

It is also important to be aware of the symptoms of the condition endometriosis.  Normal period pain should be manageable with painkillers.  If your period pain or the pain in the days before your period is affecting your activities of daily living, then these could be symptoms of endometriosis, and you should seek advice from your GP. 

Does exercise really help with pain – and if so, tips to staying active throughout your cycle?

You might not feel like exercising during a painful period, but keeping active can help relieve period pain and discomfort. Exercise releases endorphins – the feel good hormone – and also acts as a mood booster. You might find that low impact exercises such as swimming, walking or cycling are more comfortable, especially if you are experiencing lots of pain.

Exercise can also help to regulate menstruation. If you’re stressed, a menstrual cycle can become longer or shorter and periods might stop altogether.  Regular exercise – like yoga, or going for a jog – can help relaxation and reduce the impact of that stress. 

It is important to listen to your body to figure out what the right level of exercise is. If you feel comfortable, there is no reason why you should stop high intensity exercise during your period.

Do the symptoms of your period get worse/more intense as you get older?

Everyone has a different experience when it comes to periods, but it is common for your periods to adjust and change as you get older. In your 40s, it is normal for periods to become heavier and closer together, happening every 21 days or so, when they were every 28 – 31 days.  This is due to the natural age-related hormonal changes of the perimenopause.  Menstruating people might also experience some hot flushes around the time of their period and worsening premenstrual symptoms.  As you approach 50, your periods might start spacing out and you find that you have missed a complete period. If you are experiencing a change in your periods and/or you are struggling with your symptoms, then it could be time to head to a healthcare professional for advice. 

How can I use my diet to balance hormones, help period pain and reduce bloating?

We know that diet can affect periods and those who are significantly underweight can see their periods stop all together.

It is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet throughout the monthly cycle and as always, avoid greasy, heavily-processed food. Dehydration can make menstrual cramps and bloating worse, so ensure you’re drinking plenty of water and consume alcohol and caffeine in moderation.

If periods are very heavy, it might be worth taking an iron supplement during your period to replace the iron being lost with the period blood.

Lots of people have been having irregular periods after catching COVID – do we know why? 

We’re aware that many have been reporting a change to their period cycle or symptoms during the pandemic. The degree to which changing hormone levels will affect someone is often informed by her psychological wellbeing at that time. We know that life events can make PMS symptoms feel worse, and something as all-consuming and life-changing as a global pandemic could result in people experiencing their periods differently.

In theory, the Covid-19 vaccination might affect periods because of its effect of stimulating immune cells.  Anecdotally, some people seem to be reporting heavier periods after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and we would support more data collection in this area to understand if and why this might be the case.

There is no evidence that the Covid-19 vaccination affects future fertility.  

Unscheduled bleeding can be a symptom of underlying problems such as infection or cancer.  It is important that unexpected bleeding is not simply explained away because of the Covid-19 vaccination and that people contact their GP for a check-up.