When you get your period is the blood bright red or a brownish black color? Is your flow so heavy that you’re afraid to stand up in a meeting for fear of leaking through your pants, or is it barely a trickle? Does it last for a day or go on for two weeks? Do you have lots of clotting (that thick, dark, jelly like substance)?
And did you know that all of this information is incredibly important and can help you understand some really important things about your health and your body?
Your sixth vital sign
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) considers the menstrual cycle to be a critical indicator of overall female health.~ And more and more doctors are recognizing that our periods are the sixth vital sign to female health.
The other five vital signs are blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, respiration and pain.
I learned about this ‘Period as a Vital Sign’ thing on a podcast and found it fascinating. What I also learned is that if we track our menstrual cycles right from puberty, it can actually help identify potential health concerns in our adulthood.
Yet another thing that would have been really helpful to know when I was younger.
I didn’t start tracking until I was 47. If you aren’t tracking yet, don’t panic. But start now. There are a ton of free, incredible tracking apps available in your app store. More about those later.
It’s all connected
Throughout the month, our hormones rise and fall cyclically depending on the menstrual phase we’re in – menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation or the luteal phase. And these cycles affect so many systems in our bodies, not just the reproductive ones. Fluctuating levels of estrogen, progesterone, thyroid, cortisol, testosterone and insulin also impact our cardiovascular, circulatory, and nervous systems, to name a few.
It stands to reason then that our cycle not only reflects the balance of our female hormones but also offers valuable clues about the overall well-being of our entire body.
By paying attention to our menstrual cycle, we can gain insights into our health and identify any underlying imbalances that may need attention.
An overview of the menstrual cycle
From a really high level, our menstrual cycle is basically our bodies preparing for pregnancy. It involves the release of an egg from one of the ovaries (ovulation), and hormonal changes that prepares the uterus for a possible pregnancy. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, the uterine lining sheds, resulting in our period.
Want to know more? Cycle Syncing 101 is a great read that explains all of this.
Why tracking is important
Our menstrual cycle is a great indicator of our physical and emotional well-being. When we’re younger irregularities can help us to understand underlying hormone imbalances and related conditions.
Unfortunately, in perimenopause, it seems like all we experience are irregularities. Despite this, it’s still really important to track our cycles and keep our doctors up to date.
I went to my doctor recently to increase my progesterone script. When I explained I needed more progesterone because of my consistently low moods and ongoing spotting. When I pulled out my tracking app and sited how frequently I was spotting, he quickly explained that spotting regularly throughout the month wasn’t necessarily a perimenopause/low progesterone symptom. He booked me in for an ultrasound and uterine biopsy to rule any irregularities out before discussing a change to my script.
Had I not been tracking my cycle, there’s a good chance I would have downplayed how frequently I was spotting and wouldn’t have gotten these tests done. I don’t get the results until next week, but I’m staying positive.
What to track in perimenopause
There are a number of really important things that we should be tracking each month:
Cycle Length – the average length of a cycle is 28 days. Of course, this changes in perimenopause. In the early stages of perimenopause, many women find their cycle shortens for a while. Eventually this will flip however, and the time between periods will get longer and longer until one day you realize it’s been 365 days since your last period. Celebrate this day! This is menopause.
Regularity – This will likely be all over the place during perimenopause. It’s very much connected with your cycle length so in the early stages of perimenopause you might have it more than once a month. As you progress through perimenopause, it will become less and less regular as you cycle gets longer and longer.
Period Length – is the length of your bleed. For an adult who’s not on any hormones, a typical bleed is about 8 days. This also changes during perimenopause. If you aren’t experiencing any other perimenopause symptoms (lucky you!) watching for changes in you period length might be an indication that you are entering perimenopause.
Flow – your bleed is the shedding of your endometrium, or the lining of your uterus. The average woman sheds about six tablespoons of blood each period. During perimenopause, it’s common (but not normal) for women to experience extremely heavy periods. It’s different for every women, but If you need to change your tampon or pad every one to two hours, this is considered heavy. It could be an indication of high estrogen. Either way, this is an important one to tell your doctor about.
Clotting – is the thick, dark, jelly like substance you find mixed in with menstrual blood. It’s often caused by an imbalance of high estrogen to low progesterone which increases the thickness of the uterus lining. If your clots are larger than a quarter, you should see your doctor.
Color – there’s a lot to be understood from the color of our menstrual blood. Normally, the color ranges from light pink to almost black with so many variations in between. So what does your blood color mean?
Emotional Symptoms – your emotions are a great indicator of what’s happening to your hormones. High levels of estrogen are typically associated with anxiety, low mood and depression. If your progesterone is too high, you might feel fatigue and changes to your libido.
Physical Symptoms – if your estrogen is high, you might experience symptoms like weight gain (especially around the middle), fibroids in the uterus, breast lumps, headaches and even dry eyes. On the other hand, if your progesterone is running high, you might have breast tenderness and swelling, bloating or water retention, and leg pains.
It quickly becomes apparent why tracking your cycle and symptoms is really important for a woman’s overall health. You can easily track your app in a journal or on a calendar (paper or digital). If you want to make it even easier, you can download one of the many apps available in your app store. There are a ton of great ones (make sure you check out the app store rating). Depending on where you are in your fertility journey, you can find ones for teens, people trying to get pregnant or ones focused on the perimenopause journey. The differences come down to some of the symptoms tracked as well as the curated education available. Search ‘period tracker’ in your app store and download one today.
The Take Away
This is a quick skim on what your period can tell you about your health. If you want to learn more, Lisa Hendrickson-Jack’s book, The Fifth Vital Sign is a fascinating read.
In the meantime, remember that your period and monthly symptoms are important indicators of our menstrual and overall health. Every day our bodies are sending us messages. It’s important for us to dial into them and to our intuition.
And as always, don’t brush off symptoms as simply part of being a woman. And don’t let your health care practitioner dismiss you either. While it’s normal to experience some discomfort around our period, it’s important not to ignore chronic symptoms or cycles that are bothering you. Listen to your body and talk to your doctor if something doesn’t seem right.