So far we’ve talked about what to expect from the first visit to the gynecologist’s office, when your first period might arrive, and fun and interesting ways in which puberty is celebrated (or not) around the world. Now it’s time to talk about what’s normal (or not) with menstrual cycles and some products that can help you go with the flow.
What’s a Normal Period?
According to textbooks, a normal menstrual cycle is counted from day 1 (the first day of full flow bleeding) until the next episode of bleeding, and on average, there are about 28 days between those two events. Normal, however, can be anything from 21 to 35 days, meaning you could have a period every three weeks or every five weeks and still be healthy.
For girls who are less than two years out from the first period, cycles can be even longer; up to 45 days, as her body gets the hang of ovulating. On the other hand, if there are more days with a heavy flow every month than there are days without bleeding, something is wrong, and it’s time to see the doctor.
If you suddenly realize you haven’t had a period since the Oscars, and now it’s Teen Choice Award season, then that’s way too long. More than two months without a period (when you’ve had them regularly) is cause for concern. One missed period may be something that happens every now and again because of stress or other factors. Obviously, if a period doesn’t show and there’s ANY chance of pregnancy, don’t put off a pregnancy test or seeing the doctor.
A normal flow should not last longer than seven days, and usually, only the first 2-4 days will be “heavy”. Knowing what’s too heavy can be tricky, especially if there’s a family history of heavy periods or bleeding problems. If you need to change your pad or tampon because it’s soaked every 2-3 hours, then that’s probably too much. If you are passing clots (solid, congealed blood) larger than a dime, soiling clothes or bed sheets despite regularly changing your pads or if you have a “flooding” sensation when you get up or walk around, then there may be a problem. If you are soaking a pad every hour or feeling lightheaded: call your doctor right away.
What about symptoms?
Almost anything is possible, but some broad categories include headaches, pelvic and back pain, breast tenderness and swelling, bloating and skin changes. As tiresome as these physical irritations can be, the psychological effects of being on your period can sometimes be more challenging.
Mood swings or changes that tend towards depression, irritability, feeling exhausted or in a mental fog, appetite changes including a craving for carbs; these are all typical complaints and are often referred to as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), because they generally start before bleeding does. Managing all of these problems, especially if they are severe and causing you to miss out on life, is exactly what your gynecologist is there to help with (so call her, already!).
Managing It all & Going With The Flow
For some non-medical therapy that can help you cope with these symptoms (and a whole lot more), I recommend trying some mindfulness practice, which is so much easier said than done. There are about three thousand years of meditation history to consider, but all you need is to set aside some time (even 5 minutes to start), check in with your body and mind, then try to recognize your thoughts and feelings without judging. Easy right?
So much of our discomfort-both mental and physical-arises from how we magnify a thought or a feeling into “the worst case scenario”, giving it so much more imaginary power than it has. Learning to recognize this moment-to-moment and then translating that into self-regulation takes lots of practice.
It may seem counterintuitive to recommend an electronic device to unplug and connect to your inner calm, but apps that help with mindfulness practice can be useful. The Insight Meditation Timer is fun because you can see where people are meditating the same time you are worldwide. Smiling Mind has programs for ages as young as 7, with a special option just for teens.
So what’s the best way to stay on top of your period timing, flow, and symptoms? Yep, there’s an app for that! New period tracker apps are coming online all the time, but if you are an iPhone or Android user, check out Period Tracker: it’s easy to use and has lots of cute emoticons to represent a broad range of period-related symptoms.
Another good option is Life; it’s a bit sleeker than Period Tracker and has the ability (with an upgrade) to help monitor and provide reminders for more than just your period. Finally, Monthly Gift makes getting your period almost a special treat. The app has a fun, design-y interface to track cycles, the website has links to all kinds of girl-power blog pieces, and it offers a subscription service that delivers a little black box of tampons, pads, liners and even some chocolate.
There are several subscription services that deliver period care necessities right to your door, along with fun treats (why didn’t we think of it?). HelloFlo is special in that it has a “Period Starter Kit” complete with both a parent’s and a girl’s guide to period basics. And mom, check out The Period Store or Le Parcel, because, until menopause hits, you may as well get a monthly treat too. The Period Store has an extensive selection of both drug store and more environmentally conscious options for period care, along with teas, stain-resistant underwear, and treats. Le Parcelis a good choice if you aren’t going to stray from your tried-and-true brand and love the option to customize the number of tampons, pads, and liners that go into your box.
For those awake at night thinking about the giant mass of trash in the ocean, there are now many safe options for eco-friendly period care. The Diva Cup is a silicone vessel that when inserted into the vagina, collects rather than absorbs menstrual flow, and can be used for up to 12 hours. It’s reusable, which is fantastic, but does mean you’ll need to be prepared to empty and wash the cup. You can’t just flush it down the toilet to join all the other trash in the sea.
Speaking of the sea, you may have heard about using sea sponges as tampons. While it sounds like something a mermaid might use, humans should NOT use sea sponges for period care: they have been associated with dangerous infections and toxic shock syndrome.
If a reusable cup sounds a bit too messy, you can consider natural or organically sourced tampons and pads, such as those from the Honest Company. If you are all in for our planet, then reusable pads are the next step, as long as you are prepared to spend a little time in the laundry room. GladRags and Lunapad are both excellent options.
Last, but certainly not least, we need to remember how incredibly lucky we are to have all of these fantastic options because so many girls and women around the world have next to nothing to help them manage menstrual realities. In some places, everything from leaves, rocks, and even cow dung are used to try and stay clean.
Take a look at Days for Girls and learn what you can do to help keep girls in school and women involved in their work and families. In our own backyard, most homeless shelters and women’s centers are chronically low on period care products and would welcome them in a donation.
Here’s to having the best possible period experience for ourselves, our sisters around the corner and all across the globe!8