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All period symptoms you need to know

10 min read
Cycle Care

Which period symptoms are just ‘part of the deal’ and which are an actual cause for worry? Cycle gives the full list. Sit back, grab a glass of wine and relax. It’s time to get informed.
@katysmithphotos

What period symptoms are just ‘part of the deal’ and which are an actual cause for worry? Cycle gives the full list. Sit back, grab a glass of wine and relax. It’s time to get informed.

Those people who are like ‘Ahh finally, it’s time for my period, I feel great…’ Have you ever heard of them? Yeah, neither have we. ‘Sucks, but deal with it’ is something we, at Cycle, hear way more often. But should we really ignore the severity of these symptoms just because they happen every month?

Physical menstrual symptoms

Periods are part of something beautiful; fertility. But unfortunately, they’re usually paired with some not-so-pretty symptoms: stomach aches, acne, headaches and a general feel of malaise.

Discharge

Even though all people who have a vulva struggle with it, it seems that we still don’t really like talking about it. A true shame, because discharge (or fluor albus, the more scientific name) is a natural process that says a lot about your cycle and health. The amount, color and consistency changes throughout your cycle, as you may have noticed. Brown discharge after your period, white, yellowish, translucent or brown discharge right before your period; anything is possible. Caused by your cycle, the pill, pregnancy, perimenopause and sex. And it’s usually nothing to worry about. Does it look very different from what you’re used to? Then it might be a good idea to contact your doctor. You can find out more about what your discharge tells you about your cycle here.

Hormonal acne

Acne before or during your period, lots of people struggle with it. It has everything to do with your hormones. Just around the time of your ovulation, your body starts to produce more progesterone, whereas the estrogen levels take a nosedive. This change in your hormonal balance sometimes causes overproduction of sebum or infection of the sebaceous glands in the pores. Voila: pimples. People who struggle with hormonal acne usually start taking the pill, because it blocks the menstrual cycle and keeps your hormones from fluctuating too much. But if you’re not the biggest fan of hormonal contraception, you could always choose to keep up a good skincare regime with products containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

Blood clots

Blood clots in your underwear when you’re on your period. Not the worst thing to happen and nothing to be concerned about either. However, if the clots are larger than a quarter, it might be best to contact your doctor. You may be dealing with heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia). The blood contains tissue from your uterine lining, which leads to clotting. Other causes are: PCOS, menopause, a fibroid or polyp. Would you like to learn more about PCOS? Click the link here. We’ve written an article about heavy menstrual bleeding as well, which you can access here.

Headache

The number one menstrual symptom: throbbing, stinging, horribly annoying headaches. Did you know that 35% of all women suffer from headaches every month? And 8% of those struggle with the worse variant, migraines. All thanks to our lovely cycle. There’s a difference between menstrual headaches and migraines. Menstrual headaches usually start to act up about 1 or 2 days before your period, last until about 2 days after your period and the pain is still pretty bearable. You can usually function okay with a painkiller or two.

Menstrual migraines are on a whole other level. These types of headaches are commonly experienced in the form of attacks and may even lead to diarrhea. Lots of women who struggle with menstrual migraines can’t function normally when they are dealing with such attacks. The only way is to lay down in a dark quiet room and hope for it to pass. The start, intensity and duration are the same every cycle and the worst part: painkillers don’t work.

Stomach aches, nausea and pain in your back

Are you one of the lucky ones who struggle with stomach aches, back pain and nausea right before your period? You’re probably dealing with dysmenorrhea. These symptoms are connected to hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins (PG). When there has been no fertilization around the time of your ovulation, these compounds will cause the muscles of the uterus to contract. This contraction makes it easier for the extra lining and blood to find their way out (during your menstrual period). Unfortunately, this also causes the prostaglandins to find their way into other parts of your body. This causes symptoms such as nausea, stomach aches and back pain. Here, you can find out more about prostaglandins and how they also cause you to poop more during your menstruation.

Fatigue and flu-like symptoms

It feels as if you caught a cold, but then every month again and again. You feel tired and your body feels slow as if you’re moving through water - in short, you feel like shit. And then you realize the feeling returns every month, like clockwork, thanks to your cycle. Is this you? There are several possible reasons why you may be feeling so horrible every month before your period.

During your period, your uterus doesn’t just shed the uterine lining, but blood as well. This causes the levels of iron and red blood cells in your body to drop. Red blood cells transport oxygen, so if you have a heavy flow, this means the level of oxygen in your body drops so much that it causes you to feel weak and tired. Another cause of flu-like symptoms is hormonal fluctuations. Especially prostaglandins tend to cause these symptoms. But estrogen can make you feel exhausted too. The cycle also influences the amount of serotonin in your brain, and if that drops, it could cause exhaustion and sleep problems.

Bloating and weight gain

Do you feel bloated or notice any weight gain before and during your menstruation? Estrogen causes you to retain water and salt, which causes that bloated feeling. Cortisol may add to that feeling as well. This hormone is stimulated by stress and bad sleep patterns and causes you to retain water and salt. If you struggle with stress during your period, it’s very likely that cortisol causes you to feel like you’ve gained weight. Do you drink coffee like your life depends on it? Maybe dial it down a bit, because it causes you to lose magnesium and a magnesium deficiency makes you feel bloated and aggravates menstrual symptoms, such as depression and cramps in your legs. If your intestinal flora is thrown out of balance, your body won’t just struggle with digesting the food properly, but excess estrogen won’t be able to find its way out either. This causes bloating and may make you weigh more before and during your menstruation as well.

Menstrual pain

Pain in your lower stomach and menstrual pains; from a nagging pain to a more stabbing pain, around your hips, near the vulva, pelvis, lower back, side or even around the belly button. Sometimes, the pain gets so bad that even painkillers don’t help anymore. These spots house the muscles that keep your uterus nice and snug in its place. You can soothe the pain with a nice warm shower or bath. Heat pads tend to help as well, or you can choose to drink fresh ginger tea or to eat your yoghurt with a little bit of cinnamon to alleviate the pain.

Menstrual pain, but not during your period?

 This could have several different explanations, such as PCOS or endometriosis. 5 to 10 percent of all women struggle with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). The condition is characterized by irregular periods or no periods at all. PCOS means that there are several cysts on the ovaries. How they get there is still a mystery to doctors and researchers, but it likely has to do with hormones. Endometriosis could also cause this kind of pain. At least 1 in 10 women struggle with this condition. We urge you to contact your doctor if you think you may have PCOS or endometriosis!

Contraception is sometimes connected to continuous menstrual pain as well. The hormones in the Mirena IUD, for instance, makes your uterine lining thinner, which causes cramps. You can get hormone therapy to make the uterine lining thicker again. Another factor that plays a part is stress. It causes your cortisol level to rise which then causes you to experience menstrual symptoms when it’s not your period. Would you like to learn more about how stress influences your cycle? Read about it here.

Light period, brown blood

Light flow during your period is nothing to worry about, it says nothing about health or fertility. The amount of blood you lose during your period differs from person to person and period to period, but it usually comes down to an average of 50ml. There’s also no reason to panic if your blood looks a little brown. When it comes into contact with oxygen, it will start to oxidize (like rust), which causes it to darken. This is more common at the beginning or end of your period, or with light periods.

Breakthrough bleeding

Sometimes it happens that you find out that you’ve been bleeding in the middle of your cycle. Far from ideal, especially when you’re certain your monthlies were not supposed to happen for another week or two.

Breakthrough bleeding is what we call vaginal blood loss outside of the pill-free week. Not a menstrual symptom exactly, but it fits the bill well enough. You may experience bleeding between your periods in the first 3 to 4 months of using the contraceptive pill. It’s usually a lot less blood than a normal period and is also commonly called ‘spotting.’ The cause of the spotting is usually just your body trying to acclimatize to the pill.

STIs

And then we have STIs, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, which could also cause or aggravate menstrual symptoms. It’s important to spot these symptoms early. This way you won’t end up with nasty infections or infertility.

 Mental menstrual symptoms

‘Are you about to get your period, or something?’ Words we’ve all heard before when we’re in a bad mood, whether in jest or serious. Never fun to hear, but even worse if they’re right and you actually feel like crap because it’s right before your period.

Emotional symptoms

Feeling emotional, mood swings, feeling down or even depressed during your period: about 50% of all women struggle with this to some extent before or during their period. Changes in your hormonal balance around your period make you more susceptible to tension and (negative) stimuli, which has a huge influence on your mood. Research shows that estrogen has a direct influence on serotonin levels. Serotonin is also known as the happiness hormone. You may imagine that, when the happiness hormone fluctuates together with estrogen, it could make you feel blue or unhappy. It sucks, but it’s nothing to worry about as long as the feelings disappear after your period. However, if your mood has such an influence on your daily activities that you can’t function normally anymore, it might be time to get the help of a professional hand.

Extreme menstrual symptoms

Having your period is never fun, but that doesn’t mean that you have to suffer for no reason. So contact your doctor if you’re dealing with the following symptoms, because - more often than not - there’s a solution.

Heavy menstrual bleeding

Heavy blood loss during the menstrual cycle is common and terribly inconvenient. If you lose more than 80ml with every period, it counts as heavy menstrual bleeding. It could have several causes. You can read more about heavy menstrual bleeding, causes and solutions here.

Uterine fibroids and all that jazz

Why is my period suddenly so heavy and painful? There are several possible causes. Take your thyroid for instance. It regulates lots of bodily functions, among which is the menstrual cycle. If something happens; like if you have too much or too little of thyroid hormones, it could aggravate your menstrual symptoms suddenly. Another cause is an imbalance between the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Even fibroids or polyps can cause heavy menstrual symptoms. Thicker uterine lining does as well, this usually indicates that you’ll have heavier flow when you get your period.

Endometriosis and adenomyosis

About 1 in 10 women has endometriosis or adenomyosis. The first is a chronic condition in which small amounts of tissue that look like endometrium grow outside the uterus instead of the inside. The second occurs when endometrium starts to grow into the muscular wall of the uterus. It will still act normally (thickening and bleeding) during the cycle, which causes the uterus to enlarge like a sponge. Both lead to pretty painful symptoms. We’ve written an article about all the differences between endometriosis and adenomyosis here. And if you want to learn more about Linda’s experiences with endometriosis, you can do so here.

PMS

PMS is one of the conditions connected to the more extreme mental symptoms of your period. The menstrual cycle brings along its physical struggles but also a plethora of mental struggles. For about 5 to 25 percent of people who menstruate, these symptoms can get so bad that it interferes with their daily life and activities. Welcome to the world of the Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS).

So what is PMS exactly? The word syndrome implies that it’s a combination of several symptoms and this is definitely the case for PMS: there are more than a hundred symptoms connected to PMS. No one experiences them all and they can even differ from period to period. The most common symptoms are:

  • Depression

  • Fatigue/lack of energy

  • Mood swings

  • Temper tantrum

  • Crying spells

  • Nervousness

  • Irritability

  • Distress

  • Bloating

  • Painful, firm breasts

  • Stomach ache or cramps

  • Lower back pain

  • Headaches

  • Joint pain

  • Water retention (often in hands and feet

  • Weight gain

  • Digestive issues (nausea, cramps, diarrhea)

  • Sleeping problems

  • Concentration problems

  • Loss of libido

  • Sugar cravings

  • Acne

  • Perspiration

  • General malaise

PMS can be diagnosed by doing a self test. The best way is to keep a detailed calendar of symptoms. You can do this by writing down all your symptoms over the course of at least two cycles. If they remain unchanged over the course of the whole month, meaning there’s no break of at least a week, there’s a large chance that you might be dealing with something different from PMS. Call your GP to find out the cause of your symptoms. There are several ways to soothe the symptoms. Think of: trying not to stress, a healthy diet, exercise and in some cases supplements.

PMDD

PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) is like PMS’ evil stepsister. It’s a hormonal condition that has the ability to turn the world of anyone who has it on its axis. PMDD symptoms range from fatigue, mood swings, depression, anxiety, migraines, insomnia to suicidal thoughts in the week(s) before the menstrual period. The exact cause is still unknown. A PMDD test doesn’t exist and neither does treatment for it. People who suffer from PMDD still have a long way to go before they can get proper treatment. Fortunately, the condition has been getting more attention in recent years, which also helps instill hope for finding a cause and cure. You can read more about PMDD here.

Lastly, the effect of the pill on your mood

 Depressive feelings, mood swings and a libido level so low that it’s stuck on the ground - a few examples of symptoms people who use the pill may end up struggling with. Contraception pills have been on the market for about sixty years now and are among the most researched medicines. They are commonly prescribed to (young) women who struggle with menstrual symptoms. And they work great!

But there are also many negatives. When researching the pill, the focus mostly lies on physical effects and health risks. Research on the effect of the pill on mood and emotions is still lacking, but there are some clear indications that the pill influences the parts of the brain that are in charge of regulating mood, fear and joy. Use of the pill has been linked to depression more than once, but the exact cause is still unclear. Kind of odd, if you remember that more than a hundred million women take the contraceptive pill. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to research because there are lots of factors in play when speaking of depression. On the positive side, people (including doctors!) are paying more and more attention to the psychological side effects of the pill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cycle is a community where all aspects of the female body are discussed freely. From menstruation to menopause: we'll help you understand your body, mind, cycle and sexuality better, with the help of our Cycle Experts.