What You Can Learn From Your Period
(And When to Call Your Doctor!)
A woman’s monthly bleeding, known as menstruation or your “period”, is a normal healthy bodily function. It is your body’s way of discarding each month’s buildup of uterine lining in preparation for pregnancy. If you do not become pregnant, your uterine lining is shed during your period, and the cycle begins again. The whole cycle is orchestrated by hormones, especially estrogen and progesterone, and is a natural process.
But as we all know well, just because something is natural, does not mean it is perfectly predictable or exactly the same from person to person. The timing, color, and amount of your flow, as well as any pain that accompanies it, can tell you a lot about what may be happening in your body. Learning to listen to your period and understand its patterns is a great way to educate yourself so you know what is normal and when to call your doctor.
The average period is 28 days. Day 1 is the first day of your period, with bleeding typically lasting from 2 to 7 days.
Periods are usually considered to be “regular” if they come every 24 to 38 days. By tracking your cycle each month, you can learn your typical patterns and identify changes to that pattern. There are many possible causes of missed or irregular periods. If you notice a sudden change to your normal cycle, or if your period is irregular for several cycles in a row, check in with your doctor.
Color of your flow
The color of your menstrual flow changes according to the time it has spent inside your body. You may notice some or all of the following colors during your period:
- Brown: Blood that is old and oxidized. Brown blood is common just before or at the end of your period.
- Dark red: Blood that is dark red is also old but hasn’t had time to oxidize fully. Typically, blood will change from bright red to dark red as your period progresses.
- Bright red: Blood that is new and fresh. Bright red blood is typically seen when your period first begins in full force.
- Pink or orange: When blood is mixed with cervical fluid or other discharge, it can look pink or orange. Some women see pink spotting around the time of ovulation, or very early in pregnancy as implantation bleeding.
The variation of color can be normal and is not indicative of anything wrong.
When to call your doctor: If you have bright red bleeding during the middle of your cycle (or any time that you’re sure it’s not your period), this could be a sign of infection. Additionally, if your flow looks grey (or any color you’ve never seen before), call your doctor.
Amount of Flow
A normal amount of menstrual fluid loss per period is about 30-60 milliliters (mL), or about 2-4 tablespoons. Losing over 80 mL (5+ tablespoons) of menstrual fluid per period is considered heavy menstrual bleeding. A heavy period is not always cause for concern, but there are times when a visit to your doctor to discuss your period problems is a good idea.
See your doctor if you:
- soak through one or more tampons, pads, or cups per hour for several hours
- bleed for longer than seven days
- pass blood clots larger than a quarter
- have to restrict daily activities because of your period
- experience, shortness of breath, fatigue, or other signs of anemia
Some amount of pain, cramping, and discomfort during your period is normal. Excessive pain that causes you to miss work or school or interrupts your daily activities is not.
A hormone called prostaglandin triggers muscle contractions in your uterus that expel the lining. These same contractions that expel your menstrual flow can cause pain and inflammation.
Talk to your doctor about your symptoms if you experience any of the following:
- continuing pain after IUD placement
- three or more painful menstrual periods that disrupts your daily activities
- cramping accompanied by diarrhea and nausea
- pelvic pain when not menstruating
Paying attention to your period’s unique characteristics can help you understand your body better and recognize if and when you should see a doctor.
Know your flow. Knowledge is power.