One day in 8th grade I lay immobilized on the couch with my knees drawn up to my chin. If I moved I feared I would throw up or pass out. A bout of cramps had struck, and I was holding on to that couch for dear life. A kind woman I knew walked by and expressed sympathy for my condition. “Don’t worry, sweetie, that’s just a sign that your body’s functioning well,” she told me.
As a teenager, her words gave me some comfort. I hoped it was proof, as she said, that my uterus was just doing its thing.
As an adult, I can only shake my head in frustration at her words. It was absolutely not a sign that my body was functioning well.
In my work as a Coming of Age Mentor and Fertility Awareness Educator, I hear all kinds of theories justifying the various signs and sensations of the menstrual cycle. It’s hormones ... no, it’s stress ... it’s the full moon ... it’s because I ate pizza, etc. Some are correct, and others couldn’t be farther from the truth. like the words of the well-intentioned woman passing by me on the couch all those years ago.
Unfortunately, very few of us are given in-depth menstrual cycle education to understand how things work, and most importantly, to know what a healthy cycle looks like. When girls reach menarche, whatever patchy information their parents have gathered over the years gets passed on to them. Cycle issues like cramps, mood swings, or heavy bleeding are usually treated with painkillers, the Pill, or just grinning and bearing it.
I’d like to share three key aspects of menstrual cycle education that specifically pertain to adolescent and teen cycles. The following is a brief overview; I encourage you to research these ideas for yourself, or contact me to explore these topics in greater detail.
1. Irregular cycles are normal and expected for girls and teens.
There is no need to worry about “regulating” a girl’s cycles. The brain-ovarian communication system that gives us cycles is incredibly complex and takes anywhere from 5 – 10 years to fully mature after menarche (a girl’s first period) so that cycles eventually become regular (meaning the time between periods is approximately 24 – 36 days). It’s important that girls are allowed to have irregular, wonky cycles as their bodies build the intricate hormonal feedback loop system. If your daughter has a period every 21 days or less, if she has not started menstruating by age 15, or if she goes more than 3 months between periods more than a few times per year, she should see a healthcare professional. 2. Heavy periods are normal, but difficult symptoms should not be ignored.
Because girls often go many weeks between periods, their uterine lining may build up until it is quite thick, causing heavy bleeding over several days. She may have some moderate cramping, feel tired, need to rest, or have days of spotting that precede or follow her period. If she complains of feeling (or if she appears) weak, fatigued, dizzy, nauseous, or faint, she may be losing too much blood. For immediate treatment, 200 mg of ibuprofen every 6 hours will reduce bleeding by about half; cayenne pepper tablets (also called capsicum) and chlorophyll can also reduce bleeding quickly. Long-term solutions include eating a nutrient-dense diet, reducing exposure to xenoestrogens such as plastics and beauty products, and encouraging more frequent ovulation by sleeping in total darkness and limiting screen time at night. In addition, cramps that make her immobile, nauseous, and weak are not normal. Sometimes nutrition is the cure: eliminating refined foods, supplementing with magnesium and zinc, and increasing omega-3 fatty acids are all great for preventing cramps when taken throughout the month. Please do not ignore your daughter’s severe menstrual pain, it could be a sign of a more serious condition, such as endometriosis. 3. Having a period is a fundamental part of teen health.
Despite rumors that we don’t really need periods, menstruation is an important cornerstone of female health. When we menstruate, it’s proof that we have ovulated. Ovulation is the main way that the body makes the powerful hormones estrogen and progesterone, which not only gives us fertility but protects us from cancer, builds strong bones, and influences and supports every other body system. You can imagine how important it is for girls to have access to these hormones. Long thought of crazy-making enemies, hormones do great work for us. For a growing girl, they increase her intelligence and make her more adept at her existing talents. They help her get good sleep, metabolize fats, protect her from diabetes, and much, much more. Some 33% of teens taking oral contraceptives do so for non-birth control issues, such as “regulating” cycles. However, the Pill shuts off her hormonal feedback loop, preventing the production of her own natural hormones as well as ovulation and menstruation. The “period” she gets at the end of the pill pack is simply a withdrawal bleed. Natural periods are proof that a girl’s body is in good working order, making the powerful hormones that she needs for her reproductive and overall health. The menstrual cycle is like an orchestra that requires many years of practice to play a beautiful symphony. Provide your daughter with solid nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits. Encourage her to stick with her wonky cycles for a few years as she learns how to do the hormonal dance. Doing this will help her build a strong reproductive health foundation to will carry her through young adulthood, her reproductive years, and all the way to menopause and beyond.
Caitlin McMurtry is a Certified Fertility Awareness Educator and Coming of Age Mentor. She loves to see her students’ eyes light up when they learn how their bodies and cycles work. She offers group and private classes for learning Fertility Awareness (not the Rhythm Method!); for natural birth control, conception planning, and cycle understanding on a sliding scale, “Ask Me Anything” consults, workshops for teen cycle health, and a 6-week coming of age course for girls ages 10 – 12. Read more and get in touch at www.cycle-wise.com