Menstruation has historically been somewhat of a taboo topic, something only whispered about amongst friends or through bathroom stalls. This has led many women to grow up unfamiliar with their bodies and how to care for them, especially during menstruation. This is completely natural but the more you know, the better you will be able to enjoy your period and take care of yourself with good menstrual hygiene.
The nitty-gritty of your menstrual cycle
Your menstrual cycle is marked by four phases: menstruation, follicular, ovulatory, and luteal. Each phase is characterized by specific symptoms that indicate which phase you are in.
Menstruation phase (days 1-7)
This phase is the length of your period and is also contained within the first half of the follicular phase. On average menstruation will last about 5-7 days. During this time, the uterine lining is shed causing your period and menstrual flow. Menstrual hygiene is particularly important during this phase because menstrual blood carries with it an increased risk of bacterial overgrowth which can lead to infection.
Follicular phase (days 1-13)
The follicular phase begins with the first day of menstruation and lasts until ovulation. The body starts sending hormonal signals that eventually lead to ovulation, this includes follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). FSH nudges the ovaries to start maturing an egg. As a dominant egg matures it will produce an increasing amount of estrogen. And as estrogen levels rise, it will trigger the brain to release LH, which gives the green light for ovulation.
Ovulatory phase (day 14)
Lasting only a couple of days, this is the span of time when you ovulate, meaning that one of your ovaries releases the mature egg into the fallopian tube to reach its destination, the uterus. Some women also notice an increase in vaginal discharge during this time. Discharge may be thin and stretchy like egg whites, this is an indication of ovulation. This is something you may not notice unless you are checking for it. If you are monitoring but aren’t experiencing this, it is possible that you may not be experiencing ovulation. You can still have a period without ovulation. Occasionally skipping ovulation is usually nothing to worry about. A woman’s menstrual cycle is sensitive and ovulation can be thrown off by something as common as stress. However, if you suspect that you aren’t regularly ovulating, this warrants a discussion with your doctor as it may indicate a more serious condition like PCOS.
Luteal phase (days 15-28)
During this phase, the uterus is preparing for pregnancy by thickening its inner layer. If pregnancy does not occur, hormones will start to decrease around day 22, triggering premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms for some individuals.
Tune in with cycle tracking
Tracking your cycle can help you tune in to what your body is telling you about your cycle. The menstrual cycle acts as an indicator of a woman’s overall health because it involves so many of the body’s hormones and tissues, and shows that everything is working harmoniously. If periods are irregular, absent, excessively heavy or painful, this could be a sign of a deeper issue that needs attention, such as hormonal imbalances or thyroid dysregulation. Tracking will not only help predict when your period will come, but also when and if you are ovulating. Additionally, if you are tracking basal body temperature, it can give you an idea of your hormone balance. Try keeping a record of your cycle, symptoms, and basal body temperature using an app like Clue or Flo.
Poor menstrual hygiene: The physical and emotional implications
There are many factors to consider when it comes to menstrual hygiene. The most obvious one is taking care of your physical body with regular bathing to keep things clean and clear of infection. But there is also an emotional aspect that often gets overlooked.
Infections and inflammation
During menstruation, infection can become more likely because of the increased risk of bacterial overgrowth caused by menstrual blood. Leaving tampons in or pads on for too long creates an ideal environment for bacterial overgrowth and potentially serious infections like toxic shock syndrome.
The skin of the vagina and surrounding tissues of the vulva are sensitive and absorbent. Some find they are unable to use conventional products because they cause irritation or allergic reactions. Conventionally produced products go through a bleaching process that leaves residual, trace amounts of toxins embedded in the fibres. These can cause irritation once absorbed by the skin. Using organic cotton or products made of natural fibres can help avoid irritation.
There is a wide range of personal care products that aim to mask unwanted odours. Many of these products contain ingredients that can affect vaginal flora negatively. When this happens, the pH of the vagina can be altered, opening the door to infections such as bacterial vaginosis or Candida overgrowth. However, taking a probiotic such as CanPrev’s V Biotik Vaginal & UTI can help restore and maintain healthy vaginal flora.
Experiencing emotional ups and downs during PMS is very common. Anxiety, irritability, mood swings, and depression are some of the more heightened emotions that can add to the existing struggles that come with your period. Estrogen and progesterone levels drop during the luteal phase of your cycle, about a week before your period starts. If these hormones are imbalanced it can trigger these PMS symptoms.
The first step: recognize that any emotional symptoms you are experiencing may be due to PMS. If you regularly experience anxiety or depression before the onset of your period, it may indicate a hormonal imbalance. Supplements like Healthy Hormones can help to rebalance hormone levels and reduce symptoms of PMS.
Tips for practicing impeccable menstrual hygiene
The importance of cleanliness
The most important time to be diligent with personal care practices is during your cycle when you’re actually bleeding. Showering daily with warm water is all that is required and will help to minimize odours and bacterial overgrowth. Soap is not recommended, especially ones that are overly fragranced because it can affect the vaginal flora.
When to change sanitary products
Sanitary pads or tampons should be changed approximately every 4 hours. This will help to avoid odours and prevent bacterial overgrowth. Sanitary products absorb more than just menstrual blood–they also absorb sweat, sebum, and skin cells. This can create a breeding ground for bacteria and lead to infections if left too long. Be sure to wash your hands before and after changing sanitary products as dirt and bacteria can transfer from your hands to your vagina.
Caring for your menstrual cup
Using a menstruation cup is a great choice if considering a reusable product. Similar to inserting a tampon, make sure your hands are washed before and after to reduce the transmission of bacteria.
If you are emptying your cup at home, before re-inserting, rinse with warm water and a gentle soap that is free from oil and fragrance. Make sure to avoid antibacterial soaps because they can affect the vaginal flora negatively. If emptying your cup while out of the home, give the cup a gentle wipe with toilet paper before re-inserting, remembering to wash it once you get home. It is also important to regularly sterilize your menstrual cup before and after each period. This ensures that the menstrual cup is kept free from bacteria and can prevent stains and odours. Immersing in boiling water for no more than 10 minutes is a good way to sterilize your menstrual cup.
Dressing for the occasion
Let’s face it, having your period can be uncomfortable. Bloating, cramps, headaches, and fatigue are some of the physical symptoms that make your period more challenging. Wearing unrestrictive clothing can help keep you as comfortable as possible. Additionally, choosing underwear that is made of natural fabrics such as 100% cotton can promote breathability of the area and deter bacteria growth.
Although we may feel at the mercy of our hormones during menstruation, it doesn’t have to be stressful, emotional, and physically uncomfortable. By practicing good menstrual hygiene, you can ward off infections and bacterial overgrowth while also supporting your emotional well-being every day of your cycle.
Clancy, H. E. (2021). Knowledge Is Power: The Federal Government Must Require Companies to Tell Menstruators the Ingredients in Period Products. Hofstra Law Review, 49(4), 1051.