6 Things Your Period Can Reveal About Your Health
What your period is trying to tell you
Your weight, blood pressure, and heart rate are standard measurements doctors use to gauge your health. But there’s another body activity you should also consider when you’re trying to get a sense of what’s going on in your system: your period.
It makes sense when you think about it. Sudden shifts when it comes to how heavy your flow is, where your cramps rank on the pain scale, spotting between cycles, and other unexplained changes are all clues your period is sending out to let you know that something might be amiss. It could be a minor and benign issue—but it may also be an SOS signal to something serious you won't want to put off.
To help decode what your menstrual cycle is trying to tell you, we enlisted the expertise of Sherry A. Ross, MD, ob-gyn and author of She-Ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Here, Dr. Ross points out six changes to pay attention to, and the conditions that might be behind them.
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If you’re seeing big, jelly-like blood clots…
They're not pretty, but blood clots on your tampon or in the toilet are totally normal when you have your period. They show up when your flow is super heavy, and the anticoagulants that normally break down clots before they leave your body just can't keep up with how fast you're shedding your uterine lining.
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“They tend to be dark or bright red in color and come in irregular shapes and sizes,” says Dr. Ross. “Small clots the size of raisins are usually nothing to worry about.” Larger, thicker clots that are greater than the size of a quarter may be cause for concern, however. A hormone imbalance that results in a very heavy flow could be the cause, and large clots can also be a sign of an infection or even a miscarriage.
If you have large clots for at least a few cycles in a row, let your gyno know, so she can take a closer look at what's going on.
If your period suddenly gets super heavy or lasts forever…
Some women have periods that only last 3 days; others bleed for six or seven. But menorrhagia—the medical term for a prolonged or heavy flow—that extends past one week could be alarming. “An overactive or underactive thyroid and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are common hormone-driven problems that can cause irregular and longer periods,” Dr. Ross tells Health. “Medications that disrupt hormones, like thyroid drugs, steroids, and antipsychotics are also often responsible.”
Uterine fibroids and polyps are two types of benign growths also to blame. Age is another thing that comes into play. As women in their late 30s and 40s hit perimenopause—the several years prior to actual menopause—hormone changes can cause their periods to become shorter or longer. Extreme weight gain can make your flow heavier as well, since extra pounds increase estrogen levels in the body.
“If you notice your periods are coming frequently, less than 21 days apart or lasting longer than seven days for more than three months, I suggest contacting your health care provider to talk about why this might be happening,” says Dr. Ross.
If you’re spotting...
Spotting—or light bleeding—at any other time of the month than your period can be pretty alarming. If it happens occasionally and is pretty light, like a few drops of blood, it's probably nothing to be too worried about and could just be the result of fluctuating hormone levels.
But if it's somewhat heavy—say you soak through a pad or tampon daily—or it happens month after month, let your ob-gyn know about it. Hormonal birth control could be a cause, as can fibroids or an infection. On a more serious note, spotting could also tip you off to uterine cancer or cervical cancer, so get checked so you can rule these out fast.
If your menstrual blood is watery or grayish…
“In the beginning of your period, blood tends to be bright red in color, and as the bleeding comes to an end, the color will appear brown or black,” explains Dr. Ross. The longer blood takes to leave the body, the darker red it will be—that's the effect oxygen has on blood.
Some color changes are worth taking note of. Blood that appears watery might be mixed with vaginal discharge, which can happen when you’re pregnant. “Normal spotting during pregnancy can look like watery blood, since the blood is mixed with increased vaginal secretions commonly seen during pregnancy,” says Dr. Ross.
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And if your menstrual blood is watery and/or grayish in color, that could signal an infection, such as an STD—especially if it has a foul, strong odor.
If your period disappears…
It may sound counterintuitive, but although PCOS and thyroid problems can make your flow heavier and last longer, the hormonal changes that in come into play with these two conditions might also make your period temporarily vanish. Stress too can throw off ovulation, which means you skip a period or two.
Don’t be surprised if your period disappears after you shed pounds. “Extreme weight loss causes a decrease in body fat and estrogen production, making your periods lighter or nonexistent,” says Dr. Ross. Hormone fluctuations that happen when you're breastfeeding and during perimenopause can also lead to erratic, unpredictable periods or a flow that's MIA for months.
If you notice your period takes a break that lasts longer than three months—and you're sure you are not pregnant and it can't be menopause either—talk to your doctor to make sure there isn’t another reason that time of the month has become that time of the season.
If your cramps get way worse…
It's unfair, but cramps are basically a fact of life for something like 80% of women. Why's that? Your uterus is basically one big muscle. When the uterus starts to contract to help shed its lining during your period, cramps happen.
It’s possible cramps have always been debilitating for you (if that’s the case, we’re deeply sorry). But if you suddenly start to experience bad lower back or pelvic pain during your period, there could be something else going on, like endometriosis—a condition in which uterine tissue gets into the pelvic cavity, adhering to nearby organs such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, even the rectum. “Women suffering from endometriosis experience significant cramping,” says Dr. Ross.
If you're dealing with intense period cramps that sideline you from your usual routine and don't get better after you take over the counter pain meds—or the pain comes at other times of the month as well—let your doctor know. There's no definitive test for endometriosis, but if your ob-gyn thinks you have it, she can prescribe birth control pills or other meds that can bring relief.