6 Things Your Period Can Reveal About Your Health

Unexpected changes during your period are definitely things to pay attention to.

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Photo: boggy22/Getty Images

Your weight, blood pressure, and heart rate are standard measurements healthcare providers use to gauge your health. But there's another bodily function you should also consider when you're trying to get a sense of what's going on in your system: your period.

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 a sign of 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. Dr. Ross pointed out six changes to pay attention to and the conditions that might be behind them.

01 of 06

If You're Seeing Big, Jelly-Like Blood Clots

Blood clots on your tampon or in the toilet are normal when you have your period. They show up when your flow is very heavy, and the natural 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.

"They tend to be dark or bright red in color and come in irregular shapes and sizes," Dr. Ross said. "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.

The larger clots are a sign of menorrhagia (long-term or very heavy menstrual bleeding), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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 healthcare provider know as soon as possible so they can take a closer look at what's going on.

02 of 06

If Your Period Suddenly Gets Super Heavy or Lasts Forever

Some women have periods that only last three days; others bleed for six or seven. But menorrhagia 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 told Health. "Medications that disrupt hormones, like thyroid drugs, steroids, and antipsychotics are also often responsible."

According to MedlinePlus, uterine fibroids and polyps are two types of benign growths also to blame for abnormal vaginal bleeding. Age is another thing that comes into play. As women in their late 30s and 40s hit perimenopause—the time immediately prior to actual menopause—hormone changes can cause their periods to become shorter or longer.

For example, if there are high levels of estrogen in the body, more bleeding could occur. A September 2020 Pulmonary Circulation article stated: "…as fat mass increases in obesity, aromatase expression and, consequently, estrogen levels are also elevated"—meaning that extreme weight gain can have the potential to make your flow heavier.

"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," Dr. Ross said.

03 of 06

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—causing you to soak through a pad or tampon daily—or it happens month after month, notify your healthcare provider. Hormonal birth control could be a cause, as can fibroids or an infection. Spotting could also tip you off to uterine cancer or cervical cancer, so get checked to rule these out fast.

04 of 06

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," Dr. Ross explained. 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," Dr. Ross said.

And if your menstrual blood is watery and/or grayish in color, that could signal an infection, such as a sexually transmitted infection (STI)—especially if it has a foul, strong odor.

05 of 06

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 might 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," Dr. Ross said. Hormone fluctuations that happen when you're breastfeeding and during perimenopause can also lead to erratic, unpredictable periods or an absent flow 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—talk to your healthcare provider to make sure there isn't another reason for your period's disappearance.

06 of 06

If Your Cramps Get Way Worse

Cramps are bound to happen when you get your period. That's because your uterus is basically one big muscle. When the uterus starts to contract to help shed its lining during your period, cramps happen.

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," Dr. Ross said.

If you're dealing with intense period cramps that sideline you from your usual routine, don't get better after you take over-the-counter pain medicines, or bother you at other times of the month, see your healthcare provider. There's no definitive test for endometriosis, but if your provider thinks you have it, they can prescribe birth control pills or other medications that can bring relief.

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