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What Actually Happens During Your Period Anyway?

Well, we can probably rule out your V sprouting flowers (illustrations by Euan Murphy).

For a lot of people, period “education” happens somewhere between a suuuper weird conversation with mom about blood, eggs, and womanhood (huh??) and a classroom discussion led by a sex ed teacher with purple hair and lots of bangles (or, was that just me?). But for a lot of real menstruating humans around the world, that education doesn’t happen at all, and periods are often shrouded in mystery, which leads to, yyyup, taboo.

Here’s the thing: The average woman menstruates for 3,000 days in her lifetime. That’s a lot of time to be kinda hazy on the details! And the stigma around having a period is still very much alive and well. Every period-havin’ person reading this will relate to the anxiety of carrying a tampon through a dude-dominated office -- the rub of the plastic wrapper as it hides up your sleeve, the fear of being stopped by your alpha male boss en route to the bathroom. Or the mortification of realizing you leaked through your skirt at school. Or nervously glancing at your chair every time you stand up, *just in case*. Or feeling kinda awks purchasing super tampons at a drugstore where no women work at the checkout. Even though things are getting better, we still have a long way to go.

As Chelsea Clinton pointed out in a recent essay for Well+Good:

In case it’s not clear why we need to talk about menstruation more . . . far too many girls and women don’t have access to clean and safe sanitary products. According to UNICEF, one out of every ten girls in Africa misses school when she’s menstruating because she doesn’t have access to pads or clean water to wash them after use. That means the girls confront the fear of embarrassment monthly—and are missing school every month. . . In America, tampons and pads aren’t covered by food stamps despite the fact that sanitary products are among the most requested items at food pantries and homeless shelters.

So, in the interest of education and karate chopping the hell out of an age-old stigma, let’s take this opportunity to go back to basics: What actually happens during your menstrual cycle? Most of us know that a period is what happens when we don’t get pregnant and we shed our uterine lining, but asked to explain in more detail, and we get a lot of “umms” and “maybe hormones?”

So follow along on our handy dandy cycle chart, let's dive in:

Ready or not, here I come (Follicular Phase)

First thing’s first: Did you know women are born with all the eggs we will ever have? At puberty, we have as many as 400,000! Wild, right? These tiny li’l eggs are stored in our ovaries, each inside its own microscopic fluid-filled follicle.

Okay, so in our brains we have a gland called the hypothalamus. It’s responsible for a lot of stuff, including thirst, hunger, sleep, sexxx, and hormones. At the beginning of our cycles, the hypothalamus kicks things into gear by telling our bodies to release the follicle-stimulating hormone (FHS) and luteinizing hormone (LH). What do these hormones do? They cause our follicles (which hold our eggs) to mature and get ready to pop out an egg (because, babies).

Our multitasking maturing follicles then release another hormone: estrogen. Estrogen does a bunch of cool stuff. Firstly, it causes the lining of our uterus to thicken (in preparation for a possible pregnancy). Estrogen also makes your brain sharper, sex drive ramp up, and causes you to feel more social, active, and flirtatious. This powerful piece of biology can even change your sense of smell (said every pregnant women in a room with hard-boiled eggs ever)! With estrogen flowing, you’re also more likely to be attracted to pheromones (eg. sweaty people— I guess a good excuse to go to the gym?).

Egg drop! (Ovulation)

So, our estrogen levels are building, building, building (follow the chart), and once they hit their highest point our hypothalamus gets another message (said in my best Mr Burns voice): RELEASE THE LUTEINIZING HORMONE (same as before, but this time it releases much more all at once). This surge causes one follicle to burst open and release an egg. Ta dah! You ovulated.

NOTE: If you’re on a common birth control pill, you won’t ovulate. Usually, birth control gives you a constant level of synthetic hormones, so you don’t get the peaks (like in the diagram) that kick off ovulation. There’s a lot more to say on this, but I’ll save it for a future WHW!

So, you’re not pregnant, now what? (Luteal Phase)

Let’s assume you didn’t get pregnant. Now what happens? Well, an egg’s lifespan is around 24 hours (unlike sperm -- those suckers can survive for three days!), so if it isn’t fertilized in that time, it will disintegrate. The follicle that popped that egg out now has the very ominous name of corpus luteum (aka my teen vampire name). The corpus luteum releases progesterone in anticipation of you becoming pregnant, bc progesterone builds up the uterine wall. When it’s sure there’s no baby in the mix, the corpus luteum breaks down and progesterone levels decline. This is also the time when you can feel tired, feel lots of #feelings, have sore boobs, bloating, anxious — aka it’s time to put on your sweats, order Thai food, and chill. Anyway, progesterone is down and the uterine line disintegrates, leading to everyone’s fave phase...

Bleed, baby, bleed (Menstruation)

You guessed it! Period time. That broken down uterine lining flows out your vag and into your cup, tampon, or THINX! Cool, huh?

Are there any other period things you feel like you should have learned but kinda don’t know that well? Anything else you’d like to see in future Women’s Health Wednesday posts? LMK in the comments!

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