Menstruation: Understanding The Menstrual Cycle

By:    Published: May 3, 2012

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Despite the fact that all women deal with the menstrual cycle, there are numerous individuals who don’t fully understand how it works. The female reproductive system is complex, but with a little basic information it can be easy to get a handle on how the menstrual cycle works. This guide provides insight into why and how menstruation occurs and the effects it has on women.

The Female Reproductive System

The main structure of the female reproductive system is the uterus. Located in the lowest part of the abdomen, this is where a baby grows and develops when a woman becomes pregnant. Attached to the uterus on either side are fallopian tubes. These long and thin structures each connect the uterus to an ovary, which contains thousands of tiny eggs.

When a woman ovulates once a month, an egg leaves one of the two ovaries and travels through the fallopian tube to the uterus. At the same time, the uterus is building up a layer of extra blood and tissue on its lining. This provides a place for the egg to attach if it becomes fertilized by a sperm cell and the woman becomes pregnant. However, if the egg isn’t fertilized by a sperm cell (which is the case in most women’s monthly cycles), the lining of the uterus is shed and exits the body through the vagina. This is a woman’s monthly menstrual period.

The Beginning Of The Menstrual Cycle

The menstrual cycle begins when a girl goes through puberty. For most girls, this occurs somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13. At this point, hormones begin to stimulate changes in the body, including breast development, the growth of pubic hair and underarm hair, and mood swings. A girl gets her first period once her reproductive system has matured and begins functioning properly. This generally occurs about 2 to 2½ years after her breasts first begin to develop. The beginning of a girl’s menstrual cycle is called menarche.

Girls may also experience increased vaginal discharge about 6 months or so before their first period. The discharge is common and is nothing to worry about as long as it is clear, relatively odorless and does not cause itchiness.

It’s important for parents to talk with their daughters about the changes they can expect to see in their body during puberty, and how to recognize that they may get their first period soon. This will keep them from getting misinformation from their peers and will help them to feel prepared rather than overwhelmed when these changes occur.

The Monthly Cycle

Many women refer to menstruation as their monthly cycle. The reason for this is that a new egg is released from one of the ovaries about once every four weeks. However, it is important to note that some woman may have cycles that are slightly longer or shorter than the average 28-day cycle. Women can determine the length of their cycle by counting the number of days between the first day of bleeding in one month to the first day of bleeding in the next.

For most women, bleeding occurs for about 3 to 5 days, but anywhere from 2 to 7 days of bleeding is considered normal. Menstrual periods can have varying degrees of bleeding or “menstrual flow” from light to medium to heavy. Periods also tend to become shorter and more regular as a woman ages. Feminine hygiene products, including tampons and pads, are available to help women during their menstrual periods. Always use these products according to the directions on their packaging.

Many women experience a variety of symptoms around the time of their periods. The most common are menstrual cramps. However, women may also experience temporary emotional and physical changes at this time as a result of premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. These changes can include heightened emotions, irritability, food cravings, feeling bloated, swollen or sore breasts, headaches and acne flare-ups.

Although irregular periods are common in girls who have just started menstruating, it’s important to see a doctor if periods continue to be irregular a year or two after menarche. In some cases, an irregular period is nothing to be concerned about, but it’s important to have a doctor rule out possible health conditions which could be causing them. Some of the reasons a woman might experience irregular periods include abnormal uterine bleeding, extreme weight loss, eating disorders, stress and excessive exercising.

Menopause

After menarche occurs, a woman continues to get her period each month for several decades (except for when she becomes pregnant). Eventually, her ovaries stop producing the hormones necessary for menstruation. At this time, she stops having her period, an event which is known as menopause. Once this occurs, the woman’s eggs no longer release eggs and she cannot get pregnant anymore. Because periods can be irregular in the years leading up to this time, women don’t know for sure if they’ve gone through menopause until they have not had a period for one year. Most women go through menopause around the age of 51, but it can happen anywhere between the ages of 40 and 55.

Menopause causes several symptoms, including hot flashes, mood changes, vaginal dryness, urinary tract infections, osteoporosis and night sweats. However, women can help control these symptoms by eating a healthy diet and being active.

Conclusion

Most women find that their menstrual cycle is relatively easy to deal with, especially if they know when to expect their period and how to deal with their symptoms. However, many young girls are unprepared for this transition, and parental guidance and advice is essential for readying them for menstruation and all it entails.

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