Periods can be a nuisance. From PMS to staining your favourite underwear to having awful cramps, this monthly phenomenon affects many people. This post is quite long already so I’ll keep the intro short. One point I do want to make though is to go easy on the person who is on their period – whether that’s someone you care about or yourself. Your body is going through a lot so take it easy. And get someone to bring you chocolate. It always helps.
Your first cycle
For many, the first period causes fear and confusion: why is there BLOOD in my underwear?! And after having a chat with a trusted adult, you will learn about the world of menstrual cycles – if you didn’t already know about it. I got my period during my last year of primary school when I was 11. I remember the day so vividly because we spent it in the secondary school building, being shown around where we’d be in the coming school year. My mum had already had the chat with me (because I started getting cramps every month half a year before actually getting my period), so I didn’t have that initial feeling of panic. I remember coming home and telling me mum, to which she opened a bottle of prosecco to “celebrate my entering womanhood”.
I think starting your period can come with a feeling of shame for many. Although we talk about menstruation more openly nowadays, there is still some taboo surrounding this subject – which is ridiculous when you consider that about half of the world’s population experiences it. I’ve never been ashamed of mine, to be honest. I think this is partially due to the way I was raised; I could openly discuss things with my mum. So did I sometimes use my monthly cycle to get out of PE classes (with a male teacher)? Absolutely. I am that person that has no shame in saying she’s on her period. And I hope that one day, everyone will feel that way. Being ashamed of a natural process your body goes through is ridiculous, so don’t feed into this taboo by calling your period by its name.
On another note, something that has been on my mind quite a bit lately is the idea that we always associate the word “woman” with menstruation. However, if you have heard of the J.K. Rowling scandal, you will have seen the article that first started this where they didn’t do exactly that. Not everyone who gets their period identifies as a woman and not every woman gets her period. So that is why am I not mentioning “girls” or “women” in this post. Happy pride month!
I’m sure most of you are familiar with PMS, the lovely premenstrual syndrome – which usually occurs in the days leading up to your cycle. 3 in 4 people who have their period can experience PMS symptoms (more info here)! These can look different for everyone; however, the main symptoms include mood swings, anxiety/irritability, cravings, trouble sleeping, bloating, headaches, changes in appetite, etc.
I get quite bad PMS, often having mood swings and worse IBS symptoms. The worst part is that it’s out of your control. Your hormone levels are all over the place and next thing you know, you snap at someone you love or find yourself getting very upset over nothing. After it’s passed, you probably feel stupid for it happening in the first place, but it truly is non-intentional. So if your friend, sibling or partner lashes out at you and, a little while later, apologizes, please be understanding. If you have experienced PMS yourself, you know just how bad you feel after an outburst.
I strongly suggest that you sit down with your flatmate, partner, sibling, friend or whoever has to deal with your potential PMS symptoms and explain to them what you might be like before getting your period. Don’t use it as an excuse, but do explain that you might act unlike yourself. Tell them that you don’t mean any harm by it and that you (usually) don’t mean what you say in a burst of anger. Figure out ways in which they can help, rather than fuel, your symptoms. Never say “calm down” or “are you on your period?” to someone who is most likely experiencing PMS, unless you have a death wish. I’ll speak more about the physical symptoms you might experience later.
Iron and magnesium
When you are on your period, you are losing blood – obviously. Many of us feel weak because of it, usually due to a drop in iron. I suggest you eat iron-rich food when you start your menstrual cycle: these include lean beef, chicken, lentils, spinach and other dark green, leafy veggies… Just do a quick Google search to find ones that you would enjoy eating and make sure to include them in your diet when it’s that time of the month especially – although you should eat them whatever time of the month it is. The Association of UK dietitians has a very helpful guide here.
A tip that was given to me by a pharmacist is to have magnesium in the days leading up to your period and during the days you get cramps. Magnesium helps alleviate muscle cramps and can help reduce the pain caused by menstrual cramps. You can get little, over-the-counter sachets that you take once daily. They are often flavoured and are easy to take. I used to take the orange-flavoured ones from Biolectra back home, but you can find an equivalent wherever you live.
Pad, tampon or cup?
There has always been a debate about what sanitary products should be used. It used to be pads versus tampons, but now the menstrual cup has gained in popularity. There are pros and cons for each and more so now with all the different brands and types of sanitary products that exist. Pads are usually what people first start using as they are the least invasive out of the 3 options. Unless you buy reusable cloth ones, sanitary pads create a lot of waste and end up costing you a lot of money. Many schools and universities now offer free sanitary products in bathrooms to help fight period poverty.
Similarly, tampons also cause a lot of waste and their cost can add up. I started using tampons when I was 13 or so, and I remember one of my friends at the time said that “I might as well just have sex”, suggesting that inserting a tampon is like losing your virginity. It’s not. There is nothing sexual about inserting a tampon. I prefer using the ones with applicators because I can’t place tampons without it properly. You shouldn’t feel a tampon once it’s properly inserted, and it will enable you to do activities you’d normally stay away from, like going to the pool. There is the risk of getting toxic shock syndrome (TSS) from leaving a tampon in for too long. It’s rare, but it can be deadly. So make sure you change your tampon every 4 to 6 hours.
Although I have never used a menstrual cup, I have heard that they are really good. They are also the cheapest in the long run because one of them will last you ages. They are also much more environmentally-friendly and are safer than tampons because you can’t get toxic shock syndrome from using a cup. That being said, menstrual cups require the most effort because they need to be emptied and cleaned every time you remove them (after a maximum of 12 hours). Inserting and removing them can also be quite daunting. But there are many guides online, including this great post by Healthline or this recent campaign by The Female Company – explicit, uncensored and educational, One Girl One Cup shows you exactly how to use a menstrual cup (view this at your own discretion).
Period cramps can be painful. And I don’t mean painful like stubbing your toe – which really hurts but only lasts for a few minutes. I’m talking about an excruciating pain that makes you nauseous, feverish and feel like you are being stabbed in the stomach over and over again. If you suffer from painful cramps, I feel you. For years, whenever I got my period at school or uni, I would have to painfully, usually on the verge of crying, make my way home and I still vividly remember those walks/bus rides. I would get home, hunched over in pain, start crying, put water in the kettle to make myself a hot water bottle and curl up in a ball on my bed. I would usually try to sleep it off even though I never used to nap; I was just in so much pain that my body could not handle it.
If anyone doesn’t take your pain seriously, kick them in the ankles. In all seriousness though, don’t let people undermine your feelings of pain. I suffered from painful period cramps from the age of 10-11 up until I was 20 years old – so almost 10 years of monthly agony. It made me miss school days, classes and activities with my friends. I do want to add that if you are in a lot of pain and are out, go home. It’s the only thing that ever helped me and the longer I waited, the worse the pain got. Also, do not feel bad for missing school or social events. Do seek help from your gynaecologist if your period is interfering with your daily life. You might have an underlying condition, such as endometriosis.
I did develop ways to deal with the pain though, which I will share with you now. The first one is taking magnesium in the days leading up to your period, as mentioned above. Second, take pain medication 1 or 2 days before the start of your cycle. Just take one in the morning until you get your period, it will help lessen the initial pain from your period starting. Third, get a hot water bottle. It will be your lifesaver. You can also get heat pads for when you are out of the house or BeYou menthol cooling pads – they smell strongly of mint but helped me with a painful IBS bloat and I’ve been told they work well for periods. Fourth, take a nap. Lie in bed or on the couch and put the TV, YouTube or Netflix on to distract yourself from the pain, get your most comfortable blanket and your hot water bottle, and take a nap. Close your eyes and just rest. Lastly, test out different medications to see what works for you. After years of taking Ibuprofen, I noticed that it did not help me at all when I was in pain. I switched to Paracetamol instead and it finally helped relieve some of the pain. Your body might get used to some meds or might just work better with others, so try out what works best for you.
A lovely phenomenon that often accompanies periods is an upset stomach: bloating (as mentioned before, cramps, nausea and, as I like to call them, period shits (diarrhoea being the medical term). Not the sexiest, is it? Having an upset stomach because of your period is the norm for many of us who menstruate. If you have a chronic gastrointestinal condition (such as IBS or an IBD), chances are that your symptoms will be worse because of it. So be extra kind to yourself, stay hydrated and take it easy. And if you are experiencing nausea, open your window to let fresh air in. It works wonders. Finally, if you aren’t home alone and feel ashamed of the sounds your trips to the toilet might make, play some music to cover it. But do know that there is no reason to be ashamed. It’s just a (rather unpleasant) natural reaction.
In my last two years of high school, I heard of this crowd-funded project which claimed to stop period cramps: Livia, a tiny device that sends electric signals to block out the pain signals. It sounded too good to be true, but I watched a Buzzfeed video of different women trying it and I was desperate for a solution to stop these cramps, so I caved in and pre-ordered my own. It took almost a year for me to get it, since it needed to pass different requirements before being allowed to be shipped and so on.
I received it a few weeks before my final school exams. And to say it saved my life – and my exams – would be an understatement. Just my luck, I got my period mid-exam-week and don’t think I would have gotten through it without Livia. It’s really easy to use and feels like little waves on your skin. It would make my skin a little itchy after a few hours (I didn’t get a rash, I just felt a little ticklish), but it worked absolute wonders. I did need to take pain meds with it the first day of my period, but overall it helped a lot. They are quite pricey but if you can afford it, they are worth the splurge. They cost £160 (but currently on sale for £104); however, you can get a subscription which costs around £7/month (with an initial sign up fee of £23) and you will receive everything you need, including gel pad replacements and so on. More on that here. This isn’t sponsored or anything, I just really enjoyed their product!
A little over a year ago, I decided to go on birth control to help with my periods. My mum also had very painful periods in her youth and said that the pill is the only thing that helped. I have to say that my periods have definitely become much less painful. I am finally able to live my life normally, even when I’m on my period! This was unimaginable for years but has become a reality. The pain isn’t gone completely, but it’s bearable now. I’m on the combined pill, and although I know that many people struggle with side effects, I will take any side effects over being in crippling pain. Talk to your GP or gynaecologist and see what your best options are. I know other forms of birth control can also help with cramps while others can make them worse (at least when you first start it). Do your research, get professional advice and figure out what will work best for you.
So here it is, a post about periods! It’s time to stop this taboo surrounding periods and just openly talk about this natural phenomenon. I hope that this post was helpful, either for you directly or to help you better understand someone you care about. Let me know your thoughts down below or share your tips on dealing with periods! You can also DM me on Instagram. See you soon!