Given our cultural reluctance to talk openly about women’s periods — even ads for tampons and liners tend to rely on euphemisms and avoid any suggestion that, gasp, blood is involved — it’s understandable that we have concerns about whether our cycles are functioning correctly.
Fortunately, it’s not hard to determine whether you’re menstruating properly or if there’s cause for concern. Read on for answers to the questions you were (maybe) afraid to ask.
1. How much is too much?
If you're changing your average-sized sanitary products twice a day during a 2-4 day cycle, that's considered normal. But if you're changing sanitary products every few hours, that's heavy flow, caused when your body produces too much estrogen (which thickens the lining of the uterus) and too little progesterone (which keeps the growth of that lining in check).
If you need a visual aid, try this: Average flow produces about two to three tablespoons of blood during a period. Heavy flow is about 5.5 tablespoons or more, which would soak about 16 normal-size tampons or pads in one period.
If you're experiencing heavier flow than usual — and it's not because you're finally getting your period after skipping one — you should talk with your doctor. Do the same if you're spotting between cycles or after intercourse.
2. Should I only be seeing red?
You might notice you'll flow red on your heavier days in the beginning of your period, as you shed your uterine lining, and then pink as you come to the end of your period. But brown or even black blood during your period doesn't mean you're dying. It's just that your blood flow has slowed, which means the blood is older and therefore darker.
3. How long should my cycle be?
The average length of a menstrual cycle is 28 days, but 21- to 25-day cycles are considered normal, with menstruation lasting anywhere from two to seven days. When you first start getting your period and your hormones are ramping up, you won't be as regular, but in your 20s, after your estrogen and progesterone levels stabilize, you're more likely to get your period like clockwork. (You may cramp more during this time in your life, but that's normal, too.) In your 30s, as estrogen and progesterone levels become a little more erratic, you might start to see more irregularity in your cycle, and you could get your period more often.
In your 40s, irregularities are the norm. You won’t ovulate as much; as a result, you may have either more frequent or fewer periods. When you haven't menstruated for over a year, you've entered menopause. Everyone's different, but a good rule of thumb is to ask your mom when she stopped having her period.
Skipped periods are normal for everyone — stress, weight loss, illness, intense exercise, and even travel across time zones can make you late. Longer cycles are more common when you're a teenager or heading toward menopause. And shorter cycles — 21 or 22 days — aren't cause for alarm. But bleeding that frequently could lead to anemia, so it might be a good idea to mention it to your doctor. Also talk to your doctor if you miss three periods in a row and you're not pregnant.
4. Are those cravings and mood swings all in my mind?
Three out of every four women experience PMS symptoms — bloating, fatigue, irritability, cravings, etc. — during their childbearing years. But no one seems to know why.
And some researchers question whether PMS exists at all. The plummet in mood is all in our culturally programmed minds, they say. A 2013 review of 47 studies found that only about half of the studies showed an association between bad mood and the premenstrual phase; another study on a group of Canadian women done by the same researchers found that physical health, stress, and social support were better predictors of mood than menstrual cycle phase. Other researchers think that cravings for chocolate — to use one example — might be a culturally sanctioned response to getting one's period, rather than a biological response to those hormonal changes.
But then why do some of us feel so terrible and tired and want to eat like we're training for an Ironman when our period is approaching? Even if no one's yet mapped out a direct line from our pre-period hormonal flux to what feels like seriously compromised physical and psychological well-being, there are some theories.
Some studies suggest an increase in progesterone — which spikes right before your period, as estrogen levels fall — might lead to binge eating, or increased anxiety, which makes you feel less satisfied with your body. Other studies suggest premenstrual cravings for carbohydrates might be due to a dip in serotonin that can occur right before your period. The good news? Exercise and eating well can help you get through PMS.
5. Is there such a thing as “normal”?
Your period doesn't have to look or feel like everyone else's. It's a highly individualized experience and varies from woman to woman. If you don’t experience cramps, mood slumps or other stereotypical period "feelings," you might believe — to borrow from 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon — that PMS was invented in the ’50s to keep women from storming to the front lines of all kinds of badassery.
On the other hand, if you do experience those symptoms, you’ll likely feel that PMS is a very real thing that makes you hungry, bloated, and full of rage every 28 days without fail.
So what’s a girl to do in a world where normal doesn’t exist? Keep a calendar to track your cycle (there are apps for that if pen and paper don't suffice). And give yourself peace of mind by using high-quality feminine products that are comfortable. (Brands like the Honest Company use organic cotton and avoid harsh chemicals.)
*Disclaimer: This post was researched and written by the eco-minded editors at mindbodygreen and does not reflect the opinions of the Honest Company.