Periods are something that more than a quarter of the world’s population has to deal with at any given time. In fact, when put all together, the average modern woman menstruates a total of seven years during their lifetime. But did you know that this is nearly twice as much as our ancestors?
In the past fifty years, the average number of periods has increased due to better nutrition, younger ages of menarche, delayed menopause, and reduced rates of childbirth. While further research still needs to be done, having more periods may not be a good thing.
Recently, science is showing that periods are not only necessarily a requirement, but also potentially could be stressing our systems and causing health problems. We break down the reasons behind modern women having more periods than any other period (haha) in history, the potential health implications of this situation, and why some women are choosing to give up periods.
How periods work
First, here’s a quick overview of how the menstrual cycle works. During each menstrual cycle, the hormone oestrogen causes the ovary to form and release an egg in a process known as ovulation and thickens the womb lining. Progesterone then kicks in to prepare the womb for an embryo to be implanted. If the pregnancy doesn’t occur after the egg travels down the fallopian tubes, progesterone and oestrogen levels fall, and the body sheds the womb lining in what we call a “period.”
Modern women have more periods
In industrial societies the average woman may have up to 450 menstrual cycles – compared to 160 periods for women in hunter gatherer societies- during a lifetime due to having less children, later menopause, earlier menarche, and better nutrition.
Women in hunter-gatherer culture and other societies without birth control, among other factors like nutrition, average many less periods due to the fact they are pregnant and breastfeeding for more time than women in modern industrial societies.
Oxford university Press published Is Menstruation Obsolete?, in which the authors argue that modern menstruation is not necessary and may even have adverse effects on the body. Human females actually have many more periods than most other mammals; the ones that do menstruate don’t have it every month. A woman’s uterus sheds the entire lining every single month not because it is good for the body, but as a way to get rid of embryos that get stuck half-alive or die while attaching to the uterine wall.
Evolutionarily, sloughing off the entire superficial endometrium with unhealthy embryos outweighed the cost of menstruation (hormonal fluctuations, needing more nutrients). Back in the day, when people were getting pregnant more often, periods weren’t as much of an issue.
Is it healthy to have this many periods?
The verdict is still pending when it comes to the health implications of having more periods than our ancestors. There’s been a long held misconception that menstruation “cleanses” the body, and that not having periods can create a “backlog” of periods. The opposite may be true- since the body’s hormone levels fluctuate dramatically during menstruation, it can actually exacerbate mental or physical health issues such as depression, endometriosis, and PCOS. Some common problems that menstruation exacerbates include:
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS, is the most common reproductive endocrine disorder in many countries, affecting over 5 million women in the U.S. alone. When we menstruate, Having so many periods and putting the body through so many hormonal fluctuations may be a cause of the rising rates of PCOS all over the world.
Anemia refers to the lack of iron in the body, which is exacerbated by the blood loss that occurs during menstruation.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a condition where a woman exhibits severe symptoms of depression, tension, and irritability right before they menstruate. It’s a more severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Endometriosis is a condition where the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus, and is unable to be shed. As the endometrial-like tissue expands and bleeds during menstruation in response to the body’s hormonal changes, it has nowhere to go and creates inflammation in the body, causing the body to send irregular signals to hormone receptors. It can also result in scar tissue and adhesions developing, leading to a range of painful symptoms.
While this pain can happen anytime, menstruation makes it worse. For women who have endometriosis, menstruation may not be feasible, and doctors may prescribe hormonal contraceptives to thin out the uterine lining.
The case for periods
Today, hormonal contraceptives can be used to skip periods entirely. However, while there isn’t any evidence showing that skipping periods impacts future fertility or have adverse health effects, the long-term implications of skipping periods is unknown.
There haven’t been any long-term case studies to date on the use of hormonal contraceptives to skip menstruation, so doctors and scientists don’t actually know what doing so may mean. Like any other decision with your reproductive health, it’s ultimately up to you and your doctor, and you should always consult with your gynecologist regarding the best option.