Your monthly cycle tends to be a touchy subject. You might get annoyed at the thought of it or dread its impending doom as it looms closer and closer. Rightfully so, if you’re someone who deals with period pain or other uncomfortable symptoms of menstruation, it makes sense why you would be apprehensive about its arrival. But like any other biological process, your period serves a purpose, a very important one. Periods help to start the menstrual cycle and rid the body of any unfertilized eggs that were released during ovulation. Are there other health benefits to this shedding process? Does having a period help to detox or cleanse your body? Let’s find out!
Cultural Beliefs About Periods
The idea that periods cleanse or detox the body is rooted in many cultures’ beliefs. Many Native American tribes for example believe that periods give people who menstruate the opportunity to purify their bodies each cycle. Other cultures on the other hand believe that periods are unclean and meant to be hidden. While some cultures have neutral beliefs around them, and just treat them as a natural process that happens without any negative or positive charge.
What Happens During a Period?
Whether you’ve had one or one hundred periods, you might still not be clear about exactly what’s going on in your body during menstruation. According to research from the United States National Institute of Health ‘Menstrual blood is composed of three distinct body fluids: blood, vaginal fluid, and the cells and fluid of the late secretory phase of the uterine endometrial lining which is shed during menstruation.’ Essentially period blood is a mixture of mucus lining, blood, uterine tissue, and bacteria.
The word bacteria might raise red flags for you. But it’s important to remember that our bodies are full of microbes including viruses, fungi, and of course – bacteria. We live in harmony with most of these microbes, but occasionally a harmful, or pathogenic microbe starts to gain momentum and can lead to infections. For the most part, the microbes that make up the vaginal flora are harmless, and a natural part of our biology. The pH levels of a vagina are balanced naturally through its natural antibacterial properties.
When examining hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, present in period blood, researchers found that it was full of antibacterial properties. This means that the process of menstruating could help cleanse the body of harmful bacteria, like those that can be introduced from sex toys, penises, and fingers.
Do Periods Cleanse? The Verdict
So the million dollar question is…do periods cleanse the body? Yes and no. Yes, periods do remove substances that the body no longer needs to hold onto for that month, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it “cleanses you” per se. Saying that a period detoxes or cleanses the female reproductive tract infers that without this process the vagina is dirty or unclean. Or that someone with a vagina who doesn’t menstruate is dirty. This is not true.
We can see this in research for people who have undergone menstrual suppression, typically through hormonal birth control. While it may not treat the underlying reasons, menstrual suppression can help provide relief from painful or heavy periods, without any known side effects from skipping periods.
This also perpetuates the idea that periods are something to be ashamed of or hidden. Flashback to hiding a tampon in your sleeve while going to change it during class in high school. Even if your period doesn’t necessarily “cleanse you” it can give you clues into your overall health. The color and consistency of your period blood, as well as symptoms you may experience, can all help tell you if you have any underlying health conditions.
On the other hand, if it feels empowering or helpful for you to use terms like cleansing or purification when talking about your period, then fantastic! It’s your body, and you get to decide what language feels right to talk about the biological processes that you go through.
Since we’re talking about vaginas and cleansing, it’s also important to discuss douching and other methods of ‘cleaning the vagina’. Not only are these unnecessary, but they can also actually disrupt the delicate balance of vaginal flora present, potentially increasing your risk of yeast infections and other imbalances. Just because you’re on your period doesn’t mean you can’t do all the things you normally do and love. That means having period sex, working out, swimming, and just generally living your life. That being said, it’s totally fine if you want or need to take a break from these things for a few days. Or practice more gentle physical activities like walking and mellow yoga.
If period pain and discomfort are interfering with your life significantly, it’s important to see a healthcare provider who can evaluate you for reproductive health conditions like endometriosis and PCOS.