Your menstruation cycle can tell you a lot more about your health than whether you're pregnant. You may be surprised by what your period says about your health. In 2015, an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report recommended that a woman's period be considered a vital sign alongside blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. Because of menstruation's close ties to hormone health, which governs much of the body's functions, your period can offer insights about health that go beyond the reproductive system.
What Does a "Normal" Period Look Like?
A woman has a menstrual period when her body sheds her uterine lining, which had thickened to prepare for the potential implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus and would result in pregnancy. Beyond that description, periods can vary widely from woman to woman, and there is no singular definition of a "normal" period. But on average, a menstrual period generally lasts for three to seven days, while the average menstrual cycle is 28 to 32 days, according to the American Pregnancy Association. The severity of symptoms before and during your period can also vary, but may include cramping, breast tenderness, bloating, headaches, fatigue, mood swings, and food cravings.
You can discover what your own "normal" period looks and feels like by tracking your symptoms and qualities like the duration and color of your blood each month. Once you have that baseline knowledge, it can be easier to notice changes and determine whether you may be experiencing other health issues.
Period Blood Colors and Their Potential Meanings
One way to identify any potential issues based on your period is by the color of the blood itself. According to Prevention, period blood color could potentially point to a number of underlying health conditions, though these aren't always the case for every woman.
- Bright, cranberry red: Usually the sign of a healthy, regular period
- Pinkish: Low estrogen levels (especially when blood flow is lighter than usual), poor nutrition, polycystic ovary syndrome, or perimenopause
- Diluted or watery-looking: Nutritional deficiency, such as severe anemia
- Dark brown: Older bits of uterine lining and blood, which have had time to oxidize, are finally making their way out of the body—this is usually normal
- Jam-colored red with large clots: Low progesterone and high estrogen, with large clots possibly indicating a severe hormonal imbalance; possibly uterine fibroids, though they are often benign
- Gray and red mix: Possible infection, such as a sexually transmitted disease
Again, every woman's "normal" period will look different, including blood color. These correlations are more suggestive than textbook symptoms of a particular condition, but at times blood color can help determine what your period says about your health.
What Abnormal Bleeding Could Mean
No consensus exists about the exact parameters of a "normal" period, but experts do outline what a doctor might consider abnormal uterine bleeding. According to a New York Times report, abnormal bleeding could include:
- Bleeding or spotting between periods
- Bleeding after sex
- Bleeding heavier or for more days than normal
- Bleeding after menopause
The causes of abnormal uterine bleeding vary, and these types of bleeding don't always suggest a health complication. However, abnormal uterine bleeding could potentially be a sign of:
- Uterine fibroids
- Von Willebrand disease or other bleeding and clotting disorders
- Abnormalities in the uterus
- Side effects of medications
- Uterine, ovarian, or cervical cancer
- Infection of the uterus or cervix
- Pregnancy or miscarriage
- Other medical conditions, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, diabetes, pelvic inflammatory disorder, cirrhosis, and thyroid disorders
Abnormal bleeding could also mean the absence of normal bleeding patterns, such as infrequent or nonexistent periods. This can be due to a number of factors, ranging from stress to heightened physical activity, such as sports or rigorous exercise.
It's important to learn what your period says about your health, but because every woman's cycle and period is different, it's difficult to provide any prescriptive advice that will work for every individual. Learn what's "normal" for your cycle by tracking it for several months or even years, and speak with your doctor if you detect any changes.