From migraines to jaw pain, there are a whole host of issues that might be caused by fluctuating hormones around your period.
As if bleeding for a week wasn’t enough, periods often come with a whole host of other annoying symptoms, from painful cramps to mood swings and sweet cravings. We tend to expect to feel a little less sprightly just before our period begins, and many of us know to have a hot water bottle ready to combat cramp.
But the menstrual cycle affects the body in so many ways, and that ever changing tide of hormones can impact just about anything, from the digestive system to the way we process emotions.
In fact, there’s a whole range of premenstrual and period symptoms that might seem totally unrelated to the menstrual cycle – many of which can make going about normal life that bit more difficult.
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The menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days for most people, with four different phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. Generally, the symptoms people experience that are related to their menstrual cycle happen during the menstruation phase (which is when the bleed takes place) or during the last week of the luteal phase – the week before menstruation.
And it’s during this time that PMS can kick in, affecting up to 90% of women. While many of these symptoms are the more well-known period-related issues, you might experience other changes to your body too.
We asked Dr Sarah Welsh, gynaecologist and founder of the sexual wellness brand HANX, to walk us through seven period symptoms that are rarely spoken about and explain why they happen…
We’re just going to say it: period poo is a thing and not enough people are speaking about it. In fact, a 2014 study found that 24% of women experience diarrhoea during the premenstrual phase.
“This physical side effect is likely due to the increase of prostaglandins, which assist the body with functions including muscle contraction. This is helpful during your period as they can contract muscle tissues during the shedding of your uterus lining, but can also cause stomach cramps, bloating and diarrhoea,” Dr Welsh explains.
“You might find that stress or anxiety exacerbates this condition. Similarly, cravings for fatty foods can also increase the likelihood you’ll be hitting the toilet more often, so try to continue eating a balanced diet where possible.”
Bags under your eyes
Many people get a pimple or have acne flare-ups around the time of their period. But you also might end up looking more puffy and tired when you’re in the premenstrual phase, especially around your eyes, because of water retention in the body.
“Essentially, changing levels of progesterone and oestrogen make your body hold onto water, causing puffiness or swelling all over the body,” Dr Welsh explains. “Don’t worry, this tends to go away around five days after the start of your period.”
Just one more reason to have a lie-in, do a little face mask self-care and take it easy (not that you need an excuse to do that).
You probably wouldn’t have guessed that pain in your mouth could be caused by PMS. But gum pain could come down to fluctuating hormone levels. “Menstruation gingivitis refers to PMS-related inflammation for the gums ahead of your period,” Dr Welsh explains. “Higher hormone levels cause greater flow of blood to the gums, which can make them more sensitive, especially to plaque and bacteria.
“You might find that your gums are irritated, sore, swollen and bleed when brushed or flossing.” she adds. These symptoms are most common in the last week of the luteal phase (when you usually experience premenstrual symptoms) and they should disappear during your period.
Migraines are caused by a number of conditions and health issues but changing hormone levels could trigger them. A 2009 study published in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders describes a menstrual migraine as “a highly prevalent and disabling condition meriting specific treatment”, so it’s definitely worth speaking to your doctor about migraines around the time of your period if you’re struggling with them.
“Symptoms of a migraine include feeling sensitive to light and sound, feeling nauseous or physically being sick and throbbing head pain, but these do vary person to person,” Dr Welsh says, explaining that they’re caused by a natural drop in oestrogen before the start of your period.
According to Dr Welsh, migraines during the luteal phase and menstruation are more likely to recur the next day.
“You might find in the days and weeks before your period arriving that your nipples are sore and/or tender,” Dr Welsh says. “Blame hormonal fluctuations, as increases in oestrogen cause the breast ducts to enlarge, and progesterone, which causes milk glands to swell.”
This nipple tenderness in the run-up to your period should only be mild pain. If the pain is more severe, speak to your GP or health provider for advice.
Going to the gym is hard enough as it is when you’re on your period or dealing with PMS. But you might also find it hard to recover from exercise around your time of the month.
“Hormonal fluctuations and increased release of prostaglandins can be responsible for increased DOMS, as they cause inflammation, alongside heightened sensitivity of nerve endings,” Dr Welsh explains.
“Tracking your cycle and scheduling rest days in sync with your PMS symptoms can be one way of avoiding the impact of DOMS.”
Sensitive or painful skin
Although you’re probably used to increased oiliness or spots on your skin during the premenstrual phase and your period, you might not have realised that your fluctuating hormones can also make your skin more sensitive to the products you’re using and pollutants.
“A drop in oestrogen, which usually plumps skin, can increase sensitivity and the chance of inflammation,” Dr Welsh says. “This tends to kick off the week before your period and tail off around the second week of your cycle, so try to avoid the temptation to pick any blackheads or whiteheads that may emerge.”
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According to 2017 research, 42% of premenopausal women declared a perception of (increased) skin sensitivity just before and during the menstrual cycle, so it’s a pretty common issue.
In extreme cases, some people experience cystic acne, characterised by large, painful under-the-skin bumps which typically erupt along the jawline or chin during the premenstrual phase. Speak to your GP for advice or treatment if you’re dealing with this.
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