Do you remember the day you got your first period? Of course you do! (Unless you’re a dude and then take a hall pass and excuse yourself for the day. You’re welcome.) Because it was like the biggest deal ever when we were kids! I blame that on not being able to drive, date or join Facebook without lying. As far as Big Adult Mysteries go, it was really the only one well within our grasp. So of course there was lots of drama around it.
It started with the day all us girls-on-the-brink were separated from the boys-who-snap-bras and taken into a classroom with no windows to be instructed on the proper care and handling of our plumbing. I even got an illustrated comic book with free coupons for Tampax and Kotex in the back – an item particularly cool because all the boys wanted to steal a copy. (And looking back, I think we should have let them. They needed the education as much as we did. And who doesn’t love a good comic illustration of tampon insertion? I know I do! They should have those Toxic Shock Syndrome warnings delivered by Wolverine – there would never be another forgotten feminine hygiene product issue again!)
Some girls (poor things) already had their period by the time our 5th grade lecture rolled around. Other girls (poor things) didn’t get theirs for years later, proving again that when you’re an adolescent there is no right time to spontaneously eject uterine tissue. Me, I was 16. Definitely one of those “late bloomers.” I got mine during a gymnastics practice. My back had been killing me all evening and I was sure I’d pulled a muscle doing a back handspring or something but when I went into the bathroom, well, all I’ll say is that it wasn’t blue like I’d been promised in so many commercials. At home, we had a party for me. No seriously, we did. My mom was a public health educator and my dad is kind of a hippie (in a good way!) so for my two sisters and I “Period Parties” became a fun ritual of malted milk balls in ice cream and chick flicks.
(Side note: I grew up with a family who let their daughters pierce their ears when they got their first period. In theory I think it’s kind of sweet to mark a girl’s passage into womanhood with a grown-up gesture like puncturing holes in her new womanly body. But in practice what it really meant was that we all knew exactly when each girl got her period and that just seems too intimate for the general public to know, right?)
So after all that hullaballoo surrounding the getting and having of our Red Dot (and we won’t even discuss the shenanigans surrounding the First Tampon Insertion – egads), you’d think we’d all be thrilled to have Red Flo Rida come visit every single month. Um, not.
All that bleeding and cleaning and carrying and hiding and lying about being on it and lying about not being on it and hiding your DNA dipstick in the wastebasket at your best friend’s sleepover and covering it with half a roll of toilet paper so her mom wouldn’t know that Nature was happening in her house right at that very second – it’s exhausting! So if there comes a time, as we grow older, that Ye Olde Rusty Stain wants to take a vacay from ruining our panties and our social lives then you won’t see us crying hormonal tears about it.
Except that maybe losing your period is a bad thing. It turns out there’s a point to not being able to cancel your subscription to the Maculate* of the Month Club. Which leads to the point of this post. Over the past two weeks, I’ve gotten three e-mails from readers asking me about amenorrhea, specifically my own experience with losing my period (and getting it back). And because in my world, two’s a trend and three deserves a Times feature, I’m dedicating an entire post to the question of what to do if you lose your period. Never say I don’t love you guys. I love you at least as much as those people I did the feminine hygiene study for and gave them all my used products – for RESEARCH, people. I got paid. Easiest money I ever made. Plus, you ever wonder how those commercials can say their product is 87% more absorbent? You’re welcome.
ANYHOW. On with the show. (Note: A girl who’s dumb enough to sell her used maxi pads to strangers is clearly not smart enough to dispense medical advice. All that follows is my researched opinion. Always see your doctor if you have medical issues.)
What is amenorrhea?
It simply means the absence of monthly menstruation for three months or longer. It can be “primary” – meaning that your cycles never started – or “secondary” – meaning that they started and have now stopped for some reason. There will be a spelling test on it later. (Seriously I have to look up how to spell amenorrhea every. single. time. Like diarrhea. And hemorrhoids. Why do all the disgusting medical conditions have to be so hard to spell?! Stupid double r’s.)
Is it really all that bad not to have a period?
In the social sense, no. If it’s part of treatment for a different medical condition – like taking birth control pills without the period week to treat severe PMS – then no. If the universe were fair and our uteri came with an on-off switch (or at least a sphincter!) then no. But if you lost your period and you’re not sure why, then yes, it’s bad.
Female bodies were designed to grow babies inside them. And if your body feels like for whatever reason it can’t support baby-growing then you may have an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed. Plus, amenorrhea comes with its own health consequences. Infertility, obv. But due to the low levels of estrogen, it can also lead to osteoporosis, which is part of the female athlete triad. In addition, you could have problems from the underlying condition as well. I like to say our menstrual cycles are the canary (cardinal?) in the coal mine when it comes to our bodies. It may seem small and annoying but when it dies, it means there’s trouble below ground.
What is the Female Athlete Triad?
It’s a combination of amenorrhea, osteoporosis (low bone density) and disordered eating. It’s named such because the three are often found together in female athletes that push too hard.
What can cause you to lose your period?
Short answer: Everything. Longer answer: Everything including stress, medications, eating disorders, illness, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome and even stopping your birth control pills – plus a bunch of other random things. (For a more extensive list, go here.) For me, like a lot of women, I lost my period during the time when I was overexercising and undereating.
How skinny do you have to be to lose your period?
Not very, actually. Every body is different which is why it’s pointless to compare yourself to a teammate, roommate or friend. For myself, I never got emaciated. It seems that for me my body is more concerned about how much body fat I have and less concerned about my weight. I’ve found from experience that any time I drop below about 13% body fat my period is splitsville. It doesn’t matter if my weight is in the healthy range if my body fat is too low.
What do you have to do to get it back?
This one is tricky. If it’s an issue of an underlying illness like hypothyroidism or PCOS then treatment will often return your cycles. For some women, like myself, once I stopped overexercising and undereating it came back on it’s own. It took about 6 months for mine to get back to a regular cycle but it did come back. Other women find however that even when the underlying issues are “fixed”, their ovaries still don’t kick back into gear which necessitates a visit to a doctor, a specialist, hormone therapy or all of the above. Even then, for a few women it never comes back or comes back but stays irregular and/or anovulatory.
Should I see a doctor?
If it’s been several months sans period, yes. At the very least you should be checked to make sure your loss of periods isn’t due to something scary like cancer. At best, your doctor will listen to you about your exercise habits and nutrition and help you see if you are being too extreme. Not everyone is me (lucky ducks!) but I want to add that most women caught in the overexercising/undereating trap really do not have a good grasp on what that looks like, especially in themselves. It’s awfully hard to “cure yourself” when you’re caught up in the middle of it. A doctor can help you see how far out of normal your hormones have gotten and give you a solid reality check. For some women it’s as simple as adding some healthy fats to their diets. For others (like me) it means an entire cessation of ALL exercise for an extended period of time. (I had to go 8 weeks doing nothing but leisurely walking.) And if you don’t think the issue is related to your diet or exercise then seeing an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) can help you look for other issues.
Outside of the realm of traditional medicine there are several alternative therapies that have shown promise in helping bring your cycles back into order. Acupuncture surprisingly has the best track record in the research. Massage therapy or energy therapy can be helpful if your underlying issue is stress. And there are several herbs that can be used although these should be taken under the direction of a qualified doctor or holistic physician as their effects can be quite potent and harmful if misused.
There are quite a few books dealing with these issues but two of my favorites are Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler (really just a good read for anyone with a uterus or anyone who loves someone with a uterus) and What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenpause by Dr. John Lee. (Don’t let the title scare you – you don’t have to be anywhere near menopause to find it useful!)
Help a reader(s) out!
Do any of you have any advice or resources for my readers about amenorrhea? Did I get anything wrong? Miss something? Have you ever lost your period? And where were you when you got your Big First??
*Wondering what “maculate” means? Well, you’ve heard of immaculate conception right? Think the opposite of that. Or maybe don’t. Ack.