I was recently reminded of a great online resource for women and girls, about menstrual health, called Rachel’s Well. The organization, a nonprofit 501 C3, was developed around the core knowledge that “menstruation is a unique indicator of a woman’s overall emotional and physical health”. Its mission is to improve women’s health care by focusing its efforts in the area of menstrual health and ovarian insufficiency. The Rachel’s Well board includes a multi-disciplined group of physicians, clinicians and researchers who receives funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) for projects to support education and the study of Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POI).
The reason I am blogging about this now is that I read recently that periods don’t have any function, since we don’t get pregnant and give birth every year. My perspective is that discounting the importance of periods to our overall health is a very naive way of looking at our physiology. (Whenever I begin talking about an anatomy and physiology topic, like what are the ovaries and why are they important, I feel like I should be dressed in my nursing uniform, have a pointer in my hand and be standing next to a plastic model of a uterus with ovaries and vagina attached. Picture me that way please.)
What are the ovaries? A simple definition from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) is that the ovaries are two small glands, located on either side of the uterus, that contain the eggs produced at ovulation as well as produce the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone.
Why are the ovaries important to our overall health? Since estrogen and progesterone control the development of female body characteristics, such as the breasts, body shape, and body hair and because the ovaries also regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, the ovaries are important to our health and wellbeing.
How does my period relate to my health and indicate the health of my ovaries? According to Paula Hillard, M.D., Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Stanford University, “It can indicate the status of emotional health, hormonal health, bone health, ovarian health, as well as long-term fertility. Therefore, in the absence of hormonal contraception, if a woman is not having her period, it may be the first sign that something else could be going on.”
Also from the Rachel’s Well site: “There are long- and short-term health effects of irregular or interrupted periods (amenorrhea). The clear message of Rachel’s Well is the importance of the relationship between women and their menstrual cycles. Regular and effective health screenings and an open dialogue between women and their health care providers are critical to their overall health. If a woman’s menstrual cycle is not functioning normally, this should be considered a reason for a specific evaluation by a health care provider.”
One reason, outside of the use of birth control pills, for having an irregular period, or not having one at all is Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POI). Below is a link to the Rachel’s well site content about POI.
Also on the site, are statistics (POI is more common than you might think) as well as content that address myths or misperceptions that some women may have when their periods halt before the age of 45. For example, she may think she is in early menopause, but that is probably incorrect, as she may actually have POI.
What are some symptoms of POI? Some symptoms that may occur are: missed or irregular periods, hot flashes/night sweats, inability to concentrate, loss of memory, insomnia, depression, loss of energy, irritability/mood swings, sexual dysfunction, vaginal dryness, infertility. Note that the symptoms are very close to what we have come to expect from menopause. Point here is that menopause usually happens between the ages of 45 to 60 years.
What do I do with this information? Clearly, if you are younger than 45 years old and your periods have stopped for no apparent reason, schedule an appointment with your health care provider to discuss your symptoms and concerns. This is important; because a delay in diagnosis and treatment can lead to health problems, such as low bone density, sleep difficulties and emotional issues. The good news is that there are treatment options that can help.
Most of us lead very busy lives and want to be at our optimum to do the things we need to as well as select to do. I strongly believe that we should all work to be at the best health possible. Part of that is taking action, when needed, to make that happen. Hope that all reading this will do that and find the answers they deserve.