Reviewed by

Uwe Porters - Mid-wife / Pregnancy & Postpartum Expert

Back

Your Menstrual Cycle: The Sixth Vital Sign of Health

Reviewed by

Uwe Porters - Mid-wife / Pregnancy & Postpartum Expert

When healthcare professionals look at a person’s overall health, they often look at things like heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. They're the go-to markers for gauging our overall well-being. But there's one vital sign that’s rarely discussed – your menstrual cycle. Bleeding every month is a window into your overall wellbeing and reproductive health and yet, doctors rarely mention it.

In this blog post, we're going to take a closer look at the vital signs of health including the often overlooked sixth sign: your menstrual cycle. We’ll tell you why your period is essential, plus we'll explain the differences between natural menstruation and the monthly bleeding when you use hormonal contraception.

The Six Vital Signs of Health

First of all, what are the six vital signs of your health? Traditionally, there are five vital signs that are commonly discussed: body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, blood pressure and pain level. The sixth - your menstrual cycle - is a relatively new market when it comes to evaluating your overall health. Here’s a closer look at what each one can tell you about your health:

  • Body Temperature: Body temperature measures your ability to generate and get rid of heat. It might sound simple but it’s the indicator of the body's metabolic state and can provide information about infection or inflammation.
  • Pulse Rate: Pulse rate, or heart rate, measures the number of heartbeats per minute. It reflects your heart's efficiency in pumping blood and can indicate cardiovascular health and fitness levels.
  • Respiration Rate: Respiration rate measures the number of breaths taken per minute. It provides information about lung function, overall cardiovascular health, and can also indicate metabolic disorders.
  • Blood Pressure: Blood pressure measures the force of blood against the walls of arteries. It consists of two values: systolic pressure (the pressure when the heart beats) and diastolic pressure (the pressure when the heart is at rest). Blood pressure is a crucial indicator of cardiovascular health and can help diagnose conditions like hypertension.
  • Pain Level: Although not always included in the traditional vital signs, pain is increasingly being recognized as the fifth vital sign. Assessing a patient's pain level is important for managing discomfort and can provide insights into various underlying health issues.
  • Menstrual Health: And, finally, your cycle. Menstrual health can be considered the sixth vital sign, especially in the context of women's health. Changes or irregularities in the menstrual cycle can indicate various health issues, including hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis and stress.

The Significance of Your Menstrual Cycle

Since the day of your first period, your monthly cycle has come around, more or less, every month. While we’re all aware of this normal bodily function, we’ve found that most women really don’t understand their cycle or the significance of it. And sometimes they’re even ashamed of it. Your period is not a secret! It doesn’t need to be this taboo topic we talk about in whispers. It’s important and frankly, a pretty amazing function of the female body!

Every month your body releases an egg. If that egg is not fertilized by sperm, you shed your uterine lining. But this monthly ritual isn't just about prepping us for potential baby-making; it's also a great indication of your overall well-being. Your menstrual cycle can give you crucial insight into your health. For example, if it's regular and happy, it's usually a good sign that our hormones are balanced and our endocrine system is on point. But when it goes a bit haywire with things like missed periods or super-heavy flows, it might be our body's way of waving a red flag, signaling potential issues like hormonal imbalances, thyroid troubles, PCOS, or even just a little too much stress and not enough nutrients. So, embrace your cycle! It's not just about tampons and cramps; it's your body's way of saying, "Hey, I'm here, and let's stay in sync!"

Why Monthly Bleeding is Important

In addition to being a telling indicator of your overall health, regular menstruation plays a crucial role in reproductive health. Each month, the uterine lining thickens in preparation for a potential pregnancy. If you do not get pregnant, then your body sheds the lining. This is your period. This natural process is a protective measure to prevent nasty stuff from building up. This helps to reduce your risk of infections or other complications. It’s also a great way to understand your fertility. You can use your period to help pin-point that all-important ovulation time, which is critical if you’re trying to have a baby. And even if you're not trying to conceive, a healthy cycle is one where you're ovulating.

Natural Menstruation vs. Hormonal Contraception

So bleeding is important. But what about if you take hormonal contraception? Women who use some types of hormonal birth control (like hormonal IUDs) never bleed and women who take the birth control pill only bleed when they use the placebo pills. Is this healthy?

It’s important to know the difference between natural menstruation and bleeding that happens when you’re using hormonal contraception, often referred to as withdrawal bleeding.

  • Natural Menstruation: Your natural cycle is the result of a variety of hormones, primarily estrogen and progesterone. Your cycle has four distinct phases: menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation phase and luteal phase. Your hormones changes in each of these phases and they are essential for your overall health and fertility. When you bleed on a natural cycle, your blood consists of your uterine lining as well as cervical mucus and other substances.
  • Withdrawal Bleeding: Hormonal contraceptives like birth control pills, patches and hormonal IUDs work by altering your hormone levels which prevent ovulation and alter your uterine lining. So when you bleed during the placebo or inactive pill days of a birth control pack, it is not a true menstrual period. It is a withdrawal bleed. It is your body’s response to the sudden drop in hormone levels when the active pills are paused. This bleeding is often lighter and shorter than natural menstruation and does not serve the same physiological purposes.

Is Withdrawal Bleeding Necessary?

Let's clear up the confusion about withdrawal bleeding, shall we? First of all, it’s different from a natural period, usually making a shorter and lighter appearance about two to three days after you put the hormone pills on pause, and it wraps up in four to six days. But here’s the thing: having a withdrawal bleed is not medically necessary.

Having a withdrawal bleed can help you keep better track of your health. When you have a withdrawal bleed, it is a sign that you are not pregnant and for some women, this is reassuring. If you stop taking the pill and you do not bleed, it could indicate a health issue or the fact that you’re pregnant (especially if you haven’t been taking the pill perfectly as prescribed).

If you’re on some forms of hormonal birth control or you take the pill continuously, you won’t have a withdrawal bleed at all. From a health perspective, this is completely fine and for some women, this is super convenient. That said, it does make it a tad trickier to spot early signs of health issues, birth control slip-ups or pregnancy.

Remember, when taken like a pro (same time every day, except for your break week if you have one), hormonal birth control packs an impressive 91 to 99 effectiveness rate. So, whether you're pro-withdrawal bleeding or choose not to bleed, know your options and choose what suits you best.

Want to know more about how birth control works? Check out our blog post here.

Interested in non-hormonal forms of birth control? We’ve got you covered in this post here.

Signs of a Healthy Cycle

So what exactly does a normal, healthy menstrual cycle look and feel like? Typically, your cycle spans around 28 days, although some variation is perfectly fine. It kicks off with your period, which usually lasts anywhere from 3 to 7 days. Your flow should be moderate in terms of quantity – not excessively heavy or unusually light. While cramps can make an appearance, they shouldn't be overwhelmingly painful. Keep an eye on your moods, as some fluctuations are normal, but they shouldn't be extreme. Beyond what you observe, consider how you feel. A healthy cycle generally shouldn't bring excessive pain or extreme fatigue. The bottom line? If you notice any extremes, it’s a good idea to seek guidance from a healthcare professional. Some of the most persistent misconceptions about periods are that irregularity every month is normal, that super heavy cycles are just part of “being a woman,” and that severe pain is something everyone experiences. None of these are true. Your body knows its rhythm, and if something seems off, don't hesitate to consult an expert.

Not sure? Ask us. We’re here to help.

In Summary

The biggest challenge is that the misconceptions around periods mean that it’s pretty common for this vital indicator of your health to get lost. Part of the reason for this is lack of information. So if you’ve read this far, congrats! You’re on your way to changing the narrative around menstrual health.

What’s next? Start paying attention to your cycle. You can use an app to track your monthly cycle and spot irregularities or trends. If your pulse rate or body temperature suddenly started changing radically, you’d be at your doctor’s office pretty quickly. The same mentality should be applied when you think about your menstrual cycle. If you notice anything odd, don’t hesitate to ask questions or get help.