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What should men know about Menstrual Cycles?

Every month, women of childbearing age go through a process called the menstrual cycle, which prepares them to become pregnant. Starting at about 13 years of age, women go through this cycle repeatedly for about 35 years.

During the course of a single menstrual cycle, the levels of certain hormones change within a woman's body. (A hormone is a chemical, circulating within the bloodstream, that is used to control specific bodily functions.)

The changing hormones have several important effects. One is to cause the lining of the uterus (womb) to thicken. If the woman becomes pregnant, the fertilized egg will implant itself in this thickened lining and begin to grow.

If, by the end of the cycle, the woman does not become pregnant (the usual case), the bulk of the thickened tissue is sloughed off and expelled from the body via the vagina. The tissue contains a fair amount of blood and so, about once a month, a woman experiences a flow of bloody tissue that lasts about 5 days. This process is called menstruation.

The changing hormones have two other important effects. First, before and during menstruation, the uterus, which contains a lot of muscle tissue, will contract. This contraction causes cramps, which can become quite painful.

Second, in the days leading up to menstruation, many women experience one or more physical symptoms (bloating, breast discomfort, weight gain, cramps, back pain, fatigue, insomnia, acne, headache, nausea) or emotional symptoms (anger, anxiety, apathy, confusion, depression, hopelessness, irritability, loneliness, moodiness, nervousness, tension).

The intensity of these symptoms vary widely from one woman to another. When the symptoms are bothersome, the condition is referred to as premenstrual syndrome or PMS. About 5 percent of women have PMS so bad that it has a profound effect on their lives.