Period Myths: 7 Lies You’ve Been Told About Menstruation (And What to Believe Instead)5 Min Read
Roughly half of the world’s population menstruates at some point in their lives — but the process remains a surprisingly muddied topic. Maybe that’s because it’s still remarkably taboo to talk about having your period. If you’ve ever slid a tampon up your sleeve to hide it as you run to the bathroom, you know something about that.
At best, talking about menstruation makes people uncomfortable. At worst, it can be used as grounds for discrimination and exclusion from public, religious, or even familial spaces (see this call to action by the United Nations to learn more). For these reasons, there are many biases — and yes, complete misconceptions — when it comes to “that time of month.” We’re here to clear the air. Here’s what you need to know about fact and fiction when it comes to “Aunt Flow.”
MYTH: Only women menstruate.
Truth: This one’s patently false on several levels. Some cisgender women do menstruate, and they may begin in their early teens until the onset of menopause — that is, if things like weight, exercise frequency, and stress might impact their cycle. Other cisgender women never menstruate, for a variety of reasons. Whether they do or not is between them and their doctor.
But more people than cisgender women have periods, and that includes some transgender men and nonbinary and gender non-conforming people. Including these people in conversations about menstruation, and expanding access to tampons, pads and other period products is important. Doing so destigmatizes periods for everyone.
MYTH: Premenstrual symptoms (PMS) — no matter how severe — are normal.
TRUTH: Prior to menstruation, the body undergoes drastic changes in hormone levels as it prepares to shed the uterine lining. The overall experience can be… less than pleasant. However, many PMS symptoms are actually not normal, and can even be indicative of a medical condition.
Science has shown that PMS can be caused by an imbalance in estrogen and progesterone during the body’s luteal phase (1). People who have substantial mood changes and depression prior to their period may experience not just PMS, but a more severe condition called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD. Severe cramping and pain can be symptoms of any number of conditions, including endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.
If you get a period, you’ve probably been conditioned to normalize the experience — whether it’s severe pain, emotional symptoms, or both. We’re here to tell you that these symptoms matter, and to encourage you to seek treatment as needed.
MYTH: Oral contraceptives will help you regulate your period if you have an irregular cycle.
TRUTH: Oral contraceptives — commonly known as “the pill” — is great for pregnancy prevention because it prevents ovulation. Because you need to ovulate in order to menstruate, the so-called “period” that can occur during the 7-day break in most birth control packs is actually just a withdrawal bleed, not a true period. (People with hormonal IUDs, for example, may experience spotting or bleeding, but many report not having a period at all after their body adjusts to the device.)
Interestingly, the idea of inserting a 7-day break into the hormonal birth control plan is simply a historical artifact from a time when doctors (mostly men) believed women would be distressed without monthly bleeding. It just goes to show how little they knew. If you’re on oral birth control and want to skip your placebo pills and start a new pack, talk to your doctor about your options.
MYTH: Periods aren’t important unless you’re trying to get pregnant.
TRUTH: Periods serve many purposes beyond indicating fertility. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls menstruation the fifth vital sign — it’s just as important as pulse, body temperature, breath rate, and blood pressure. Periods play a vital role in key body processes, such as hormonal regulation and the building of bone mass.
MYTH: Only cisgender women and other people who were assigned female at birth have hormonal cycles.
TRUTH: Cisgender men have naturally occurring hormonal cycles, too — they just happen over a 24-hour period instead of a monthly one. (If you have a period, that cycle might last anywhere from 21 to 35 days, and that range is totally normal — more on that later.)
When you start to reverse engineer the standard workday — which was, of course, developed by men in power — it makes sense:
- Morning: Testosterone levels are highest at this point, contributing to an energy boost (time to seize the day!) and the usual “morning wood.”
- Afternoon: More moderate testosterone levels make for a more temperate, social mood.
- Evening: Testosterone levels wane – cue the “cocooning” and relaxing at home.
Can you imagine what the work schedule might have looked like if people with monthly cycles had had more of a say? We’d guess that work expectations might wane during premenstrual phases, and productive times might be scheduled to coincide with the follicular phase. A few countries in Europe and Asia have started to implement menstrual leave policies to better accommodate all of their workers.
MYTH: All periods should look and feel about the same.
TRUTH: Cycles can vary drastically from person to person. While the average cycle length is 28 days, the Mayo Clinic reports that anywhere from 21-35 days is considered normal, and periods can last between two to seven days. Different people may also experience different symptoms associated with their period, or even bleed different amounts. Much of this variation is normal, but it’s important to know when it’s not. Please talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about whether your cycle is “normal.”
MYTH: Period blood is different from regular blood. It’s just not hygienic.
TRUTH: Well, this one is only partially false. Period blood is of a slightly different composition than regular blood — and that might be a good thing. Researchers have discovered that stem cells found in menstrual blood may have the potential to be used in treatments for stroke, liver damage, and other conditions. In other words, menstrual blood could have life-saving properties. Not only that, but one study from Nottingham Trent University in the UK found that roughly 78% of women are willing to donate their menstrual blood. That means your time of the month has the potential to become a more widely available stem cell therapy. Doesn’t seem so dirty anymore, right?