Before we discuss the importance and benefits of the menstrual cycle, let’s first talk about what it is. It’s more than just that annoying monthly event when your vagina bleeds and you have mood swings, food cravings, and cramps. For people who have periods, the menstrual cycle is a hormonal process that occurs each month following puberty; the body uses this process to prepare itself for a possible pregnancy. The “period” portion of one’s cycle is the “blood–releasing phase”—the body’s way of getting rid of unnecessary uterine lining if there is no viable pregnancy.
Other than the fact that it aids in releasing excess tissue and preparing the body for pregnancy, why does the menstrual cycle matter? This million dollar question has a fairly simple answer: it’s a critical indicator of overall health for people with periods. Specifically, the menstrual cycle is an indicator of hormonal balance, metabolic health, fertility, and even a person’s best “sex” days (and yes, I am referring to the best days for sexual enjoyment!)
In this vein, an irregular period is the body’s way of asking for help. A regular menstrual cycle occurs when the body is healthy and in homeostasis, creating and regulating appropriate sex hormone levels. One of the most common causes of irregular periods is prolonged or immense stress, which throws hormones out of balance. Another factor that can cause menstrual irregularity is problems in the thyroid, an essential organ involved in cell growth, repair, and metabolism. Thus, irregular periods can be a warning of immense stress or a dysfunctional thyroid.
Additionally, the same balance between estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—the main sex hormones—that regulates periods also indicates bone health. Disrupted periods are a powerful indicator of poor bone health.
Though it can be a love or hate topic, there’s also a correlation between regular menstrual cycles and healthy weight—if an individual has too little or too much body fat, they’ll likely have irregular periods or even amenorrhea (a lack of periods). Often, when people who have periods try to lose weight or diet, irregular periods may result as the body enters a survival state. In this state, the body tries to conserve as much energy as possible, stopping processes such as menstruation, which are important, but not critical to survival. This is one of many reasons people trying to lose weight should do so carefully and after considering all of the possible health effects of any potential diets.
As an added bonus, the hormones produced during and involved with the regulation of the menstrual cycle—namely estrogen and progesterone—come with their own share of benefits. For one, thanks to estrogen, individuals have a lower risk of heart disease and strokes before entering menopause. A 2017 study found that estrogen also helps maintain bone mass in adults and repairs heart tissue after heart attacks. On top of that, excess iron in the body, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, is shed during a one’s period, providing further heart protection. Progesterone is also a critical sex hormone. The same study found that progesterone impacts anxiety levels, neurogenesis (the production of nervous system cells), stress responses, synaptic plasticity (the weakening/strengthening of connections between neurons) and other essential central nervous system functions.
Yes, periods can be both physically and mentally exhausting. But, at the end of the day, they’re an important part of life and have a key role in maintaining health processes in the body. If you notice fluctuations in your periods, especially if they’re irregular or you’re missing multiple cycles in a row, consider consulting a doctor; don’t ignore the signals your body is trying to send!