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That time of the month … The Red Flag is up

“My aunt is visiting.”

How long is she staying for? Oh, you meant the other aunt – the red-headed one who is sometimes also referred to as  the red flag, the curse, the monthlies, the blahs or That Time of the Month.Yes, we are talking about the monthly menstruation – a natural, biological occurrence that women have lived with since the beginning of time, yet is considered a burden to be borne in silence and shame.

Luckily, liberalisation has wiped out a lot of the taboos and superstitions associated with menstruation, so that women now are not ostracised as unclean, unhealthy or impure during their period. Admittedly, the pain, discomfort and pre-menstrual symptoms brought on by your menses can affect your daily life in negative ways. However, the pain and cramps are not part of the “shame” you have to bear in silence – they can be treated or managed so that they do not ruin your life.

Understanding your period

You may remember (or not) from your science classes in school that menstruation is part of the menstrual cycle, a 28-day cycle beginning from the first day of menstrual bleeding that describes the ovulating and fertile stages that a woman goes through.

In reality, the length of the cycle varies from woman to woman and may last from 20 to 45 days, with the menstruation period lasting from one  to seven days. Your menstrual cycle is controlled by your hormones, which is in turn subject to many internal and external factors, such as your physical health, stress, exercise, medication and drugs, or simply any significant changes in your daily lifestyle. So don’t be overly alarmed if you have an irregular period once – but if irregular periods become the norm for you, do see your doctor or gynaecologist.

There are a few other instances where you should see your doctor immediately. If you have:

  • Sudden, severe pelvic pain that occurs with or without menstruation.
  • Menstrual bleeding that is much heavier than usual.
  • Periods that occur more frequently than every 21 days.
  • Never experienced cramping, but now you do.
  • An inter-uterine device (IUD) that you suspect may be causing the pain.
  • Cramps that fail to respond to home remedies and over-the-counter medications
  • Period accompanied by sudden high fever, diarrhoea, or skin rash.
  • If you think you might be pregnant.

Dealing with the cramps

You’re probably one of the many woman who dreads getting her period each month because it means you’ll be curled up in bed, suffering cramps and bloatedness. Curling up in bed is not a bad idea, but here are a few home remedies to reduce the cramps. Put a hot water bottle or warm heating pad on your lower abdomen; this relaxes the muscles so that they do not spasm.

Sink into your bathtub and have a warm soak to open your cervix and relieve the cramps. Contrary to superstition, it is not dangerous to bathe during your period, although you should remember to remove your tampon, if you are using one! (Note about tampons: avoid using them when your cramps are most severe).

Although it may be tempting to lie in bed all day, you should try to get up and get moving! Exercise produces endorphins in your brain; these natural chemicals act as pain relievers and could soothe your cramps. Exercise will also boost your energy and take you out of that listless mood.

When you’re feeling crampy, trying stretching out with some yoga, gymnastics or swimming. If PMS (Pre-menstrual syndrome) is putting you in a bad mood, let it out with some kick-boxing, dancing or jogging. However, exercise is not a one-off fix – you should do it 30 minutes every day or three times a week, so that you enjoy consistent pain relief, as well as all the other benefits that exercise brings.

Do not be afraid to use over-the-counter (OTC) menstrual medications, if the pain gets unbearable. There are now various OTC drugs that are aimed at relieving the cramps, bloatedness and PMS symptoms that come with menstruation. If you are worried about taking these medications, ask your doctor for advice.

As for those mood swings…

Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is a real condition, not something that women cooked up in order to be nasty to their husbands. PMS symptoms begin five to 11 days before menstruation, and can include headaches, cramps, breast tenderness, nausea, irritability, fatigue and sex drive changes.

Your diet may have an effect on PMS symptoms. As always, a healthy, balanced diet will win out, so make sure you eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and beans, and protein foods like lean chicken or meat, fish and soybean products.

Eat less salt, as it can increase bloating. A sugar high is also bad for you because too much sugar can intensify mood swings. If you are having food cravings, choose to have milk, wholegrain cereals or fruits, instead of chips and sweets.

So remember, you don’t have to dread the next time your “aunt comes to visit”. After all, it’s a part of your life that you have to deal with every month!

Star newspape. March 16, 2008
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar