An introduction to heavy periods
Many women complain of having heavy periods, but what does ‘heavy’ actually mean? Heavy periods, also called menorrhagia, are surprisingly common and affect many women.
Although it is often hard to measure how ‘heavy’ you periods are, generally they are classed as heavy if you lose over 60ml of blood over the course of each period – that’s just over 3 tablespoons worth! This can be hard to measure though, so throughout this page I discuss some common signs and symptoms that suggest you might be experiencing particularly heavy periods.
I then go on to discuss some common causes and in line with this, some ways in which you can manage your periods going forward – if your periods are heavy there are some solutions!
Signs and symptoms of heavy periods
Unsure if you have heavy periods? Diagnosing heavy periods isn’t always easy and women can often have the odd heavy period and then back to normal again. Below I outline some signs to look out for. If these are occurring more often than not, then it might suggest that your periods are heavy.
- Blood loss – The amount of blood lost per period is the obvious indicator of how heavy your period is. Periods are considered heavy if you lose more than 60 – 80ml per period (approximately 3 – 5 tablespoons). However, unless you have a tablespoon handy, this might be hard to measure. Generally, if you are having to change your pad or tampon every hour for several consecutive hours then this is classed as a heavy period
- Flooding – Flooding is a heavy surge of blood loss which often results in you soaking through your sanitary product and onto your clothes or bedding. This shouldn’t happen for an extended period of time or you can become anaemic very quickly. Frequent flooding suggests you have heavy periods
- Duration – The total time you bleed for can also indicate how heavy a flow you have. As you know, how heavy your periods are, is dependent on how much total blood is lost, so if you are bleeding for 7 days or more rather than the average 4 or 5, then you are bound to be losing more blood overall and you will most likely be having heavier periods
- Night time bleeding – Generally, if you have to get up during the night to change your sanitary products, or if you find you leak through, this suggests you have a heavy flow. During the night gravity means blood loss should be even slower, although flooding is more likely to occur when you stand up after a night’s sleep if your periods are particularly heavy
- Blood clots – Passing red blood clots is also a sign of heavy periods. Your period is a result of the lining of your womb being broken down and passing out through your vagina. As the lining is shed, your body releases anti-coagulants to thin this material and prevent blood clots. However, if your period is very heavy, your body struggles to keep up with the rate at which your lining is being shed and as a result you may find and you pass some blood clots. These clots should be dark red in colour and if other colours make an appearance such as pink or grey, it may be a sign of something else
- Cramp – Period pains, which are often described as period cramps, are a result of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are produced in order to initiate contractions of your womb and allow the lining to be shed. Generally, the thicker the lining to be shed, the more prostaglandins there are and the heavier the period as a result. If your period pains are particularly severe, it is advised you pay your doctor a visit for a check up.
In addition to these indicators, women can experience other symptoms which appear to be associated with the heavy periods. Often the hormone imbalance giving rise to the heavy periods in the first place are the root cause of many of these other issues! You are also at risk of becoming anaemic if you suffer from very heavy periods which can cause problems in itself.
If you find you suffer a number of symptoms around the time of your period and these impact on your day to day life, then it is possible you also have pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Click the link to visit A.Vogel Talks PMS and learn more about the symptoms of PMS.
There are many causes of heavy periods. Understanding the cause of your heavy periods can put you in better stead for treating them.
- Hormone imbalance – Hormone imbalance is one of the most common causes of heavy periods. There are two female sex hormones that are of particular importance in the menstrual cycle: oestrogen and progesterone. At different times of the month these hormones are required to be higher or lower. However if the levels remain elevated when they shouldn’t, you can suffer and generally higher levels of oestrogen can give rise to heavy, painful periods. Heavy periods can be normal for you depending on your natural balance of hormones but in extreme cases these may need to be managed
- Age – Although age isn’t directly related to heavy or light periods, women are often more prone to hormone imbalances at certain times in their lives. For example, teenagers who haven’t long started their periods, or women approaching the menopause are more likely to have bigger fluctuations in their hormones. This means heavier periods may become apparent but are most likely to settle down over time
- PMS – Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is a range of physical, mental and behavioural symptoms which women often suffer in the week or two in the lead up to their periods. Many of the symptoms of PMS, in particular feeling angry, irritable, having mood swings, sore breasts and experiencing painful, heavy periods are actually a result of a hormone imbalance such as high levels of oestrogen
- Fibroids – Fibroids are non-cancerous tumours in the womb that form from muscle and fibrous tissue. In some cases, fibroids don’t give rise to many symptoms; however, in other cases they can give rise to very heavy, painful periods. Fibroids often form as a result of a hormone imbalance
- Endometriosis – Endometriosis is when small sections of the womb end up outside of the uterus, for example in the fallopian tubes, ovaries or vagina. Endometriosis often gives rise to painful, heavy periods
- Medication –Some medicines are able to affect your periods as a side effect. Although oral contraceptives, often called ‘the pill’ often make your periods lighter or non-existent, in some cases (more likely to be oestrogen-based versions), they can make your period heavier. Other methods of contraception may also give rise to heavier periods, such as the intrauterine device (IUD), also called the coil. Other medications can also make your periods heavier such as blood thinning medication for example. If your periods change suddenly after starting any medication, always refer back to the product information leaflet (PIL) for more information or contact your GP
- Other medical conditions – There may be other conditions that can cause heavy periods such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), blood disorders, thyroid issues or cancer of the uterus or ovaries. If you periods change suddenly or are particularly heavy or painful, always be sure to pay a visit to your doctor.
What can I try at home for heavy periods?
Here I outline some simple home remedies to help you manage your heavy periods a little better:
- Manage your sanitary products – In many cases slightly heavier periods are perfectly normal and there is no need to be overly worried or ‘treat’ them as such. Just be prepared, get in a routine and buy the necessary sanitary products (nowadays they are clearly marked with an absorbency rating) and ensure you have adequate supplies at home, in work and in your handbag when you are on the move. If managing them becomes unbearable, consider trying a herbal remedy or visit your doctor for other options
- Magnesium and iron rich foods – Magnesium is excellent for heavy periods. Magnesium acts as a gentle muscle relaxant and so can help take the edge off very strong contractions of the uterus which can give rise to very heavy periods. Try incorporating plenty of magnesium-rich foods into your diet including dark leafy veg, nuts, seeds, beans and wholegrains. If your periods are heavy you can also risk becoming low in iron and suffer from fatigue as a result of anaemia. Eat lots of iron-rich foods including your dark leafy veg, beans, dried fruit. Try drinking an iron tonic or some beetroot juice throughout the day too.
Can herbal remedies help?
Herbal remedies may also be useful in treating heavy periods:
- Agnus castus – Agnus castus is fantastic for women who suffer from PMS and are oestrogen dominant. An imbalance in oestrogen can give rise to symptoms such as anger and irritability, mood swings, sore breasts and heavy, painful periods. Agnus castus gently increases the amount of progesterone your body makes which creates a better balance between progesterone and oestrogen.
Please note if you are taking hormonal contraceptives such as the pill, hormone-balancing herbal remedies may not be suitable for you.
Can my doctor help?
If home and herbal remedies don’t seem t be helping it may be time to visit your doctor. If heavy periods are having a negative impact on your life there may be some treatment options available:
- Contraceptive pill – Your doctor may put you on the contraceptive pill which contains artificial versions of the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone, although carefully consider any side effects the pill may bring
- Other contraceptives – Other methods of contraception can also help balance your hormones. Progesterone-dominant methods such as the coil or implant may help to lessen your periods or even stop them altogether
- Endometrial ablation – An ablation is a surgical procedure which involves removing the lining of your womb. This is often used in older women who suffer from heavy periods although it can only be carried out in women who don’t want any more children
- Other medications – Pain killers, anti-inflammatory or antispasmodic medication may also be available from your doctor.