Why talking about periods is important

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Professor Hilary Critchley FRSE is Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Edinburgh

When I started medical school in 1975, periods (menstruation) were taboo and understudied. It is deeply concerning that this still remains the case four decades later – we must break the continuing shame and embarrassment when talking about periods.

A recent study into hidden reproductive health problems reported that many women described heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB) as a source of embarrassment, affecting relationships, mental health and work. HMB impacts as many as one in three women.

This debilitating symptom imposes a massive impact on women’s quality of life but the underlying cause is often not diagnosed. HMB may not be life-threatening, but it is life-altering.

Heavy menstrual bleeding is a leading cause of anaemia globally

If menstrual blood loss exceeds iron intake, iron deficiency and then anaemia develops. HMB is a leading cause of anaemia globally and a real hazard to public health. Despite being such a common complaint, HMB is still underreported, largely due to the fact that it has been “normalised” by our society, family, and health care providers.

Optimisation of care for heavy periods requires a deeper understanding of menstruation itself: an amazing natural physiological event which is a wound that completely and repeatedly repairs each month. A crucial component of our laboratory research is to address the gaps in our knowledge of menstruation and gain insights into the biology of the endometrium (lining of the womb) that is shed during a period.

My clinical research team seeks to better understand the problem of HMB, and benefit those suffering with heavy periods. Our studies are enhancing our understanding of the biology of the endometrium – particularly, the cellular and molecular changes that cause heavy periods. Unbelievably there have been no new medications developed for heavy periods for over 25 years, and we hope to change this.

Big questions remain, and we are working hard to find the answers

Our research has revealed that some women with heavy periods have altered oxygen levels in the endometrium. This can impact processes that ensure repair after the lining is shed, so periods last longer. We have also identified a possible lack of a hormone in the endometrium of those with HMB. This hormone helps tiny blood vessels mature and may reduce menstrual blood flow. We need to understand better the pivotal role of progesterone in menstrual bleeding.

Big questions remain, and we are working hard to find the answers. How do structural features in the womb muscle (myometrium), such as fibroids (areas of thickening of womb muscle), result in heavy periods? Does the endometrium behave differently as it ages? Are menstrual bleeding problems associated with later health problems? To answer these questions, we have to work across disciplines and embrace new exciting technologies. We need new therapeutic approaches, including delivery routes. Such approaches will make precision medicine for menstrual bleeding problems a closer reality.

Tribute must be paid to the many, many patients who have, and continue to, participate in our studies exploring the process of menstruation and heavy periods; as without their contribution, advances in menstrual health research would not be possible.

Professor Hilary Critchley FRSE is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Co-Deputy Director MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, Edinburgh.

This article originally featured in The Scotsman.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views from RSE Fellows, RSE research awardees and medallists on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.