Not so long ago, it was conventional wisdom that menstruation made women weaker, mentally inferior, unstable, and unclean once a month. For the most part, we know better, but periods are still a taboo topic. So taboo, in fact, that it’s still relatively uncharted territory in terms of medical research. There isn’t even a complete consensus as to why human women menstruate, let alone how to cure the number of debilitating health issues that come along with it, including endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and other conditions that cause abnormally heavy bleeding.
In a paper published in the Human Reproduction Update this month, researchers from the University of Edinburgh argue that the scientific community needs to catch up and pay attention to menstruation and how it might even provide insight into other bodily processes. “There’s so much we don’t understand about why this repeated event of shedding and repair happens,” Dr. Hilary Critchley, one of the authors of the paper, told LiveScience.com.
Humans, “old world” primates, elephant shrews, and fruit bats are the only animals that menstruate. The prevalent theory is that in menstruating mammals, the uterine lining thickens and changes in preparation for an embryo to protect the mother’s uterus and to detect a faulty embryo and discard it. When implantation does not occur, progesterone levels drop and the uterine lining is shed. The uterine lining of non-menstruating mammals does not change as much until implantation occurs, and whatever is unused is reabsorbed into the body.
“The menstruation process is the only process in the human body that involves regular destruction and then repair,” Jennifer Ashton, a board-certified ob-gyn and ABC News’ chief women’s health correspondent, told Yahoo Health via email.
Critchley and co-author Jacqueline Maybin write that the process of destruction and repair, which begins with the inflammation of the endometrium, could offer insight into other inflammatory disorders, such as arthritis, as well as the healing of other organs that don’t repair so efficiently.
That’s not to say women’s reproductive health shouldn’t also be a priority. Critchley estimates that 20-30 percent of premenopausal women suffer from abnormally heavy and painful periods.
“These women with heavy menstrual bleeding are just debilitated. They are miserable. They can’t go out of the house,” Critchley told LiveScience. “This dominates their social lives, their holidays, their weekends.”
The fact that there still isn’t a complete understanding of what causes conditions like those is disturbing to some experts. “Women’s reproductive health is stuck in the dark ages!” Ashton told Yahoo Health. “Almost every reproductive health issue facing women is underserved in medical research: Polycystic ovary syndrome is probably the biggest issue, but endometriosis, fibroids, chronic pelvic pain, vulvodynia, to say nothing of obstetric issues … They all need more attention.”