Pole Dancer Period Hacks!

10th April 2017

How an athlete takes care of ‘aunt flow’

Ahhh, the vagina, it is a strange and wonderful organ that we all love . . . and hate. Opening at one end to the outside, the vagina is probably the most familiar of all the female reproductive organs. This muscular tube is comprised of three tissue layers, which make it both incredibly strong and flexible. The outer-most layer is epithelial (similar to the skins surface), and protects the vagina from friction. The middle layer of connective tissue provides flexibility with many elastic fibres, while the deepest layer of smooth muscle provides strength (Peckham, 2004). The top end of the vagina ends at the cervix, a sphincter of smooth muscle that controls the movement of substances between the vagina and uterus (Cervix of the Uterus, 2017). Each month, many changes occur within the female reproductive organs which are brought on by the hormones of the endocrine system.

Hormones are one method the cells of our body use to communicate with each other (Reece, 2015). In females, endocrine cells are clustered on top of the ovaries and produce androgens, oestrogens, and progestins – a series of hormones that are responsible for regulating almost everything that makes you female. Unlike males, females undergo a cyclic cycle of hormone levels that function to allow females to become pregnant and give birth. This cycle, termed the menstrual cycle, consists of both the ovarian cycle, in which hormones secreted by the brain drive the development of an oocyte (female equivalent of sperm); and the uterine cycle, where the ovaries produce estrogen and progesterone which develops the endometrium (Audesirk, 2011). If fertilisation does not occur, the levels of estrogen and progesterone fall and the endometrium is shed in an event called ‘the period’.

This cycle of hormones is great, because it means you get to have a period every month!!! This fabulous event begins with a rapid drop in estrogen and progesterone levels at the end of the luteal phase, which can cause premenstrual syndrome (PMS). This syndrome affects nearly 80% of women, and is characterised by abdominal bloating, headaches, irritability, confusion, and depression (Borwnatein et al., 2005). Next is the contraction of the uterus, which causes extreme pain and cramping as the excess endometrial tissue is squeezed out in a flow of blood, called menstruation. On average, a woman will bleed ¼ cup per period, but of-course it is not just blood that is expelled from the uterus, tissue fragments and blood clots may also be part of a normal period.

So when aunt flow comes to stay, you may feel like staying home with a hot water bottle and enough wine and chocolate to sink a ship, but for the modern women, that’s just not possible. Female athletes in particular have therefore had to find ways of handling their period without letting it interfere with their normal routine, and surprisingly, physical activity is one of best things you can do when you’re on your period. Movement reduces cramping, pain, boating, and water retention while increasing feel good endorphins!

After 20 years as a menstruating, competitive athlete, I am confident in how I handle my period. Now as a pole dancer, I can dance on the heaviest day of my period and still perform proud spreadies to the gods. Not surprisingly, ~50% of the population experience periods, but many women feel embarrassed or discouraged from speaking about anything relating to mensuration. I feel strongly that we should not have to wonder in silence, therefore, I would like to share my tips regarding how to handle your period while going strong as an athlete, sprinkled with little peer reviewed research.

Period hacks

Tampons are probably the go-to for most athletes as they minimise “fanny bulk’’. These little guys come in a range of sizes, but can still be a bit of a pain to get in… and out. Tampons should be inserted 2-3 cm above the narrow sensitive opening of the vagina, and should be inserted toward the tailbone i.e. parallel to the floor rather than up… I did this wrong for many yearsL. For the most comfortable wear, choose the absorbency that matches your flow. Tampons will absorb ALL the surrounding moisture, including ~35% of the normal vaginal lubrication (Levin et al., 1986). If the tampon is still dry it may be ‘scratchy’ or painful to remove, and you should drop down an absorbency size. This will also mean that the vagina is quite dry, and insertion of the next tampon may be painful. Consider using a pad for the next few hours, as a tampon inserted in to a dry vagina could damage the epithelium (Levin et al., 1986). Also, if you find inserting tampons difficult all together you can use lubrication and it will not affect the absorbency of the tampon. Lastly, tampons come with a handy little string for removal, however with activity; the string can find its way to the outside world. You can trim the string slightly with scissors, or you can lay/tuck it in between L major and L minor and trust me that string won’t move – enough said.   

There are unfortunately a few drawbacks of using tampons. The cotton used for tampon production is often bleached, genetically modified, and can contain nasty chemicals such as dioxins and furans (Archer et al, 2005)! The only non-GMO, organic, non-bleached tampon brand on the market (that I know of) is TOMS. Another con – if you one of the lucky ones who bleed more than average – you might fill a super tampon in as little as 4 hours. To avoid leaks I would change the tampon immediately before and after exercise. If that still isn’t enough, what was common among synchronized swimmers is to wear two tampons at once – one stacked on top of the other, however this may not work for women with shallow vaginas. Another option that I have just recently tried is a menstrual cup

There are many brands available on line, but I happened to find one in a local chemist called the Diva Cup. This cup comes in two sizes, and also comes with a handy carry bag and instructions. Inserting the cup the first time was a bit of a mission, and if you think inserting a super tampon without an applicator is a drama, this might not be the best option for you. Also if you have long nails like me, you will probably stab yourself. In saying that, once I found a comfortable way of inserting the cup, it was great. After walking around a little, it seemed to settle and it was undetectable. I wore the cup to a pole class and it didn’t shift or leak or cause me any discomfort. Removing the cup however was uncomfortable; it seems to create a bit of suction as it wasn’t that full, so it was important to break the upper seal first before hauling it out with the nubby. With a full menstrual cup this is not an issue. Another tip that is not mentioned within the instruction manual, is that bowel movements can push the cup down out of place, and you may have to give it a little adjustment. My favourite thing about the Diva Cup… It has measurement increments in ounces on the side!

Just for a bit of fun I did some number crunching to see how much it costs to be an egg bearing female. On average women use 20 tampons ($9.00), 5 pad or liners ($2.50), and 4 - 6 anti-inflammatories ($1.20) per period. Each year that amounts to $152.40, and over your lifetime that amounts to $6,096. Your welcome!    

 Jackie Jones

 Update: you can buy locally owned and made menstrual cups from Juju - online or at Sister's IGA Joondalup.

References

Archer et al. (2005). Dioxin and furan levels found in tampons. Journal of Women’s Health. 14(4). 311-315

Audesirk et al. (2011)Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Pearson Education. Sanfransisco CA. USA.

Borwnatein et al. (2005) Estimatiing direct and indirect costs of premenstrual syndrome. JOEM. (47)1. 26-33.

Cervix of the Uterus (2017). InnerBodyMedia.com: HowToMedia, Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.innerbody.com/image_repfov/repo37-new.html

Levin et al. (1986). Absorption of menstrual discharge by tampons inserted during menstruation: quantitative assessment of blood and total fluid content. BJOG.(93)6. 765-772

Peckham, (2004). Histology, Faculty of Biological Sciences; University of Leeds. Retreved from: http://www.histology.leeds.ac.uk/

Reece et al. (2015) Biology. Pearson Education. Sanfransisco CA. USA.