Last night as I lay in bed trying to get sleep, I started to wonder if I was getting sick. The flu is rampant in my area and I was feeling many of the symptoms of influenza. I was queasy, a little dizzy, and my muscles ached beyond belief. I was even starting to feel feverish and remembered that just an hour before I had to put on an extra sweater because I felt chilly.
WTAF was going on? But just as I started to list my symptoms to my husband and freak out about the prospect of being sick in bed for a week, he reminded me that I was about to get my period, and I always feel like shit when I have PMS. He was absolutely right: the calendar, my sore AF boobs, and my crampy uterus verified that.
I popped a few Tylenol and went to bed. Just like clockwork, I woke up with my period. At that point, most of my symptoms were completely gone. Thank gawd.
Curious to find out what the hell this was all about, I googled “period flu,” and sure enough, it’s a thing. Yep, it’s not just me: a ton of women experience flu-like symptoms before their period. Sometimes they can get pretty intense.
“Hormonal changes prior to your period can cause a range of symptoms, fatigue, abdominal cramping, bloating, back pains, and other body aches.” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, Medical Director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at the NYU Langone Medical Center, tells Brit + Co.
Although “period flu” is not an official medical diagnosis and doesn’t actually mean you are ill, doctors who work with menstruating women see this kind of thing all the time.
“My patients complain about all kinds of different illness that seem to come about right before their period, and they’re always cyclical,” Dr. Alyssa Dweck, gynecologist and assistant clinical professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, tells Women’s Health. It’s even common for women to experience the chills and fever-like feelings. Other flu-like symptoms Dr. Dweck’s patients complain of include headaches, joint pain, and exhaustion.
Been there, done that. Ughhhh.
Now, we know that hormones are the culprit for some of these symptoms, but it’s fascinating to dig into what these hormones are and why they make us feel like we’ve just been run over by a truck or are about to hurl.
The first hormone to blame here is estrogen—or rather, the sharp decline in estrogen that happens just before Aunt Flo arrives.
“In the mid-portion of your cycle when you ovulate, your estrogen and progesterone levels start to surge, and they decline when you do not get pregnant and get your period,” Dr. Dweck describes. “So that precipitous decline, particularly in estrogen, is what causes a lot of the symptoms.”
But perhaps the biggest offenders are prostaglandins. Prostaglandins spike right before your period. They are what cause your uterus to contract and shed its lining. But they get released into your bloodstream too and can cause all kinds of unpleasant symptoms.
“Prostaglandins can cause intestinal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, a feeling of being flushed, and general achiness,” Dr. Molly O’Shea tells Brit + Co.
Oh yes, I know all about period diarrhea. It’s my nemesis. But I didn’t realize that the nausea and achiness I experience as well is all one thing. Just lovely.
And don’t forget period farts. They’re a thing too, and are caused by prostaglandins.
Guess what else? Those pesky prostaglandins can even actually cause temperature fluctuations, make you feel like you have the chills and a fever, and may even cause you to have a fever. “Prostaglandins can also make you feel like you have the flu and even give you a temperature,” Dr. Jane Minkin, clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, tells Women’s Health.
Isn’t having a period freaking grand?
Experts say there are a few things you can do to manage and prevent the worst of these symptoms. You can take OTC pain killers for the fevered feelings and body aches. Heating pads work wonders too (also awesome for cramps). Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising can help prevent the symptoms from happening in the first place. You can chat with your healthcare provider about vitamin supplements to stave off some of the symptoms (calcium and vitamin B6, for example, are purported to help).
I am lucky in that I don’t seem to get the full brunt of these symptoms every single month (I’ve noticed that things are worse when I’m sleep deprived or stressed). Obviously, if your symptoms are debilitating or if you think you have the actual flu, you should seek medical attention.
For me, it helps to know that it’s only hormones causing all this discomfort—and that I am not facing a miserable week of an actual virus. But even more than that, it helps to know that it’s not all “in my head” and that I’m not alone in experiencing this crap. We don’t talk enough about periods, reproduction, and women’s bodies in general.
Getting more educated and more aware is so empowering. It doesn’t make the shittiest symptoms totally better, but it actually makes it all kind of interesting, and definitely less scary. And that’s saying something.