Menarche (pron.: /mɨˈnɑrkiː/ mə-NAR-kee; Greek: μήν mēn "moon" + ἀρχή arkhē "beginning") is the first menstrual cycle, or first menstrual bleeding, in female humans. From both social and medical perspectives, it is often considered the central event of female puberty, as it signals the possibility of fertility.
Girls experience menarche at different ages. The timing of menarche is influenced by female biology, as well as genetic and environmental factors, especially nutritional factors. The average age of menarche has declined over the last century, but the magnitude of the decline and the factors responsible remain subjects of contention. The worldwide average age of menarche is very difficult to estimate accurately, and it varies significantly by geographical region, race, ethnicity and other characteristics. Various estimates have placed it at 13. Some estimates suggest that the median age of menarche worldwide is 14, and that there is a later age of onset in Asian populations compared to the West. The average age of menarche is about 12.5 years in the United States, 12.72 in Canada, 12.9 in the UK and 13.06 ± 0.10 years in Iceland. A study on girls in Istanbul, Turkey, found the median age at menarche to be 12.74 years.
As part of puberty
Menarche is the culmination of a series of physiological and anatomic processes of puberty:
- Attainment of a sufficient body mass (typically 17% body fat).
- Disinhibition of the GnRH pulse generator in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus.
- Secretion of estrogen by the ovaries in response to pituitary hormones.
- Over an interval of about 2 to 3 years, estrogen stimulates growth of the uterus (as well as height growth, breast growth, widening of the pelvis, and increased regional adipose tissue).
- Estrogen stimulates growth and vascularity of the endometrium, the lining of the uterus.
- Fluctuations of hormone levels can result in changes of adequacy of blood supply to parts of the endometrium.
- Death of some of the endometrial tissue from these hormone or blood supply fluctuations leads to deciduation, a sloughing of part of the lining with some blood flow from the vagina.
No specific hormonal signal for menarche is known; menarche as a discrete event is thought to be the relatively chance result of the gradual thickening of the endometrium induced by rising but fluctuating pubertal estrogen.
The menstruum, or flow, consists of a combination of fresh and clotted blood with endometrial tissue. The initial flow of menarche is usually brighter than mature menstrual flow. It is often scanty in amount and may be very brief, even a single instance of "spotting." Like other menses, menarche may be accompanied by abdominal cramping.
Relation to fertility
In most girls, menarche does not signal that ovulation has occurred. In postmenarchal girls, about 80% of the cycles were anovulatory in the first year after menarche, 50% in the third and 10% in the sixth year. Regular ovulation is usually indicated by predictable and consistent intervals between menses, predictable and consistent durations of menses, and predictable and consistent patterns of flow (e.g., heaviness or cramping). Continuing ovulation typically requires a body fat content of at least 22%. An anthropological term for this state of potential fertility is nubility.
On the other hand, not every girl follows the typical pattern, and some girls ovulate before the first menstruation. Although unlikely, it is possible for a girl who has engaged in sexual intercourse shortly before her menarche to conceive and become pregnant, which would delay her menarche until after the delivery. This goes against the widely held assumption that a woman cannot become pregnant until after menarche.
When menarche occurs, it confirms that the girl has had a gradual estrogen-induced growth of the uterus, especially the endometrium, and that the "outflow tract" from the uterus, through the cervix to the vagina, is open.
In very rare instances, menarche may occur at an unusually early age, preceding thelarche and other signs of puberty. This is termed isolated premature menarche, but other causes of bleeding must be investigated and excluded. Growth is usually normal. Isolated premature menarche is rarely the first manifestation of precocious puberty.
When menarche has failed to occur for more than 3 years after thelarche, or beyond 16 years of age, the delay is referred to as primary amenorrhea.
Some of the least understood environmental influences on timing of puberty are social and psychological. Nearly all of the research on these effects has concerned girls, partly because female puberty requires greater physiological resources and partly because it involves a unique event (menarche) that makes survey research into female puberty much simpler than male. In most of these studies menarche was specifically examined, assuming it to be a valid "proxy" for the more general process of puberty. In comparison with the effects of genetics, nutrition, and general health, social influences are small, shifting timing by a few months rather than years. The most important part of a child's psychosocial environment is the family.
Some of the aspects of family structure and function reported to be independently associated with earlier menarche:
- The increased incidence of childhood obesity (both estrogen and progesterone molecules are derived from cholesterol).
- Absence of father from the home from early childhood
- High-conflict family relationships
- Had a low birthweight
- Are singletons
- Are non-white
- Experienced pre-eclampsia in the womb
- Were exposed to smoking
- Were not breast-fed
- Lacked exercise in childhood
Some of the aspects of family structure and function reported to be independently associated with later menarche:
Other research has focused on the effect of childhood stress on timing of puberty, especially female. Stress is a vague term and studies have examined conditions ranging from family tensions or conflict to wartime refugee status with threat to physical survival. The more dire social conditions have been found to be associated with delay of maturation, an effect that may be compounded by dietary inadequacy. There is more uncertainty and mixed evidence as to whether milder degrees of stress or early-life undernutrition can accelerate puberty in girls as would be predicted by life history theory and demonstrated in many other mammals.
The understanding of these environmental effects is incomplete and the following observations and cautions are relevant:
- Mechanisms of these social effects are unknown, though a variety of physiological processes, including pheromones, have been suggested based on animal research.
- Most of these "effects" are statistical associations revealed by epidemiologic surveys. Statistical associations are not necessarily causal, and a variety of secondary variables and alternative explanations can be possibly intervening. Effects of such small size can never be confirmed or refuted for any individual child.
- Despite the small magnitude of effect, interpretations of the data are politically controversial because of the ease with which this type of research can be used for political advocacy. Accusations of bias based on political agenda sometimes accompany scientific criticism.
Changes in time of average age
There were few systematic studies of timing of menarche before the later half of the 20th century. Most older estimates of average timing of menarche were based on observation of a small homogeneous population not necessarily representative of the larger population, or based on recall by adult women, which is also susceptible to various forms of error. Most sources agree that the average age of menarche in girls in modern societies has declined, though the reasons and the degree remain subjects of controversy. A decline in the average age of menarche from 17 to 13 in Europe from 1850 to 1960 is well documented, but a large North American survey reported only a 2-3 month decline from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. A 2011 study found that each 1 kg/m2 increase in childhood body-mass index (BMI) can be expected to result in a 6.5% higher absolute risk of early menarche (before age 12 years). The decline is commonly attributed to larger body size and earlier average attainment of sufficient body fat, but other factors such as environmental exposure to chemicals that mimic estrogen or the urbanization and sexualization of Western society have also been considered as contributing factors.
Fewer than 10% of U.S. girls start to menstruate before 11 years of age, and 90% of all US girls are menstruating by 13.75 years of age, with a median age of 12.43 years. This age at menarche is not much different (0.34 years earlier) than that reported for U.S. girls in 1973. Age at menarche for non-Hispanic black girls was significantly earlier than that of white girls at 10%, 25%, and 50% of those who had attained menarche, whereas Mexican American girls were only slightly earlier than the white girls at 25%.
Menarche is celebrated in many cultures around the world as a rite of passage, a time to recognize that a girl is moving into or has attained womanhood.
Rites of passage
Some cultures have in past centuries had rites of passage for a girl experiencing menarche.
- The Moroccan people give the girl a party inviting her female family members. She receives money and lots of gifts.
- In the Tiv ethnic group in Nigeria, four lines are cut in the girl's abdomen, the practice of which is thought to make her a woman and more fertile.
Asia, Australia, and Pacific Islands
- In Australia, the Aborigines treat a girl to "love magic". The women teach her of the female powers and the physical changes marking womanhood.
, the type of rice common in Japan in ancient times.
- When a Japanese girl has her first period, the family celebrates by eating red-colored rice and beans (sekihan). The color of blood and the red of Sekihan are not related. All the rice of ancient times of Japan was red. Since rice was precious in ancient Japan (Usually, millet was eaten), it was eaten only at the festival. Sekihan is the tradition of an ancient custom.
- The Ulithi tribe of Micronesia call a girl's menarche kufar; She goes to a menstrual house, where the women bathe her and recite spells. The girl then returns to the menstrual house when her next period comes.
- Some Sri Lankans note the time and day of menarche. An astrologer is contacted, who studies the stars’ alignment at the noted moment, in order to predict the girl's future. Her house is prepared for a ritual bathing, where the girl is scrubbed all over her body by the women of the family; she is then dressed in white. Her family invites relatives and close friends for a ceremony to celebrate the new young woman, during which the girl may receive special gifts and money.
- In some remote parts of India, a tribal girl who has reached puberty is given a ceremonial bath, decked with ornate jewels and garments, and the girl's kith and kin are all invited for a ceremony, in which it is announced that the girl has come of age and that celebrations follow.
- In some Indian communities, young women are given a special menarche ceremony called Ruthu Sadangu.
- In Nepal, Kumaris are young girls worshiped as goddesses by Hindus and some Buddhists, at the onset of menarche it is believed the goddess spirit vacates her body and they are returned to ordinary life after a series of rituals.
- The Navajo have a celebration called kinaalda (kinn-all-duh). Girls run footraces to show strength. A cornmeal pudding is made for the tribe to taste. The girls who experience menarche wear special clothes and style their hair like the Navajo goddess "Changing Woman".
- The Nuu-chah-nulth (also known as the Nootka) believe menarche to be a time for a physical strength test; the girl is taken out to sea and left alone. She is to swim back and is cheered upon returning to the shore of the village.
- The Mescalero Apaches consider their menarche celebration the most important. Each year, an 8-day-long ceremony is celebrated in honor of the girls who had menarche. The first four days include feasting and dancing. Boy singers recount the history of the tribe each evening. The other four days are a private celebration during which girls have a private ceremony, reflecting on their passing into womanhood.
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