Did you know your menstrual cycle is not just a period once a month? Regardless of what day it is, your body is at some stage of the menstrual cycle (also known as the uterine cycle). It consists of a series of cyclic changes that the uterine endometrium goes through each month, and every woman has her own unique menstrual cycle, patterns and symptoms. It is a continuous series of physical and hormonal changes that are coordinated with the phases of the ovarian cycle.
Because your menstrual cycle is regulated by your hormones (chemical messengers your body makes), your physical activity, mood, emotions and behaviour can change during each stage of your cycle. The balance of hormones in your body is finely orchestrated. You need oestrogen and progesterone, along with a small amount of testosterone in different amounts at different phases of your menstrual cycle.
The menstrual cycle has three stages: The menstrual phase, proliferative phase (pre-ovulatory), and secretory (post-ovulatory) phase, each with their own distinct purpose. Ovulation occurs at the end of the proliferative stage and is sometimes called another stage/phase.
Understanding your menstrual cycle can help you recognise why you may feel extra tired or less motivated from one week to the next. Learning to work with your hormones, and the phases of your menstrual cycle is one of the most empowering acts you can take.
It is commonly taught that the menstrual cycle is 28 days in length, but this is not as common as you might think. While the prototypical 28-day cycle is a useful tool for charting chronological order and biological cause and effect, it is not the cyclical experience of most women, most of the time. Only about 10% of women have a 28 day cycle.
1. The Menstrual Phase:
Approximately Days 1 – 7; Length: 3 – 7 days;
The first day of bright bleeding is Day 1 of your menstrual cycle. A healthy menstruation will last between two to seven days including a day or two of spotting before and after. The menstrual phase starts when the released egg is left unfertilised and the uterus sheds all but the deepest part of its endometrium. In the absence of pregnancy, menstruation will almost always follow ovulation, 11-17 days later.
At the beginning of this stage ovarian hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) are at their lowest and, oestrogen then increases throughout the week. Typically you bleed between 25 to 80 mls of blood.
You May Feel:
During this phase all your hormones are low which impacts the neurochemicals that influence energy and
motivation levels. Take advantage of a naturally slower pace.
Allow yourself to go slow and rest. This is the time to reflect, rest and restore. The more you rest, restore and nourish yourself during this phase the more you will have in reserve for the rest of your cycle.
2. The Proliferative (Pre-Ovulatory) Phase:
Approximately Days: 6 – 14; Length: 1 – 12 days;
During this phase, the endometrium rebuilds itself. Towards the end of this phase the hypothalamus signals to the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH stimulates the ovaries to produce small sacs containing immature eggs. Six to eight of these follicles in the ovaries begin to mature under the influence of FSH and oestrogen. Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg, while the others die. This can occur around day 10 of a 28-day cycle.
You May Feel:
Oestrogen levels peak now, increasing excitatory neurochemical levels. This is why you might feel like you
have tonnes of energy and are excited to take on new things. You may also feel overwhelmed or frustrated when others cannot match your output.
You are at your most courageous here. RSVP yes to invitations, organise, explore new things, plan and make
lists, dream big and write those dreams down! This is the time to play, explore and enjoy your zest for life! It is a good time for brainstorming and problem solving. Schedule your most mentally challenging assignments for this phase. The more you take advantage of the fruits of this phase, the more your self-esteem and self-love will grow.
Approximately Day: 14 (depending on the length of your menstrual cycle); Length: Less than 5 minutes but you are fertile for between 4 – 5 days due to sperm;
The main event of your menstrual cycle, ovulation occurs in the ovary at the end of the proliferative (follicular) stage. Ovulation occurs around halfway through your menstrual cycle. It does not always occur on day 14 because not everyone has a 28 day cycle. If ovulation occurs later, you can expect your period to come 12 – 16 days later (a great reason to track your cycle).
During this phase rising oestrogen levels during the proliferative phase signals to the pituitary gland to release luteinising hormone, which starts the process of ovulation. Oestrogen peaks just before, and then drops shortly afterwards. One, or sometimes two, follicles will fully mature. Luteinising hormone (LH) spikes, which triggers the release of the egg. Pregnancy is possible on all days when fertile mucus is present, plus for three more days past the Peak day. Around the time of ovulation, testosterone levels rise, causing an increased libido.
You May Feel:
An increase in oestrogen and a quick boost of testosterone in this phase increases your drive and the release of your ‘feel good’ neurochemicals. This contributes to a stable mood, improved focus, motivation and happiness.
The time to turn your ideas into action. You may notice a rise in self-confidence, a natural feeling of generosity and nurturing. It is a great time to communicate, socialise, do things that make you happy
and try new activities. This is the time to connect with your friends and community, have those important conversations and schedule meetings.
4. The Secretory Phase:
Approximately Days: 15 – 28+; Length: 11 – 14 days is healthy, but can be 12 – 16 days;
The secretory (luteal) phase, is the most constant timewise. During this phase the endometrium prepares for possible implantation of an embryo. If you ovulated, you produce progesterone and your body prepares for a possible pregnancy. Once your egg has been released from its follicle, the follicle changes into a hormone-producing gland called the corpus luteum, which produces progesterone. If your egg was fertilised during ovulation and successfully implants, your corpus luteum will produce progesterone for about three months until the placenta takes over. If you didn’t conceive, the corpus luteum disintegrates after 11 to 16 days. As the corpus luteum shrinks, your progesterone levels begin to drop, along with oestrogen.
You May Feel:
The presence of progesterone stimulates your ‘relaxing’ neurochemicals and promotes a calmer state and improved sleep. Hormone levels are gradually dropping and you have less to give. Less oestrogen yields less empathy.
As your physical energy declines you may start to turn inward. This is a time for nesting, self care, bulk cooking and winding down. It’s a time to ‘release’, de-clutter your life and protect your boundaries.
Where to from here?
Your menstrual cycle can tell you a lot about your health and provide warning signs for conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer and pregnancy.
Remember, there’s no one or “right” way to experience your cycle, and hormone fluctuations and symptoms can change from cycle to cycle. There are a lot of factors, including exercise, weight loss or gain, and stress can all affect menstruation. Everybody has a different experience and version of “normal”, but it is worth speaking to your healthcare practitioner if specific symptoms occur over a number of months/cycles or your cycle changes. Tracking or charting your menstrual cycle allows you to notice your distinct patterns and what may be influencing your cycle.
- Seek advice from a naturopath as there are many ways natural medicine, including herbs and nutrition can support hormones.
- Are you ready to embrace your menstrual cycle? Check out my new ebook “Riding The Wave”…