The menstrual cycle phases: it sounds so clinical. So precise… so clean. But let’s be honest. It is messy and sometimes gross. It is often accompanied by less than welcome symptoms of being tired and cranky – and don’t let us even get started on bloating, cravings and cramps!
Yes, it is often a pain in the you-know-what. Your period is also the way for your body to tell you that everything is still working as it should ‘down there.’ It is your body’s way of preparing to carry a child if you were to get pregnant. It is also a cleansing and clearing if you don’t, by shedding the thickened lining of your uterus that is no longer needed.
Every month (or around 28 days), your uterus essentially creates a snuggly environment in which to grow a baby. Then, if no baby comes, it cleans itself out in a pretty dramatic fashion – as it should. It is the potential home for a developing human baby, for goodness sakes!
Here’s the thing: it is super easy to take your menstrual cycle for granted – it does come around roughly once a month, after all. But read on, lady, as we are about to show you why your menstrual cycle is something to be taken notice of – celebrated even.
What is the menstrual cycle?
Your menstrual cycle (sometimes called the uterine cycle) is a series of phases and changes that your body goes through each month to prepare you for a possible pregnancy. During each menstrual cycle, your body develops and releases an egg from your ovaries. Simultaneously, the lining of your uterus thickens in preparation to house the egg if it were to be fertilized.
If the egg is not fertilized, the thickened lining of your uterus sheds and works its way out of your body when you have your period. On average, about 30ml of blood (and other tissues and fluids) leave your body during each menstruation – yes, we know it seems like a lot more! Then again, any amount up to 80ml is considered to be normal.
Now, we are all different, and our bodies work slightly differently. Although an average cycle is 28 days, it could be as short as 24 days or as long as 38 days. You measure your menstrual cycle length from the first day of your period to the first day of your next period.
Usually (but not always) periods are pretty regular, except during menarche (your very first few periods) and as you near menopause. Your menstrual cycle is regulated by three organs: your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries.
What are the menstrual cycle phases?
The menstrual phase or menstrual period is a fancy way of saying ‘period,’ ‘aunty Flo,’ ‘that time of the month’… you get where we’re going with this. Whatever you want to call it, this phase starts with the first day of your period and lasts for about three to seven days, although the length of this phase can vary from woman to woman. The menstruation phase starts if the egg released in your previous menstrual cycle wasn’t fertilized. Because you aren’t pregnant, the levels of estrogen and progesterone in your body drops.
The drop in estrogen and progesterone causes the lining of your uterus, called the endometrium, to break away and work out of your body through your vaginal canal. Special spiral-shaped arteries supply the lining with blood, oxygen, and nutrients. These arteries constrict when your period comes closer to curb the amount of blood loss that happens when your endometrium starts to break away. Still, your menstrual fluid is made up of blood mixed with bits of your uterine lining and cervical fluid, including cervical mucus.
During your period, you may experience some of these symptoms:
Irritability and mood swings
Cramps and lower back pain
Your body is going through a pretty big change process during the menstrual phase. While your body is shedding your uterine lining, there is some trauma as the breaking away of your uterus’ lining creates a wound. It really is no different from scratching your knee or elbow. Your body needs time to heal and regenerate during each menstrual cycle, even when you are likely to have around 450 of these throughout your life. While you are healing, it is normal to feel tired and need to rest and relax. Seriously – each month, we wound and heal ourselves. Isn’t that in itself something to admire?
The follicular phase coincides with the menstrual phase. It starts with the first day of your period and lasts until you ovulate. The follicular phase’s average length is around 16 days but can range between 11 and 27 days.
During the follicular phase, your hypothalamus tells your anterior pituitary gland to release something called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH causes one of your ovaries to develop ovarian follicles (also referred to as Graafian follicles). An ovarian follicle is a sac that contains fluid along with an immature egg. Your body produces between five to twenty ovarian follicles in each follicular phase.
About halfway through the follicular phase, the strongest egg-containing follicle, called the dominant follicle, produces estrogen and grows and develops further. Usually, only one ovarian follicle turns into a mature egg while the others die off. Women who have more than one baby at once (like twins or triplets) have multiple mature eggs in their ovarian follicles at the time of conception. The ovary that produces the egg alternates each month.
The proliferative phase has three stages that get triggered by the amount of estradiol in your body. The first stage involves the regeneration of the endometrium. The second or mid-proliferative phase sees a further development of the endometrium. The last state (late proliferative phase) will see the endometrium reaching a thickness of between 0.05 to 5mm. It is also during this time that the spiral arteries that supply the endometrium with blood flow develop.
Your cervix also changes during the proliferative phase. The area becomes less acidic, dilates, and expands to create a more welcoming environment for incoming sperm.
During the follicular phase, your pituitary gland also produces more luteinizing hormone (LH). The higher levels of LH (called an LH surge) triggers the next menstruation phase – ovulation.
The follicular phase brings about a lower basal body temperature. You are also generally more extroverted during this phase. Some researchers believe that this is to attract potential mates right before you ovulate.
About two days after the luteinizing hormone levels in your body start to rise, and between 10 to 12 hours after it has peaked, ovulation is triggered. You then enter the ovulatory phase of your menstrual cycle.
During the ovulation phase, your body releases a mature egg from the dominant follicle on the surface of your ovary. In the case of twins or triplets, multiple eggs are released. The mature egg(s) moves into your fallopian tube and are guided to your uterus. In the uterus, the egg gets implanted in your uterine lining if it has been fertilized. If it hasn’t been fertilized, it disintegrates and leaves your body along with your menstrual fluid.
A mature egg stays alive for about 24 hours. If the egg gets fertilized by a sperm, it will implant into the lining of your uterus and develop into a fetus; if not, it will die off. You can only get pregnant when you are in the ovulation phase of your cycle. Although an egg only lives for 24 hours, sperm can stay alive inside you for up to five days. That means you can become pregnant if you have had sex up to five days before you ovulate.
The ovulation phase usually happens around the middle of your cycle (on day 14 if you have a 28-day cycle) and about two weeks before your period starts.
During the ovulation phase, you might notice a slight increase in your basal body temperature. You could also see a slightly thicker discharge.
Heightened levels of estrogen and testosterone during this phase might give you these fantastic symptoms:
You feel confident and attractive
Your skin is clear and radiant
You are on your social A-game
A heightened libido and increased sensuality
When you ovulate, the egg separates – bursts, really – from its follicle. The follicle, however, stays attached to your ovary. Over the next two weeks, during the luteal or secretory phase, the follicle turns into something called a corpus luteum. The corpus luteum releases progesterone and a little bit of estrogen. The mixture of progesterone and estrogen allows your uterine lining to stay thick enough for a fertilized egg to implant in it.
If an egg is not implanted, the corpus luteum dies. This usually happens around day 22 during your 28-day menstrual cycle. The luteal phase usually lasts around 14 days but can vary from 11 to 17 days from woman to woman.
As the corpus luteum dies off, progesterone levels drop, and the lining of your uterus breaks away at the start of a new menstrual cycle.
During the luteal phase, you could experience the following symptoms (what we know as good old PMS):
Several different hormones collaborate to help your body maintain a regular and healthy menstrual cycle. While they are in balance, your body processes work at their best, and you generally feel happy and healthy. When they are out of balance, you might experience some symptoms. In some cases, these could be handled at home, while you might need to consult a health care practitioner in other cases. Here are some signs that your hormones need some help.
Sex hormones are released by the organs in your reproductive system – the ovaries. They are responsible for your sexual development during puberty and continue to support essential functions throughout your life. Your sex hormones are in charge of everything from having sex to having a healthy pregnancy, breastfeeding, to transitioning into menopause.
Sex hormones are classified into two groups: male and female sex hormones. Ironically both of these classes of hormones need to be present in men and women for their bodies to function properly – they are just present in different amounts in the different sexes. Female sex hormones include estrogen and progesterone. The male sex hormone is testosterone.
Estrogen is often referred to as the growth hormone. It plays a role in developing and preparing the uterine lining and matures the egg before you ovulate. Estrogen is mainly produced by your ovaries, but smaller amounts are also generated by your adrenal glands and fat tissue.
Progesterone is often referred to as the relaxing hormone and balances the effects of estrogen. It is responsible for building up your uterine lining and maintaining it if you were to fall pregnant. Progesterone is produced by the corpus luteum.
The levels of your sex hormones fluctuate throughout your life. Significant changes can be experienced through puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. They also change throughout the day and throughout your menstrual cycle.
After your menstrual phase, both your estrogen and progesterone levels start to rise. However, estrogen increases faster and peaks in the middle of your cycle, during ovulation to encourage the release of a mature egg. After the egg has been released, your estrogen levels start to fall again.
On the other hand, your progesterone levels continue to rise after ovulation. The higher levels of progesterone would prepare your womb for housing a fertilized egg if you were to become pregnant.
If you don’t become pregnant, your progesterone levels drop. This drop in progesterone then causes the lining of your uterus to shed, which leads to you getting your period.
The levels of your sex hormones follow this general pattern of increasing and decreasing. They should both decrease, likely just before you get your period. In some cases, the levels of estrogen or progesterone don’t decrease when they need to. When this happens, it means that you have too much of that specific hormone in your body compared to the other one. It is not so much the amount of the hormones that cause the trouble, but rather their ratio of one in respect to the other that could cause symptoms of a hormonal imbalance.
When you have a hormone imbalance and a higher than average level of either estrogen or progesterone during specific times of your cycle, you are likely to experience certain symptoms.
In some cases, the estrogen levels don’t decrease after ovulation. This condition is called estrogen dominant. Heightened levels of estrogen after ovulation can make you feel out of whack. This, my friend, is what we so adoringly refer to as PMS. You’ll feel cranky and irritable with mood swings, often including anger or even rage. Physically you might experience sore breasts, fluid retention, and have heavy and painful periods.
If you don’t fall pregnant, your progesterone levels are supposed to drop. If this doesn’t happen, you end up being progesterone dominant. Having high levels of progesterone at this time can make you feel emotional and weepy. You could also feel like you don’t have any confidence and experience tiredness and fatigue. Heightened levels of progesterone can also cause your skin to break out.
Other symptoms of hormonal imbalances
Estrogen affects neurotransmitters in your brain, including the mood-boosting chemical serotonin. Low levels of estrogen could leave you feeling down and depressed. It could also play a role in premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) – a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). You could counter this by using natural remedies and supplements, eating healthy, and exercising regularly. Drinking less alcohol and quitting smoking could also help.
Low levels of testosterone, along with low levels of estrogen, can lead to a lowered libido. This is especially common during perimenopause and menopause. In some cases, testosterone treatment could form part of hormone replacement therapy in women who are perimenopausal or going through menopause.
Progesterone helps you sleep better. That means that low levels of progesterone could lead to you not being able to sleep – and when you do manage to get to sleep, not resting well. You might need hormone replacement therapy if you consistently have significantly low levels of progesterone. Natural remedies could include creating a before-bed routine that helps you wind down before going to bed while creating a peaceful environment that is cool, dark, and quiet. You can also try avoiding alcohol and caffeine a few hours before bedtime.
High levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and low levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) could both cause fertility problems.
Your menstrual cycle, while a pain in the you-know-what sometimes, is a massive feat for your body to move through. Each. And. Every. Month. It is all about creating a cozy home in case you were to fall pregnant – and cleaning out that home if you don’t. The hormones that play a role in each phase of your menstrual cycle also help keep your body, mind, and emotions happy and healthy. Every month a mini-war rages inside you – and each month, your bits come out unscathed and unscarred. Now that is something to admire – celebrate even!
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