Health

Here's What You Should Have Learned About Your Cycle In School (But Didn't)

By Rachael Killackey··  8 min read
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Education around women’s health is sorely lacking in many areas, particularly when it comes to our cycles and how it relates to our overall health. If you’re still “unlearning” some of the messages you learned in childhood about your cycle, you’re not alone!

Oftentimes, the education we received about our cycle early on, sometimes before it even begins, is what we base our health decisions and approaches on in adulthood. It’s crucial that women understand that some of the narratives we received aren’t only false, but contradictory to what’s healthiest for our cycles.

Myth #1: Periods Are Gross and Painful

I don’t know about you, but conversations about periods in middle school left me terrified and anticipating a life-altering amount of pain every month. While some months have certainly been worse than others, in my experience, early education and conversations surrounding periods often characterized extreme pain as “normal,” which isn’t the case. 

In addition to the messages on pain, our education about cycles often took a tone of avoidance. Emphasis was placed on the mitigation of blood flow and pain, rather than the purpose of our cycles and the unique gift it indicates. Whether or not we ever use it, the ability to foster and carry human life is exciting and empowering, not gross. 

Truth: Painful Periods Can Be a Symptom of an Underlying Problem

While discomfort and mild pain during your period are common, experiencing regular, debilitating pain isn’t. Often, if you’re bedridden with pain or discomfort, it’s indicative that you might be suffering from a hormonal imbalance or a reproductive disorder, and it’s not something to just push through and tolerate. 

If you’re experiencing consistently heavy and painful periods, talk to a doctor about testing your hormone levels and learning ways to regulate them, including supplements if needed. Things like magnesium and raspberry leaf tea can help alleviate cramping. Cramps are a natural part of your period, but if they’re consistently getting you down and keeping you from your regular life and routine, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Myth #2: You Can Get Pregnant Any Time of the Month, Except on Your Period 

Another emphasis placed on education surrounding women’s health was not distinguishing between your period and your cycle. For me and for numerous friends, the terms were synonymous, leading us to believe, until corrected, that our periods were the focal point of a cycle and that pregnancy could occur at any other time. 

Flash forward to high school, when I encountered more truthful information about my cycle health from friends and family, and even more so in college when I was trained in the Creighton Model for fertility awareness. I was able to see how intricately the different phases of a woman’s cycle participate with each other, and how your period is not your only time of low fertility. 

Fact: The Four Phases of Your Cycle Have Different Fertility Levels

Your cycle has four phases, and each of them plays an important role in understanding your fertility and reproductive health. The first is the menstrual phase, which involves your period and lasts an average of 4-5 days – the chances of you becoming pregnant on your period is zilch. What can happen, however, is the possibility of becoming pregnant if ovulation occurs shortly after your period because sperm can survive in the female reproductive system for up to five days! 

The second is the follicular phase, which technically also starts on Day 1 and includes menstruation. Once menstruation has finished, the follicular phase continues until the hormone LH surges and triggers ovulation. While the ovaries release up to 20 follicles containing immature eggs, only one develops to full maturity with the help of the follicle-stimulating hormone. Keep in mind that sperm can live up to five days in the reproductive system, which means that there’s a higher chance of pregnancy during the follicular phase – again, depending on when ovulation occurs. Most methods of fertility awareness help you detect the LH surge, which signals the end of the follicular phase and the beginning of the highest point of fertility. 

The ovulation phase is when the mature egg is released and is the most fertile point of the cycle. The egg will die if it isn’t fertilized within a 24-hour period, but there’s a 3-5 day window surrounding ovulation that’s optimal for conceiving (because, again, sperm live longer than the egg). 

The final phase is the luteal phase, which follows ovulation and ends when menstruation begins again. The egg follicle is left behind, transforms into the corpus luteum, and produces progesterone to prepare the lining of the uterus in anticipation of a potential pregnancy. If you’re not pregnant, then progesterone and estrogen drop, triggering your period. The chance of getting pregnant during this phase is the lowest in the cycle, since ovulation just occurred.

If you want a deeper dive into your cycle and the hormones at play, check out this video.

Myth #3: Pads and Tampons Are Your Only Options 

In most settings, pads and tampons are the only options offered for managing your period. As more information comes to light about the toxicity of tampons, in particular, it’s irritating to realize how the education most of us received surrounding period hygiene didn’t even question whether or not these were the truly healthy options, not to mention the only ones. 

Fact: Period Hygiene Isn’t Limited to Just Pads and Tampons

The reality is, there are so many options out there that help manage period flow in a way that’s comfortable, affordable, and toxin-free. Some popular options include menstrual cups, period underwear, and feminine hygiene products from companies that intentionally create toxin-free products with your long-term health in mind! 

Myth #4: Your Cycle Is 28 Days Long

28 days was the golden number given to me whenever cycles were explained, and it’s the most common number you’ll see. Not only can this raise concern where it’s not necessary, but it also doesn’t help women track their cycles and symptoms long-term in order to practice good fertility awareness

Fact: A Healthy Cycle Can Vary in Length

Cycle length can vary, from woman to woman, and from cycle to cycle. A healthy cycle is anywhere from 25 to 35 days long. The length of the follicular phase can vary from cycle to cycle (which means your day of ovulation isn’t necessarily the same every cycle), but the luteal phase should remain constant (usually at least 11 days, with 14 days being the ideal).

The hallmark of a healthy cycle isn’t being as close to 28 days as possible, it’s being as regular as possible; meaning, if your cycle is 32 days, it’s a good sign if it’s consistently in that ballpark each month! Experiencing all phases of the cycle is also essential for a healthy cycle: menstruation, ovulation, and the prolonged progesterone rise. 

Myth #5: PMS Is Normal

Similar to the first myth, PMS is typically part of regular cycle education, and it’s portrayed as a given. Not only does this create unhealthy cultural expectations (I’m looking at you, the guys who ask “are you on your period?” when you’re sad or frustrated), but it also ignores some underlying issues that might be causing moderate to extreme PMS, which can be extremely physically and mentally debilitating.

Fact: PMS Means Something Is Off

As menstruation approaches, the surge of progesterone produced by the corpus luteum and the adrenals drops off. But if the level drops too quickly or too low, we can experience PMS, or our typically mild symptoms can be exacerbated, sometimes even resulting in extreme conditions like PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder). Heightened PMS and PMDD can include symptoms like anxiety, tension, heart palpitations, and increased fatigue.

Another potential cause of PMS is poor blood sugar regulation. Blood sugar regulation is essential for hormone health, as it takes precedence in the body, even at the expense of your reproductive hormones. For this reason, eating carbs and sugary foods leading up to your period can exacerbate PMS symptoms, as well as cause inflammation which can also make PMS worse.

While mild cramps, fatigue, hunger, and some moodiness aren’t uncommon before your period, too many women put up with these symptoms getting in the way of their everyday life and responsibilities. If you feel any of your PMS symptoms are out of control, there’s no shame in seeking medical help and answers for possible underlying conditions. 

Closing Thoughts

The more we educate ourselves as women on our fertility and overall cycle, the better equipped we’ll be to make wise decisions about our health. Letting go of the limited education a lot of us received can be difficult, but it’s possible, and it’s so much more stress-free on the other side!

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