When it comes to things that have the ability to affect our futures, like reproductive health and fertility, understanding our cycles is crucial to tapping into potential possibilities and overcoming obstacles.
With an overwhelming amount of information on how we should be exercising, supplements we should be taking, and what we should be indulging in or avoiding, tackling how we understand our periods can seem like a daunting task. But if we break it down day by day, it can become much more manageable to grasp.
We’ll be using the average length of a woman’s cycle — 28 days — to talk about our cycle. But it should be noted that cycles that are shorter or longer than 28 days are just as normal; cycles that range from 21 to 40 days can be just as healthy and just as normal. Though this is only a basic guide, familiarizing yourself with your own unique, individual cycle can be an empowering way to emphasize the importance of reproductive health in your own life.
Your period starts on day 1.
Your hormone levels of estrogen and progesterone drop, making you feel tired. You might also experience common period symptoms like moodiness, breast tenderness, backaches, and cramping — which happens as your uterine lining contracts to shed itself, since there’s no fertilized egg, or embryo, that the uterine lining needs to support.
Get plenty of rest, and don’t overdo it with the exercise.
As naturopathic physician Dr. Jolene Brighten explains, “On day 1 of your cycle, both estrogen and progesterone are low which signals the pituitary gland (a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain) to release Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH stimulates the ovaries to form a follicle in preparation for ovulation."
During this phase of your menstrual cycle, you’ll probably want to take it easy. Get plenty of rest, and don’t overdo it with the exercise. Most women’s average menstrual cycle lasts from 3 to 7 days, but depending on the woman, it could be shorter or longer.
You’re thanking your lucky stars. Your period is over, hallelujah.
As you transition from your menstrual phase into your follicular phase (the two phases overlap from the first day of your period to the day you ovulate), your estrogen levels are climbing back up, making you feel more energetic and motivated.
Fun fact: the follicular phase refers to the follicles (sacs containing fluid that grow the egg and sit on your ovary), which create estrogen to prepare the uterus for a possible pregnancy.
With your estrogen in full swing, you’re feeling yourself.
You feel more attractive, and that’s because your skin is clearer. Your levels of testosterone are also up, giving you that kick-butt mentality you need to get stuff done. You’re driven, motivated, and productive, all thanks to testosterone.
Your testosterone is also up, giving you that kick-butt mentality you need to get stuff done.
Estrogen has reached its peak and put a spring in your step. You’re feeling gorgeous and sexy, and probably like you want to make a baby. For good reason too, because now we’ve arrived at:
The big event: ovulation.
Day 14 in the average cycle marks the end of the follicular phase, and the time in which ovulation, or the release of an egg from the ovaries, occurs.
The climbing levels of estrogen during the follicular phase have tapped your pituitary gland and pushed it to release LH, the luteinizing hormone. This release of LH is what spurs ovulation. While the follicular phase can vary in length, the 14-day stretch is what sits between ovulation and your next period (in a healthy woman).
Natural indicators like an increase in basal body temperature (BBT, which happens after ovulation and which you can track daily with a basal body thermometer), and the presence of clear, stretchy cervical mucus (similar to an egg white) all point to ovulation.
(Though ovulation — i.e., the release of an egg — is the only time per cycle a woman is able to conceive, sperm can survive for days, which can lead to fertilization before or after the 14 day mark.)
If not, however, the unfertilized egg dissolves, and we move onto:
You’re now in the luteal phase, so named because of the corpus luteum, which is the old follicle (remember, the fluid-filled sac that holds the egg) that’s now producing progesterone.
The corpus luteum, which is the old follicle, is now producing progesterone.
No fertilization leads to a rapid fluctuation in estrogen and progesterone levels, meaning that with no bun in the oven, you’re probably feeling a lot of emotions.
Your changing hormone levels will only intensify these feelings.
Estrogen decreases. Testosterone and progesterone forge ahead.
Since you’re not pregnant, progesterone drops at this time, as day 28 and the end of the cycle loom closer.
You might feel unmotivated and unproductive, and that’s okay. You could be experiencing premenstrual symptoms (PMS) which include things like irritability, bloating, headaches, cravings, etc. While PMS is normal a couple of days before a period, more than four days before could mean your progesterone is too low.
This is the time to eat healthy, perfect that skincare regimen, and get to the gym.
Cut down on the caffeine and sugar.
Be sure to stay hydrated, cut down on the caffeine and sugar, and exercise to boost that serotonin. You’ve arrived at the end of the luteal phase, and your period will be arriving soon.
Time to start all over again!
Each woman is different, and her cycle is unique to her as an individual.
Looking at this basic breakdown though, it’s a pretty incredible thing to see how exactly the things we experience every month happen, and why they happen.
If you’ve never paid attention to your cycle, or even if you pay too much attention to it, learning the four phases and how best to harness your capabilities at that specific time — whether you’re on top of the world or eating ice cream in bed — can lead to increased body literacy, and hopefully an overall more positive appreciation for the things we as women experience.